History and way of life before the arrival of Europeans

MPM – November 1967

Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Center

Dogrib subsistence before the arrival of Europeans consisted of hunting, snaring, and fishing. According to June Helm, the premier anthropologist who studied the Dogrib, "Dogribs lived off the bush, and open coniferous woodland interspersed with thousands of lakes" (Helm, 1994: 7). This abundance of water in the area made fishing an integral part of the Dogrib culture. They had different strategies for fishing: nets, traps, hook and lines, and fishing poles were often used, depending on the season (PWNHC, Lessons). The fish not used were given to the dogs as dog food throughout the year (PWNHC, Lessons).

Living in a region rich with lakes and waterways, the Dogrib way of life depended on the canoe, especially in their seasonal round of hunting caribou and musk ox (PWNHC, Lessons). Hunting of caribou could be accomplished several different ways, depending on the season. During the spring, snares and large drift fences were made to trap the caribou as they traveled through the woods. When the caribou were trapped, the Dogrib used spears and bows and arrows to kill the animals. They would attempt to take as many caribou as they could to last them through the spring and summer (PWNHC, Lessons). In the fall and winter, when the snow slowed the caribou, the Dogrib would follow the herds and again use their spears and bows and arrows to bring them down. All parts of the caribou were utilized. Caribou meat was used to supplement their diets; the hides were used for items such as clothing and shelter; the ligaments and tendons were made into sinew, which was used as sewing thread, and the bones and antlers could be made into tools and weapons (PWNHC, Lessons).

The caribou skin lodge, the most common shelter used by the Dogrib, was, besides the canoe, their other primary possession since it was easy to pack and relocate (PWNHC, Lessons). It was the responsibility of the women to produce caribou skin lodges and it was no small task. The skins of over 30 caribou were needed to complete one lodge. Each hide needed to be tanned in a caribou brain solution and then set out to bleach in the sun. Sometimes this step was repeated several times before the hides were ready to be hand-sewn together using sinew (PWNHC, Lessons).

The inside of the lodge had a hearth in the center with poles hanging over it to be used as a drying and cooking rack. The floor around the hearth was covered with spruce boughs, which helped to keep the floor warm and dry (PWNHC, Lessons). Where someone would sleep in the lodge was determined by their gender, age, and status (PWNHC, Lessons).


Dogrib Bands

MPM – July 1967

Hunting throughout the year on a large scale was usually done in groups and these groups were often determined by band structure (Vanstone, 1974: 48). There were three different bands in Dogrib society but their membership was not exclusive, as every member was usually part of each band. There could also be more than one band of each type in existence at any given time, depending on the needs of the group (Vanstone, 1974: 45).

The smallest of these three band groups is the task group. These groups were formed to complete a specific task, usually determined by seasonal needs. "Task groups varied in size depending on the purpose for which they were formed. Two or three nuclear families, frequently linked by sibling or parent-child relationship, might join together for periods of several weeks or months for trapping along with general subsistence activities". The group would disband after their task had been completed (Vanstone, 1974: 46).

The second largest band group was known as the local band. The local band was made up of close friends and families, "the local band was likely to average four couples together with their offspring and other dependents. Members of a local band might consist of a core of siblings, male and female, with their spouses and dependents" (Vanstone, 1974: 46). This group usually lived on a small portion of the larger regional band territory.

The regional band, being the largest band group, utilized the traditional range of its land. Due to the size of the area of land they exploited, this group could remain together for several generations, until the land had been totally exploited. "The families who belonged to it were likely to come together when operating as a task group exploiting a resource which, by its nature, allowed a large number of persons to congregate, such as a fall fishing camp. Most of the time, the various families making up the regional band were dispersed in smaller units. Regional band members, however, were related through a network of primary affinal and consanguinal ties" (Vanstone, 1974: 47).


History and way of life after the arrival of Europeans

In 1670, white fur traders arrived in Hudson Bay and their arrival would forever change the life of the Dogrib people (PWNHC, Historical). Before European trade, leaders were skilled hunters who demonstrated leadership abilities and provided for their group, effectively becoming the chief of that particular band. With the arrival of fur traders, the status and responsibilities of the band chief changed. Band chiefs became trade chiefs and they dealt directly with the fur traders (PWNHC, Lessons). Gifts were regularly given to the trade chiefs by the traders to show gratitude, establish relationships, and signify the level of importance that particular trading chief held (PWNHC, Lessons).

Not only did the arrival of the traders change the roles of certain tribal members, it also had a huge impact on the entire Dogrib population. The introduction of disease decimated the Native groups in the region. It is estimated that 80% of the population in the Mackenzie Valley died due to European diseases in the 1800s (PWNHC, Lessons). Though European diseases severely reduced the Dene population, the harsh Dogrib region contributed to short life spans even before the arrival of Europeans (PWNHC, Lessons). Scarce food sources and the unsympathetic climate affected life spans greatly, but the introduction of disease made their situation even more unstable (PWNHC, Lessons).


Warfare, Conflicts, and Hostilities

Burial Platform Mackenzie River 1921
Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Center

Though there were conflicts between the Athapaskan peoples before the arrival of the European fur traders, the introduction of foreign trade goods and disease heightened tensions between the groups (PWNHC Historical). In the early 1700s, when trade goods such as guns and steel tools began to make their way across the Northwest Territory, it shifted the Native power balance (PWNHC, Historical). During the first half of the 18th century, the Cree held the middlemen position between several Dene groups, including the Dogrib, and the fur traders. During this time, the Crees position was not contested (Yerbury, 1986: 44,). The Chipewyans, however, began to work as middlemen in the same area, with some of their supply coming from the Dogrib (Yerbury, 1986: 44). This event sparked hostilities with the Cree, and warfare broke out sometime around 1760 (Yerbury, 1986: 43). During the conflict among the Dene peoples, the fur traders were attempting to secure direct trade with the Yellowknife and Dogrib. This move caused objections from the Cree and Chipewyan, from which they reacted, "sometimes violently" (Yerbury, 1986: 44). The Chipewyan remained the middlemen for the Dogrib until around 1775, but during this time, the Cree still showed aggression towards the Dogrib (Helm, 1981: 296).

It was not until 1786 that the fur traders established a direct trade with the Dogrib (Yerbury, 1986: 58). Even though trade was made possible by Dene middlemen, as of 1789 there were Dogrib and other Athapaskan people who had no possession of any goods related to the fur trade (Yerbury, 1986: 59). The increased number of fur trade posts built by 1790 decreased the distance of the Dene from the trade and helped to increase the direct trade relationship (Yerbury, 1986: 67). This increase in posts also allowed the non-Natives to effectively map the Northwest Territories (PWNHC, Historical).

Shortly after the direct trade was established, and until 1825, the Dogrib and Yellowknife exchanged hostilities (Helm, 1981: 1981). The Hudson’s Bay Company trading post journal for the early 1800s frequently reported that the Yellowknifes were "fighting and killing Dogrib" (PWNHC, Historical). Some believe the fighting had begun as early as the 1770s over trade goods (PWNHC, Historical). In October of 1823, the Dogrib killed 34 Yellowknifes in retaliation, "possibly one-fifth of the entire Yellowknife population" (PWNHC, Historical). While there are two conflicting stories, where each side claimed to be the first to make peace, hostilities ceased between the Dogrib and Yellowknife shortly after this incident (PWNHC, Historical).

With the fur trade now being all around the Dogrib and other Dene peoples, their way of life drastically changed. While trading chiefs became more important as negotiators with the fur traders, some Dene did not want to transition to the fur trade life. They believed that their traditional way of life was superior, but by the middle of the 1800s, the fur trade had supplemented their original intentions (PWNHC, Historical).

During the early stages of the fur trade, the Dogrib did not have permanent homes, however, "by 1905 or so, a few begin to build log cabins at the fort or at a major fishery or other site [that was] occupied for several weeks during the year" (Helm, 2000: 9). During that time, they traded or purchased supplies from the traders and then left the fort, usually during August, to escape the winter freeze of the waterways and prepare for their next camp (Helm, 2000: 9). Several times during the winter, the Dogrib men would return to the local forts and trade their furs to pay their debts and receive more supplies. These times were usually during New Year, March, and April. They then would return in late May with their spring furs (Helm, 2000: 9). "This way of life endured for over a hundred years, up to the 1950s when events arising in the modern and national purpose begin to reshape the native scene" (Helm, 2000: 9).


The Impact of Roman Catholic Religion

MPM – Rae 1962

The Roman Catholic faith reached the Dogribs in the 1850s and 1860s. Those who followed the Roman Catholic faith often came to local trading posts and missions to celebrate Christmas and Easter and continue their trade (Helm, 1994: 8). In 1867, the Sisters of Charity, which were also known as the Grey Nuns, established a school and a hospital at the Providence Mission, a Roman Catholic mission that had been built in 1861. These nuns "dedicated their lives to the religious instruction and education of the Dene of the Mackenzie Valley" (PWNHC, Historical).

The Grey Nuns were not the only members of the Catholic faith that wished to help the Dogrib. Father Émile Fortuné Stanislas Joseph Petitot, of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate came to work with the Dene in 1862 (PWNHC, Historical). He gathered the traditional stories of the Dogrib and several other Native groups in the area. Not only did he transcribe them, he copied them in each of their Dene languages (Ruppert, 2001: 15). His ability to convert the stories into the Dene language came after he realized that in order to properly missionize the Dene, he must know their language. He then began to work on a Dogrib dictionary as well as dictionaries in other Dene languages (PWNHC, Historical).

Currently, Father Jean Pochat of St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Church in Behchoko, "is concerned about making Christianity more indigenous" (Janke, 2003: 13). This includes modifying certain aspects of the church, such as including tribal drumming, using caribou leg oil instead of olive oil for baptisms and anointing, and burning spruce tree gum instead of church incense (Janke, 2003: 13). He also feels that using the Dogrib language is an essential part of their church services, and uses the language in most of the church services. Around 400 people attend the local church services in Behchoko (Janke, 2003: 13).

The translation of the New Testament into the Dogrib language has been an essential key to connecting the church and the Dogrib. Jaap and Morina Feenstra from the Summer Institute of Languages helped to translate the text into Dogrib, and with help from the local Dogribs, it took eight years to complete the New Testament (Ross, 2003). This was no small task, considering the Dogrib dictionary they were working with only had 5,000 words in it. The translated New Testament joins the few books that are written in Dogrib. The New Testament will also be used in the Dogrib schools as another language tool added to church services and home visits. Due to the translation, the next edition of the Dogrib dictionary will have several hundred new words added to it. Even though the translation is complete, the Feenstras will be staying in the Dogrib area to oversee the completion of the New Testament audio cassettes (Ross, 2003). Father Pochat states that, "Everyday, I praise God for the work they’ve done. This is priceless. What else do I have, if I don’t have my Bible in Dogrib?" (Janke, 2003: 13).

Many aspects of Dogrib life have been affected by the arrival of Christian Missionaries, and burial practices are one of them. In the days before the missionaries, when a person died they were wrapped in clothing and left on a scaffold (PWNHC, Lessons). If they died in an area with no trees, they were left on the ground. Instead of burying them, especially in the winter when the ground was frozen, they avoided the area and let the elements claim them. Since the arrival of the missionaries in the 1850s, graves are now dug with white picket fences and crosses are erected around the grave (PWNHC, Lessons). The Dogrib stop when they see a grave, and regardless of family connection, they clean up the underbrush and straighten out the fence and cross (PWNHC, Lessons). Many times, they say a small prayer and leave a gift, perhaps tobacco, to be respectful. These areas are very sacred to the Dogrib and it is important that travelers who pass by these areas show the same respect for the deceased (PWNHC, Lessons).


Treaties, Land Claims, and Land Agreements

MPM – N.W.T. 1967

MPM – Rae 1967

MPM – Rae La Martre 1959

In June of 1899, negotiation began on Treaty No. 8, which covered 840,000 square kilometers in the Northwest Territory. It was an agreement between the Canadian Government and the Dene groups in the area in question; in return for their willingness to share their land with non-Natives, the Dene would receive medical and educational assistance, as well as treaty payments (PWNHC, Historical). The Canadian Government and the various Dene groups, including the Dogrib, signed the treaty in 1900. After the signing, the group that signed the treaty was called the "Yellowknife B Band" (Helm, 7: 1994). At that point in history, Treaty No. 8 was the largest land settlement the Canadian Government had ever made (PWNHC, Historical).

Twenty years after Treaty No. 8 was signed, oil was discovered in the Mackenzie Valley. Upon the discovery, the Canadian Government proposed another treaty that would clear the way for miners and development of the area. The treaty was greatly debated, as the Natives did not want to lose their right to hunt, fish, gather, and trap in the area. They also opposed being "confined to reserves." Many Dene felt that Treaty No. 8 was not honored by the Canadian Government, and some were afraid that this treaty would turn out similarly. Nevertheless, Treaty No. 11 was signed in the summer of 1921 (PWNHC, Historical). The group that signed this treaty was then known as the "Dog Rib Rae Band" (Helm, 7: 1994). According to the historical timeline of the Northwest Territories on the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Center website, "These treaties are signed between nations (in this case Canada and the Dene) and were to protect the way of life and culture of the Dene for ‘as long as the land shall last" (PWNHC, Historical). Both Treaty No. 8 and Treaty No. 11 overlap in several of their boundaries, and continue to cause conflict between the two separate treaty bands (Government of Canada, Backgrounder).

Not all members of the Dene and Dogrib communities agreed with or signed these treaties. In 1976 and 1977, some of the Dene of the Northwest Territories sent land claims to the Canadian government. "This was largely because land entitlement under Treaties 8 and 11 were virtually unfulfilled and it was also to maintain consistency of treatment among northern Aboriginal peoples" (Government of Canada, Backgrounder). Negotiations on this claim commenced in 1981 and by 1990, a final agreement was initialed. The final agreement, however, was rejected by the Dene because it would take away certain self-government provisions. Another Native group involved with the agreement, the Gwich’in, disagreed with the larger Dene group, and asked if the agreement could be settled regionally. The Canadian government agreed and the Gwich’in and several other groups settled their agreements in 1992 and 1994 (Government of Canada, Backgrounder).

In the fall of 1992, the Dogrib submitted their own regional claim to the Canadian government. Negotiations were scheduled to begin in 1994 between the Yellowknife B Band (Treaty No. 8 Dogrib) and the Dog Rib Rae Band (Treaty No. 11 Dogrib), but the Yellowknife B Band refused to enter into negotiations. This complicated matters, as both treaty groups had land boundaries that overlapped each other. Self-governance seemed to be the issue between the two groups, as both wanted to have their say in the agreement. This halted the negotiations in 1994 while the Canadian government explored the boundary and self-government issue. In 1995, the Chief Federal Negotiator ruled, "it was apparent that the new self-government policy would have a profound effect on land claim negotiations" and that they needed to set a new mandate, "one that combined self-government and land claim elements" (Government of Canada, Backgrounder). The new mandate came in April of 1997 and allowed negotiation of a "joint land claims and self-government agreement with the Dogrib Treaty 11 Council" (Government of Canada, Backgrounder). In 1999, the Agreement-in-Principle was available for Dogrib approval and was accepted on January 7, 2000. Ninety-three percent of the Dogrib turned out to vote with over 84% voting for the agreement (Government of Canada, Historic). After several community discussions and revisions, in March of 2003 the Chief Negotiators initialed the agreement.

The act of signing the agreement began the ratification process for the Tlicho Agreement. According to this agreement,
"The Tlicho [Dogrib] will receive approximately 39,000 square kilometres of land in a single block surrounding but not including, the four Tlicho communities of Behchoko (Rae-Edzo), Whati, Gameti (Rae Lakes), and Wekweeti. On their lands, the Tlicho will own both the surface and mineral (subsurface) resources. In addition to Tlicho lands, the Tlicho will receive a share of resource royalties from development in the Mackenzie Valley. Under the Agreement's self-government provisions, a Tlicho Government will be able to make laws over a wide range of areas, primarily over Tlicho lands and Tlicho Citizens, and will be actively involved in resource management in Wekeezhii" (Government of Canada, Frequently Asked Questions).
The benefits the Dogrib (Tlicho) will receive from this agreement are,
"The Tlicho will gain additional tools and resources to strengthen their economy, and a greater ability to protect and promote Tlicho culture, language, heritage, lands, and resources. It is expected that the Tlicho Agreement will create a climate that will encourage economic investment and partnerships. The Agreement also paves the way for new jobs and educational opportunities. Under the Agreement's self-government provisions, the Tlicho will acquire new governance arrangements and powers. They will be able to make decisions in many subject areas directly related to the well being of Tlicho persons and culture. The Tlicho Government will also be able to design and manage programs through agreements with the territorial and federal governments that respect and promote the Tlicho way of life. The Agreement also guarantees Tlicho representation in new Tlicho community public governments to ensure their interests and culture are reflected" (Government of Canada, Frequently Asked Questions).

On Thursday, August 4, 2005, the Tlicho Agreement went into full effect, "The first official day of the Tlicho Government and the Tlicho community governments" (Tlicho Effective Date). The Tlicho agreement is unique in that it is the "first combined land claims and self-government agreement in the territories" (Government of Canada, Frequently Asked Questions).