The Dene or the people of Denedah are an indigenous group of people that primarily occupy central and northwestern Canada. Their settlements can often be found west of Hudson Bay through Nunavut, the Northwest Territories and the Yukon (Dunn & West, 2011). The geographical landscape that the Dene primarily inhabit is mostly tundra, but there are some forested areas. This gives way to a harsh geographical environment, as their winters are long and cold, with temperatures dipping down to -40°C. Their summers are short and moderate, with temperatures reaching a comfortable 25°C. As a group, the Dene were relatively isolated and undisturbed as a group until they made contact with European explorers, traders and missionaries in the 18th century (Asch, 2017). The discovery of oil and gold in Northern Canada in the late 19th century inspired thousands to head up north in search of fortune. Consecutively, the Canadian government prompted the Dene to sign various treaties to give them access to their lands. Unfortunately, this disturbance resulted in the displacement of many Dene and the loss of many traditions and ways of life
In the past, the Dene were nomadic, often camping near water due to easier access to food and water. To aid them in this lifestyle, they lived in easily transportable dwellings. The dwellings ranged from dome-shaped, caribou skin encompassed tipis to cabins built by poles and insulated with moss and sod. Their summer structures were temporary, while the winter structures were built to last longer. Food-wise, the Dene had access to countless rivers, making fish such as whitefish and arctic char a very important staple in their diet (Zienchuk, 2013). The Dene rely on caribou
and moose for food, clothing, tools and housing. No part of the animal was wasted, as everything was used. Grease and berries were used to preserve meat by turning it into pemmican, a concentrated ball of fat and protein. Their nomadic lifestyle followed the migration patterns of these animals to ensure that they always had steady access to food. Travel was reserved for hunting, and was done by utilizing wooden canoes to navigate rivers or by walking on foot. In the winter, hunters wore snowshoes and used toboggans. The Dene would communicate by speaking a language known as Na-Dene or Athabascan. Athabascan can be used to describe a wide variety of dialects spoken by indigenous peoples. It can be split into three distinct groups known as Pacific Coast Athabascan, Northern Athabascan and Appalachian (Asch, 2017). One of the most important activities in Dene society was hunting, which was predominantly left to the males. This gave way to a male-dominated culture. To prevent displeasing the hunting spirits, menstruating women and girls entering puberty were isolated during hunts. The Dene’s primary social unit was the immediate or extended family. Several families travelled together in small groups, though in the summer, different “packs” would congregate (Dunn & West, 2011). This was also an optimal time to arrange land use and trade items. If there were any disputes from the past year, this was the time to resolve it. The Dene generally followed the leadership of a chief, though their leadership was temporary and not autocratic, but rather democratic. Elders were valued, as they held stories of cultural significance, a means to transmit culture to the next generation. However, due to the nomadic lifestyle that the Dene followed, a significantly older or injured beyond recovery person was left to die with a few possessions for the afterlife (Dunn & West, 2011). The gatherings in the summer was a prime time for celebrations, games and ceremonies that held cultural value. The Dene, like other North American indigenous cultures utilize the drumming circle. Its purpose was to create an open environment where people were welcomed and encouraged to sing and dance.
To help with this, many songs sung in these circles were comprised with simple rhythms and lyrics to encourage as much participation as possible. Games that the Dene played were used not only to entertain, but to also improve their hunting skills (Zienchuk, 2013). In the present, not many Dene partake in a hunting-gathering style of life. Rather, a majority live and work in larger settlements where they have the modern comforts of electricity and the grocery store. They still speak Athabascan amongst themselves but are also fluent in English to talk to outsiders. Since they no longer depend on moose or caribou solely for food and tools, they are now a sedentary people. The government of Canada has played an active role in sharing land and governing the Dene people. The two parties have conflicted during many instances. Such an instance was in 1973, where the Dene filed a caveat concerning lands that belonged to them. In response, the Canadian government maintained that they lost rights to their land when they signed past Treaties. The presiding judge over the case conducted an extensive research on the case, and found that the Dene had in fact, rightfully argued that they possessed rights to the land (Asch, 2017). Despite this setback however, the relationship with the government has improved. In 1990, Dene language became an official language of the Northwest Territories. Furthermore, in 2016, the Deline Got’ine Government (the governing body of Dene Nation) was granted the right to self-government (Asch, 2017). While their relationship with the Canadian Government is improving, the Dene are fighting on another front. With modernization and displacement of Dene through past government of Canada (see displacement of Dene from Duck Lake, Manitoba), the indigenous group struggles to maintain their cultural identity. The previous generation of Dene has been taught some of their original culture such as hunting moose and caribou or tanning the hides of hunted animals (Madwar, 2015). The current generation however, lacks knowledge of these traditions. With the emergence of modern comforts, many youth end up living far away from their traditional territories where they can learn these valuable cultural skills. While these youth want to learn about their culture, they struggle finding an elder who they can reach out to learn more from.
The Dene are a strong-willed group of Indigenous people who have existed for over 30 000 years in what is often considered a cold, dark and miserable climate. Despite this, they have survived and thrived in these conditions without the use of modern comforts. They have endured many injustices at the hands of the Canadian government, but are on a road to a better relationship through programs such as the Nation Rebuilding Program. The emergence of other programs and organizations such as the Assembly of First Nations and the Métis National Council are sticking up to the Canadian government to ensure that the Dene people and other indigenous people in Canada are treated humanely and have access to their lands which possess cultural significance. Modernization and the creation of jobs in cities and larger settlements are creating a gap between generations where the current generation is not gaining knowledge in trades of cultural significance such as hunting and tanning hides. As more and more people in the Dene move to larger cities for jobs, there is a significant risk that these trades will become lost. To combat this, there have been webpages and organizations such as yamoria and The Dene Nation that preserve cultural histories and traditions (Prince of Northern Heritage Centre, 2006-2015). While the new generation of Dene may not be practicing some parts of their culture such as hunting, they will still have a source of knowledge and an outlet to practice other parts of their culture like drumming circles.
Asch, M. I. (2017, May 15). Dene. Retrieved from The Canadian Encyclopedia:
Dunn, W., & West, L. (2011). Dene. Retrieved from Canada History Project:
Madwar, S. (2015, September 20). The Dene Way.
Prince of Northern Heritage Centre. (2006-2015). Yamoria. Retrieved from Yamoria: The One Who
Zienchuk, J. (2013, October 15). Cultural Encounters: A Look At The Traditions Of The Dene First Nations.