By Bren Kolson
For uncountable generations, the Dene homeland has stretched along the full length of the Mackenzie River, beginning at the Arctic Ocean. In these Western Arctic Northwest Territories’ communities the Dene sing hundreds of songs, drum and dance “in Spirit” with the Great Creator.
The Dene lands are frigid in winter and cold in spring but warm and beautiful in summer and fall. The Dene people know that everything is a gift, so the land and all that takes place on it are reason enough for ceremonies. This includes special occasions such as the birth of a child, funerals or important meetings. But the Dene also celebrate ordinary events such as canoeing, a hunting trip, or a day of checking fish nets.
Most ceremonies are happy times where the Dene take their caribou-hide drums, have fun and dance. If you would like to hear dance terms in five of the different languages we speak, you can go to these audio files to hear Chipewyan, Tlicho (Dogrib), Gwich’in, North Slavey, and South Slavey.
Denendeh is a generic term that means “the land of the people.” It can also mean “the land where the people, the Dene, live.” Making up a portion of the peoples that speak Northern Athapaskan languages, the inhabitants of Denendeh live in five different regions.
The Gwich’in Dene’s home is the Inuvik region that includes the communities of Fort McPherson, Arctic Red River (Tsiigehtchic) and Inuvik.
The Sahtu, or North Slavey region, is further down the Mackenzie River. This includes the Colville Lake community, Fort Good Hope, Deline, Norman Wells, and Tulita.
The Deh Cho, or South Slavey region, comprises 10 communities: Wrigley, Fort Liard, Fort Simpson, Trout Lake, Nahanni Butte, Jean Marie River, Kakisa Lake, Hay River, Enterprise and Fort Providence.
The Tlicho Region (formerly Dogrib) is in the North Great Slave Lake region, home to the communities of Whati, Gameti and Wekweeti. Behchoko is a fourth village, which some people call Rae-Edzo.
The Akaitcho, or South Great Slave Lake region, comprises the southernmost Denendeh communities of Fort Resolution, Fort Smith, Lutselk’e, Dettah, and N’dilo.
Feed the Fire Ceremony
Feed the Fire is a ceremony for all seasons in which the Dene honour the air, land, water and everything the Great Creator provides every day. First, the people build a large central fire where they pray to their relatives and the Great Creator. Next, the people throw food into the flames while they say thanks for every gift to humankind. The Dene sing prayer songs, then dance slowly around the fire while the drums keep time.
The Dene will always keep ceremonies such as this alive and strong because the songs, too, are heavenly gifts. The Great Creator gives them to singers who use specially crafted drums. The ceremonies, songs, drums and dances are expressive acts of worship and respect. No ceremonies would exist if the ancestors and other relatives did not teach them to each new Dene generation.
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