Northerner publishes first book on the Sahtu Dene

Northerner publishes first book on the Sahtu Dene
Bern Will Brown has published the first full-length book on the people of the Sahtu Dene.Photo: John Jennings.

Celebrated Northern writer and artist Bern Will Brown has a new book coming out that will be the first of its kind to tell the story of the Sahtu Dene.

Brown, 93, wrote End-of-Earth People: The Arctic Sahtu Dene over the span of 60 years working and living alongside the Sahtu Dene in Colville Lake.

The author came to the NWT as a Roman Catholic priest in the 1940s. His travels in various communities around Great Bear Lake eventually led him to build Colville Lake’s first Catholic mission in 1962 called Our Lady of the Snows.

Brown left the priesthood in 1972 with permission from the Vatican to marry his wife, Margaret, and continue ministerial work for the church.

Wearing many hats in the community as a lay minister, carpenter, pilot, trapper, writer and artist, Brown became an integral member of the Sahtu Dene during a time when they were transitioning from a people dependent on a traditional on-the-land lifestyle to what they are today.

Speaking to The Journal from his home in Colville Lake last week, Brown called the transition of the Sahtu Dene “inevitable, but not desirable.”

“They switched from dog teams to skidoos to travel and they are not dependent on the trapping like they were in 1950,” he said. “There are still some, maybe 25 per cent, going out in the bush trapping, but the other 75 per cent are not.

“It’s not a good thing because they were better able to take care of themselves and they were happier and healthier when they were living on the trap line,” he said.

Story worth telling

After more than 60 years of writing down his observations and collecting stories from the community, Brown finally set to work completing a manuscript in the last three years with the help of Ivan Gaetz.

Gaetz, a former Hay River local who now works as a library director at Colorado College in the US, has been working with the author to edit his work and fill in historical citations and references.

While there have been numerous articles and chapters of books published sharing the story of the Sahtu Dene people, this book is the first of its kind to fully explore their history over the past 60 years, Gaetz said.

“It’s a record of a way of life that’s rapidly decreasing and it’s important because Bern gives insight into that transition period into modern life,” he said.

The book candidly speaks about social issues that the Sahtu Dene are still struggling with, such as residential schools and dependence on government assistance, while providing rare details into the traditional practices of the Sahtu people, Gaetz said.

“He provides descriptions of their way of life and actually tells the reader how to tan a moose hide or how to build a canoe from native material. You just don’t find that stuff around today,” he said.

Book available this month

In 2012, Brown’s book caught the attention of Canadian publishing company Dundurn Press out of Toronto. After a lengthy process of paperwork and editing, the publisher is ready to release End-of-Earth People: The Arctic Sahtu Dene, complete with a foreword from Sahtu MLA Norman Yakeleya, at the end of March.

“I’m very happy now to see it in print,” Brown said, adding that while he thinks it’s unlikely to change the lives of the Sahtu Dene people, he hopes it reaches a broader audience who can learn from their story.

For more information about Brown and his book on the Sahtu Dene, go online to http://ivangaetz.wix.com/sahtudene

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