First Snow

Déline is grey and cold today, as wet flakes of snow are appearing for the first time this year. An elder just died. I met her only once or twice; when I first arrived she was strong and healthy enough to be tanning moose hide. She had a warm smile, which I was fortunate enough to see now and again even though I did not speak her language. She was the mother and grandmother of a large, kind family, and her children went on to be teachers, trappers, and land claim negotiators.

People here tell me how important it is to celebrate a person’s life, but they also say with sadness that an elder’s passing means the loss of knowledge, traditions, and stories. Déline used to have the name “Village of Widows” for its generation of men – previously Uranium ore carriers – lost to cancer. People still tell stories about these elders, their abilities, their jokes, and their families. Their children will be Déline’s next group of elders, but they will also be the last generation with members who grew up in the bush, and the last ones who remember what it was like to have a dog team instead of a skidoo. Each of these individuals has lived through great change.

This morning I walked to the prophet house at the edge of town, wrapped in a gigantic parka to shield myself from the sleet. There are no sled dogs anymore, but one golden retriever named Spike followed me through the streets to keep me company. The small log building sits by the lake, built in the place where the Dene prophet ɂehtséo Ayha had his original home, near the trading post of Fort Franklin. The 19th century man was a spiritual leader, well loved for his moral lessons and the prophecies that still guide Déline today. The house is kept unlocked and heated, so anyone who wishes may go inside to think, pray, or ask for help.

Inside on the wall are the photographs of those who have passed away. Too many of these deaths came early: alcohol and violence took their tolls on this town like so many other isolated Indigenous communities with a history of colonial abuse and residential school.

The house is kept clean and is respected, a sacred space that even the kids don’t intrude upon. The power of the dead is palpable here. People make policy decisions with reference to their grandfathers, maps with reference to family histories. The graveyard is also a place of respect – one day we found a fox digging a burrow underneath one of the burial sites, which the elders say is an unnatural thing for an animal to do. The fox’s interference with the dead’s resting place caused worry for some in the community, and before long the hole was stopped up and a trap was placed for the animal should it decide to come back. The graves and memories of the dead are important to this place and should not be disturbed.


Sahtu K’awé: The lake is the boss. I learned this phrase last week, along with nı̨tsı̨ k’awé (wind boss) when a whitefish trip I was on got turned around by unsafe weather on Great Bear Lake. Two of the elders with us looked at a satellite weather forecast and made the call to turn back around to Déline, the waves were too dangerous to continue.

The past sits over this community like heavy mist, but the future can rarely be forecasted. Weather, politics, and health are ever unpredictable, and the best we can do is prepare for them together and respond as best we can. Even the prophecies of the four Sahtu Dene prophets aren’t fixed in time – while they talk about the world’s last fresh water disappearing and the end of humanity, no-one knows when this will come to pass. Preparations like strong language, culture, governance, and environmental protections are nonetheless underway.

Every time there is a tragedy in the community, the affected family members are immediately surrounded by friends and relatives who come over to make tea, cook, and take their mind off of events. My grandmother passed away several weeks ago. She was an intelligent, beautiful woman, a former history teacher who could tell the stories of our family generations back. When I found out that she had died, the people I was here with cooked me breakfast, took me to community gatherings, and were hesitant to leave me alone for the rest of the day. The level of support, coming even from people who had just met me, will remain one of my strongest memories of my first fieldwork experience. I have immense gratitude for this northern town, and faith that its people will come together to prepare for the turbulence of the future. Death can always be alienating, but is also a powerful reminder that any differences between you and the person next to you are fundamentally temporary.


Thesis Summary: Time and Story in Sahtú Self Government


Mahsi Cho to everyone in Délı̨nę and the Sahtú for all of your time, help, and friendliness! I hope you get a chance to read this, or, I have made an audio version that you can watch here:

Délı̨nę Self-Government Thesis Summary from Faun Rice on Vimeo.

I’ve submitted my thesis to the University of Alberta, but this is the summary for anyone who does not want to plough through the entire thing. Parts of it are taken directly from the thesis. The rest is designed to give a concise and accurate picture of what is contained in it for anyone who is interested – people in the Sahtú, Edmonton, or elsewhere – in order to make the long document more accessible. Anyone who has questions about the content or would like to see the full version, please feel welcome to send me your email through this website.

** In this summary I have used direct citations but have not included any for paraphrased information. For a thorough citation list and bibliography, please see the original thesis. A link should be available through the University of Alberta by November 15, 2016, or you can email me directly with questions. **


Time and Story in Sahtú Self Government

Intercultural Bureaucracies on Great Bear Lake


From the Introduction:

“Long before I came to Délı̨nę I met a few Sahtú community members at the University of Alberta: language teachers, in Edmonton for professional development courses. In one of the campus’ crowded halls on an early Monday morning, I was distributing registration forms and different colours of language revitalization lanyards when one woman selected a bright blue cord, “the colour of Great Bear Lake!” and slung it around her neck to rest on her Délı̨nę First Nation hoodie. Two years later, I arrived in Délı̨nę dusty and tired from a long meander in the Yellowknife airport; my host family greeted me with the same energetic pride. I followed in the footsteps of a long line of graduate students renting out their spare room, but they showed me around their community with no sign of fatigue or exasperation. People in Délı̨nę love their home, and bring their love of it with them to all contexts: to universities, offices, dances, and negotiations.

Délı̨nę, a Dene community of over 500 people, sits on the shore of Great Bear Lake in Canada’s Northwest Territories (NWT). It is a land of discontinuous permafrost – there are small pine trees, boreal forests, and shrublands in which caribou, foxes, bears, and moose can be found, along with the wolves that howl each night in harmony with the curfew alarm. It also has visitors: people come to Délı̨nę and leave Délı̨nę frequently, taking pieces of it away with them. Along with the students are bureaucrats, Dene people who live elsewhere, corporate representatives, and/or politicians. The boundaries between those categories are fuzzy at best and the histories and futures of each are intertwined.

I went to Délı̨nę to study its Final Self-Government Agreement (FSGA), which was passed by a community vote in 2014 and by all levels of Canadian government as the Délı̨nę Final Self-Government Agreement Act (formerly Bill C-63) on June 11, 2015. The negotiation and transition team is housed in an office in the Délı̨nę Land Corporation (DLC) building, wherein most people speak both English and Dene. People employed by organizations like the DLC may take ‘bush days,’ or hunting, trapping, and gathering time off work to go on the land surrounding Great Bear Lake. It is never too long before they return to their offices to review financial reports, draft leases, or prepare for meetings. During the time of my fieldwork, people employed in bureaucratic jobs in particular often seemed to feel that they held twin lifestyles in tension; however, the community as a whole was similarly concerned with the future of Dene governance and its impact on day-to-day life. An open question in Délı̨nę of 2015 was: how will self-government impact the community with respect to language, heritage, and lifestyle? What will change, if anything? How, and to what end?” (1-2)

We may not know how the FSGA will influence Délı̨nę for decades or centuries. Other nations with similar agreements, like the Nisga’a or the Tłįcho, are still learning about what they can do with self-government and the changes it can make. However, everyone in Délı̨nę had stories about what would happen in the future. Instead of trying to guess what changes the FSGA would make right away, the thesis is about the following question:

“What are the shared stories about the future of self-government that people in Délı̨nę tell?” (6)

The stories we tell about the future are important because they impact how we think, act, and plan in the world. There is a quotation from a famous anthropologist that I like where he is talking about history, and says that the stories we tell about our past (and our future as well, I think) have “a social force in the living present” (Rosaldo 1980:61). Because of this, the thesis is divided into three main chapters: The history of the Sahtú region first, some pieces of Canada’s legal history second, and the shared stories about Délı̨nę’s future third.


Chapter One: History and the Sahtú

This chapter stretches from a discussion of oral histories and archaeological hypotheses to the aftermath of World War II, when many northern Dene communities were relocated, resource development increased, and the north responded with activism, political organizations, and landmark legal cases like Paulette side by side with the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline inquiry. Some of these topics have been explored in previous blog posts, such as Uranium development on Great Bear Lake, Handgames and Drum Dances, traders and missionaries, and stories from time immemorial.

Many other new topics are scattered into this timeline. For example, traditional governance in Sahtú Dene communities is said to have been based in knowledge, experience, and consensus. Elders were respected for the breadth and depth of knowledge each one held, and leaders were chosen for different activities or regions based on their familiarity and experience. The concept of chief was introduced later, when documents like Treaty 11 required just one man’s signature. Treaty 11 negotiations came much later than southern Canada’s numbered treaties, and were a partial result of the 1920 discovery of oil in the Sahtú region now called Norman Wells. The oral promises that were delivered during the treaty negotiation process were the basis of Re Paulette and Registrar of Land Titles (1973), a court case that determined that Dene peoples did indeed understand Treaty 11 as a peace and friendship agreement, rather than as a cessation of land.

This chapter also spends a long time on the Berger Inquiry, or Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry. Its consultation process and the evidence that followed delayed the construction of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline by forty years, and it is still in negotiations today. The inquiry is one of the best-implemented consultations of Indigenous peoples Canada had seen in the 1970s and is somewhat unparalleled still: the testimony ranging across the Northwest Territories and Northern Alberta is still well-preserved and documented, and its summary is there for anyone interested in Thomas Berger’s report, Northern Frontier, Northern Homeland (1977). One of the key points of Chapter One is that ‘contact’ between Indigenous peoples and settlers has not been unidirectional – rather than a story of slow assimilation, Canada has been changed remarkably because of its unique history with peoples like the Sahtú Dene. This is true of resource development, law, policy, philosophy, and personal relations, and one argument to this effect can be found in John Ralston Saul’s A Fair Country (2009).


Chapter Two: Modernity, Colonialism, and Recent Legal History

This chapter takes a step back from the direct experiences of the Sahtú region to talk about the Canadian state’s historical and contemporary approach to legislating what it means to be Indigenous. In 1982, the Canadian Constitution Act codified Aboriginal rights without concretely defining them: “The existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada are hereby recognized and affirmed” (1982: Section 35 (1)).

Over the next few decades of case law, then, the Supreme Court of Canada began the process of establishing just what that means. What is an Aboriginal right, as compared to a human right, a woman’s right, etc? In Canadian law, the answer has often been that an Aboriginal right (including the right to self-government) is based in how ‘traditional’ it is. Has it withstood colonialism by remaining relatively unchanged since European arrival, is it essential to that particular group’s culture, and eight other questions make up a case law test from R. v. Van der Peet [1996]. In this case, a woman from the Stó:lō Nation argued that she had the Aboriginal right to catch and sell fish without needing to apply for a license. Her case was denied, using the Aboriginal Rights test, because while she would have been allowed to fish for subsistence or ceremony, she was not allowed to sell the fish. The use of money rather than barter or gifting was objectionably modern.

There is a joke in Canadian Aboriginal Law literature that the Indigenous claimant had better not get caught eating pizza before they testify, otherwise they won’t qualify as traditional anymore. As a consequence of governing ideas of what “tradition” is, it is often easier for the federal or territorial government to allow community control over language, customs, and cultural heritage, while retaining state power over non-renewable resources, criminal law, and ultimate political jurisdiction. The hurdles that an Indigenous community must surmount to successfully negotiate self-government aren’t intended maliciously; rather, as one federal negotiator from the 1990s Department of Indian affairs commented: “The challenge that confronts the Minister, and those of us who work on his behalf, is to attempt to develop constructive ways to work with a Department whose primary philosophy and attitude since its very creation has been derived from principles of colonialism and paternalism” (Morse 1995: 672).

The thesis moves next to the structure of Délı̨nę’s FSGA and then its implications, or the stories told about it. I talk about key additions to Délı̨nę’s governance structure, such as the elders’ council, and the potential the agreement contains for Délı̨nę to eventually operate in the Sahtú Dene language. More important than the text of the agreement, at least right now, is what people plan to use it for. A quotation I read recently (not included in my thesis, but encountered after I began reading for fun again) reminded me of why self-government in Délı̨nę has such potential:

“To speak of certain government and establishment institutions as ‘the system’ is to speak correctly… they are sustained by structural relationships even when they have lost all other meaning and purpose. People arrive at a factory and perform a totally meaningless task from eight to five without question because the structure demands that it be that way. There’s no villain, no “mean guy” who wants them to live meaningless lives, it’s just that the structure, the system demands it and no one is willing to take on the formidable task of changing the structure just because it is meaningless.” (Robert M. Pirsig 1974, 87)

During my thesis defense, we began talking about why Indigenous self-government might be different than Canadian ‘self-government,’ or any other self-governing body of people. The answer I came up with at the time was that in a community like Délı̨nę, people still make decisions because of kin relationships, people hold a diversity of roles and responsibilities, and no one is so specialized that their task is meaningless.

I think this is possible for a few reasons: first, in a fly-in community of 550 that creates its own interdependent economy, there is less room for extreme specialization. Second, “the system” is new enough to Délı̨nę that people remember well what it was like before none of them had desk jobs, and prefer to be generalists who can hunt or tan hides while teaching, preaching, or governing. Indeed, the absence of imported teachers, priests, or consistent health professionals often seems to create community members with many different hats and tasks. Third, the community’s interconnected relationships (real and fictive kin, friendships, responsibilities) make decision-making personal. If the entirety of Délı̨nę has a friend or family member on the newly elected council, the opportunity for genuine community feedback and participation is much greater.

Indigenous self-government in Délı̨nę is what I call an ‘intercultural bureaucracy,’ a place where the large, democratic state’s notions of what governance means have been transposed upon, or combined with, a different system. There are many different ways that self-government could be used within the community, and I outline four different stories I heard during my fieldwork. The stories are not exclusive – one person might talk about more than one during different moods, or hold two simultaneously.

(1) The story that colonial bureaucracy requires you to sacrifice your life in order to protect your culture and those who uphold it.

(2) The story that colonial history and values can and will be replaced by superior, Dene versions. If we integrate Dene languages and values into bureaucracy we can change the way that it works rather than vice-versa.

(3) The story that invokes a commitment to excel both as Dene and as bureaucrats in order to beat settlers and lawyers at their own game, but to simultaneously keep Dene values separate. This is to be “strong like two people.” [Originally a Tłįchǫ saying]

(4) Prophecy and authority: Having faith in Délı̨nę’s spiritual strength to withstand exterior pressures and even convert those who visit. (taken from thesis page 70)

I will only break each of these down briefly, as Chapter Three is a long one.

(1) Guarding your culture:

Many people I spoke to in northern Canada felt that there was a threatening cultural force trying to assimilate them, and that they needed to use tools like self-government to protect their communities from this outside force. However, this would require self-sacrifice, since they would have to study law, attend meetings, be administrators, and give up their involvement in the culture they were trying to protect. People would often talk like this at meetings, when frustrated, but could switch to a more hopeful story in different moods or settings.

(2) Dene transformations of settler institutions:

This is a complicated idea that takes many different forms. One key example comes from the environmental movement – more and more, environmentalists like David Suzuki are holding up Indigenous traditions as environmentally sustainable models for living. Within Délı̨nę, people care a great deal about maintaining the health of their land and water and know that the south could learn a thing or two from them. Indeed, climate change is an open topic in Délı̨nę and some say that the south might have to learn from them sooner rather than later. This is one way the north may transform the south.

A second key point is that self-government is a tool that can be used and transformed in ways the text of the agreement could never predict. Many say that if Délı̨nę can operate its government in its own language, the nature of the laws and policies will be transformed. Indigenous changes to institutions of governance have already happened in Nunavut (which is consensus based) and the Government of the Northwest Territories, and again, John Ralston Saul goes into this kind of argument in much greater detail in A Fair Country (2009).

(3) Strong like two people:

This story maintains that a person can be a good Dene person, a good white person, and keep the two separate. The latter will let you get things done and the former will let you maintain your values and lifestyle. Indigenous claims at the Canadian state level are often only successful when they can adopt settler terminology and procedure. Thus, the ability to develop and maintain two distinct skillsets would create the ideal amount of agency for any Indigenous community opting to improve its political status but maintain its autonomy.

(4) Prophecy and authority:

Here I will quickly borrow a direct portion of the thesis that gives an introduction to Dene prophecy:

“Délı̨nę has four prophets it celebrates and keeps the traditions of, and Prophet Ayah is the most revered of the four. Ɂǝhtséo Louis Ayah lived from 1857 to 1940. He was a Dene spiritual leader and prophet, illiterate but miraculously possessing a page-by-page knowledge of the bible. It is said that he built a small house near the present day settlement of Délı̨nę and knew both the Dene people and missionaries very well: his house has been rebuilt as a contemporary space for prayer and healing. While there have been many prophets throughout Dene history, both before and after meeting Europeans, Ɂǝhtséo Ayah was known as a particularly powerful prophet and teacher across much of Dene territory (Goulet 1998: 206-7).

Many 19th and 20th century Dene prophets worked within a worldview that blended Dene and Christian lessons (Abel 1986: 220; Moore and Wheelock 1990). The two systems might be viewed as complimentary; for example, “heaven was merged with the aboriginal concept of a place where spirits dwelt, so that the Christian idea of an afterlife was enriched by the Dene belief that some people could visit the unseen world while still alive” (Abel 1986: 220). Ayah’s prophecies as recounted today include the discovery of diamonds in the region, the negative effects of alcohol in the community, the end of the world, and self-government.” (Rice 2016: 105)

Prophecy provides a level of authority to Délı̨nę that no negotiated document can, in part because Ayha’s prophecies about the end of the world emphasize that Délı̨nę will be the last safe place with fresh water (one reason why climate change is such an important topic in the community), and that it is, in many ways, the center of the world. Dene prophecy claims an authoritative voice on the future that no settler can access or overshadow. Just as Dene prophets reclaimed expert knowledge on Christianity from missionaries, Ayha reclaimed expert knowledge on self-government for Délı̨nę before it even occurred.

Conclusion: why are these stories useful?

“When I talk to people in Edmonton about self-government in Délı̨nę, many of them express that they have never heard about such a thing before and are pleasantly surprised to hear about an Indigenous community “doing so well.” In the south of Canada, we are inundated with negative media portrayals of Aboriginal communities and reserves: we hear about suicide, diabetes, and domestic abuse, rarely about self-determination. The messages that do pertain to Indigenous governance are often themselves quite negative partial truths.

CBC News published a story called “21 Northern First Nations face Funding Freeze,” on September 02, 2015 (while I was in Délı̨nę) listing groups that had purportedly refrained from publishing their financial information publicly by the First Nations Financial Transparency Act (FNFTA) deadline. Délı̨nę was included in this article, but the community had indeed released their records long before the deadline – Aboriginal Affairs had simply not processed it yet. CBC released a long list of nations, some of which were making a purposeful statement in not complying, many of which simply had their financial information waiting in bureaucratic limbo. The comments section was filled with venom and outright racism: this was before CBC made the decision to remove the online comment section in Aboriginal News stories due to a “disproportionate number of comments that cross the line and violate our guidelines… some comments are clearly hateful and vitriolic, some are simply ignorant. And some appear to be hate disguised as ignorance” (Office of the CBC GM and Editor in Chief: 2015).

Ignorance is fueled or changed by the stories we tell and those we choose not to… What if CBC published the same article and named it “Aboriginal Affairs faces criticism for bureaucratic inefficiency: First Nations break federal system with detailed financial reports”? It may take a while before our newspapers boast “Canada’s prophesied collapse begins with federal bureaucracy,” but they could consider beginning with small steps.

In Canada there remains a prevailing hegemony that tells children how our history really begins with European exploration and map making. It goes on to tell us how Canadians bought the land fairly with Treaties, or negotiated new agreements where the Treaties were not fair. Our constitution and laws become hegemonic – used with an eye only to internal consistency – where oral legal traditions are hearsay instead of parallel institutions in their own right. Within the totalizing Euro-Canadian picture of the world, self-government and intercultural institutions appear only as recolonizing tools: one more piece of Canada legislating its own legitimacy.

I think it is possible to step outside of the hegemony problem by doing what many of the Dene perspectives here have done: inverting and complicating the old traditional-modern power dynamic, using familiar ideas and relationships in different ways. Those of us in settler or intercultural institutions can try to contextualize Canadian history in Indigenous history rather than vice-versa, and continue to be critical of the Canadian legal system using a mindset that invokes parallel or pre-existing legal institutions instead of just an internal critique of state law. Researchers and writers can think and talk about communities like Délı̨nę not as if they are just fighting colonization, but transforming the world around them. Administrators and bureaucrats can think about ways to help intercultural bureaucracies transform, rather than accepting their apparent permanence and inertia. Better stories can indicate the way through these slow and labyrinthine steps towards reconciliation.” (112-3)

References and Further Reading for the Detail-Oriented Soul

Abel, Kerry. 1986. “Prophets, Priests and Preachers: Dene Shamans and Christian   Missions in the Nineteenth Century.” Historical Papers. 211-224. America: History and Life with Full Text.

Berger, Thomas R. 1977. Northern Frontier, Northern Homeland: Report of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry, Berger Commission report. Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services.

Blondin, George. 1990. When the world was new: Stories of the Sahtu Dene.  Yellowknife: Outcrop, the Northern Publisher.

–––­–­–. 1997. Yamoria the Lawmaker: Stories of the Dene. Edmonton: NeWest Press.

–––­–­–. 2006. Trail of the Spirit: the Mysteries of Medicine Power Revealed. Edmonton: NeWest Press.

The Constitution Act, 1982. C. Gaz, Part III. 21 September, 1982.

Goulet, Jean-Guy. 1998. Ways of knowing: Experience, Knowledge, and Power among the Dene Tha. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press.

Moore, Patrick and Angela Wheelock (eds). 1990. Wolverine Myths and Visions: Dene Traditions from Northern Alberta. Compiled by the Dene Wodih Society. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Morse, Brad. 1995. “A View From the North: Aboriginal and Treaty Issues in Canada.” St. Thomas Law Review. 7: 671-684.

Office of the GM and Editor in Chief [CBC News]. November 30, 2015. “Uncivil dialogue: Commenting and stories about indigenous people.”   

Ralston-Saul, John. 2009. A Fair Country: Telling Truths about Canada. Toronto: Penguin Canada.

Rosaldo, Renato. 1980. Ilongot Headhunting 1883-1974: A Study in Society and History. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Cases Cited:

Re Paulette and Registrar of Land Titles (No. 2) (1973) 6 W.W.R. 97 (N.W.T.S.C)




Watching the handgames in Tulita’s arena, I finally felt like I understood the appeal of sports. The gym was filled with people from northern Dene communities and lined with foldout tables covered with tea, coffee, and bannock. The sound of drums was audible for more than ten hours each day of the tournament. When you know the players and can see their personalities emerging in each gesture, win, or loss, a game becomes a million times more interesting. From conversations with other onlookers I tried to grasp the rules, though they change with different regions and tournaments.

In Tulita’s 2015 games, there were eight players on a team, with one sitting out as an alternate. A group of drummers gathered behind each team on foldout chairs to drum and sing in support, usually men from the team’s home community. This created a kind of home field advantage; all the people available to drum for Tulita could outnumber the other communities easily. You could hear the strength and unity of the drummers’ beat encouraging their players, and the energy of the drums waxed and waned with the game’s intensity.

Rules are hard to deduce for ignorant audience members (i.e. Faun). The two teams of seven face each other, kneeling on the ground with the drummers sitting behind them. Each player has a small token they can hide easily in one hand or the other, and there are sticks (in this tournament, 21) in between the teams used to count score.

The tournament organizers asked that teams have some players under sixteen years of age. From five year olds to elders, each team of men takes turns either tricking their opponents or guessing where the opposite tokens are.

One very young boy in a brightly coloured baseball cap took a turn guessing (“shooting”) for his team. The rival group drummed and danced, using their hands and bodies (kneeling the whole time) to confuse the youth, whose goal was to find all the hands concealing tokens. The boy made his choice, pointing up and left – and each player opened the hand pointing in that direction. All seven hands contained a token – the kid caught everyone out.

When a child wins, even the losing team can’t help but smile. People behave well for the little ones. The boy’s grin lit up his face as he adjusted his tiny moosehide vest and his teammates clapped him on the back proudly. Because he caught all his opponents, the rival group won no points that round. It was his team’s turn to hide their tokens, move to their drums, and get as many sticks as possible. Each time the opposing team “shoots” and fails to guess some of the correct hands, the drumming team takes a corresponding number of sticks. They win when they have all the sticks, though in this tournament it was played as a best out of three.

Today people play for cash prizes. The first six teams (out of more than thirty teams entering the tournament from communities in the Sahtu, Dehcho, and Tlicho regions) went home with prize money. In the past the games had different purposes, and they have been played for as long as people can remember.

When bands traveled and met each other, ɂédzı was a way to win necessary resources and establish power. Some players would use medicine powers to win, which is one reason why a team’s reputation for strength could be made in a hand game competition. Morris Neyelle says that the top medicine person would always lead the group, because a win or loss would determine the strength of a people.

The social event would also provide a way for bands to set up marriages with women from other communities, win furs, meat, and even gold. One player from Fort Good Hope told me a story about long lost hand game treasure, gold bags that were abandoned by the prizewinners when they had to travel home from Tulita and their sled dogs couldn’t handle the load.

Today, handgames are about money. When I asked about the reason for this change, I got a fairly straightforward answer from the few people I talked to: skidoos. Before the 1960s, the most significant part of the economy for northern Dene communities was still trade and barter, even though money was introduced in the 1920s. The first skidoo introduced a consistent need for money: gasoline and maintenance. In Déline, I hear people refer to the transition from dog team to skidoo as an illustration of shifting economies and lifestyles.

Today when the handgames are played, political leadership is there shaking hands and taking part. People gamble while cooking communal caribou, moose, and fish, donated by visitors who harvested meat on their way to Tulita. Boys too young to play on a team use empty plastic waterbottles as point counters and have their own game on the sidelines. Mothers and families cheer on their community members from around the room and take videos to load onto youtube or facebook. The drum dance at the evening’s conclusion pulls the whole room into one circle.

Elders from both Tulita and Déline have talked about the healing power of dance and hand games. The drum that accompanies both activities can be heard in heaven, they say. And the act of dancing and playing is like prayer. The movement makes everything fall off of you.

Great Bear River from Tulita

This weekend, September 4-7 2015, was Tulita’s annual hand games tournament. A post about hand games will be coming soon; for now, however, a look at what happens when you duct tape a camera to a jet boat.

This age old trading route between Tulita and Déline would have taken 14 days by canoe, I am told. Going upstream, our boat took about 3 hours. It seems unfair that today we’re able to put that journey on camera (at least, until our camera dies part way through) and then condense it into four minutes. Great Bear River runs from Sahtu (Great Bear Lake) to Dehcho (The Mackenzie River). Its water quality is noticeably cleaner than the Mackenzie’s. Tulita is situated where the rivers meet, and one point this weekend I accidentally pointed at Dehcho and referred to it as the Great Bear River. My Déline friend exclaimed “the dirty one?! That’s not our river. That brown one is the Mackenzie.”

The music was chosen because I put this together quickly, and Gershwin’s was the first public domain tune I thought of. Besides, rhapsodic is a perfectly fine descriptor for such a clear, clean, blue body of water.

Petitot’s Trail: A Priest’s Publications in Contemporary Contexts

If a 19th century missionary was given a snapshot of the future, how might he react? Would he ever have considered that the literate descendants of his converts might read his work, with a century and a half of colonization to create context for his religious efforts? I’ve been told by many writing teachers to never begin with a rhetorical question, but I intend this one honestly: getting into the head of a proselytizing, fur trade era French Catholic is no easy task for many of us.

Émile Petitot, 19th century evangelical arctic explorer, published an account of his travels around the Great Bear Lake region in 1893. Educated in Marseilles, the young Oblate was sent to the vicariate of Red River in Rupert’s Land in 1862 (Introduction xvii). He was age 24 with a solid education in dogmatic theology, which really ought to prepare one for treks across Northern Canada with a dog team and snowshoes.

Petitot’s works are read widely in Déline. Throughout his text, he frequently expounds upon the perceived moral and intellectual failings of the Indigenous peoples around him. The Dene people here who recommended his book to me gave it with several caveats. They said that he writes many negative things, but: you have to remember that he didn’t really see Indigenous peoples as human, “you have to try to see us (Déline’s ancestors) as he would have.” Petitot tries to extend the same consideration to the peoples he worked with, but does not overcome certain prejudices (at least, as far as is demonstrated by the material he wrote for a European audience). He speaks critically of any rituals that are not Christian, subsistence and survival practices that he does not understand, and social practices that he deems immoral. His contemporary audience is much kinder to him than he was to their ancestors.

Petitot does, however, earn some respect for the skills he eventually accumulated – tracking, hunting, and navigation. He affords compliments to converts and to his Indigenous guides (often humorously understated, or written with apparent surprise) such as “the Dene are very well up on the geography of their country” (Petitot 224). His prose can be vivid and exclamatory; he becomes enthusiastic about certain geographical features such Great Bear Lake:

What pride to have been able to find by ourselves, at the price of long days of marching and severe fatigue, this beautiful frozen sheet! What rapture in surveying the view of these vast horizonless spaces where the blue sky forms the only limit to the east and south! What joy to be able to run at an athletic pace on this water converted into a marble surface and whose black depths revealed its chasms! (Petitot 245)

His interest in geography and language has proved valuable today. Petitot recorded a great repository of placenames and the community here has been able to load them into Google Maps to expand their own database. Similarly, he takes great care to record historical details. Last week I heard one community member quote Petitot’s account of the Franklin Expedition’s demographic breakdown at a tourism event. In other words, the missionary’s work can be used for the community’s own purposes.

One of the most-discussed sections of the text takes place in today’s graveyard. Upon the death of a community member, Petitot completes religious funeral rites then retreats to the ruins of the Franklin fort to watch the remainder of the Dene ritual. Alone in the cold, he describes a scene that highlights his alienation for those who read it a century and a half later:

I have never been able to hear these people cry without my whole being shivering. It is a funereal lament, interspersed with convulsive sobs that resemble the yelping of the coyote in the dismal groves, a pagan sorrow without solace. These are not the tears of Christians, gentle, silent, filled with hope and faith. It is a rending done for effect which, spontaneous or artificial, wants to be heard and makes itself heard; it is a savage sorrow whose rhythmic screechings rise and fall like wolves’ cries, differently among men and women. (Petitot 280)

The shivering European did not work very hard to understand the mourning of the peoples whose territory he was on. While it’s too late to tell Petitot to stay in Marseilles, at least Indigenous communities can put some of colonization’s publications to good use today. The debate about Petitot’s real biography and intentions goes on for novelists and historians, but the town where he once preached can now order his big red book from the Toronto Champlain Society and smile at his attempted phonetic spellings of Slavey words. This is just one of many power dynamics being re-written with time.

References and Further Reading for the Detail Oriented Soul

Petitot, Émile. 1893. Exploration of the Great Bear Lake Region. Trans. Paul Laverdure, Jacqueline Moir, John S. Moir. Toronto Champlain Society, 2005.

As well as: 

CBC News

Haley, Susan, 2013. Petitot: A Novel. Kentville, NS: Gaspereau Press.

Petitot’s entry in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography 

Images from Déline


Déline from the water: the new church appears on the right, with the red tipi roof. There isn’t a permanent priest here – residents often conduct their own mass in North Slavey. The old church, built in 1949, is still the neighbour of the new site. One community member’s father helped build it, and he says that Bing Crosby’s estate helped pay for its construction (through the Catholic Church).


The community’s cemetery overlooks the little lake that Franklin and his men played hockey on, a small area that transitions into the main area of Great Bear Lake. Fences around each grave create a home for the person buried there. While the marked graves are newer, the site itself has been used for many generations.

Drum dances are held during community DSCN0954gatherings, special events, and when large groups of visitors are in town. There have been so many occasions to dance in Déline this summer that the drummers’ voices need a rest.


I showed a photograph of Déline to someone at home before I left, and they asked if the tipis were just for show. Many people in town have one in their back yard, and use them for a variety of functions including smoking fish. Traditional food is very common here, used in combination with materials from the two grocery stores. Last week we had a meal that included both trout and guacamole, made from some very well-traveled avocados.


Bears and wolves hang out around the town dump site. A few nights ago we went in search of the resident grizzly to take photos (safely in a large truck) but only saw a white wolf. For me, the prairie girl from mola nene (“Edmonton” = “white man land,” since for a long time it was the main southern trading post/city) in the back seat, the wolf was exciting enough for now.

DSCN0894Seagulls circle around fish scraps by the water as one woman shows her grandchild the process of collecting traditional food. This generation has seen immense change – the transition from dogsleds in the sixties to skidoos, the Sahtu land claim process, and now self-government.

Climate Change on Great Bear Lake

In a log house at the edge of town, an elder stands in front of a gathering of youth from different Dene communities. Behind him on many little shelves are the portraits of those who have passed away. At the beginning of this event, a weekend youth workshop for 2015’s annual spiritual gathering, one of the first things this elder does is joke about looking like David Suzuki.

Dr. Suzuki, the famous environmentalist and scientist, was in town for the July 2015 Tudze (Water Heart) conference, organized by the Déline Land Corporation and named after a legend that features Great Bear Lake’s living heart. David Suzuki’s presence made a huge impact here; his name has been all over town since I arrived.


On my first night in Déline, my host family checked the nets to bring in fish for dinner. They pointed out the colour of one of the trout’s gills; it showed them that the fish was no longer good to eat. Nets have to be checked twice a day now; the rising water temperature makes fish spoil much faster after they die. In the past, nets were monitored every other day. The Mackenzie River Basin has experienced significant warming over the last 50 years, with a mean annual temperature increase of 1.5°C since 1950. Polar lakes are especially sensitive to change in climate, and Great Bear Lake is the largest freshwater body in Canada.[1]

Déline’s elders and ancestors spoke about the end of the world and the importance of Great Bear Lake as the last clean body of water. Traditional knowledge (including legends such as these) has fed into community efforts to protect the space: Déline initiated a partnership with the federal government to monitor and clean up waste from the Port Radium mine, and provisions for land and water management are included in many new self government projects. One key example is the petition to protect the Great Bear Lake watershed using a UNESCO biosphere reserve designation.

Dene laws, place names, and legends teach humans how to interact responsibly and sustainably with the environment. Something like paying the water with tobacco is a simple act where you demonstrate gratitude to the lake and the creator – but taking that moment reminds you that you’re part of an ecosystem that stretches far beyond human settlements. Similarly, oral traditions and place names have helped Indigenous peoples in North America accumulate and transmit detailed knowledge about the best routes through dangerous territory, and navigating using place names entails a very different connection to your landscape than GPS would provide.[2] Traditional hunting and harvesting practices can help recreate a sustainable relationship with natural resources.


In regards to an issue like climate change, human interactions with nature are essential to understanding the problems we face. I want to leave you with a quotation from Julie Cruikshank, because she illuminates the value of traditional knowledge far more elegantly than I can:

Some consistent principles sharply differentiate scientific practices from indigenous oral traditions. First, scientific studies monitoring environmental change (like climate change) attempt to disentangle natural cycles from anthropogenic causes, whereas oral traditions from this region merge natural histories of landscape with local social histories. Second, geophysical scientists studying what makes glaciers surge focus on physical forcing mechanisms—causes external to the glacier system. In oral traditions, by contrast, materiality is subordinated to interpretations that centre on reciprocity among humans and glaciers, and on more-than-human forces intrinsic to the glacier. Third, indigenous elders formerly created new knowledge about such events by focusing on relationships and transactions among human and non-human persons. Sometimes these transactions succeed and sometimes they fail, but failures are also incorporated into stories, whereas unsuccessful experiments are more likely to drop from the scientific record. (Cruikshank 2012: 243)


References and Further Reading for the Detail Oriented Soul


[1] Yerubandi R. Rao, Anning Huan, William M. Schertzer & Wayne R. Rouse, 2012.

[2] Julie Cruikshank, 2005: 220.

Cruikshank, Julie. 2005. “Mapping Boundaries: From Stories to Borders.” In Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters, and Social Imagination. pp 213-242. Vancouver: British Columbia University Press.

Cruikshank, Julie. 2012. “Are Glaciers ‘Good to think with?’ Recognizing Indigenous Environmental Knowledge.” Anthropological Forum. Vol. 22 (3): 239-250.

Johnson, Leslie Main. 2010. “Implications: GIS and the Storied Landscape.” In Trail of Story, Traveller’s Path: Reflections on Ethnogeology and Landscape. pp. 185-201. Athabasca University: Athabasca University Press.

Moving Forward Together: English Version. Directed by Raymond Yakeleya. 2012. Edmonton: Earth Magic Media. DVD.

Turner, Nancy J. 2014. Ancient Pathways, Ancestral Knowledge : Ethnobotany and Ecological Wisdom of Indigenous Peoples of Northwestern North America. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Yerubandi R. Rao, Anning Huan, William M. Schertzer & Wayne R. Rouse. 2012. “Modelling of Physical Processes and Assessment of Climate Change Impacts in Great Bear Lake.” Atmosphere-Ocean. 50(3), pp. 317-333.

Saoyú-ɂehdacho: Placenames and legends in a national heritage site

Last Friday I found myself on a motorboat going across Great Bear Lake, catching a ride with a kind Déline Land Corporation member and a seasick Nigerian-Calgarian business manager who had never been on a boat so small before.

Our destination was Saoyú-ɂehdacho, which is the name for a National Historic Site co-managed by Parks Canada and Sahtugot’ine organızatıons. The names Saoyú and ɂehdacho refer to the two peninsulas on either side of an ancient portage trail. Pulling gear across the trail with your sled dogs was far safer and faster than padding all the way around the peninsula that houses Grizzly Bear Mountain.


Leaving Déline, the boat first goes through a small section of the lake where Franklin and his crew left records of playing ice hockey. Sailing further, you approach the main part of Great Bear Lake where the waves grow (and you may pay the water with tobacco or hundred dollar bills, depending on how much your cultural teachers like to tease, while asking for good weather). Dehchı̨łanı̨ɂǫ   [Dene fonts and wordpress don’t always mix well] – where the forest type changes from tundra to boreal, appears on your right.

From there, you sail in between the mainland and  Manitou Island or Gorabee, where a great wolf ran from the land into the water but turned to stone when he was seen by a human woman. The wolf’s nose, ears, and main body still stick up above the water – and his tail creates shallow water pointing up to the mainland, where you can find an old cave that is now covered in stones, but was still open two generations ago.


Right before you reach Saoyú-Ɂehdacho you see Tłio Ɂehda, dog point, and your final destination is to your right. I don’t know any stories about Tłio Ɂehda, except that a young man was sent there yesterday to pick up a moose that had been shot and donated as meat for this weekend’s community gathering.

By the time we reached Saoyú-ɂehdacho, my Nigerian boat companion was very pleased to reach land. The water had been rough on our way over. With help from the men who were already at the site, we tied up the boat and set up canvas tents; by the end of the evening and over the next few days many more boats arrived and we created a small camping site of 30-50 people. This year’s gathering celebrated the construction of a cabin, co-designed by Déline and parks Canada.


Grizzly Bear Mountain is on the peninsula Saoyú (translated by Morris Neyelle as “bear’s belongings”). There are many legends that go with it. A long time ago, a man went hunting and found two young bears – back then, animals talked. He killed the two young bears with his bow and arrow. The mother bear came and saw the man with her cubs in his canoe and begged him to bring them back, and he said no, he was hungry. She warned him that no matter what he did from now on, he should never sleep alone again.

The man ate the bear cub meat but remembered what the older bear said, so from then on he always traveled with people. When he got old and white haired, he took the chance and thought that nothing would happen anymore, so he left his gathering and slept on his own. He woke up to the sight of the great mother bear about to eat him. He told her “if you’re going to kill me, kill me slowly by crushing my skull.” The bear opened her jaw wide and he stuck a stick in her mouth. When you make drymeat out of caribou or moose, you make it as thin as possible but set it with willow twigs to hold it in place while it cooks. In the olden days you had to have a special power for your survival; the man was especially good at using these twigs. The bear was stuck, and he called his traveling companions over, because of the bear, and they killed her. To this day you don’t see a grizzly bear on that mountain, only black bears. People say that if you do see one it is a bad omen, two things could happen to you – either you get married, or you die. (Legend told by Morris Neyelle).

The park is a designated national historic site, comprised of both Sahtu and Crown land. It’s unique in that it’s one of the first national historic sites to be established on the basis of oral histories, rather than built structures.


Sahtu (bear water, Great Bear Lake)


Today is the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing. Japan and Délįne are connected by the uranium used in WWII, which was partially mined at Port Radium on Great Bear Lake. The Dene people living in the region were used as ore carriers; many women from that generation were widowed by cancer. This morning’s meeting had a moment of silence for the people involved both here and in Japan. As the granddaughter of a man who saw the mushroom cloud from a Japanese prisoner of war camp, the time for reflection was a reminder that no history is isolated.

I arrived in Délįne on Monday evening and was met by my fantastic host family. The next morning I was kindly permitted to sit in as an audience member at the three-day annual general meeting of the Sahtu Secretariat Incorporated. This organization was created as a part of the Sahtu Dene and Métis land claim agreement in 1993. The communities that participate in this organization are all working towards self-government, and Déline has been the first to ratify their final agreement. I have spent the last few days slowly figuring out how the various community delegates, organizations, and co-management boards all fit into this region and history. My process has been helped immensely by all of the kind individuals who have taken the time to show me the way, máhsi!

The delegates at this meeting speak in both Dene and English, and everything is translated into the other language and sent to the audience through wireless headphones. Every day at lunch, the group goes outside to eat trout and moose cooked on the grills outside the hall by community members. Both elders and lawyers speak here.


My understanding of history here comes half from books, half from what members of my host community have passed on to me. There are some very important things, the histories of Yamoria and the teachings of Ehtseo Ayha that I will learn more about as time goes by. I don’t wish to try to recount them yet, without more knowledge. Any discussion of self-government and history will need to involve the stories that tie nationhood to this land, and elaborate on the cultural vision and philosophy of self-determination. With that caveat, for now I can give a more skeletal background of how an event like this meeting, today, came to be.

Before 1949, the Sahtu people lived nomadically around the region, taking furs to the trading post in Tulita, fishing, hunting, and trapping. The area close to the mouth of Bear River has thin ice that can be opened year round, and people would gather to fish. At least two or three generations of children were sought for residential schools in places like Fort Providence and Inuvik.

The John Franklin expedition was present in this area in the early 1800s, and the earliest recorded hockey game comes from one of the expedition journals. It happened on a small portion of the lake right next to the contemporary town of Déline, and the community is proud to call itself the birthplace of hockey. There are oral histories telling of the John Franklin crew taking women from the region, and killing people who resisted.

As an aside, a priest’s journal also records these histories. Oral histories are misrepresented as hearsay in the courts, sciences, and written historical traditions.[1] They are frequently corroborated by written histories and archeological evidence – but more importantly, oral traditions carry a wealth of environmental knowledge, law, history, and morality that are too often poorly understood as ‘just stories.’

In the 1950s the Government of Canada began to move nomadic peoples in the Northwest Territories into towns, to try to shift a traditional economy to a wage based, industrial capitalist society.[2] At this time a church and a school were built where Déline is today, and the community was originally named Fort Franklin.


Dene institutions for nationhood and activism began not long after this settlement. There were traditional governance systems prior to colonization, and it is only due to the history of settlement that a new form of organization was required to access a voice and power in the 20th century Canadian context. In 1970, the National Indian Brotherhood-NWT was created.[3] It became a tool for united Dene activism, and eventually was named the Dene National Assembly. This body engaged in issues like Treaty interpretation, land claims negotiations, and resource development questions like the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline. Sahtu, one region of the Dene nation, negotiated its land settlement in 1993.[4] It is in the Sahtu that communities are taking the unique step of creating local governments, instead of regional ones.

Last night I experienced my first drum dance, and today is the final day of SSI meetings. I hope to join a trip this weekend that will take me away from internet until Tuesday, and I’m looking forward to moving past the book-bound understanding of this place. The real roots of community strength are found on the land. Déline has been a welcoming and warm community. They have let me wander in and participate in their lives and organizations, despite the fact that I have a silly reliance on computers and ask naïve questions about how to catch fish.

I will leave this rather unpolished post here in order to pack, find a sleeping bag to borrow, and purchase cigarettes for the first time so that I have tobacco for offerings.

[1] (Palmer 2000)

[2] (Asch 1979: 345)

[3] (Erasmus, Paci, & Fox 2003: 30)

[4] (Erasmus, Paci, & Fox 2003: 38)

References and Further Reading for the Detail Oriented Soul

Asch, Michael. 1982. “Dene self-determination and the study of hunter-gatherers in the modern world.” In Politics And History In Band Societies, pp. 347-371. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Asch, Michael. 1988. Kinship and the drum dance in a Northern Dene community. Edmonton: Boreal Institute for Northern Studies.

Déline self-government agreement-in-principle for the Sahtu Dene and Métis of Déline. [electronic resource]. 2003. Ottawa : Indian Affairs and Northern Development.

Erasmus, Bill., Paci, James., & Fox, Stephanie. 2003. “A Study in Institution Building for Dene Governance in the Canadian North: A History of the Development of the Dene National Office.” Indigenous Nations Studies Journal, Vol. 4(2): 25-51.

Palmer, Andie. 2000. “Evidence “Not in a Form Familiar to Common Law Courts”: Assessing Oral Histories in Land Claims Testimony after Delgamuukw v. B.C.” Alberta Law Review. Vol. 38 (4): 1040-1050.