The state and health of the Denesuline languages vary across the seven Dene bands in Saskatchewan. There are three Athabascan Dene speaking communities that lie in the northern tip of the province. These communities are Fond Du Lac, Stony Rapids, and Black Lake. Fond Du Lac is located 60 km from the Northwest Territories (NWT) border, while Stony Rapids is located 80 km from this border. It should be noted that Stony Rapids is not a reserve, but a government town, which accommodates at least 400 people. Black Lake is a reserve located 15 miles south of Stony Rapids, and is home to 1,200 people. The fourth Dene speaking community and reserve is Hatchet Lake, which is located southeast of Black Lake Saskatchewan near the Manitoba border. The Churchill River and the northwest region of the province accommodate the remaining three Dene reserves. These bands are Buffalo River, Birch Narrows and Clearwater River. The Denesuline people who reside in Clearwater River are part of the La Loche Municipal Community. While La Loche is not a reserve, it is one of the strongest Dene speaking communities in Saskatchewan.
Black Lake, Saskatchewan
Black Lake has a population of 1,200 people. The children in Black Lake speak their first language fluently. Many of them are learning how to read and write in Denesunline as it is part of the curriculum. But much of the old language is gone from the tongue of the younger generation and can only be retrieved through the Elders who are still alive. It has been a long time since the old language was spoken by the Athabascan people. It is a complex language and much of the ancient words have disappeared. English language usage in the north is gradual as opposed to southern Saskatchewan. This is due to the fact that many parents prefer to use the Dene language as a daily tool for communication. It is essential that first language be used daily so that the children continue to hear it. It is pleasant to hear the Denesuline language used in communication between toddlers, youth, parents and Elders. After careful observation, it is safe to speculate that the Dene first language is healthy and thriving in the community of Black Lake. The Dene Language Retention Committee is helping to make sure we do not lose the Dene language in the future. The Dene Language Retention Committee consists of educators who are fluent in their first language and some parents. Therefore, the committee is sensitive to the importance of first language acquisition. To many First Nations people across North America, it has been a rude awakening. Language loss came up like a stranger in the night and many First Nations people were not fully aware of its consequences. It is just recently that we became fully aware of the priceless gift of language from the Creator that kept our ancestors alive for thousands and thousands of years.
Stony Rapids, Saskatchewan
Stony Rapids is a municipal community located in northern Saskatchewan. Many Black Lake members reside in Stony Rapids. The language is not as strong in the community as it once was. The Dene language was once as healthy in Stony Rapids as it is in Black Lake, but since the mid 1970’s the language has begun to deteriorate. At present, only the Elders and people over the age of 40 are able to speak the language fluently.
Fond Du Lac, Saskatchewan
Fond Du Lac is situated 60 kms south of the Northwest Territories border and has Dene language speakers. The old language of our ancestors has deteriorated in this community. The community speaks the ‘k’ dialect and is the only Dene community that uses this dialect. The other seven Dene speaking communities speak the ‘t’ dialect. Although the community has children who are of school age that have picked up the Dene language, the English language has become popular in Fond Du Lac. Elders and people over age 40 speak the language and use the Dene language on a daily basis. The school, which is operated by Denesuline First Nations, has a Dene language curriculum and the language was being taught in school. The Dene Language Retention Committee has been informed that the language program was removed from the curriculum for reasons not known. It is hoped that this is temporary.
Hatchet Lake, Saskatchewan
Hatchet Lake has a full-time language teacher and a language coordinator/consultant. The director of education from this school is a member of the Dene Language Committee. The Dene language seems to be in good health in this community, as young children were observed speaking the language. There is also evidence that the language is being used in this community. The more speakers there are in every First Nations community, the better.
Buffalo River, Saskatchewan
Buffalo River is located on the northwest side of the province of Saskatchewan, but more to the south of the four Dene communities mentioned earlier. With approximately 1,200 Dene people, the Dene language is almost lost. It is considered a language in crisis. Buffalo River has a modern school, which is K-12. The Denesuline language is being taught throughout these grades, however many resources, consistent and relevant to that community, are still needed. Loss of the Denesuline language can be partly attributed to the geographic location of this community. Also, while the Denesuline language is similar to that of the four aforementioned northern communities, it is spoken slightly different. The pronunciation and different ways in which the four communities speak are slightly different. Students understand what is being said in the Denesunline language, but are often hesitant to speak it, because most are not encouraged or are fearful that they will be mocked. Through considerate observation, it was suggested that the community speaks using some slang words and what linguists call informative language use. Words are cut in half and made easier on the tongue to pronounce. Buffalo River is not the only Dene community that displays this type of language use in the north. It is critical to sit down with the Elders and begin recording the full word(s) and to begin teaching the children the correct pronunciation and usage.
Birch Narrows, Saskatchewan
Birch Narrows is another Dene community that will need a lot of encouragement and assistance in order to regain their Dene language. The Dene language committee was informed about the crisis this school and community are facing in regard to their first language. Qualified immersion program developers are needed to start a successful language program.
Denesunline 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 subarctic 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 Denesunline is the largest Athabascan language group. Historians and western writers will refer to the Denesunline 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”. The Elders have since advised us to move away from that terminology and to continue using the name our forefathers used since time immemorial, “Denesunline”. Linguist’s attempts to classify the Athabascan languages into historically meaningful linguistic subgroups have not been 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 were ever completely isolated from the others for long periods of time. 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 Denesunline reserves in Saskatchewan. There is a comparison between two regional populations of Denesunline groups, one group who reside in northern Saskatchewan and the second group toward the northern tip of Churchill River or sometimes called the northwest Denesunline.
The northern Athabasca basin accommodates four Denesunlinebands 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), 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 Denesunline 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 Denesunline knew no boundaries then, the people lived freely following the caribou migration pattern in the winter and fishing 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 perhaps thousands of years. The Denesunline 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, similar to a dialect spoken in Snowdrift Northwest Territories. Stony Rapids is a Dene community 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 Denesunline communities are spread widely throughout the province, the language 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.