What came out of Africa
Gwich'in delegate shares views with Maasai

Daniel MacIsaac
Northern News Services

NNSL (Mar 01/99) - DIAND's Carole Mills may have sparked visions of the apocalypse in a group of African tribesmen through her tales of the midnight sun, but then, the point of the exercise was mutual enlightenment.

"Oh my God, the world is ending -- this can't be true," is how Mills said her Maasai companions reacted on being shown pictures of NWT's summer sun and being told that it never sets.

"But then I told them that my own elders think I'm crazy to be going to the equator," Mills said from her office Tuesday, having recently returned to the NWT from her African adventure.

Mills travelled to Nairobi, Kenya, at the end of January for a United Nations conference on creating globally-binding legislation to manage chemical pollutants. But instead of wearing her federal DIAND hat, Mills represented the Canadian Arctic Indigenous Peoples Against POPs, or persistent organic pollutants.

Mills, whose parents are Gwich'in and who has Inuvialuit relatives, said her first effort at educating Africans came when she was invited to participate in a UN Indigenous Peoples Workshop. Mills said the Kenyan and Ugandan delegates were very sympathetic toward Arctic concerns over contamination of the bio-food chain, but had a problem with the concepts of Dene and Inuit.

"They would say, 'Oh you mean Red Indians and Eskimos and after a while I had to say, 'Yes, that's it,'" Mills said.

But Mills stressed that the message got through and that the conference, the second of five, made a lot of progress.

Mills' personal insight into Africa began when the conference ended, however, and she took an unorthodox vacation. She visited a community of Maasai tribesman involved in the Elangata Wuas ecosystem project and toured Amboseli game park in the southeast part of the country near the Tanzanian border and Mount Kilimanjaro.

"The Maasai are very tall, thin, and wear incredibly colourful clothing," Mills said, "They are a pastoral, nomadic people, so in that way they are similar to the Dene -- not too long ago they followed the animals and never used the resources up, and the children are now starting to go to school."

Mills said that like Canada's indigenous people, the Maasai also experienced an infusion of colonists who claimed the land, set up artificial political boundaries and instituted laws. She said the three Maasai who accompanied her to Amboseli park, Daniel Moile, George and Michael, were outraged when asked to pay an entrance fee.

Mills said that inside the park animals abounded -- lions, hippos, zebras, hyenas and wildebeest -- and that the Maasai demonstrated the same respect for them as Dene and Inuit do toward Arctic wildlife. Though, as herders of cattle, sheep and goats, the Maasai told Mills they only hunt one kind of animal: giraffes.

"I asked how many Maasai men it takes to kill one giraffe," she said. "And they all shouted, 'Just one!'"

Mills said the experience was eye-opening and that she will stay in touch with the Maasai of Elangata Wuas and follow the progress of their project to diversify their economy and promote eco-tourism.

"To me, it just highlighted that the way things are done and the decisions affecting the lives of indigenous peoples are extremely important," she said.