Travelling deep in Denendeh, 'The Land of the People'

Travelling deep in Denendeh, 'Land of the People'

Welcome to Denendeh, the land of the Dene. The people of the Dene First Nations have been here for milennia, harvesting the bounty of the woods and waters, travelling the North’s rivers and trails, and thriving for innumerable generations.

The people

Approximately a third of the people in the Northwest Territories today are Dene. You’ll rub shoulders with them everywhere – from the halls of power at the legislature in Yellowknife, to the pews of the ornate church in Fort Good Hope, to ancestral fishing camps scattered along the Deh Cho, or Mackenzie River. If you’re lucky, you might tag along on a Dene moose hunt, or drink tea with an elder seamstress who sells moccasins over the Internet, or join in a tea dance or drum dance with a whole community of gracious locals. 

The communities

Nowadays, many Dene make their home in the North's larger centres – and indeed, in big cities throughout the world. Yet the heart of Denendeh remains the small communities, where most residents are Dene, Dene languages thrive, and age-old lifeways hold sway. Some of these places – like Kakisa, Colville Lake and Nahanni Butte – comprise just a handful of families, often living in cozy log cabins and deriving their livelihood from the land: hunting, fishing, trapping and gathering. Other Dene towns straddle the new and old, such as Behchokǫ̀, the headquarters of the Tłįchǫ Government. In all of these communities you will find yourself welcome.

The landscape

Dene history, legends and lifeways are woven into the Northern landscape. As you travel, you’ll encounter place names that are rich and resonant, from Tsátłį́ęhgotsee (“lake where there is a lot of beaver”) to Nich’itkat Jàł K’ìt (“girls jiggling place,” where women jiggled bone hooks on string to catch fish in the fall). Pay attention and you’ll realize Denendeh is not a frontier or a wasteland but a long-inhabited homeland, where every hill and river-bend holds a different human story.

The storytelling

The Dene are traditionally an “oral culture,” where legends, laws, humour and learning were shared by word of mouth, often woven into cherished cultural tales. Today, Dene storytelling remains a revered art form. Traditional stories are frequently a component of Dene cultural camps and other visitor experiences, allowing you to listen closely and glean wisdom – not just about the people of Denendeh, but about yourself. 

The music and dancing

Drum songs, fiddling, jigging, tea-dancing – the rhythms of Denendeh ring across our territory. At community festivals, and at holidays such as National Aboriginal Day, you’ll be treated to the mesmerizing beat of traditional Dene drums, to reels played by fiery fiddle-players, and to dancing. Feel free to join in. 

The harvesting

Fishing, trapping and hunting remain revered practices in Denendeh. Paddle the big rivers and you’ll meet dozens of families at their fish-camps. Trek the valleys of the Mackenzie Mountains and you’ll meet moose-hunters on the trail of game. Even better, sign up to join in – the Dene know this land like the back of their hand. Licenced outfitters can guide you to the finest fishing holes and hunting spots, teaching you about traditional harvesting along the way. 

The feasting

After the fishing, hunting and gathering comes the eating. Visitors to community celebrations or Dene cultural camps may get a chance to sample Northern delicacies, like caribou drymeat, fried bannock, rabbit stew, dried whitefish, fresh local cranberries – or rarer treats, such as moose nose and baked beaver tail. 

The games

Whether during freezing winter days or summertime celebrations, “play” was, and remains, a vital component of Dene culture – a way to develop essential skills while relieving the stress of everyday life on the land. Visitors can join community gatherings to witness the energetic Dene “hand games,” a team-based guessing game involving rhythmic drumming, singing, body movements and gestures. You might also be able to try traditional contests like the stick-pull, pole push, snow-snake, canoe races and more.  

The artwork

Dene art- and craftwork is at once useful and ornate, ancient and futuristic. Each region has its own specialty – from the birchbark baskets of Fort Liard, to the cozy beaded moccasins of Délįne, to the porcupine quillwork designs of Fort Providence. Many Dene artists have become international legends, including revered painter Archie Beaulieu and fashion designer D’Arcy Moses. Dene art is an essential purchase. Don’t leave the North without it. 

The travel

In the old days, the waterways, footpaths and snow-packed trails of the Northland were Dene superhighways: routes that, despite great distances and maze-like complexity, were as familiar to Dene as you are with your daily commute. To get a sense of how Dene moved gracefully through this rough land, join us on a paddling trip, dogsled adventure, hike or snowshoe trek

Related Stories

Intriguing tales from Canada's Northwest Territories