ASLE-Canada Newsletter
Issue 2: Spring 2006


Jonquil Covello
“Revisiting the Land: The Importance of Land and Mobility to the Northwest Territories Dene”

It is generally believed that the Northwest Territories was settled in a benign and non-violent fashion, and that the Dene who lived there were treated in a fair and equitable manner. Early policy makers saw themselves in the altruistic and paternalistic position of protectors of the Native people and were able to justify their invasion of the land with the argument that it was terra nullius or empty land, in the sense of being largely uninhabited, or empty of any social organization capable of meeting European standards. There are few Dene accounts to challenge this dominant discourse of justifiable colonization, and until George Blondin, a Fort Franklin elder, began to collect the stories of his people, very little was known of Dene history or legend. Blondin’s work, Yamoria the Lawmaker: Stories of the Dene is a collection of Dene stories and legends. The predominant theme of the collection is the contrast between the nomadic life of pre-contact Dene and the later, sedentary, settlement life proscribed by traders, missionaries and government officials. My contention is that rather than providing, as paternalistic government agencies envisioned, a secure and comfortable lifestyle whereby native people would be “protected” from their “harsh environment” and relocated in settlements with all the accoutrements of civilization, the deliberate disruption of the traditional, mobile lifestyle of aboriginal hunter/gatherer societies of northern Canada for economic gain severely weakened and nearly destroyed First Nations culture in the Northwest Territories.

Yamoria is gentle in tone and kind in its intent. However, Blondin makes it clear that, far from being willing participants in the process of giving up their lives on the land and becoming “civilized,” the Dene were apprehensive, confused and angry about the white invasion of their country. For ten thousand years, the Dene were a highly mobile people and were dependent upon the land, which provided a seasonally changing and fluctuating food source: “Before contact, my ancestors travelled constantly, following the caribou herds for meat or looking to find good year-round fish lakes. They were born on the land and they died on the land. They roamed across Denendeh and settled nowhere” (Blondin vi). The Dene travelled through the land and harvested its resources, but their deep attachment to their land goes far beyond simply viewing it as a provider of food and clothing; mobility was also important from a cultural and spiritual perspective. J.C. Catholique of Lutsel K’e believes that, “land to the Chipewyan people is pretty well everything. It is a way of life for them. The land provides them with food, clothing, and principles of life. They consider the land to be very spiritual” (Raffen 104). Blondin quotes Dene elders who speak of the power of the land for spiritual fulfillment. Sarah Peters of Fort McPherson knows that “when a person loves his country, he has to keep moving and make a living. Jimmy Bonnetrouge of Fort Providence recalls the idyllic days of his nomadic life: “I have travelled far, across the rivers in the mountains and down river – life in the bush made me very happy,” and Blondin remembers a time when “there was no hurry to get anywhere: the Dene travelled all over the Land, so every place was home. That was how it was to travel on Sahtu De every summer” (43). Travel on the land gradually ceased when Europeans arrived, and as the Dene connection to the land weakened, so did their spiritual strength.

Spiritual strength, according to Blondin, comes from “Medicine Power,” which he describes as the force that enabled “all life forms to look after themselves” (51):

When the world was new, everything was based upon medicine power. Dene storytellers say our existence depended on it. It’s the only thing that our ancestors believed could help them, so it was supremely important to them. (51)

In the beginning all humans, birds and animals possessed medicine power. Medicine power controlled every aspect of life, from changing the weather and making hunting and travelling easier, to controlling the movements of animals, and “folding up the land” to allow hunters to travel great distances in a short time. It could be used to settle disputes, it had the power to kill evil people and the power to cure the sick; in short, it controlled every facet of existence and it was the spiritual power through which the Dene interacted with their land and the animals.

When Yamoria, the great medicine man who had “powers for spirit travel,” was travelling the land and the people were travelling to earn a living from the land, the medicine power was strong. The defining qualities of a good hunter and a family that could survive were versatility and the ability to make quick decisions based on animal movement and weather. To Europeans, who value possessions and a secure home, this nomadic way of life was unfamiliar and often disturbing. Hugh Brody observes that “profound misunderstandings arise when representatives of settled, acquisitive cultures seek to help or to change mobile, hunting cultures” (103). Those who tried to “help or change” the Dene were the fur traders, the church, and the residential schools, but Blondin puts most of the blame for the loss of Dene culture and spiritual power firmly on the schools: “The fur trade and the European settlement of the North changed us, but it was the mission schools that really upset our way of life” (222). The stated policy of the Department of Indian Affairs for the residential schools of the early twentieth century was to drive a “cultural wedge between younger and older Indians” (Titley 25). Authorities were convinced that “aboriginal economic activities such as hunting, trapping, fishing, and food-gathering would have to be abandoned” and decreed that “The Indian should learn how to cultivate the soil or prepare himself for employment in the industrial or mercantile community” (33).

Using residential schools to train Dene children for employment as farmers or for work on the “factory floor” and forcing families to abandon their ancient, nomadic way of life was the equivalent of cultural genocide. As Blondin argues, “Families could no longer stay in the bush to trap furs because their children had to be in school. The government built houses so people could stop living in tents” (40). Thus, a centuries-old pattern of life regulated by seasonal travel and well-established educational and cultural values was destroyed. With the children confined to schools and their parents strongly encouraged to live in government settlements, the nomadic and apparently “random” life of the Dene came to an end. The Native people were diminished and culturally impoverished through the imposition of a colonial system that sought to fix their movements through a rigid system of containment and control.

Blondin is deeply concerned by what he sees as the loss of cultural values, self-respect and well-being well of young Dene. He is well aware that his people cannot return to their ancient, nomadic life and he also knows that oral story-telling is no longer a viable practice. However, the Dene have always been resourceful, using whatever means were available for survival, and Blondin firmly believes that the only way to reach an audience of Dene school children and to help them to integrate traditional values into their present lives is to collect the old stories and put them into print:

Because the earth has changed, and because we Dene do not live in the same way as our ancestors – eating only wild meat and living outdoors in the clean air – medicine is not the same as it was before. But we still have power. We have our imagination, our dreams, our virtues, and our faith in the Creator, and those are a medicine person’s most important tools. May this book remind us of the strength of our ancestors, of our Dene laws, and to live the best way we know how. (233)

Blondin’s work is valuable, not only on account of its desire to preserve Dene stories for Dene people, but also because it is the only record we have of Dene history and mythology from a Dene point of view. In the Northwest Territories, numerous government programs and policies have been designed to compensate the Dene for their cultural and material losses. However, retribution is not always made with compassion or understanding, and in many areas there is still deep conflict and anger. J. Edward Chamberlin believes that the power of stories lies in their ability to transcend borders and ideologies. In situations of cultural conflict he argues for the importance of understanding not just our own stories, but also what others are saying in their stories and myths (237). Blondin offers his stories in the good faith that they will be read not just by his own people, but by all readers with an interest in the future of the land. It is my belief that in reading these ancient stories we, as relative newcomers to the Northwest Territories, may greater appreciate the land and its people.

Works Cited

Blondin, George. Yamoria the Lawmaker: Stories of the Dene. Edmonton: Newest Publishers, 1997.

Brody, Hugh. Living Arctic. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1987.

Chamberlin, J. Edward. If This Is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories? Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2004.

Raffen, James. “Frontier, Homeland and Sacred Space: A Collaborative Investigation into Cross-Cultural Perceptions of Place in the Thelon Game Sanctuary, Northwest Territories.” Diss. Dept of Geography, Queen’s U. 1992.

Titley, E. Brian. A Narrow Vision: Duncan Campbell Scott and the Administration of Indian Affairs in Canada. Vancouver: UBC Press, 1986.


The bibliography and resource listings are by no means exhaustive; many of the works cited have excellent interdisciplinary bibliographic material.  Especially valuable is Sherrill Grace's Canada and the Idea of North, which also includes a visual arts and music bibliography.

Also, follow the link directly below for Larry Peters' (University of Northern British Columbia) extensive, annotated reading list of North and NWT writings:

The Yellowknife Book Cellar

Specializes in distributing publications pertaining to and / or written by NWT writers:

Online Academic, Environmental, Regional, Cultural and Arts Resources
Arctic Institute of North America (AINA), University of Calgary

Promotes interdisciplinary study of the North American and Arctic circumpolar region.  AINA brings together researchers from natural and social sciences, and the humanities and arts. The Institute has extensive online links to archives, special collections, and art collections, as well as bibliographies, databases, current research projects, and contacts. AINA also publishes two journals, Northern Lights Series and Arctic Journal (

AINA's Hydrocarbon Impacts / Incidences des hydrocarbures database offers over 5,000 publications and research projects about the environmental and socio-economic effects in Northern Canada (

Canadian Circumpolar Institute

The Canadian Circumpolar Institute is the centre for northern research at the University of Alberta, serving Northerners, students, academics, government, industry, and the general public.

Their mandate is:

  • To promote and support research on the Canadian and Circumpolar North, especially that involving interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary programs;
  • To promote and support the Canadian Circumpolar Library collection as a distinctive northern reference centre of international importance;
  • To foster communication among northern-oriented researchers;
  • To encourage the involvement of Northerners from all circumpolar nations in the activities of the institute; and,
  • To disseminate information about the Circumpolar North.

The Circumpolar Students' Association, University of Alberta
Provides a network base for students involved in Northern research.

CPAWS (Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society) NWT Chapter 

Nah?a Dehé Artists' Trip and Artists' Profiles

Dene Cultural Institute

Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories

Lessons from the Land

"A collection of online cultural explorations based upon the traditional travel routes of the Northwest Territories' Aboriginal peoples. This online exhibit will explore the relationship between people and the land and will highlight sites of cultural and historical significance throughout the territory..."

Northern Library

Northern Library lists many naturalist publications and works about history, Indigenous peoples, canoeing, and adventure traveling in the Northwest Territories.

Northern Women's Web Centre

Notable Northern Women: Artists / Performers / Songwriters / Storytellers / Crafters

Northwest Territories Library Services

Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre

The PWNHC provides a variety of databases and geographical, cultural, and historical information.

NWT Arts Council

NWT Archives Database

NWT Place Names Database

On-Line Exhibits

Environment and Region

Aurora Research Institute

Aurora Research Institute, affiliated with Aurora College conducts scientific and social research in accordance with the NWT Sciences Act.

Discover North Online'Northern Frontier Visitor's Association

Discover North lists upcoming events, regional information, visitor services, and activities in NWT.

Government of the Northwest Territories Online

The government site provides links to environment and land, culture and community, business and resources, and education and employment (

The Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary Online

This site provides links to other articles and sites about the Thelon Sanctuary.

Wildlife Division: Northwest Territories Environmental and Natural Resources  

This site offers information on hunting and fishing, biodiversity, protected areas, wildlife, publications, legislation, and research.

Magazines and Journals

Arctic Journal

Arctic Journal is a peer reviewed, quarterly journal from the University of Calgary's Arctic Institute of North America.

Northern Lights Series

Also from AINA this journal is dedicated to nontechnical works about natural, earth, and social sciences, and the humanities.

Northern Review

Yukon College publishes this refereed, biannual scholarly journal that focuses exclusively on Northern issues.

Up Here

Up Here is a magazine that focuses on Northern lifestyle, environment, wildlife, travel, personalities, business, and current affairs (



Alexie, Robert Arthur. Pale Indian. Toronto: Penguin, 2005.

---. Porcupines and China Dolls.Toronto: Stoddart, 2002.

Alunik, Ishmael, Edie D. Kolausok and David Morrison. Across Time and Tundra.   Arctic Artist: The Journal and Paintings of George Back, Midshipman with Franklin, 1819-1822. Ed. C. Stuart Houston and Commentary by I.S. MacLaren. Montreal: McGill-Queen's UP, 1994.

Bastedo, Jamie. An ABC Resource Survey Method for Environmentally Signficant Areas with Special Reference to Biotic Surveys in Canada's North. Waterloo: Dept. of Geography, 1986.

---. Falling for Snow : A Naturalist's Journey into the World of Winter. Red Deer P,  2003.

---. Reaching North : A Celebration of the Subarctic. Red Deer: Red Deer P, 1997.

---. Shield Country: The Life and Times of the Oldest Piece of the Planet. Red Deer: Red Deer P, 1999.

---. Tracking Triple Seven: Grizzly on the Tundra. Calgary: Red Deer P, 2001.

Bielawski, Ellen. Rogue Diamonds: Northern Riches on Dene Land. Vancouver:Douglas, 2003.

Buege, Douglas J. "Confessions of an Eco-Colonialist: Responsible Knowing Among the Inuit." Wild Ideas. Ed. Rothenberg, David. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1995: 81-93.

Cameron, Agnes Deans. The New North: An Account of a Woman's 1908 Journey through Canada to the Arctic.  Ed. David R. Richeson. Saskatoon:         Western Producer Prairie, 1986.

Campbell, SueEllen. Even Mountains Vanish. SLC: Univ. of Utah P, 2003.

Coates, Kenneth S. Canada's Colonies: A History of the Yukon and Northwest Territories. Toronto: Lorimer, 1985.

Coates, Kenneth S. and William R. Morrison, eds. Interpreting Canada’s North: Selected Readings. Toronto: Copp Clark Pitman, 1989.

Gibbons, Jacqueline A. "The North and Native Symbols: Landscape as Universe." A Few Acres of Snow: Literary and Artistic Images of  Canada . Ed. Paul Simpson-Housley and Glen Nortcliffe. Toronto: Dundurn, 1992. 99-108.

Goose, Agnes Nanogak. Video Interview. Winnipeg Art Gallery Online. 2002. 29 March 2006 <>.

---. More Tales from the Igloo. Edmonton: Hurtig, 1986.

Grace, Sherrill E. "North." Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada . Ed. W. H.New. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2002. 818-822.

---.Canada and the Idea of North. Montreal: McGill-Queen's UP, 2002.

Hall> , Alex . Discovering Eden: A Lifetime of Paddling Arctic Rivers. Toronto: Porter, 2003.

Hancock, Lyn. Northwest Territories, Canada 's Last Frontier: A Full Colour View Book. Ed. Jo Fitzsimmons. Fort Nelson: Autumn Images, 1986.

Harris, John. Tungsten John : being an account of some inconclusive but  nonetheless informative attempts to reach the South Nahanni River by foot and bicycle, interspersed with stories of research into a number of startling new facts concerning the dramatic history of Nahanni. Vancouver: New Star, 2000.

Hobbs, Will. Far North. New York: Morrow, 1996.

Journal of a Barrenlander: WHB Hoare, 1928-1929. Ed. Sheila C. Thomson. Ottawa:  Thomson, 1990.

Krajick, Kevin. Barren Lands: An Epic Search for Diamonds in the North American Arctic. NY: Freeman, 2001.

Laut, Agnes C. Lords of the North, a Romance of the North-West. Toronto: Ryerson, 1900.

Leong, Leslie.Canada's Northwest Territories: A Land of Diversity.Fort Smith: Leong, 2003. (A photographic collection of the Northwest Territories since division in 1999.)

---. Our Forgotten North: A Glimpse of the Subarctic in Canada's North Fort Smith: Leong, 1997.

Mead, Robert Douglas. Ultimate North: Canoeing Mackenzie's Great River.  Garden City: Doubleday, 1976.

Milburn, Alexandra. What's Blooming: A Guide to 100 + Wild Plants of the Northwest Territories. n.c.: What's Blooming, 2002.

Morrison, William R. True North: The Yukon and the Northwest Territories. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1998.

Moss, John. Enduring Dreams: An Exploration of Arctic Landscape. Don Mills: Anansi, 1994.

"The New NWT." Canadian Geographic Online. 2006. 29 March 2006 <>

Niven, Jennifer. Ada Blackjack. NY: Hyperion, 2003.

O'Leary, Daniel. "Environmentalism, Hermeneutics, and Canadian Imperialism in  Agnes Deans Cameron's The New North." This Elusive Land: Women and   the Canadian Environment. Eds. Melody Hessing, Rebecca Raglon, and Catriona Sandilands. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2005. 19-34.

Paul, Linda Joan. "Human Encroachments on Domineering Landscapes." A Few Acres of Snow: Literary and Artistic Images of Canada . Ed. Paul Simpson Housley and Glen Nortcliffe. Toronto: Dundurn, 1992. 86-98.

Pelly. David F. Expedition: An Arctic Journey through History on George Back's River. Toronto: Betelgeuse, 1981.

---. Thelon: A River Sanctuary. Hyde Park: Canadian Recreational Canoeing, 1996.

Pitt, Kathleen and Michael Pitt. Three Seasons in the Wind: 950 Kilometres by Canoe down Northern Canada's Thelon River. North Vancouver: Hornby,        2000.

Savage, Candace. Aurora: The Mysterious Northern Lights. Vancouver: MacIntyre, 1994.

---. Curious by Nature. Vancouver: MacIntyre, 2005.     

Van Camp, Richard. Angel Wing Splash Pattern. Wiarton: Kegedonce, 2002.

---. Lesser Blessed. Vancouver: Douglas, 1996.

---. What's the Most Beautiful Thing You Know about Horses? San Francisco: Children's, 1998.

See Richard Van Camp's website for further publications:

Van Herk, Aretha. The Tent Peg: A Novel. Toronto: McClelland, 1981.