History of the Denesuliné (Dene) in Northern Saskatchewan

Author: Anne Mease Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3


Denesuliné (pronounced as Den-a-sooth-leh-na) or Dene of Northern Saskatchewan were once referred to as Chipewyan or Caribou Eaters (Ethen-eldeli or Et-en-eldili-dene) but they prefer their self-naming term, Denesuliné which means 'Human Beings.' Chipewyan, a term given to the Denesuliné by the Cree during the fur trade era means 'pointed toes.' Chipewyan is the term specific to Denesuliné who reside in the northern boreal forest while Dene or Athapaskan refers to all Dene in Canada.


Man and boy - in truck.


3 young girls - Robillards.


Man and woman - in truck.

The occupancy of the Denesuliné in Northern Saskatchewan can be traced through archeological evidence to approximately eight to twelve thousand years ago. Archeologists, anthropologists, and other academics speculate that the Denesuliné like other Aboriginal bands migrated into Canada through the Bering Straight. This theory speculates that Aboriginal peoples crossed a large ice/land mass from Asia into Canada at least 8,000 - 12,000 years ago.


A journey from Prince of Wales's Fort in Hudson's Bay...

Samuel Hearne was one of the first Europeans to come into contact with the Denesuliné (1769-72) while on an expedition for the Hudson's Bay Company to Coppermine River. He noted upon meeting the Denesuliné that "as their whole aim is to procure a comfortable subsistence, they take the most prudent methods to accomplish it; and by always following the lead of the deer, are seldom exposed to the griping hand of famine, so frequently felt by those who are called the annual traders."[1]

Apparently, Hearne lost his way in the bush and was rescued by a Denesuliné leader named Matonabbe. Matonabbe eventually became a guide and close friend of Hearne's and together they set out in search of copper that they did not find.

At the time of contact it is noted that Denesuliné were fierce enemies of the Caribou Inuit and the Plains Cree.


The Denesuliné in Northern Saskatchewan are situated on reserve lands that were designated through an adhesion to Treaty 8 in 1899 and Treaty 10 in 1906. Treaty 8 was signed between the Government of Canada and the Denesuliné in Blake Lake (Chicken 224, 225, and 226), Clearwater, and Fond du Lac. Treaty Ten was signed on July 20, 1906 between the Government of Canada and the Denesuliné of English River and Wollaston Lake.



Prince Albert and Meadow Lake Tribal Agency- Band List, 1963

It is not known how many Denesuliné there were at the time of contact, but it is estimated there were approximately 250,000 Dene across Canada. A smallpox epidemic in 1781-1782 decimated approximately ninety percent of the Cree and Dene population.

In 2001, there were approximately 10,585 in Canada who identified as being of Denesuliné ancestry.


The Denesuliné in Northern Saskatchewan belong to the Athapaskan linguistic group Na Dene. Linguistics refer to the Dene or Denesuliné dialect as Chipewyan. Denesuliné is spoken in the ' t' dialect with the exception of those in Fond du Lac who speak the 'k' dialect. In the past, Denesuliné used to identify each other by their language and "[i]f he can be understood, he is Chipewyan; if he cannot be understood, he is not Chipewyan."[2]

The Dene language remains a fairly strong language spoken in the various dialects across Northern Alberta, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba in Canada and into the United States where it is comprehensible to the Navajo. The Denesuliné language group is closely related to the Slave, Beaver, Dogrib, and Hare First Nations.

The 2001 Canadian Census reported there were "935" Denesuliné who claimed 'Chipewyan' as their mother tongue or first language. Overall, in 2001, the Canadian census indicates there were "10,585" Dene speakers in all of Canada. However, there may be as many as "15 000 D´┐ŻneSu,liné / Chipewyan" speakers throughout Canada.[3]

Kinship/Social Structure

Denesuliné did not have any formal leadership or chief. They were referred to as acephalous societies or headless societies. Politically, they were loosely organized. Leaders or headmen when needed were chosen based on their knowledge and wisdom of the task at hand. For instance, organizing a hunting or raiding party. As a result, everyone limited powers to control or coerce one another. They did not have a rank and order system or election to choose leaders. In many other cases, the medicine man (Asegolia) took the role of making decisions for the group.

Family structure as well was loosely organized due to their frequent migration in search of caribou. They were referred to as 'hunting units' that consisted of two or more families who were related. Generally, "the hunting unit is based on a man and his son."[4] A son would also include a son-in-law.

The kinship and social structure of the Dene was interconnected to their relationship to hunting, their land, environment, and animals.

Marriages were arranged by the parents based on practicality or need of the hunting unit. In Denesuliné culture it was forbidden for a son-in-law to talk to his mother-in-law and vice versa. This is because it was believed that "the mother-in-law is the same as his wife was before he married her."[5]

Reciprocity or the sharing of resources (food, clothing, etc) was common among the Denesuliné. Everyone participated in and celebrated any hunt that occurred amongst the band. This reciprocity was generally not shared between the various bands of Denesuliné but rather between members within a band. Within the band few people went hungry because the Denesuliné shared their food resources with everyone.

Division of labour was by sex and age - Men would hunt and fish for big game while the women, elderly, and children hunted for small game and gathered berries.

Denesuliné men received respect from their community by being successful hunters. Men were also responsible for cutting and sawing wood while the children and dogs would be responsible for hauling and stacking the woodpile.


Man cutting firewood.


Indian cutting wood.


Man sawing wood.


Woman cleaning and stretching moose hide.


Drying fish beside Moise Toutsaint's house.

The role of the Denesuliné woman included sewing and tanning hides for clothes and tents, drying and smoking fish and meat, moving and setting up camp, and looking after the children and dogs.


"Northern town
lacks modern conveniences" Newspaper clipping, 1974

Women were responsible for moving and setting up the tents (tipi) and camp. The site of the camp was generally selected in the location where there was a successful hunt. There she would prepare the meat for drying or fish for drying.

Women were responsible to ensure that the fish that was caught was smoked or sun dried for preservation.

The children were responsible for hauling water, gathering wood, and picking berries. Older siblings were responsible for taking care of their younger siblings. Children in many of the northern Denesuliné communities were required to haul water up into the 1990s.

Aside from the school and teacher's residence, Health Center, community hall, and church, no other building or house had running water or sewer systems until 1994/95.

Denesuliné children in Black Lake hauling water in the early 1970s

Boy hauling water.


Children at water hoses.


5 youngsters obtaining water from hose.


5 children carrying water.


Denesuliné believed that spiritual powers were received through dreams and visions.

Medicine men (Shaman) would tell stories about their spiritual connection to animals such as wolves, who were believed to hold special powers. Consequently, the animals that were held in high regard were not killed, harmed, or consumed in any way. Denesuliné made their fishnets out of sinew or babiche with special care so as to ensure a successful hunt. According to Samuel Hearne, superstition was highly involved in making fishnets and if certain protocol were not followed the result would be an unsuccessful hunt. In his journals he stated:

When they make a new fishing-net, which is always composed of small thongs cut from raw caribou-skins, they take a number of birds' bills and feet, and tie them, a little apart from each other, to the head and foot rope of the net, and at the four corners generally fasten some of the toes and jaws of otters and minks...They frequently sell new nets, which have not been wet more than once or twice, because they have not been successful.[6]

Pictures of 'Roderick Yooya' making a fishnet

Roderick Yooya stringing fishnet.


Roderick Yooya stringing fishnet.

Denesuliné believed in reincarnation after death. They believed that a deceased person's soul could consume that of a young child, therefore, children were forbidden to come into contact with a deceased person such as at a funeral.

They took great care when burying their deceased. They were buried in a graveyard that was only for Denesuliné. Protective fences or houses were placed around their grave to keep the deceased person's spirit contained and to keep out trespassers and vandals.

Pictures of a Denesuliné gravesite in Fond du Lac

Grave with surrounding fence.


Group of graves.


Grave with surrounding fence.


Chiefs demand return of schools to Ottawa.


For many Denesuliné, their education was gained through their culture and traditions in hunting, fishing, and the land. However, it was required by law for all children in Canada to go to school. Because many of the smaller remote communities did not have resources to build schools, the children were taken to various residential or mission schools set up over the Province. Residential schools were government-funded and church-run institutions generally operated by Missionaries of Catholic or Anglican faith. One of the last residential schools in Canada closed in 1985. It was not unusual for children to leave their family and community at the age of six and return home a stranger at age sixteen.



Indian's spring fishing camp.

The Denesuliné at the time of contact were hunting and gathering societies whose main mode of subsistence was trading furs, moose (Alces alces), caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou), and fish (whitefish) with Aboriginal groups they were not in conflict with. They first came into contact with European fur-traders as early as 1717 when the Hudson's Bay Company erected a trading post at " Fort Prince Wales at the mouth of the Churchill River." [7]

Hunting, fishing, and trapping continue to be a way of life as well as a supplemental way of life for many Denesuliné. They continue to migrate in search of food while maintaining a sedentary lifestyle.


Before the introduction of modern transportation the Denesuliné relied on snowshoes, canoes, and dog teams or sledges as their main mode of transportation. When snow machines were introduced, the Denesuliné found them to be more efficient, but they preferred their dog teams for several reasons. In the harsh winter the snow machines were always breaking down and they did not have the resources to repair or maintain them. The price of gasoline was also expensive and could not be obtained while they were in the bush hunting. As a result, the Denesuliné preferred their dogs because "in a real pinch, you cannot eat a snowmobile." [8]

The dog was a very important feature of transportation for Denesuliné. The introduction of dogsleds began in the mid 1850s but it is thought that Denesuliné traded dogs long before with the Caribou Inuit.


Dozen dogs.


Dog team.


Sled dog survey.

The Government through the Department of Indian Affairs, kept careful records of all dogs owned by each person in the various Denesuliné communities. The records in the early 1970s indicate that the dog population was higher than the Denesuliné population in Black Lake. The above survey shows there were 461 Denesuliné and 581 dogs.

Dog sleds were used to transport animal carcasses after a successful hunting expedition. The introduction of snowmobiles and all terrain vehicles has reduced, if not eliminated the workload required of the dogs.

These pictures show a dog team pulling a caribou

Dog team pulling caribou.


Caribou carcass being hauled by dog team.


Dog hauling wood.


Transportation survey, Stony Rapids.

Denesuliné also relied their dogs to alleviate their workload by having the dog teams transport cords of wood from the bush to their house. At the time this picture was taken in 1971, firewood was the main source of heat in Denesuliné communities.

Into the 1970s, few people in Black Lake/Stony Rapids had motorized vehicles. This may be due in part to the fact that there are no year round roads into the community. In 2004, aside from a temporary winter road, there remains to be no year round road access into Black Lake.

This transportation survey conducted in Stony Rapids between in 1971 shows all of the people living in Stony Rapids including Denesuliné who owned vehicles.

Air transportation was first introduced to the Denesuliné in 1929.


Aeroplanes used for expeditions and explorations in the North.


[1] Henry Sharp. The Kinship Systems of the Black Lake Chipewyan. Dissertation. Drake University, 1973:155

[2] Henry Sharp. The Kinship Systems of the Black Lake Chipewyan. Dissertation. Drake University, 1973:3.

[3] Excerpt from: "Aboriginal languages of Canada" by Eung-Do Cook and Darin Howe, Chap. 9 in W. O'Grady and J. Archibald (Eds.), Contemporary Linguistic Analysis, 5th edition. Toronto: Addison Wesley Longman, 294-309.

[4] Henry Sharp. The Kinship Systems of the Black Lake Chipewyan. Dissertation. Drake University, 1973:156.

[5] Ibid:200

[6] Samuel Hearne. Arctic Dawn: The Journeys of Samuel Hearne <http://web.idirect.com/~hland/sh/shtoc.htm>

[7] People of Northern Saskatchewan. <http://www.kayas.ca/peopledene.html>

[8] Henry Sharp. The Kinship Systems of the Black Lake Chipewyan. Dissertation. Drake University, 1973:122.

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