On the tip of Latham Island you cross into N’Dilo, an Aboriginal community and home to the Yellowknives Dene First Nation. The N’Dilo community numbers approximately 500 residents. Many traditions are still practised, and many inhabitants speak T%u0142%u0131%u0328ch%u01EB (Tlicho), one of the Dene languages. Detah, located south of Yellowknife, is another Yellowknives Dene community.
The Dene were the first people to settle in the Northwest Territories. Some archaeologists believe that the Dene nation dates back some 7000 years, back to the end of the last ice age period! They also believe that the Dene’s traditional oral stories that are filled with giant animals in fact refer to the animals that actually existed during this era but which disappeared with the global warming following the ice age.
In the Northwest Territories, 48% of the population are Aboriginal peoples. Of these, 28% are Dene. Demographically, the Dene is the largest Aboriginal group in the NWT.
The Dene are divided into 4 groups: Slavey, Tlicho, Sahtu and Chipewyan. These communities speak different languages that all come from the Northern Athabascan languages. The Dene call the land they occupy ‘Denendeh’ which means the land of the people.
Traditionally, the Dene were a nomadic people who lived in the boreal forest. Their lives followed the rhythm of the seasons and the migration of the animals. They would travel following the herds of animals and the availability of plants they depended on for survival. They would travel on foot, or along the waterways in canoes built from birch bark or caribou skin. Building a canoe was a community effort.
The Dene had to be very ingenious and adaptable to have survived in such a difficult climate – 6 months of winter a year that brought extreme cold.
The first contact with the Europeans took place at the start of the 20th century. This eventually led to profound social changes within the Dene communities. For example, fur trading had a major impact on the Dene’s traditional lifestyle and on their economy.
As with many other Aboriginal communities, the elders play a major social role. They are sought out for their knowledge about the collective memory and understanding of the land. Through their stories, the elders relate the history of the Dene, their traditional lifestyle and the stories and legends that they learned through oral tradition, passed down through generations. They are responsible for teaching the children everything they need to know in order to survive on the land and pass down their culture. Still today, they are highly respected and consulted on many occasions: during discussions on the future of the community, during cultural activities with children and youth, when advice is needed on the traditional use of the land, or during community healing sessions.
Consensus has traditionally been the political model of the Dene. Moreover, the present-day Government of the Northwest Territories has adopted this unique process of functioning.