Ivan Gaetz – formerly of Hay River and now working at a university in Denver, Colorado – said having a foot in two worlds helped him edit and contribute to renowned Northerner Bern Will Brown’s latest literary effort, End-of-World People: The Arctic Sahtu Dene.
“It helps having had the trajectory I’ve had,” he told The Hub. “It gave me a better perspective of how things emerge, but more than anything else, I think it gave me an understanding of the culture and the people there.”
Gaetz, whose father, Ken, was the force behind the first hospital in town, said his contribution to the non-fiction, historical account of Dene people in the Sahtu was to develop the references for the text, as well as adding some context to certain sections.
Despite having moved to the United States, Gaetz said he comes back to the NWT to canoe and camp on Great Bear Lake almost every year. During one such trip, he stumbled across a grave on its shores. Gaetz knew of Bern Will Brown – a former Catholic priest who had moved to the Sahtu in 1948 and had published his encyclopaedic memoirs detailing his vast knowledge of the area and its people, and turned to him for help identifying the grave. This began a lengthy correspondence which culminated in a request for help with Brown’s latest manuscript three years ago.
“Bern was like 90 at the time, he didn’t have the energy to do all the edits,” said Gaetz, adding that he was flattered that Brown trusted him to do what was best for his new book.
Gaetz said that in his studies he had come across several articles and short resources on the group, but that this would be the first complete work dedicated to the subject.
“This really takes its place at the forefront,” he said. “It has a lot of interesting things you wouldn’t necessarily be able to find anywhere else – at least without a great deal of effort.”
Brown lives in Colville Lake and said the book has been in the works for decades.
“I started writing in 1948 and it took me 50 years to finish that book,” he said. “I’ve been living with these people for half a century.”
Now 93, Brown came to the North as a missionary and stayed. He has since left the priesthood and married, but he carried his stories with him, meticulously putting them to paper as he went a long.
Gaetz said the book, despite being an academic work, is accessible to a wide range of audiences, with photos and conversational text filling the 180 pages. He hopes it will become a resource for secondary schools and college classes both in the North and in other parts of Canada.
“I guess it took so long for someone to write about (the Sahtu Dene) because no one from the outside stayed with them long enough,” Brown said.
“I’m just hoping (readers) will be educated about a people who are and have been very isolated. I hope people who are interested in natives and the North will enjoy it.”
Though he wrote the manuscript, Brown has yet to see the edited works. He’s awaiting its arrival in the mail.