The Dene


Settlement at Habay Assumption February 21, 1970

FTLComm - Tisdale - March 23, 2001


From the Beauford Sea at the mouth of the MacKenzie River and streching all the way down the MacKenzie River valley, reaching out into its tributaries and over the wooded lands of Northern Alberta and Northwestern Saskatchewan the original people of this area have a common language base. They call themselves the "Dene" but the Europeans had a wide range of often colourful names to describe the different and distinctive groups who used that common root language.




As they came out onto the prairie they were called the Chipewyan and were clearly a much different people than the Cree who shared the Northern Part of Saskatchewan and Manitoba. They include such peoples as the Slavey of Northern Alberta, The Dogribs of the lower Northwest Territories, the Kaska from Watson Lake Yukon, Fort Laird, and Ross River and yet more different groups are found throughout their massive territory. I can not definitely say that the Kaska are in fact Dene. Both the Dene and that spoken by the Kaska share an Athapascan language base theKaska are extremely localised in where they live and in Watson Lake they attach "Dene" to their name the tribal council refers to themselves as "Kaska Dena"




The Dene are people who have for ages struggled against some of the most hostile climate in the world and they have found ways and means of supporting themselves. In every variation they are exceptional hunters and can make extremely efficient use of the animals that they use to sustain themselves. To accomplish this the Dene are a highly evolved technological people, there is no other way of living in such an environment.



less than

Buffalo Narrows, Beauval, IlseLa Cross, La Loche are all Dene communities but this writer has only had the most periferal contact with these people. However, the legends go on before them. The Prairie and woodland people whom the French traders were able to befriend were called Chipewyan or just "Chip" people and were regarded by the Hudson Bay traders (English company, Scot workers) as devious, dangerous and hostile. It is likely that the Cree shared this opinion with their friends at the Hudson Bay company but the stories of conflict with the Chip are extensive and indicate that the early contact with the British was less than cordial.




The first Dene people I met were at Habay/Assumption on the tiny ten mile by ten mile reservation in the midst of the Rainbow Zama oilfield of North Western Alberta. An Oblate priest, Father Momenne was in need of a place to hold mass when visiting the frontier oil town of Rainbow Lake and I was able to provide him with space in the school. From that meeting he invited Ron Gilespie and I to come out to the Reservation school and provide the young people with some music. This was my first encounter with non-English speaking children and approaching them through music was of course a delight and establishes that positive attitude that sticks with you.




The Dene of Habay/Assumption have the most unusal burial grounds with little houses over the graves to enclose the offering left there for the deceased, items like tea, tabacco, ammunition were carefully put in this little dog house sized buildings, which were painted and most had little fences around them. We had little time to learn more than the good father could tell us about the powerful and extensive culture of these people. He was impressed with their devotion to the Catholic church and suspected that the timing of both Christmas and Easter coincided with traditional spiritual ceramonies and for that reason the people readily made Catholicism over into their own. One of the rituals he talked of most was the "Tea Dance" that was a very special time each year and involved everyone in the tiny community.




For four years I served as high school principal in Watson Lake Yukon while my family and I lived there a full six years. On year I was out to collage and another I served working as a counsellor on the BC coast. The way to define the Kaska people who where the majority of the aboriginal people at Watson Lake was to note that they were not Tahltan.




The Tahltan are a semi-coastal people who lived traditionally at Telegraph-Creek, Good Hope Lake, Dease Lake and many had moved to Lower Post and Watson Lake. They are as a group and individually outgoing, self confident and proud of their heritage and ancestry. They tend to be matriachical in their social structure and are fiercely competitive in sports. Happy is the fellow like myself and my friends who had a group of Tahltan boys or girls in their hockey team. A dream to coach aggressive and brave individuals.




All that I have just described as attributes of the Tahltan were not present in the Kaska. Their youth tended not to want to engage in competitive team sports of any kind, they tended to be quiet, almost secretive and unlike the Tahltans who all spoke only English, the Kaska knew only minimal English. But the Kaska, and I suspect most Dene people because of their isolation and the difficult environment in which they live seem to have retained the main elements of their traditional culture.




Mystical powers and spiritual rituals were a part of the Kaska I knew well and they saw their rugged bush world filled with powerful entities and wisely followed the teachings of their elders staying out of vast areas of land where the spiritual entities were hostile or dangerous. My good friend Alex Mercier had married a Kaska lady and he was an endless resource of folklore eminating from the rich cultural heritage of his in-laws. Alex was a prospector and was convinced that many stories were related to common sense and logic as they established areas of countryside that were taboo. One of Alex's quests was to track down the remains of an "elephant" whom his relatives talked of having known where it was in the ice in the Mountains to the North.




The Dene have established themselves as a political entity and successfully made modern deals with government. The only other Canadian Aborigine people to have mastered the art of successful negotiation are the Cree and to some extent the branch of the Tahltans, the Ghetsan people North of Smithers.



of their culture

Though this articles tells little specific about the Dene we can say for certain that the Dene both because of their numbers and the extent of their territory have the potential of retaining much of their culture, a culture that can expand and extend the richness of the Canadian cultural mosiac.
  By: Timothy W. Shire
Timothy Shire served as the principal of Rainbow Lake School in Rainbow Lake Alberta and the Watson Lake High School in Watson Lake Yukon.