First Nations Groups in Manitoba: Dene

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The Denesuliné (pronounced: Den-a-sooth-leh-na), or Dene, lived in a very large part of Turtle Island (North America) for 12,000 years. In Manitoba, the Denesuliné were also known as the Chipewyan, a name given to them by Ininew traders which means “pointed toes”. They preferred to be called Denesuliné which is in their own language and means “human beings”.

In the past, the Denesuliné lived in northern Manitoba. Today there are two Denesuliné communities in northern Manitoba: at Tadoule Lake (Saysis Dene First Nation) and Lac Brochet (Northlands Denesuliné First Nation). The people living at Tadoule Lake are Sayisi, a sub-group of Denesuliné. The Sayisi were a nomadic people, and their name means “Eastern Dene” because this is the eastern most Dene population.

Map showing Dene territory

Courtesy of West/Dunn Productions,

There are 9,515 Denesuliné speakers on the Prairies and 835 in Manitoba. Nowadays, the majority of Denesuliné are found in northern British Columbia and the Northwest Territories. In fact, 50% of the population of the Northwest Territories is Indigenous (Inuit and Dene).

The Hand Games

The Hand Games are a friendly, competitive guessing game. A small object, like a coin, is passed between the hands of the members of a team. They try to confuse the other team about in whose hand the object is hidden. Each time a team guesses wrong, the opposite team gets a point. Check out this video to see this game played!

Na’h e’tse’ah: Dene Hand Game, The Royal Alberta Museum.

Forcible relocation

The Sayisi Denesuliné were successful hunters and trappers. They sold their furs to the Hudson Bay Company at the fort at Little Duck Lake (Manitoba). When the trade ended in the 1950s, the Denesuliné were able to continue thriving because they knew how to live off the land. In this area, there was plenty of caribou and fish.

In 1956, the Denesuliné were falsely accused of overhunting the caribou, and the Canadian government decided to move them out of the area. They didn’t allow them to take any to their hunting tools or sled dogs. They were moved to a totally new type of wilderness where there were much fewer resources – Churchill, Manitoba.

This move was devastating for the Denesuliné people. Forced to live in an urban environment, the youth forgot how to live off the land. They lived in terrible poverty and experienced extreme racist violence from the non-Indigenous peoples.

In the 1970s, the Denesuliné returned to their home on their own. You can find them today at Tadoule Lake. Finally, in 2016, the Canadian government apologized and offered 33 million dollars to the Denesuliné people. It is a testament to the resiliency of the Sayisi people that they manage to survive the forced relocation, and brought themselves back home.

Dynamic Dene

Dakota Ray Hebert is a painter, writer, activist, and comedian. She comes from Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan.
Her most recent stand-up routine is entitled “I’ll give you an Indian Act about the Indian Act.” Here’s a sample from YouTube:

By Nastashya Wall
Sources: Indigenous Languages across Canada, Statistics Canada; Profile table: Northwest Territories [Territory], Statistics Canada; Dene, Indigenous Languages of Manitoba Inc.; Dënéndeh, Native Land Digital; University of Saskatchewan: Northern Research Portal; History of the Denesuliné (Dene) in Northern Saskatchewan, University of Saskatchewan; Denesuline (Dene), Indigenous Encyclopedia, University of Saskatchewan; Denesuline, Encyclopedia Britannica Kids; Dene, The Canadian Encyclopedia; Sayisi Dene, Sayisi Dene First Nation Relocation Settlement Trust; Manitoba’s Sayisi Dene: Forced relocation, racism, survival, CBC News; Historic Sites of Manitoba: Sayisi Dene Village (Churchill River Road, Churchill), Manitoba Historical Society; Sayisi Dene Village; Ghotelnene K’odtineh Dene, Government of the Northwest Territories; Dene Games; Dakota Ray Hebert. Accessed February 15, 2024.

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