The Dene are the aboriginal people of an area in Canada which
stretches from Hudsons Bay through the Northwest Territories and Yukon
Territory to the Interior of Alaska and from central Alberta to the
Arctic Ocean. This includes the northern most parts of Manitoba,
Saskatchewan and British Columbia.
The word "Dene", when translated, is broken down into two
words, "De" meaning flow and "Ne" meaning Mother
Earth. This encompasses an understanding that we as Dene people flow
from Mother Earth and we are a people of the Creator and Creation. While
there are many distinct regional groups, each with their own territory
and dialect, all Dene share a common ancestry and come from the same
In the Northwest Territories, there are 5 such groups. Their regions
and languages are as follows:
||Dene Language Group:
|Mackenzie Delta Region
|Dehcho Region (See Map)
|South Slave Region
|North Slave Region
All of these regions make up what is known as "Denendeh"
which means "the Creator's Spirit flows through this Land".
The Dene have always lived in harmony with the land and their respect
and knowledge for the land has allowed them to thrive in one of the most
demanding environments on the planet.
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Chipewyan | Dogrib
| Yellowknife | Slavey
The Dene were the first people to live in the NWT after the retreat
of the great ice sheets. They speak several different languages, all
of which are members of the Athapaskan language group.
The Dene are a people of the boreal forest and great northern
rivers. In the past, they travelled by birchbark or sprucebark canoe.
Some built mooseskin boats. The Dene still use the rivers as highways,
in both winter and summer. They rely on moose, caribou (both woodland
and barrenground), black bear, geese, ducks, grouse, ptarmigan,
beaver, smaller game and fish.
Traditionally, the Dene were accomplished hunters who travelled as
far north as the Arctic coast on snowshoes. They packed everything
they needed to survive on their backs and hunted with snares. They
even hunted caribou with snares and brush traps. The Dene used dogs as
pack animals, but did not use dogsleds until after the coming of the
Europeans. They lived in skin tents, constructed of hides over a
framework of poles. The Nahanni and Slavey people often built log huts
in winter. Some people built semi-subterranean houses of sod and logs.
The Dene lived in extended family groups, travelling over
traditional routes within their hunting land. Groups frequently met at
customary sites, brought together by fish spawning or the movements of
caribou or gathering of geese or ducks. When they met, the occasion
was celebrated by feasting, dancing and drumming. The caribou skin
drum has become a symbol of the Dene and is still used in many
Today, most Dene live in communities, but many remain close to the
land. They may use a Twin Otter aircraft to travel north into the
barrenlands to hunt caribou, but they still butcher the animal and
pack it in traditional ways, neatly wrapped in the precious hides.
Many know the old ways and still use many of the plants of the boreal
forest for healing.
Groups of Dene people
There are a number of tribal groups within the larger Dene group.
Dene tribal groups:
- Sahtu Dene (Locheaux, Mountain, Bear Lake)
The Chipewyan (Denesuline)
lived east of Great Slave Lake in the areas of the Snowdrift, Taltson
and upper Thelon Rivers. They hunted caribou, following the herds into
the treeless barrens in summer. Their lands and influence extended
south into what has become northern Saskatchewan and northeastern
The Dogrib (Tlicho)
lived between Great Slave Lake and Great Bear Lake. They also depended
heavily on caribou, hunting the wintering animals of the Bathurst
caribou herd. They used tipis covered by caribou skins, which they
banked with snow in winter. The Dogrib communities today include Rae-Edzo,
Wha Ti (formerly Lac la Martre), Rae Lakes and Snare Lake. Recently, a
splinter group of the Dogrib has formed, called the Yellowknives Dene.
It is mostly made up of people living next to Yellowknife in the
communities of N'dilo and Dettah.
The Yellowknife (T'atsaot'ine)
people lived in the area to the north of Great Slave Lake, between the
big lake and Contwoyto Lake to the northeast. They ofen travelled far
into the tundra to hunt. They got their name from their use of copper
knives, which appeared yellow. This group was decimated by diseases
brought by Europeans and by warfare with other groups. They were
eventually absorbed into the Chipewyan. Lutsel K'e (Snowdrift on some
maps) is a Chipewyan community with some ancient connections to the
The Slavey (Deh
Gah Got'ine) were a river people. They lived and travelled along the
Mackenzie River (called the Dehcho, or "Big River") to the
south and west of Great Slave Lake, from the Slave River area to the
Liard, and as far downriver as Fort Norman (Tulit'a). They hunted
moose more than caribou. They were in frequent conflict with the
Mountain people of the Nahanni area. The Slavey people are a large
group today, including people living in communities from Fort Smith to
Jean Marie River and Wrigley.
The Sahtu Dene (Sahtu'
T'ine) include the Locheaux/Hareskin, Mountain (sometimes called
Nahanni) and Bear Lake people. The Sahtu Dene spoke related dialects
and lived in the southwestern NWT (Mackenzie Mountains) and along the
Mackenzie and Bear Rivers. The Locheux (or Hareskin people) lived
further downriver, in the northern part of the Mackenzie Mountains and
in the watersheds of the Arctic Red and Travillant Rivers north to the
Mackenzie Delta. They used clothing made of the woven skins of the
snowshoe hare. Sahtu communities today include Deline, Tulit'a, and
Fort Good Hope.
Background Picture: 1938 Fort Simpson (flats). Bastock Collection.
summer homes on flats below Hudson's Bay Co. Liard River in Background