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The Hero of the Dene

The Hero of the Dene

A Herculean myth that served as a map, a unifier and an inspiration
By Daniel Campbell
Apr 01

Long ago, giant beasts roamed the Earth and people were lawless, and the Dene of the Northwest Territories tell of two brothers who set the world straight. “Many old medicine stories talk about giant animals—bats, dinosaurs, beavers, monkeys—which once roamed the earth,” wrote the late Dene elder George Blondin in his book Yamoria: The Lawmaker. “Storytellers say we came from animals and long ago there were many half-animal/half-human life forms. It seems during this period that genetic forces as we know them today were out of control.” People were starving and ate each other, he writes of this “terrible period.” But Yamoria and Yamozha came from the west to be humankind’s salvation.

“Every culture, every indigenous people around the world have great stories, right?” says Fred Sangris, a Yellowknives Dene elder. “This is Dene’s story. This is our great story, the two brothers, Yamozha and Yamoria. If they didn’t do their job, I don’t know what the earth would look like.” 

In some stories, there are two brothers. In some iterations, they are both one man. Their names—Yamoria and Yamozha—are sometimes interchangeable. One Gwich’in elder, who asked that her name not be printed (we’ll refer to her as Elle), said elders told her their hero was an orphan. “They said the man was born in Alaska. He had no parents. This is why he travelled alone. He travelled down the Yukon to the NWT. He paddled the river north to Old Crow, then he walked over the mountains, crossing Rat River, and he made his way to the Mackenzie River,” Elle says. 

"This is Dene’s story. This is our great story, the two brothers, Yamozha and Yamoria. If they didn’t do their job, I don’t know what the earth would look like." --Fred Sangris

Many stories describe the two brothers splitting up, each taking a different region of the North. Sangris says Yamozha travelled in the eastern part of the Northwest Territories, and Yamoria travelled in the west, down the Mackenzie River. But whether they were two or one, this heroic archetype served the same purpose—to usher out an age of darkness, and bring in an age of freedom for the Dene. 

“We all have different names for Yamozha,” says Sangris. Atachuukaii for the Gwich’in, Yamoria for the North Slavey, Zhamba Deja for the South Slavey, Hachoghe for the Chipewyan and Yamozha for the Tłi¸cho¸ and Yellowknives Dene. “Every tribe has a different name for him … but it’s the same person. And it’s the same story.”

Archie Beaulieu/Theytus Books

Each region of the Northwest Territories has its own stories of mythical beasts wreaking havoc as well, told for perhaps thousands of years in dimly lit tents from the Arctic Coast to Lake Athabaska and beyond—but the monsters are also similar among the various groups. Perhaps the best-known story of Yamoria is about the giant beavers that terrorized Great Bear Lake. Yamoria chases a family of giant beavers (in some stories one of the giant beavers is his wife, transformed) down the Great Bear River into the Deh Cho—the Mackenzie River—where he slays the beaver family and pins their pelts atop Bear Rock, overlooking Tulita. He then cooks the beaver meat at the side of the river, where some of the beaver’s grease drips into the fire. It is said the fire continues to burn in the hills nearby, and smoke can be seen by a lucky few. (The area is well known for its natural gas deposits.) Blondin refers to the symbols on Bear Rock as essential to the survival of the Dene as a people—they are now illustrated on the Dene Nation logo. In his article “Yamoria’s Arrows: Stories, Place-names and the Land in Dene Oral Traditions,” archeologist Tom Andrews argues the same, saying the stories connect Dene to the land they inhabit.

“Landscape reflects oral tradition,” he writes, “and oral tradition reflects culture, and consequently landscape becomes inseparable from culture.” 

Almost every Yamoria/Yamozha tale takes place in or near significant places for the Dene. Andrews says the stories are signs designed to help Dene travellers navigate the landscape, meaning it’s likely any significant geography in the territory has a Yamoria or Yamozha legend attached to it. The Lockhart River, for example, is an important route into the Barrenlands in the eastern part of the NWT. Sangris says it is there Yamozha, like his brother Yamoria on Great Bear Lake, battled a family of giant beavers.

"They were afraid of the beavers so they’d paddle right on the shoreline as quietly as they could go. And they would tell the children not to make any noise."--Fred Sangris

“My grandfather says, as the story goes, that people were really, really scared when they paddled, because at any time they could encounter a beaver,” says Sangris. “And beavers, they don’t have any natural enemies. They’d come to anything that’s moving on water and if they feel threatened and if they don’t feel comfortable, they’ll capsize the canoes and break the canoes. So the Dene here, the Yellowknives Dene were afraid of them. They were afraid of the beavers so they’d paddle right on the shoreline as quietly as they could go. And they would tell the children not to make any noise.”

Yamozha chased the beavers out into Great Slave Lake, and the signs of the chase mark an important part of the river. “In the middle of the Lockhart River there’s a big outcrop rock that stands straight up, as the old people [tell], the beavers were chased down the river so fast and they were afraid of Yamozha, as each one of the beavers [went] through the falls they keep hitting that boulder rock. Today if you went there that rock would be leaning to one side. That’s because the beavers rushed down. It’s still there to this day.” 

Sangris explains that the beavers Yamozha chased down the Lockhart River eventually made their way into the Deh Cho, where his brother Yamoria took over, eventually killing them at Bear Rock.

Europeans and their descendants have been writing down the legends, as told to them by Dene elders, ever since they came to this part of the world. Oblate priest Emilie Petitot recorded the legends of the two brothers, in biblical style, in The Book of Dene. Yamoria’s legends—as valuable, impressive and important as they are to the historical record—do not lend themselves to the written word, with its axioms of authors, readers, chronology, and permanence.

"Those days [there] was no such thing as TV, no such thing as radio, and old people used to tell the history of our Gwich’in people and the legends. That was our radio. And then when they tell you the story in the language that you understand, it was just like sitting there watching TV today." --Gwich'in elder "Elle"

Elle, who was born on the land about 50 kilometres up the Peel River, near what is now Fort McPherson, remembers being told the stories of Atachuukaii every evening. “Those days [there] was no such thing as TV, no such thing as radio, and old people used to tell the history of our Gwich’in people and the legends. That was our radio,” Elle says. “And then when they tell you the story in the language that you understand, it was just like sitting there watching TV today.”

Sangris remembers travelling the Barrenlands east and north of Yellowknife as a young man, and hearing the elders tell stories about Yamozha from the confines of a teepee, where an elder woman would usually guard the door with a willow branch, whacking the kids to keep them focused. “The teepee is kinda dark in the evening—the oldtimers would tell you stories. You close your eyes, you just imagine the story of Yamozha and it becomes alive. And that’s how you remember it. Plus the old lady with the willow would make sure you remember it.” 

But few young Dene manage to find themselves inside a teepee listening to elders every night nowadays—their landscape is changing with the arrival of new technologies and ways of life. As their world changes, the Dene are adapting to preserve the stories of Yamoria and Yamozha. “Instead of telling stories, we want to be able to record them and get them into books,” says Sangris. “We weren’t able to do that before. A thousand years ago, no, 200 years ago, no. Today, yeah it’s possible. So that’s what we’ve been doing for the last 40 years, is recording.”

The Yellowknives are even mapping out the locations of Yamozha stories using GPS.

“The history is there, it’s written down and drawn on a map. It’s for the future generations so they can understand their own stories,” says Sangris.

Elle, 76, said she’s confident stories of Atachuukaii will be passed on to younger generations, thanks to the efforts of the Gwich’in Social and Cultural Institute to record them. “We got it on CD here… so I’m sure they’ll get the story.”

The end of the two brothers is as mysterious as their beginnings. Some stories say Yamoria continued down the Mackenzie River and floated out into the Arctic Ocean. Sangris says both brothers, old and grey, reunited in Lac De Gras, about 300 kilometres northeast of Yellowknife. There they argued about who had better medicine power, and fought an epic battle, making the earth roar and shake. This fight created many of the lakes that dot the landscape north of Great Slave Lake, as the brothers dragged each other across the territory.

Sangris says no one knows what happened to them after the fight, but perhaps where they ended up is not as important as the legacy they left behind. “It’s always said that Atachuukaii corrected things. He made things better,” Elle says. For ridding the world of giant animals, Sangris says the two brothers are heroes to the Dene. “The Dene were free after that. There were no giant beavers swimming around anymore and no big birds flew in the sky and no big animals walked on the earth that could harm them anymore.”

But even though Yamoria and Yamozha brought balance to the world, some of the places they passed still carry medicine power. Without paying proper respects, travellers risk incurring bad luck, or even death. There are some areas Sangris won’t go at all. He
remembers a mountainside collapsing between Great Bear Lake and Norman Wells in recent years, exposing a huge underground cave.

“And the old people of Délıne are afraid,” he says. “Yamozha put all those creatures in there. I wonder if that cave is open. I wonder if those creatures will come back to haunt us. So we’ll see.”

The teeth of this prehistoric beast measured up to 15 centimetres long.

The Science Behind Giant Beavers

Giant beavers (Castoroides ohioensis), the key antagonists in many Yamoria legends, actually existed in the swamps and lakes of the North around the time humans first arrived, between 40,000 and 16,000 years ago. And like the legends say, they may not have been all that easy to deal with.

The North of that time was host to a wide diversity of large mammals, including horses, camels and woolly mammoths. But around the end of the last glacial period, about 12,000 years ago, the giant species began disappearing. 

Theories of over-hunting by humans would back up stories of Yamoria shrinking or killing off many of the giant mammals that threatened humans at the time, but Grant Zazula, a paleontologist with the Yukon government, has his doubts, saying there’s little evidence of over hunting and no evidence that humans preyed on giant beavers at all. 

“A beaver the size of a bear with eight-inch teeth. I don’t know. If I was a hunter back then I would probably go with the horse or a bison.”

So how did giant beavers make their way into Dene stories? Zazula’s theory came to him the first time he did field work in Old Crow, in Northern Yukon.“If you go along the Old Crow River in the summer, and you float down in a canoe, there’s piles of bones of ice age animals on the riverbanks. They’re just all over the place.” 

Dene hunters, with their intimate knowledge of mammal anatomy, may have come across these fossils. “Giant beaver bones, well they look almost identical to modern beaver bones. If you know what a beaver tooth looks like, and if you found a beaver tooth that’s eight inches long, it just makes sense to you that your mythological stories are going to be built on these giant animals in the past. And of course they were right, there were giant animals in the past.”