History and Background

Denes¶øiné is one part of 23 Athabascan language groups in Canada and the Pacific coast. The Apachean languages are a group of seven, spoken by the tribes in the circum-Pueblo Southwest (Chiricahua, Jicarilla, Mescalero, Navajo, and Western Apache) and on the adjacent plains (Kiowa-Apache and Lipan). The northern Athabascan language family is usually referred to as the Canadian Athabascan languages group. They occupy a large, continuous area, mostly in the subartic interior of Alaska and western Canada, but extending into the plains to include the Sarcee of Southern Alberta. The northern Athabascan groups include the majority of attested Athabascan languages. The Denes¶øiné is the largest Athabascan language group. Historians and western writers will refer to the Denes¶øiné as “Chipewyans” in history literature. Chipewyan was a name given to the Dene by the Algonkian (Cree) tribes. The name means “pointed hats or clothing”. Our Elders have since advised us to move away from that terminology and to continue using the name our forefathers used since time immemorial, “Denes¶øiné”. Linguists attempts to classify the Athabascan languages into historically meaningful linguistic subgroups have not met with success. This is due to the fact that most Athabascan language groups were intermingled and there was opportunity for inter –group communication which remain constant, and no northern Athabascan languages or dialects was ever completely isolated from the others for long period of times. The most important differences among Athabascan language groups are generally the result of a real diffusion of separate innovations from different points of origin.

There are seven Denes¶øiné reserves in Saskatchewan. There is a comparison between two regional populations of Denes¶øiné groups, one group who reside in northern Saskatchewan and the second group toward the northern tip of Churchill River or sometimes called the northwest Denes¶øiné.

Athabasca Region

The northern Athabasca basin accommodates four Denes¶øiné bands known as “etthén heldélü Dené” (caribou eaters). Their territory is located in northern Saskatchewan from Lake Athabasca (west) to Hatchet Lake (east). Fond Du Lac (Ganü kóp) and Black Lake (Tazen Tuwé) and Stony Rapids (Deschaghe) are located close to the Northwest Territories border, whereas Hatchet Lake (Tthpø tuwé) is more toward eastern and south of the three bands mentioned of the province.

Churchill River Region

Northwest to the Churchill River basin accommodates the remaining four groups of the Denes¶øiné Nation in the province of Saskatchewan. These bands are Buffalo River (Ejeredesche), English River (Beghqnücvere), Birch Narrows (Tatthüka Tuwé) , and Clearwater River (Tth®tél haze tuwé).

In the past, the Dene people occupied a territory within the forest- tundra margin west of Hudson Bay and into the Slave River. The Denes¶øiné knew no boundaries then and the people lived freely and followed the caribou migration pattern in the winter and fished along the great lakes during the summer. The cultural difference of the four Dene tribes who reside close to the Northwest Territories border is unique in that they share many cultural values and assumptions with the Inuit of the Arctic circle and that the two tribes continue a life way that has remained similar for centuries or perhaps even thousands of years. The Denes¶øíné people have two distinct dialects in Saskatchewan. From the seven bands there are six communities that speak the “t” dialect and one that speaks the “k” dialect that is similar to a dialect spoken in Snowdrift Northwest Territories. Stony Rapids is a Dene community that is located close to Black Lake in the northern tip of the province and although it is not a first nation reserve, it must still be included in this study.

Because the Denes¶øiné communities are so spread throughout the province, the language spoken and the way it is spoken varies. The pronunciation and word identification may be slightly different between the Northwest Dene and the northern Dene of Saskatchewan.

The Apachean and Navajo people share a similar language background with the Dene Nations of Canada; the vocabulary is somewhat similar in that the two tribes can usually understand one another. The elders from both tribes tell of a story of the separation some 12,000 years ago. The Dene of northern Canada and the Navajo and Apache of Arizona share a similar legend about how the tribes separated. A giant was killed by the tribe and the people crossed onto the unknown new land on the back of this giant. The Thelon River in the Northwest Territories is the head of this giant and the end of his head. Thelon River (Tth®lqghp tuwé) in Dene runs through the arctic barrens of the Northwest Territories to the Hudson Bay.

Saskatchewan Indian Cultural Centre