issue 226 - December 1991
Western popular culture is threatening the roots of Indian
identity. Phoebe Nahanni talks to women elders in Canada's Northwest
Territories about the critical work of passing on native customs.
Every spring I watch the formations of geese honking as they gracefully fly northward - and I long to follow them. You see, I am one of the aboriginal Dene people. Now I live in Montreal, but my roots are in the North where I was born in a bush camp many years ago. And, like the geese, I am compelled to go back every year to my homeland.
This year I had a special mission - to find out how much the Dene still depend on their traditional way of life. I wanted to know why aboriginal culture has apparently been superseded by Western culture.
For today, although the Dene continue to hunt, fish and gather seasonally, they do not live as their ancestors did. Family units of around 20 people have evolved into communities of up to 2,000 people. While most Dene still practice bush life, they also take jobs that pay wages. Although most speak or understand their native tongue, they prefer to speak English. The young people's choice of music used to be disco but now it's rap: Vanilla Ice reflects the communities' preference for the modern and the Western.
Whenever I visit the north, I always meet with the elders. They are easy to find because in the summer they still live in tents, with spruce boughs for flooring and a wood stove outside for cooking. As I approach they hand me dried meat or bannock (pan-fried bread) and some tea. To some they appear as relics of the past with no real authority over matters in the community. I hold a different view.
Historically among the Dene the elders were the teachers. They transferred Dene customs to their family and gave advice when decisions had to be made.
The elders taught that each Dene originated from the Creator. Everything had to be done with respect for the Creator and the land. This respect was set down in Dene customs which were followed like moral obligations, dictating the proper attitude towards the Creator, each other, children, parents and the land. From the oral traditions emerged legends, songs, drums and tea dances.
The Dene women in particular played a prominent role in the family. The female elders I spoke with in their summer camps last summer told me how they had learned their traditional role.
Long ago, they said, children learned about the land, water, fire, animals and survival by watching and sharing what their parents did. Both boys and girls participated in everyday living - fetching water, learning how to set snares for rabbits, seeing different types of snow and their effect on travel or hunting conditions. Surrounded by the immense boreal forest, children learnt about the types of trees - which is best for firewood, for building houses, for making tools.
At puberty a young girl was secluded and taught everything she needed to know about being a woman, a responsible mother and a contributor to Dene society. She was taught not only by her mother, but also by her grandmother, aunts and other women in the community.
One elder, Martina, told me that when she was growing up, her mother had become very ill. This had prompted Martina to marry at 15, to a man much older than herself. Her mother approved because he was a good provider. And though Martina was very lonely for her mother at first, she knew enough to subsist in the bush - hunting, snaring, fishing, canoeing, using a gun.
Her mother-in-law taught her many other skills: how to prepare moose hides for tanning, how to make sinew for sewing, how to sew with porcupine quills, coloured threads and beads, and how to make birch bark baskets.
She regularly participated in the process of setting up a bush camp. This was a group activity involving everyone from the youngest to the oldest. All the tasks were shared and a young woman had to help her mother. Their busy day usually began around five in the morning, with lighting the fire, cooking and cleaning up after meals. If there was a hide that needed working on, it was done collectively. Fetching firewood, gathering berries and root carrots, herbs and birch sap, drying fish, sewing moccassins and baskets, and mending clothes were all done while the women watched their children.
Martina has since had 12 children. Each time she gave birth she collected moss which she placed in the baby bag for diapers, made baby bonnets, nursed and sang songs. This way her children learned Dene traditions as she had done.
But another elder I spoke to, Annette, had been initiated quite differently. She was born in a summer camp. Her mother died when she was young and she and her brother and sister were sent to a mission school for four years.
She squinted her eyes as she related her story to me, as if trying to remember parts which she had blotted out. Yes, she did learn her ABCs, and she could still speak her native Slavey. But when she came home from the mission school at 14 she knew nothing about bush life. It was then that Elsie, another elder and one of the best Dene teachers, showed her how to cook, hunt, prepare and tan moose hides as well as how to make clothes and moccassins from the hide.
Annette soon preferred bush life; she and her husband Jim claim their life in the bush is their wealth and well-being.
Today it is harder for Dene people to pass on their traditions to their children. With the introduction of Christianity just before the turn of the 20th century and compulsory education since the mid-1940s the elder's role as teacher has gradually diminished. Western influence is now very strong. But still the elders hope that as they carry on the traditions their grandchildren will observe and learn.
It is desperately important that they do. There is an Dene adage which roughly translated goes: 'If you don't listen to your mother you won't live long.' Among the ancient forest hunters and gatherers, this wisdom was as vital as it was customary. The elders' knowledge of their ancestral history makes it as important today if the Dene people are to survive as a people.
Phoebe Nahanni is a Slavey-speaking member of the Dene Nation who currently lives in Montreal.