Over thousands of years, the Dene peoples of the Sahtu Region have adapted to an unforgiving environment that demands highly specialised skills and knowledge. Traditional knowledge has been transmitted orally from generation to generation. Some of the oral history and traditional practices have been documented by early missionaries and fur traders, and more recently by anthropologists and community researchers. Archaeologists have also documented traces of ancient human habitation in sites throughout the region. Dene communities continue to keep many of the traditional landbased practices and stories alive, adapting them to the modern context.
The pattern of traditional Dene life follows the changing seasons and movement of wildlife, with major changes marked by autumn freeze-up and spring thaw. Barrenland caribou are an important subsistence resource, and communal hunts during the fall migration are occasion for large community gatherings on the land where meat and hides are processed. This is also a good time for picking berries and harvesting herbal medicines. During the winter, families disperse to their traplines, often located in their traditional clan area. Moose and woodland caribou hunting also requires dispersal in smaller groups. The spring geese and duck migration provides another opportunity for larger gatherings. During the summer, camps are set up for communal processing of fish harvests. Dene people are experts at food preservation; dried and smoked meat and fish are prized delicacies in bush and town alike.
The four Dene peoples of the Sahtu have distinct dialects and practices. These are dynamic, informed by a long history of interaction among aboriginal peoples within the region and beyond. Linguists identify the North Slavey language of the Sahtu as part of the Athapaskan language group, which includes peoples stretching across the northwest from Alaska to Nunavut, and south to California, Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and into northwestern Mexico. Linguists and archaeologists theorize that Athapaskan peoples may have migrated from Siberia across the Bering Strait, and dispersed from Alaska eastward and southward, gradually evolving distinct languages and dialects. Old time stories told by various Athapaskan peoples also tell of dispersals caused by catastrophic events.
Today the ancient relationships among the northern Dene peoples are kept alive in regional gatherings attracting people from throughout the Northwest Territories and as far away as the western Yukon and eastern Nunavut. Cooperative hunts, spiritual gatherings and family celebrations are all occasions for drum dances, hand games and storytelling. In the Sahtu Region, this tradition now encompasses a wide variety of regional events including sporting events and cultural festivals. And now more than ever in the post-land claim era, there are gatherings to make strategic decisions on matters of common interest. Young men and women are encouraged to seek marriage partners from other communities, so family relationships continue to extend across the region and beyond.
There is a traditional Dene land tenure system in the Sahtu Region. This system evolved in recognition of the areas that extended families or clans had established for their own use.
The dispersal of Dene people in small groups was crucial for survival in the days before grocery stores, motorboats and skidoos. People had to be close to enough wildlife for subsistence. In harsh climates, wildlife tends to be dispersed at lower population densities. So it makes sense that people would spread out as well.
The clan area is an important aspect of people’s sense of identity. In the old days, people would know the land of that area intimately. This would be the area where they would establish seasonal campsites. It would be where their children were born and where their ancestors were buried. Many of the family stories passed down through the generations would be set in the clan area, mapping its history.
The clan system of land tenure was not incorporated into the Sahtu Dene and Métis Land Claim Agreement. However, the clan system is still alive in a modified form. Some research has been done to map clan areas, but this has not been systematic or comprehensive.
Clan areas around fort good hope and colville lake
Clan areas around great bear lake
[Dene k’ı̨ syllabics by elder Leon Modeste, of Deline Narration in Dene language transcribed and translated by Alfred Masuzumi Originally published in the Mackenzie Valley Viewer, June 2001]
We are Dene wá (the people). So, with our words, with our personal endeavours, we have to protect our interests. We can’t ignore opportunities. It would not be right. We have to love each other. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. We Dene wá have survived by righteous rules, and we are courageous in helping each other, by doing good, and being happy. So by helping one another, everyone feels content.
We Dene wá have to keep what we have through our personal endeavours, and through our words. We can’t ignore our opportunities. It would not be right. We have to love one another.
Spring hunt with Joe Modeste Leon Modeste’s father (1977)
courtesy of Leon and Cecil Modeste
Leon and Cecil Modeste
We Dene wá have to survive by righteous rules, and we are courageous in helping one another. We should be content with our lives. For we are Dene wá, and we have survived by helping one another. So in general, the dene feel content.
Traditionally, the Sahtu Dene organized themselves into regional bands, each associated with a distinct dialect of Slavey language and each with a particular 'home' land use area. Membership was fluid however, and people accessed the entire area. Though all of the regional bands shared a common culture, many had their own stories, culture heroes, and places, creating unique cultural and social identities. The four major cultural groups within the region are: the K’ahsho Got’ine (Hare people), the Shita Got’ine (Mountain people), the K’áálǫ Got’ine (Willow Lake), the Sahtú Got’ine (Great Bear Lake people). The land claim agreement defined three districts that roughly correspond to these cultural groupings.
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