For more than a hundred years, we have endured commonly held misperceptions of who we are descendant from, the extent of our traditional lands, and our historic relationship with neighboring First Nations.
Thirty years ago, the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre had a rack, at the entrance to the building, where there were brochures telling of the history of each of the NWT’s Dene, Inuit and Inuvialuit groups. The one for the “Yellowknife Indians” claimed that they were “extinct”, the last having died in the influenza epidemic of 1928. The explanation given for the existence of the indigenous people of Yellowknife, Dettah and Rainbow Valley (Ndilo) was simple, they were Tłı̨chǫ (Dogrib) who had moved, in the late 1800’s, into the void created by the extinction of the “Yellowknife Indians”. For Yellowknives Dene Elders this is not a true historical account of who we are.
The source for the information in this brochure came from the often-referenced Smithsonian Institution’s Handbook of North American Indians. During the 1960’s and 70’s University of Iowa anthropologists June Helm and Beryl Gillespie conducted field work among the Dogrib (Tłı̨chǫ) of “Fort” Rae (Behchoko). They published the results of their work in academic journals and, most significantly, in the Smithsonian’s Handbook. June Helm edited Subarctic, Volume 6 (1981) of this series, and also authored the Dogrib chapter. Beryl Gillespie was the author of the Yellowknife chapter, the factuality of which has been vigorously disputed by the Yellowknives Dene.
Beginning in the late 1960’s Helm sent her Research Associate Beryl Gillespie on several trips to Yellowknife to conduct fieldwork among the ‘Dogrib’ of Yellowknife Bay. Elders remember Beryl Gillespie’s work in our community. They say she spent weeks conducting interviews in Ndilo, Dettah and Yellowknife and that she was accompanied by an interpreter from Rae. To hire an interpreter who is not part of the community or group being interviewed will affect the answers recorded. This interpreter only knew the Tłı̨chǫ language and while many Elders understood and spoke the Tłı̨chǫ language they would have been much more comfortable with a Tetsǫ́t’ıné interpreter. No interviews were conducted in Tetsǫ́t’ıné, a language that more recent research has demonstrated would have been known to most if not all the individuals interviewed, a language that we know was the first language they learned as children and a strong indication of their cultural history and affiliation.
Gillespie’s understanding of the significance of the languages spoken by the Yellowknives Dene she interviewed in the early 1970s will likely not be known anytime soon. Her field notes are held by the NWT Archives, but access is restricted until 2032.
When we became aware of this we were surprised to hear there were academics who believed we were extinct. We found it insulting and blamed not only anthropologists in general but in particular Helm and Gillespie. While Helm and Gillespie weren’t the first to claim that either the Yellowknives had been completely absorbed into neighbouring First Nations – and were therefore no longer culturally identifiable or relevant – or that the last of the ‘real’ Yellowknives died many years ago, they were still blamed for spreading these false claims through the Smithsonian’s Handbook
We once lived in more than thirty distinct villages along the north shore of Great Slave Lake. These stretched from close to Old Fort Rae in the North Arm to well into the East Arm. The locations of many of these villages are still known and still used seasonally by the descendants of the people who lived there. The rich year-round resources of north shore bays, and the use steel tools brought by the fur traders, made it possible for us to build permanent structures in the style of those built at Old Fort Providence in 1789. According to our Elders it wasn’t long after Old Fort Providence was built that we began to build homes from logs.
We are descendants of Tetsǫ́t’ıné (“copper or metal people”), the indigenous Chipewyan-related people living around Great Slave Lake and referred to in exploration and fur trade records as Copper Indians, Yellow-knife Indians, Red-Knife Indians, Couteaux Jaunes, etc. These names all refer to the copper tools we were using when first encountered by Europeans. Some members of the Łutsel K’e Dene First Nation of Łútsëlk’é, and the Deninu K’ue First Nation of Fort Resolution, are also descendant from the Tetsǫ́t’ıné. The common ancestry of these three First Nations is the reason we joined together, under the name Akaitcho Dene First Nation (ADFN), to negotiate a land claim with the Federal and Territorial Governments.
Akaitcho was a powerful Tetsǫ́t’ıné leader who we remember today as man who played an important role in protecting Tetsǫ́t’ıné traditional lands during a time when the arrival of the fur trade resulted in significant competition for rich resource areas and the shifting of once stable boundaries between many First Nations across Canada.
In the 1950s Federal Government policy forced us to move from our north shore villages into Yellowknife Bay. To differentiate ourselves from other NWT communities where there are descendants of the Tetsǫ́t’ıné we began to refer to ourselves as Weledeh Yellowknives Dene.