Lesson: When working in the traditional territory of a First Nation – ask how to conduct yourself.
When we started a gold exploration project in a remote Yukon location in the Kaska Nation traditional territory, I called the Chief and let him know we planned to start our program. We were, of course, going through the usual government permitting process which would include public consultation and feedback along with mandatory consultation with the First Nation (First Nation/Indian Band/Indigenous People depending on where you live and work). But leaving relationships to governments was never my style, I preferred a dual track of adhering to the formal government-required permitting process with consultation and notifications COMBINED with direct contact with both the community at large and the First Nation government.
So before we did anything I called and asked the Chief how we should start the project, and he told me we need to pray. The Chief wanted to go to the top of the mountain, above the project, for a day with two other Elders and we would pray. Four of us made plans to meet at the project camp, already in place from previous operators, stay in the camp and in the morning helicopter to the top of the mountain (about 6,000 ft) and spend the day.
I won’t go into too many details on the day of prayer, that is reserved for the few of us there. I will say that encountering a family of caribou circling us while in prayer was an event beyond words. And the butterflies that swarmed us, simply magical. During the day, which was a gorgeous day with a 360-degree view of the world around us, we built a prayer circle and we left it there. Years later my future Vice President of Exploration laughingly told me I was crazy, exploration projects hope they don’t find a prayer circle, let alone build one.
But we built it and we left it there as a source of strength for families, the project, the people and the community. We told all our staff about the prayer circle, its purpose and the need to keep it intact. We let everyone know the correct way to enter a prayer circle and then again to exit a prayer circle.
Months later when the gold exploration project was well underway, two geologists came back to camp and stepped into my office. They confessed that they went into the prayer circle the wrong way, one had pulled the other in, and when they stepped back out they said everything went wonky, like they stepped through a Vaseline covered wall and they got lost.
Anyone that knows a geologist knows they do not get lost. And they do not get lost on the top of a mountain, above the tree line with a 360-degree view. But they did get lost for about an hour, and we had the GPS tracking device records to show how they walked aimlessly in a giant circle. After about an hour, they said everything went back to normal and they again knew where they were. And they came right back to camp to tell me what happened.
They were apologetic and didn’t know what to do to make it right. So, I did the most obvious thing, I called the Chief. The tolerance of the Chief was incredible, he drove hours to come back to the camp, he was kind, non-judgmental and gently explained the prayer circle was his church and all are welcome. And like any church, there was just a right way of entering and exiting his church and ways to conduct yourself while in the circle and on his land. It was a learning experience, and we learned the power of prayer, the power of the prayer circle/church and we learned the grace and wisdom of our First Nation partners.
To my knowledge the prayer circle is still there. Nobody went in without following the protocols of the circle after that day.