Isaiah Wiltzen spent the last four months digging through archives at the Northern Life Museum and Cultural Centre in Fort Smith, N.W.T.
The 19-year-old history student from Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation is supposed to be studying in Edmonton at The King’s University, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, he’s home in Fort Smith.
That’s where he’s juggling online classes with curating his own museum exhibit, which opened for the first time this week.
“It was a neat little thing to do,” Wiltzen told CBC.
“I kind of wanted to further my knowledge of Indigenous groups, and share the knowledge that I’ve learned from this experience.”
The opportunity came up this summer, while Wiltzen was still a tour guide at the museum.
The sudden departure of a curator left the museum short-staffed and without a concept for their basement space, which is normally used for temporary collections.
So, Wiltzen came up with several options for the museum’s newest exhibit — but the one focusing on the relationship between Indigenous people and the land came out on top.
A glimpse into northern Indigenous groups
The exhibit, called The Land Provides, shares stories and artifacts from three major northern Indigenous groups: the Inuvialuit, the Dene and Métis.
Wiltzen describes it as a “broad look” into each group’s livelihood over time.
He says the exhibit is showcasing the different methods that Indigenous people have developed overtime to maximize “what the land sort of provides … hence the title,” he added.
The space underneath the museum now holds pictures of all three Indigenous groups on the walls.
Cases of old clothing and artifacts specific to each Nation lay in cases under the photos.
Student ‘excited’ to see exhibit up and running
Wiltzen says researching for the exhibit has taught him a lot, especially around traditional hunting methods.
For example, Wiltzen says he is fascinated by the bear hunting techniques of the Dene living in the boreal forest. In the springtime, they would wake bears up straight in their dens and kill it using blunt tools.
Wiltzen said he’s thrilled the public will finally get to see the exhibit.
“There’s a lot of excitement and nerves, because I’ve never done this before,” he said. “It’s a new experience.”
Wiltzen said the project also taught him a lot about Indigenous culture, about his love of history and it opened his eyes to the field of curation as a possible career path post-graduation.
But, his most important takeaway, is that young people can do anything they turn their minds to.
“Despite being just a student, living in the North has provided me this opportunity that I would not have had anywhere else,” he said. “[I’ve learned] to put myself out there.”
Wiltzen’s exhibit is now on display and will be there until mid-January.