Many visitors to the Northwest Territories are attracted by the prospect of seeing the Northern Lights, but as exciting as the night sky can be, there’s also lots going on at ground level in the North Slave Region, particularly for anyone with an interest in Indigenous cultures.
Visitors can begin in Yellowknife, an eclectic, artistic community with museums, galleries, shops and unique events like Folk on the Rocks – one of several festivals that can help travellers understand the area’s history.
Each July since 1980, the three-day Folk on the Rocks has drawn crowds to a family-friendly outdoor music festival that includes nationally recognized headliners like Tanya Tagaq as well as local drummers and throat singers. Highlights include being able to swim and stretch out on the sand at Long Lake while listening to the bands.
Throughout March, the Snowking Winter Festival in Yellowknife includes a magical ice palace filled with surprises and diversions, from thrilling ice-slides and obstacle courses for children to concerts, comedy nights and a café.
Started as a simple snow fort built by a house boater living on Great Slave Lake, it’s now an elaborate construction made from blocks of lake ice, with new elements added every year.
National Indigenous Peoples Day (still referred to locally as National Aboriginal Day) is another opportunity to experience traditional culture, from drumming and craft markets to the free-for-all fish fry and bannock laid on by the North Slave Métis Alliance. Close to downtown Yellowknife, the two communities of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, Ndilǫ and Dettah, also present special celebrations for the day, as do farther-flung Tlicho (formerly known as Dogrib) and Łutselk'e communities.
Outside of festival season, the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife is a great first step for exploring the traditional cultures. An elegant, contemporary building with an arched roof presents a series of rotating exhibits, as well as concerts and film screenings. On the second level, a gallery space displays work by contemporary local artists.
But according to Amy Lizotte, Manager of Tourism Development and Enforcement for the Government of the N.W.T.’s North Slave Region, “if you’re looking for a real cultural immersion, going to the communities is an experience.”
In Dettah, a short ice-road drive out of Yellowknife, the recently opened Yellowknife Dene Artisan Shop at Chief Drygeese Hall offers a selection of clothing and jewellery made using authentic traditional craft techniques.
On the far eastern side of Great Slave Lake, a 45-minute flight away, the Łutselk'e Dene First Nation can provide licensed guides for fishing or paddling excursions.
The Tlicho community of Behchokǫ̀ lies just over an hour away overland, and boasts a storefront location of the Tlicho Online Store, purveyor of exquisite beaded leather mitts and moccasins, among other craft items.
An absolutely unadulterated slice of life can be found at the Behchokǫ̀ Hand Games in March, where teams vie for a jackpot up to $100,000 in this popular strategic guessing game, played to the beat of drums.
If you’d like to travel farther, three other local communities (Gamèti, Wekweeti and Whatì) can be reached by air.
Autumn is a popular time to visit, because bug season is over between August and October, but the snow has not yet begun to fall, Ms. Lizotte said.
“(But) the advantage of coming in the deep freeze is that it’s pretty cool how much we operate on ice roads and frozen lakes,” she added.
“You can get out on the lakes and participate in more of the winter activities, like dogsledding, ice fishing, snowmobiling and skiing.”
And of course, there are the Northern Lights.
“We are directly under the Aurora Oval,” said Ms. Lizotte, referring to the huge rings centred above the Earth's Geomagnetic North Pole where the Aurora Borealis can be seen.
Except in the summertime, when the daylight stretches well into the evening hours, “if you stay here three nights, it’s (almost) guaranteed that you’ll see the Northern Lights in Yellowknife.”
Winter or summer, travellers to North Slave will find it a breath of fresh air.
“The air is crisp and clean; it just cleans your lungs,” Ms. Lizotte said.
“That’s the beauty of being in a remote place - it’s clean and pure and so untouched. There’s just so much land and so few people; you really feel the power.
It’s a different energy.”
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