The Dene people are the original habitants of the area of land stretching east to west from the Hudson Bay to the interior of Alaska, and south to north from central Alberta to the Arctic Ocean.
The name Dene means “the people”, and Denedeh means “land of the people”. Legends tell that Dene were created on this land, and archaeologists have found Dene remains throughout the region that date back several thousand years.
Although we share a common ancestry, there are many distinct Dene regional groups, each with their own territory and language. In the Northwest Territories there are five such groups: The North and South Slavey, the Dogrib, the Chipewyan, and the Gwich’in. In recent years, the Dene of the NWT are formally organizing as Tribal Councils at the regional level and as First Nations at the local level.
The Dene Way
The harsh climate of the sub-Arctic put high demands on the Dene. In our efforts to survive and develop, our people acquired a strong tie with the land that became a focus of our culture. The winters are long and cold, and temperatures can stay at minus forty degrees Celsius for weeks on end. Summers are brief and hot, teeming with wildlife, fish, and insects. To survive in this often rigorous environment, the Dene had to have a thorough knowledge of the land and its resources.
By and large, Dene life heeded the rhythms of the land. Each tribe had its own territory that provided for all their needs. Within their area, people moved with the seasons, following the migrations of animals, such as the caribou and moose, and the availability of fish and fowl. They lived in harmony with the land and made the maximum use of its resources. The Dene’s respect for and knowledge of the land allowed them to thrive in one of the harshest environments on this planet.
Dene society was structured around the extended family. Much larger than today’s nuclear family, this group consisted of several families linked through blood and marriage.
Extended families travelled, hunted, and lived together were completely self-sufficient. The clan provided all the necessities of life. Food, shelter, education, regulation of behavior, and interaction with the external world were all dealt with by the extended family. Governing systems were highly democratic in relation to today’s standards.
With the coming of spring and warmer weather, many extended families gathered at traditional locations where the summer’s food supply was abundant. The Dene accomplished much at these gatherings, negotiating land use, marriages, trade, and resolving major disputes. The gatherings were also used to give thanks to the Creator and to celebrate life. Ceremonies and rituals of thanksgiving were held, intertwined with games and dances that stretched through the long summer days.
Food and Shelter
As resource availability differed from region to region, so did the typical diet and sheltering techniques among the Dene. In general, diets were based on meat and fish and supplemented by available plants and berries. Summer structures were temporary, while winter structures were of a more permanent nature.
Because the Slavey of this region inhabits a wooded area, where it is rare to find a large herd, hunting was largely an individual effort. The hunter prepared himself for the hunt by performing rituals aimed at gaining the animal’s spirit’s favor. If he was successful, he immediately gave thanks. All parts of the animal were use, if not for food then for tools, clothing, and shelter.
Fish was an especially valuable food source for the Slavey, but required a more collective effort to harvest. Over the course of the summer, fish and meat from moose, caribou, beaver, fowl and other animals were dried in preparation for the long winter. Some of these meats were combined with berries and grease to make pemmican, which did not spoil.
With access to lumber, the Slavey built log homes for winter dwellings. Teepees for the summer were made from poles covered with hides or tree boughs. There were light and easy to transport. The Dene often camped near water because of its importance for food and transport. The poles and cabins from abandoned sites can still be seen while travelling through the Denendeh.
Resourcefulness and a celebration of life and land emerge in the clothing made by the Dene. Men provided the necessary animal hides, usually moose and caribou, but it was the women who transformed the hides into warm beautiful garments.
The process began with hours of stretching and scraping the hide with bone tools by women. After this, solutions containing animal brain and grease were used to preserve and soften the hides. Scraping and soaking were repeated until the desired thickness and softness were reached. The hide was then dried and sometimes smoked by a fire of rotting willow in order to preserve the garment. To make the covering for a teepee, up to ten hides might be required.
When the hides were ready, the sewing began. The women used sinew to sew the garments together, and then turned to their wide range of decorations to make the clothing come alive. Porcupine quills, moose, and caribou hair were dyed using berried, charcoal, and ochre, and then sewn onto the garments. Feathers, beads, and pieces of fur were also used. Women called upon traditional Dene symbols and images of the land to guide their artistry.
The clothing they produced was often works of art, and great pride was taken in the results. Today, clothes making is still a proud Dene tradition.
Beliefs and Spirituality
The Dene have a strong spiritual relationship with the land. Everything on the land, including the land itself, has a spirit, and nothing can be taken without giving thanks. People understand that the land’s resources are a gift, and that if one abuses a gift, it can be taken away. Respect for the land is the key to our culture and survival.
The Dene made numerous offerings to the Creator and to individual spirits. Often hunters called upon the spirits of animals to help them in the hunt. We believe that animals are closer to the Creator than humans. Because of this, an animal could see a hunters spirit if he was unbalanced. Hunters hoped that the spirit would cleanse them and render them invisible to the animal they were about to hunt.
Any place on the land that served as a reminder of human mortality was considered a sacred site. Each site has two spirits, a grandfather and a grandmother spirit, and offerings were made to them when passing by. The two falls on the Hay River just south of the Reserve are considered sacred sites, and Dene still make offerings of tobacco there.
Since contact with the Europeans, many Dene have adopted other religions. Today, both the Anglican and Catholic traditions have a strong presence on the Hay River Reserve.
Language and Legends
Through the entire range of the Dene there are over twenty dialects spoken, which are classified as the Athapaskan language group. Interestingly, the Navajo of New Mexico are also part of the Athapaskan language group. Legend has it that they migrated south from Denedeh thousands of years ago.
Until this century, none of the Dene languages were written; they existed only as spoken languages. With no books to pass on, storytelling was a very important part of Dene life. Stories were also told for entertainment, and the skills of a good storyteller were held in high esteem. Just as important, however, was the information that the stories conveyed to the listener with open minds.
Stories might address practical concerns, but more often than not, stories recounted the history of Dene people and explained such important issues as the creation of humans. To the attentive listener, stories and legends held sage advice that could be applied to many problems. Many legends are still studied today for the wisdom they offer.
Recently, written forms of many Dene languages have been developed, and there is a strong interest in keeping these languages alive. Today in Hay River schools, students are being taught Slavey as a part of their regular curriculum.