Ancient Dene history conference planned

Elders from around the Sahtu to share stories from the past; PBS documentary series in the works

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Elders from around the Sahtu will share stories from ancient Dene history at a conference in Norman Wells scheduled for Sept. 30 to Oct. 4.

A sabre-toothed cat recreation and skeleton on display at the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre in Whitehorse. Oral history says these animals roamed the land when the ancestors of the Dene peoples arrived here.
photo courtesy of Chris Hunkeler

The Sahtu Origins and Identity Conference will gather stories and information about the links between the Dene forbears and the Siberian Ket people, the travels during and after the Ice Age which took these people into, and throughout, the Americas.

“The idea came from a Dene gathering conference in Calgary,” says Raymond Yakeleya, who, with his company Earth Magic Media Group, is helping organize the Norman Wells conference, along with Sahtu land corporations, First Nations, Métis organizations and the Sahtu Divisional Education Council.

“People at the conference, the young Dene, were asking these questions, ‘Where do we come from and how did we get here?’” says Yakeleya. “Which is a really good question. We just didn’t show up by accident. That wasn’t how it worked.”

He says the discussions went back to the last ice age, to the Siberian Ket people who share linguistic similarities with the Dene, to the spread of Dene peoples across northern Canada and Alaska, to the Navajo and Apache in the southern U.S. who are also linguistically linked and even, possibly, to the Aztecs.

“I think it’s important that our elders, especially our historian elders, start talking about what is remembered, (and) pass along the history of the Dene to our young people,” says Yakeleya.

Elders from Tulita, Deline, Fort Good Hope, Colville Lake and Norman Wells will be invited to the conference.

Yakeleya also just signed a contract with PBS to produce a five-part series on the Dene peoples, called People of the Land and Water: The Dene Nation. It will look into the same stories and history.

Yakeleya says the connections to the Ket people in Siberia, who have documented linguistic links to the Dene, and the Aztecs, to whom a connection with the Dene is just beginning to be investigated, are particularly mysterious and interesting.

Beyond these genetic mysteries, the stories of survival – in an era of sabre-toothed cats, short-faced bears, North American lions, mastodons, mammoths and giant beavers – held by elders today are bound to be compelling.

“The stories from the elders, the stories that we have from the last ice age, you know – it must have been a horrific time,” says Yakeleya.

“I mean, if you’ve got North American lions running around and all you’ve got is a spear and maybe a bow and arrow, it’s really quite the way to make a life. But I guess our old elders would have had no choice, and they did it. That’s how we are here today.”

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