Sleep at night and work during the day

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Editor’s note: Columnist Catherine Lafferty is writing a series on the Dene laws. This week’s installment is on the fourth of the nine laws, which is: “Sleep at Night and Work During the Day”

This Dene law of sleep at night and work during the day was particularly difficult for me to write about because I confess that I was somewhat of the view that it no longer applied to this day and age.

Before I came to my own conclusions on the subject, I reached out to some community leaders to give me insight into this law and I was glad that I did because I was given a whole new outlook. I was informed that this might just be one of the most important of the Dene laws because it has the potential to affect all the other laws in the way that if a person is not getting enough sleep, it can really affect their well-being, their disposition, and thus a lack of sleep can affect the way that we interact with one another in our waking life, essentially, affecting all the other Dene laws through a ripple effect. Sleep is important for health and well-being; it helps provide clarity. I know for myself, if I don’t get enough sleep – I am very irritable and don’t make the best decisions. As for my teenager, I keep trying to tell him to abide by this law as he likes to sleep all day and stay up late into the night and needs to turn his schedule around.

Unlike my son, most people sleep at night and work during the day, but sometimes our jobs require us to work well into the night. In the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, the Dene way of life was disrupted by settler influence and the colonial mandate to produce as much as possible, driven by gain, pushing production both day and night, and this has been business as usual ever since in society. We see this most often in the mining sector. Yet getting work done during the day – in the light – was much more productive for the Dene back in the day before the convenience of a flick of a light switch, this law strongly applied at that time and it still does but exceptions have been made for those that are unable to follow this law due to their place of employment, they still must understand the underlying principle of this law even if they are unable to follow it.

Dene Laws from the Yellowknives Dene First Nation

There is one other, less obvious, element to this law that I haven’t mentioned yet and that is the element of spirituality. It was widely, and still very much is, believed by the Dene that the spirits come out at night “under the cover of darkness” and people are not to walk among them if it can be helped. The night is reserved to the spirit world. These beliefs come from a very, very ancient place. My grandmother used to tell me that spirits roamed in the fields at night on the island where she lived and when we visited her homeland, she warned me not to go out into the fields after dark. I thought that maybe she told me this to frighten me, so that I would stop jumping around wildly and go to sleep, but now I know that her words were passed down to her from a place where legends where very much alive, and not forgotten, not like today where many people have forgotten the truth about the way things are.

The teachings that could be taken away from this Law is that sleep is important, that night and day has its place among the Dene and always will. The midnight sun in the summer months provided for longer working days for the Dene but our ancestors they knew when to stop and take a break when the sun set. It is not natural for people to be awake during the night, we are not nocturnal beings, we are like plants, we need sunlight to thrive, we come from and belong to the land and always will.