Pat Kane/Courtesy Tsá Tué International Biosphere Reserve
The morning mist on Great Bear Lake at the newly created Tsá Tué International Biosphere Reserve, the first such designation granted by UNESCO to a site run by Indigenous Peoples.

Tsá Tué: Sahtu Dene and Métis Create First Indigenous-Run UNESCO Biosphere Reserve

Hans Tammemagi

The Sahtu Dene emerged from Great Bear Lake and have lived perched at its edge since time immemorial, caring for their surroundings and maintaining what Dene legend says is a living, breathing heart, the Tudze, buried in its depths. Now their role as caretakers has been officially recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as an international biosphere reserve—a first for any indigenous group.

For the people in the remote north of Canada where the winters are long and harsh and access is only by air, a close connection to the land is and always has been a vital way of life. At Délı̨nę, a small community situated approximately on the Arctic Circle at the top of the Northwest Territories, the situation is no different. Its 600 citizens, mostly Sahtu Dene First Nation and a smattering of Métis, have a 6,000-year history on this land next to the enormous Great Bear Lake, making a living by hunting for caribou, trapping, fishing for lake trout and white fish, and collecting berries. Délı̨nę (pronounced Deh-lin-eh) means “where the waters flow,” a reference to the headwaters of the Great Bear River.

Great Bear Lake in the newly created Tsá Tué International Biosphere Reserve, a first for Indigenous Peoples. (Photo: Pat Kane)

The Native population has a close spiritual, cultural and ecological connection to the land and, in particular, they revere the lake. Dene legend tells of a living, breathing heart, the Tudze, at the bottom of the lake. Thus, sound measures have been established for protecting the watershed, including the Great Bear Lake Watershed Management Plan (2005) and the Sahtu Land Use Plan (2013). Worried about the continuing threat of mining and development, however, they embarked on a bold venture to offer even more protection: a Stewardship Council was created in 2013 and began work to have the lake and its surrounding lands designated an international biosphere reserve.

On March 19, 2016, the dreams of this small community were fulfilled. UNESCO ratified Great Bear Lake and its watershed, an area of 36,030 square miles, as the Tsá Túé International Biosphere Reserve. Tsá Túé refers to the original name of this huge lake and the epic story of the giant beavers (tsá) that were living at the northeastern bay when the world was new.

Great Bear Lake winter tipi on the Tsá Tué International Biosphere Reserve. (Photo: Kuba Bakowski via Pew Charitable Trusts)

The Tsá Tué Biosphere Reserve is among the largest of the 565 reserves in the world and the only one encompassing the Taiga Plains, Taiga Shield and Southern Arctic ecozones. It includes the largest lake (123,550 square miles, the eighth-largest in the world) entirely within Canada and likely the last great Arctic lake remaining in a pristine state. Rolling tundra, wild rivers, precipitous canyons and a variety of unique wildlife and vegetation characterize this reserve, which includes a part of Tuktut Nogait National Park. It is home to the Bluenose caribou herd, wolves, grizzly bears, musk oxen, arctic char, and a high density of raptors. There is great potential for wilderness tourism.

Sunset at the edge of Great Bear Lake, origin point of the Sahtu Dene, in Canada's Northwest Territories. (Photo: Pat Kane)

For Délı̨nę, achieving the Biosphere Reserve designation is a huge accomplishment and a celebration of the community’s traditional, sustainable land management practices. A particular source of pride is that this is the first time in history this designation has been granted to a project led entirely by Indigenous Peoples.

Tsá Tué is unique in several additional ways. It is the largest international biosphere reserve in North America. It is the first in Canada to be located north of the 60th parallel, and the only Canadian one (of 17) in a Territory.

“The leaders and Elders have always stressed that Great Bear Lake is the source of life for Délı̨nę,” said Michael Neyelle, chair of the Tsá Túé Stewardship Council, in a statement. “Elders refer to the lake as our freezer because it takes care of our food. They have been very adamant about protecting it in any way possible. The international biosphere reserve designation is another way to help us be a voice for Great Bear Lake.”

Northern Lights over Great Bear Lake at the Tsá Tué International Biosphere Reserve. (Photo: Kuba Bakowski)

The Stewardship Council, composed of representatives from governing bodies and the community at large, will facilitate a coordinated approach to watershed stewardship by improving interagency communication in the region and giving a strong voice to Elders and youth, Neyelle said.

Although the name “biosphere reserve” is largely honorary and does not provide any additional legal protections, it carries significant prestige as it demonstrates that the people of Délı̨nę have taken innovative approaches to living and working in harmony with nature. In other words, it is recognition of their excellent stewardship.

The region also has some interesting European history. In the winter of 1825–26, the camp for Sir John Franklin’s second expedition was located at Délı̨nę. Oral history reports that Franklin’s men skated on the ice and may have played one of the earliest games of hockey.

The establishment of Tsá Túé is expected to result in significant economic benefits by putting the community on the map as a destination for tourism, research and sustainable development. Tourism may be boosted by the fact that Great Bear Lake is reputed to contain the largest trout in world.

“I’m really looking forward to what the future holds for Délı̨nę,” Neyelle said with pride after the designation. “We want visitors to join us in enjoying this beautiful environment.” 

Fiery sunset at the Tsá Tué International Biosphere Reserve. (Photo: Pat Kane)

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