For thousands of years, ancestors of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation (YKDFN) have made their homes in the area now occupied by the territory’s capital. That history is thoroughly explored in the new W?ìl?ìdeh Yellowknives Dene exhibit at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre.
The new exhibit opened its doors on Oct. 3, with prayers, drum and cleansing ceremonies to honour the artifacts within. Following the ceremonial services, YDKFN members shared some of their traditions that have survived throughout the ages, including a tea dance demonstration and hand games hosted by young drummers.
“Elders have been talking about the histories of the people. Even in the ‘70s, there were documents about anthropologists,” said former YKDFN chief Fred Sangris, one of the exhibit’s curators.
He referred to research conducted by Beryl Gillespie, an American anthropologist who claimed that all those of true Yellowknives descent had died out. It is a perception the Akaitcho people assert is dead wrong and continue to battle today.
“They said, ‘All you people are supposed to be gone!’”
It is rumours like that Sangris wants to dispel by putting the many stories of his people on display.
“What we’re trying to do here is correct that history,” Sangris continued. “It only makes sense to do a history of who we are because the population in the city of Yellowknife is encroaching on the lands and areas that the Yellowknives Dene use. Many people, including the visitors, the tourists, that come here have no idea that there’s indigenous or Aboriginal people living there.”
Sangris worked with local elder Mary Rose Sundberg to gather other elders from the region, in an effort to piece together the elements of the exhibit, and ultimately, their cultural history.
“We want to be able to expose who we are and how we lived here from the beginning of time up to thousands of years ago,” he said. “We talk about the tree on the Yellowknife River, it was related to a man called Yamasha’a. He was a living legend thousands of years ago in the time of the giant beavers; that’s the beginning of our story. The elders have been telling us these stories since I was a child and I’m almost 60 years old.”
Efforts to compile sources for the exhibit officially began about two years ago, however, Sangris noted preserving the Yellowknives’ history became a real priority as far back as 1972 when elders started recording their stories audibly. Transcripts of these recordings informed much of the exhibit.
“You have to do research, you have to go through church records, you have to go and look at treaty records, you have to read the records of the old people; where they’re buried, their history, their stories,” Sangris said. “It was a lot of going back and forth and a lot of research. It wasn’t like walking into a library when you find a book and everything is there.”
In addition to their knowledge, some of the contributing elders shared their most prized possessions, donating tools, clothing and other items that had been passed down through the generations to show at the exhibit.
Tying the whole display together is a map, listing all of the Dene villages – as many as 27 – that formerly occupied the region, before a devastating flu and colonial practices wiped out many of the people, starting in 1928. The graphic includes traditional names of other landmarks – like the many lakes of the North Slave – all recorded in the Weledeh language, a mix of Dogrib and Chipewyan.
The exhibit will be housed in the PWNHC for the next three years.
“This is one of our first engagements with the Prince of Wales museum,” Sangris said. “Because we’re the indigenous people that lived around Yellowknife Bay before the arrival of Europeans, we’re going to probably do more exhibits like this in the future to talk about the land and the histories around this area.”