Heritage Site / Ethnography Site / Dene / Territory

Article: Pre Reserve

My grandfather tells me the Dene people roamed the forest from shore to shore across the three Canadian provinces which is known today as the Northwest Territories, Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. There were no boundaries then and the First people were free to hunt, trap, fish and live in areas of their choice, however, there were many territorial disputes among the inhabitants of the vast land. Our grandfathers will tell us many stories about the disputes between the Cree, Saulteaux, Inuit and the Denesúøiné. The wars were often over women and land.

Ethnographic research which concludes that the great glacier covered Athabasca region as late as 12,000 years ago (Ives, 1993:5). The Laurentian glacier was a massive head of the Arctic giant legend told by the Slavey and Dogrib people of the Northwest Territories. Later, this dormancy would end and the rich boreal forest of Lake Athabasca would be revealed and is known as the head hair of the Athabasca giant. The Western Dene referred to the rocky mountains as the back bone of the giant and the Great Slave lake formation as it's chest and a nearby mountain as the great heart of the giant.( Emile Petitot). According to elder Patrick Robillard when the giant died his lungs collapsed and filled , becoming a great body of water. According to ethnographers the giant provided a travel route for the migration from the Bering strait following the caribou. When the giant's body rotted the people stayed because the passage way was blocked with great oceans. The First Nations have always known that all races should be united as one. Such stories of the migration exists in all cultures in mythology form. It is generally believed that mankind originated from Africa, the black people stayed, the white moved north and the yellow man to the east and the red race to the west. (Thunder woman ethnographics).1999

Low sea levels in earlier time made it possible for the Red skinned people to cross the Bering sea between Siberia and Alaska. It's vast plain supported the survival of many fur bearing animals such as herds of musk-ox, caribou, hares and mammoth. Scientists believe that we reached north America approximately 18,000 to 23,000 years ago. The Arctic story tells us that the Athabascan people followed one wave of migration following the mammoth. It appears that the story of the great struggle between the great giants over territory represents the great fight of the two giant races and finally the Athabascans settle in the cold north. The Elders also talk about how they struggled due to scarce game and cold temperatures as they were traveling north following the wolves. What the Elders do not mention in their stories is from which location to which they were going and many Elders still believe that we originated from this land. The Navajo and the Apache people are part of the Athabascan Language group and their elders tell similar stories of two tribes separating and each tribe carrying a part of the pipe that will one day reunite the tribe. Perhaps our language will be the weapon in which we come together again as brothers and sisters. Perhaps the pipe is the symbol of "our language and culture".

Our oral history is all we have left and we must depend on these stories that our Elders have shared with us, for they are from an ancient source. What do they mean to us today, the legends and stories are all we have to explain our existence, our values and beliefs. The Dene oral stories must be translated and interpreted , in order to understand what they are trying to tell us, one must research deeply and creatively for the truth about what it means to be Denesúøiné, for example; the legend of the two great giants told by elders. The legend speak of the Bering strait or perhaps a more south westerly place from where the Denesúøiné had been forced to move from.

The fur trade of the early 1600's to present date has drastically altered the nomadic lifestyle of the Dene people in northern Canada. The Hudson's Bay Company, one of the oldest, still active companies in Canada, was almost 200 hundred years old when Canada was created in 1867. Since its inception in 1670, the company controlled fully one- third of present day Canadian territory. The land designated as Rupert's land, encompassed most of Northern Quebec, all of Manitoba, most of Saskatchewan, the southern half of Alberta and a large part of the Northwest Territories. Control over this enormous domain was granted by the Royal charter. In the beginning the expedition was planned as a simple fur-trading expedition, but it was blown out of proportion and evolved into a giant fur-trading enterprise and exploration company that lasted for many centuries to come. The French and the English warred over the fur -trade expeditions and territory. This rivalry was settled finally in 1713, by the Treaty of Utrecht. That was not the end of warfare between the French posts, the Northwest company and the Hudson's Bay company, the Northwest company in defiance against the Royal charter pushed further inland toward the Arctic, and later in 1793, west to the Pacific. The Chipewyan (Denesúøiné) and the Cree Indians were once known as the greatest of enemies. The hostility was over rich fur bearing animals, territory and trade, long before European contact, however, the tension increased with the arrival of European goods.

Three major historical adaptive may be recognized for the Chipewyan ( Denesúøiné) people, the dates of which vary with the intensity of European contact in different zones. The major trends within these phases were the development of the trade relationship with the Hudson's Bay company. The Dene were always big game hunters depending solely on the caribou for their existence. All aspects of Dene life was wrapped around the idea of survival and dependency on the barren land caribou. Spiritually, the Dene called themselves the wolf and believed they were the direct descendants of the wolf clan. The Dene translation for "us" is "nnü" which is also the word for wolf in dene. The Elders tell us that we lived as one with the land like animals, and we had to in order to survive the long cold climates of the Tagah Tundra of northern Canada.

A gradual growing dependency shifted upon items of European manufacture , created a shift from a fundamentally big game hunting economy to one in which emphasis was placed on small rich fur bearing animals for the trade.

A gradual growing dependency upon European trade goods was a shift from the fundamentally big game economy of the people. The search for rich fur bearing animals became the focus point for both the Cree and the Dene. The aboriginal early contact with the European people occurred between 1715 - 16 when a courageous and inquisitive Dene woman name thánáltther followed her Cree captives to the Churchill fort where she met a white man for the first time. As the story goes she was taken in to translate at the fort and to act as a guide. Thanáltther found her people and later encouraged peace among the Cree and her people. The people of the boreal forest and the tagah tundra remained in their homeland and continued the traditional lifestyle until after the amalgamation of 1821. between the two trading companies. A shift from fundamentally nomadic lifestyle of caribou dependency to a more sedentary one marked a time in Dene history, at which time the Dene people began to settle in the interior forest because of the greater abundance of fur bearing animals especially the beaver. At the beginning of historic times, at the beginning of the eightteenth century and much later, two major branches of Denesúøiné groups developed and were recognized: the Chipewyan in the tagah tundra west of the Hudson's Bay, and the Yellowknives, or Copper Aboriginals, in the Tagah Tundra east of the Great Slave lake and Great Bear lakes. Then in the nineteenth century, the people began to subdivide further due to expansion and brought about recognition of additional territorial groupings: the traditional chipewyan or Denesúøiné who remained in their historical region became known as the "etthén heldéøü dené" or " caribou eaters". Those who resided in the boreal forest between Great Slave lake and Lake Athabasca became variously known as the " Athabascans" or "desnedhé hoæé nadé hoþünö " [ great river people].

The bands that moved south of Lake Athabasca to the lakes of upper Churchill were known as Tu tth®la hoþüné ["those who dwell at the head of the lake"]. Some of these terms are still used today. According to Emile Petitot 1876, there were three major ecological zones which enveloped the region and direct relationship to the four major Dene divisions recognized in the 19th century (Petitot 1876a: 26, 1876b: xx). The tundra, and barren lands, the Northern transitional forest or tagah, and the closed Boreal forest. The major Dene nation consisted of the yellowknives or (Tsqtsänp hoþünö) and the caribou eaters (Etthén heldélü Dené) ranged over the tagah and tundra; the "Athabascans" or "Desnedhé hoæé hoþünö", and the dene who occupied the lake zone of the Churchill River, also known as boreal forest, but with transitional parklands toward the plains are known as " Tu tthílá hoþünö" meaning "people who dwell at the head of the river". Today, our leaders are working to replace the original Dene names to the land of Dene territory in all the areas mentioned above. The names our Dene ancestors gave the lakes and mountains, rivers and land.