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The People of Denendeh

Ethnohistory of the Indians of Canada's Northwest Territories

June Helm

Publication Year: 2002


For fifty years anthropologist June Helm studied the culture and ethnohistory of the Dene, “The People,” the Athapaskan-speaking Indians of the Mackenzie River drainage of Canada's western subarctic. Now in this impressive collection she brings together previously published essays—with updated commentaries where necessary—unpublished field notes, archival documents, supplementary essays and notes from collaborators, and narratives by the Dene themselves as an offering to those studying North American Indians, hunter-gatherers, and subarctic ethnohistory and as a historical resource for the people of all ethnicities who live in Denendeh, Land of the Dene.

Helm begins with a broad-ranging, stimulating overview of the social organization of hunter-gatherer peoples of the world, past and present, that provides a background for all she has learned about the Dene. The chapters in part 1 focus on community and daily life among the Mackenzie Dene in the middle of the twentieth century. After two historical overview chapters, Helm moves from the early years of the twentieth century to the earliest contacts between Dene and white culture, ending with a look at the momentous changes in Dene-government relations in the 1970s. Part 3 considers traditional Dene knowledge, meaning, and enjoyments, including a chapter on the Dogrib hand game. Throughout, Helm's encyclopedic knowledge combines with her personal interactions to create a collection that is unique in its breadth and intensity.

Published by: University of Iowa Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. vii-x

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pp. xi-xv

At an anthropological meeting some years ago, the point was made that general ethnographies of North American Indian peoples are not being written anymore. I inwardly acknowledged that I would not write one myself. But later the thought brought me to consider bringing together some of my writings about the Dene, "The People," the Indians of Canada's Northwest...


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pp. xvii-xviii


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pp. xix-xx

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1. Horde, Band, and Tribe Seen from Denendeh, an Introduction

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pp. 1-20

In 1986 I opened a letter from the president of the University of Iowa inviting me to give the university's Presidential Lecture of 1987. My immediate reaction was a short expletive. I was then immersed in difficult documentary data on multigenerational fertility levels among the Hare Dene of the Northwest Territories. I was afraid that a break in that research would...

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Part I. Community and Livelihood at Midcentury

Part I aims to provide a perspective on the life of the Dene in the Northwest Territories in the years around 1950. Chapter 2 briefly introduces the two kinds of settlements that were meaningful in Dene experience, the bush community and the trading fort. Day by day and season by season, the yearly round of people living out on the land is described in chapter 3, and...

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2. The Bush Community and Trading Fort at Midcentury

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pp. 23-29

This sketch largely derived from my several months of residence during the 1950s in the bush communities at Jean Marie River (Slavey) and Lac la Martre (Dogrib). In the 1960s the Canadian government in part confounded my forecast about the demise of the bush community by buttressing bush communities with modern services and communication...

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3. The Yearly Round of the People of "Lynx Point," Jean Marie River, 1951-1952

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pp. 30-55

This chapter takes a closer look at a bush community at midcentury. Lynx Point is a pseudonym for the Slavey settlement of Jean Marie River, located above Fort Simpson on the Mackenzie River. In response to the anxiety of its members that the community might be gossiped about, I created pseudonyms for the hamlet and all its members and use them most...

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4. Fish Consumption, Rabbit Uses, and Caribou Hunting among the Dogribs

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pp. 56-71

This chapter first expands on the uses of two Northern Dene resources, fish and rabbits, that were touched on in the preceding chapter on the yearly round at the Slavey community of Jean Marie River. The setting here is the Dogrib bush community of Wha Ti, then Lac la Martre, as Nancy Lurie and I documented fish and rabbit use in 1959. The last part of the chapter presents depictions...

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5. The Security Quest at "Lynx Point," Jean Marie River, 1951-1952

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pp. 72-90

Today [1951-52] a blend of a subsistence and a money economy exists at Lynx Point. The single area of need most nearly provided for from the natural environment is that of nutriment. If the flesh foods that are obtained by the hunting, fishing, and snaring activities were removed from the present diet, the remaining items of consumption...

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Part II. Looking Back in Time

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pp. 91-93

On the day I arrived at Rae in 1971, I encountered two Slavey friends from Jean Marie River ("Lynx Point") of twenty years before. Their very presence at Rae brought home to me the extent of the changes in communications and perspectives in the two decades since I first came to the Northwest Territories. LouisNorwegian and Jimmy Sanguez were in Rae as representatives...

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6. Changing Times

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pp. 95-103

In 1951, the year I first came to the Northwest Territories, "the highway" from the south reached only as far as Hay River. In 1961 the extension to Yellowknife was opened. Another ten years later the extension of "the highway" to Fort Simpson was being constructed. "The highway" is emblematic of the quickened pace of change for the Dene recorded in the selections...

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7. The Contact History of the Subarctic Athapaskans: An Overview

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pp. 104-123

The "we" in this chapter refers to the seven persons, six graduate students and myself, who assembled the data that shaped this chapter. Since the chapter deals with populations in both Alaska and Canada, I only rarely employ any particular language usage such as "Dene"; "Athapaskan" encompasses all divisions, and a group/tribe/society/ nation is usually referred to in the singular. The...

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8. Overview Hearing at the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry, 1975

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pp. 124-139

At the start of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry (MVPI) hearings in 1975, J. K. Stager, a geographer from the University of British Columbia, and I shared the task of surveying the human populations of the Mackenzie region, along with overview presentations by specialists on the flora, fauna, and geology of the region. This chapter comes from the transcription of my oral...

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9. Moving Back through the Full Fur and Mission Period

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pp. 140-166

Earlier chapters have reviewed the contact history of the Dene from early contact through the stabilized fur trade. In native historical memory, the stabilized fur trade is the traditional past. To emphasize the native perspective on the past, I have termed this long period the contact-traditional era. Once the Christian missionaries arrived in the 1860s, the final ingredient was in place...

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10. Traditional Leadership

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pp. 167-191

Here I explore the historical literature for evidence on the sociopolitical organization of the northeastern Dene through the contact-traditional era, as manifested in patterns of leadership. I was spurred to this search of the writings of, mainly, early explorers and fur traders by the leader role of Louis Norwegian ("Marcel Renard") and the group decisions of the men of Jean Marie River...

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11. Female Infanticide, European Diseases, and Population Levels among the Mackenzie Dene

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pp. 192-219

This is a dense, tightly argued research paper. The "light" reader may want to skip it. A researcher should use the full article that was published in the American Ethnologist in 1980; its notes, which are intense, are here omitted, and they are necessary for full documentation and assessment of data. I felt that it was impossible to present this article, however, without including...

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12. Dogrib Oral Tradition As History: War and Peace in the 1820s

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pp. 220-233

In contrast to the prior chapter, which is based on Euro-Canadian records, this chapter comes from what the people tell of their history. It draws on the oral accounts of twelve Dogribs and the efforts of three ethnologists (June Helm, Beryl Gillespie, and Nancy Lurie) as receivers and recorders of native lore. Beryl Gillespie also retrieved the relevant documentary material from the...

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13. Earliest Contacts

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pp. 234-249

In 1821 the amalgamation of the Hudson's Bay Company and the North West Company marked the beginning of the long contact-traditional era. Fifty years before, in 1771, the first European traversed the land that became the Northwest Territories from the mouth of the Coppermine River to that of the Slave River when Samuel Hearne, taken by Matonabbee and his band of...

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14. Looking to the Future

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pp. 250-268

From two historical overview chapters, part II has, chapter by chapter, moved back in time from the 1970s to the late eighteenth century, to earliest contacts between Dene and Europeans. This final chapter of part II returns to the mid-1970s, to the watershed in Dene-government relations that the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry proved to be. The two parts of this chapter...

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Part III. Being Dene

As this volume developed, it fell into four parts. Chapter 1 is set apart as an introduction to emphasize what I learned through the years as an ethnologist, especially as I weighed what I learned against anthropological formulations about the social organization of hunter-gatherer peoples of the world, past and present. The chapters in part I are mainly...

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15. Traditional Knowledge and Belief

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pp. 271-292

The title of this chapter is a gross exaggeration. The chapter barely touches on what Dene culture holds and once held as measures of meaning and understanding. Here I attend only to "three understandings" and "four legends." I selected them because they are salient features of Dene cultural holdings and because I have had occasion to think about them. Of the three understandings...

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16. The Dogrib Hand Game

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pp. 293-311

By the modest expectations of the Queen's Printer, Canada's government printer, The Dogrib Hand Game became a runaway best-seller when it was issued in 1966: "long before Christmas it went Poof to the extent of 800 copies." Almost all ethnographers who have worked with Canadian Dene give some sort of an account of the rules of play of a hand game, but none...

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17. Enjoyments and Special Times

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pp. 312-339

This chapter describes some of the kinds of events and times to which people looked forward before there were cars, radio, television, and easy access to urban entertainments. The hand game (chapter 16) is a truly indigenous creation. Treaty time and New Year are observances that were introduced and set by the whiteman calendar and then further shaped by the native...

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18. Being Dene

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pp. 340-364

I hope that these accounts of two Dene lives, Helene Rabesca, a Bear Laker, and Louis Norwegian, a Slavey, help to personalize some of the broader ethnographic and historical views in this book. I regret that I recorded almost no consistent life history materials. They would surely have enriched the source material of future ethnohistorians...

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pp. 365-366

Early in October 1967, Nancy Lurie and I arrived in Yellowknife in order to go on to Rae and from there to Snare Lake. Snare Lake (today Wekweti) was a small community of Dogribs who came to Rae for the summer and each autumn returned to their settlement. We planned to assemble supplies at Rae for ourselves and the people at Snare...


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pp. 367


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pp. 369-384


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pp. 385-389

E-ISBN-13: 9781587293290

Publication Year: 2002