On the Sunday before Délıne, NWT, voted to establish its own aboriginal self-government last March, I went for a walk on Great Bear Lake, the ninth-largest lake in the world. I’d been in town for two days and had only seen slices of it between houses and behind crisscrossing power lines as I wandered around, so I plunged into its snowdrifts, away from the ice road.
About 100 feet out, the wind blowing white noise in my ears, I gazed at the shore-side town before me—a dark sliver of civilization between the snow-clad lake and the cloud-covered sky. I turned around and saw the lake fade into the horizon. Realizing I didn’t have anything else to do, I told myself I had now experienced Great Bear. I walked back onto firm ground, stumbling through knee-high snow before reaching the road. I was heading back to my room at the Grey Goose Lodge when I locked eyes with a man in a baseball cap, getting out of a truck outside a house. He waved me over. It was Morris Neyelle, one of the few dozen people who’d watched me lose $80 in a poker tournament two days before. He invited me in for tea.
We’d met at the tournament. I’d arrived early and stopped at the canteen to grab tea. The man serving winked and said, “I put a little whiskey in it.” My jaw dropped and I smiled and began to thank him before he laughed and said, “Just kidding!” While I sipped my un-spiked drink, Morris introduced himself to me. I told him I was in town reporting on Délıne’s self-government vote, and he began telling me how Délıne’s communal culture is a perfect fit for self-rule.
If the community were to vote yes and take over delivery of all services, like education and housing programs—with North Slavey and traditional teachings woven throughout policy—it could revamp a system that’s never worked for Délıne. It was a lot of information, and we agreed to pick up on the conversation later, when I had my voice recorder with me.
Before the poker started, I sat down at a table with Chief Leonard Kenny and a bunch of elders, all sitting around telling hunting stories in North Slavey. The men would laugh and Kenny would lean over to translate for me. Then I’d laugh awkwardly while the conversation had long moved on. This continued until the tables were set and I was called over to my game.
I was the first person to stand up and shamefully walk through the tables, among laughter and back-pats, to the front of the room to re-up my chips. I smiled as if my pride weren’t hurt and played my next hands more conservatively. Morris came over and watched. He doesn’t play. I did well for a while, but eventually went all in on triple Queens, lost to a straight, shook my fellow gamblers’ hands, and I told Morris I’d get in touch with him before I returned to Yellowknife. As I left, one of the elders I’d met at the chief’s table patted me on the arm sympathetically and boomed, “Tricky Indians, eh?” He laughed, everyone laughed and I too laughed before waving and walking back to the lodge, wondering if I could expense my losses to the magazine. It turns out I cannot.
I was happy to run into Morris that Sunday. The town was pretty quiet and I’d realized out on the lake that my meanderings were becoming aimless, and that when I looked back at Délıne I didn’t really know what I was looking at.
In the beginning: “In those days many Dene people were very, very powerful people,” Charlie Neyelle told me, of the Sahtuto’ine before the Europeans came. I’d heard that Charlie, a local elder (and Morris’s brother) knew the stories of Délı¸ne’s prophet well, so when I ran into him during my stay I asked if he’d mind passing them on. He gave me two hours of his time, telling me stories he himself seemed in awe of.
“Some people had a mystical tie to the moon or stars. Another person had a mystical tie to water—so he knows everything about water.” The Dene had their own Galileo: a long time ago, the elders believed the sun moved across the sky every day. “One guy said the world turns year after year and the sun is sitting in one spot. They argued with him, but he’s the guy that had a mystical tie to the sun.” He convinced them, “and they asked him ‘How far is that sun?’ [and the man replied] ‘The minute when you’re born and you start walking, you start walking to the sun—you’ll have grey hair and you’ll still never get there.’”
I asked Charlie if there was anyone today who had mystical ties. “No. They’re all gone because of education. Only a few of them, the ones that never been in the school, they’re the ones that developed it. In the old day, without education, the knowledge of all this, that’s how we’d been trained.”
I walked into Morris’s log house; he put the kettle on. A large woodstove stood cold in the middle of his kitchen and I sat at a table beside it. Morris sat down across from me and told me some of Délıne’s history.
The first structures went up in what’s now Délıne in 1825, when Sir John Franklin founded Fort Franklin on a bay near where the Bear River meets the big lake. Morris told me a story he’d heard as a youth from an elder who was around 100 years old and had in turn heard the story from his grandmother, who was alive when Franklin was here. “His grandmother used to talk to him about it,” said Morris, “and how [Franklin’s crew of nearly 50] had been ruthless and killers. His grandmother talked to him about how [they] used to take aboriginal people from their people—aboriginal women—and if people interfered, they would kill them.” The armed men would drink and get trigger-happy. The Dene lived there in fear for two years. They brought the Europeans herring and caribou while Franklin prepared for an overland trip to the Arctic Ocean, said Morris. Then, under cover of night, they snuck out of Fort Franklin, returning five years later to find it nearly abandoned. It continued to be a trading post, and eventually government services and a church were set up, and the Bear Lake People began to settle there in the 1900s.
Around then, about 100 years after Franklin had left, a man from Rae named Ayah set up camp at the edge of where modern Délıne sits. He proselytized and philosophized and, it is said among the Dene, prophesied, before his death in 1940. “You know about the prophet by now, eh?” Morris asked me, and I told him I did—Ayah’s picture hangs in every home and government office I visited. The story of the prophet was why I’d wanted to come to Délıne in the first place. I’d been planning it for a year, and, as luck (and some forethought) would have it, when I arrived, the community was in the middle of a historic attempt to wrest control of services like education and health from faraway governments.
The vote and the prophet are two arms of the same story, about a community with a strong traditional culture, nuanced with a deep streak of mysticism, that doesn’t want to see its traditions lost. Neyelle told me about Ayah’s predictions of the end times. People would come from all over the world, and Great Bear Lake would be packed full of boats like a can of sardines. People survived for thousands of years, says Morris, by sticking together, and Ayah told them the only way they’d last is by continuing to do so. Those words are between the lines of the hundreds of pages of legalese that make up the self-government deal. By voting it in,Délıne’s people would not only make history, but also, it is said, fulfill prophecy. “Because of what Eht’se Ayah said, we have to create this self-government,” Morris said. “To control what’s coming.”
The prophet Ayah: It is said that Eht’se Ayah knew what the Bible said without having read it; that he knew who was coming to visit him—as many did from miles around—and their difficulties in doing so; and that he could sense when a brewpot (homemade alcohol) was in town, and would root it out.
In the 1980s, a group of elders gathered every week to tell stories about the prophet and keep his word alive, while drinking tea and eating food from the land. Charlie Neyelle, an elder now but younger then, would sit by the door and listen, and learn.
Ayah was born in 1857, Neyelle told me, and when he was a young man in Rae, NWT, had his first vision. A messenger told him to choose one of three items: a crucifix, a cup or a Bible. He chose the Bible, and knew he was destined to be a spiritual teacher. “He received lots about the message, never talked about it,” says Neyelle. “He never said anything, the elders said, until he got all grey hair.” Then he started spreading the word, on topics such as good versus bad, what is righteous, how to get rid of anger, and the importance of love. That’s also when he started sharing his visions of the future: it’s said he left behind many prophecies before his death in 1940.
In January, Délıne’s chief negotiator for self-government, Danny Gaudet, leaned against a wooden pillar on the Elks Club dance floor in Yellowknife. He was explaining to a room full ofDélıne ex-pats how the new government would work. These people had left their jobless community, with its crowded homes and struggling educational system, for the NWT capital, known in Slavey as Somba K’e—“where the money is.”
Danny was there with representatives of the federal and territorial negotiation teams, but he did most of the talking. Now and then he’d get tired and wave one of the government negotiators up to read the slides. They were empathetic and kind, but spoke inoffensive, technical bureaucrat-speak while the audience sat and watched expressionlessly. Everyone sort of tuned out. I tuned out. The government reps would often say, “Danny, you know this better than me,” and pass him the mic. In his baseball cap and button-up short-sleeve shirt, Danny commanded the room. He drew easy laughs from the audience: young men in hoodies, old women in headscarves, and young mothers with their children. He was warm and familiar and spoke plainly. “You complain long and hard,” he said. “Now we’re giving you the tools to fix your complaints.”
“Leaders have been having a hard time solving problems for people because they simply don’t have control over anything. We tried to design a modern government that will not only work toward solving a lot of our problems but also preserve and protect our culture and identity that we’re losing very fast. This government will have its own constitution. This government will be accountable to its people, not to the territorial or federal government.”
Danny’s been on this file for 17 years. “When I started, my hair was black and I was 30 pounds lighter,” he says. In the public info sessions he seemed alert, engaged, though he was travelling endlessly, fielding the same questions at every stop: the feds are devolving lands and resources to the NWT; why aren’t we getting more money? “This deal is completely separate from that, but with self-government we’ll be in a stronger position to negotiate for more resources from the government.” What’s happening with the cleanup of toxic tailings from the old uranium mine across Great Bear Lake? “We’re working with the federal government on a monitoring plan, but self-government is a separate issue.” Alberta oil sands are leaking tailings into the Athabasca River; what are we doing to protect our waters? “That’s an important issue that we should keep our eyes on, but self-government is about us being in charge of our own community.” After being assured it didn’t affect their treaty status, constitutional rights or access to programs for aboriginal peoples, no one questioned the deal itself.
The voters list was set, at 696 people, and the vote was structured so that every no-show counted as a “No” vote. Danny said they wanted to know for sure what the community wanted; if only 150 people voted, and just over half of them said, “Yes,” how could Délıne’s leaders be assured their people were truly united? Danny and his team wanted to make sure the people’s voices were heard. But his disgust at the prospect of turning the deal down shone through now and then at the public meetings. One lady asked what would happen if the vote came back “No.” “We stay the same,” said Danny. “We don’t go nowhere. We haven’t gone anywhere in 40 years. We’ll just stay the same for another 40 years.”
It is said… At around 3 p.m. on April 2, 2008, three polar bears walked into town, the first Délı¸ne—400 kilometres from the Beaufort Sea—had ever seen. In the news, climatologists cited it as a sign of climate change. In Délı¸ne, the elders saw one of Ayah’s prophecies come to pass. “He said strange animals were going to come to town… Three would come,” says Charlie Neyelle. The mother and two cubs were thin and starving, and the RCMP shot them—concern for public safety. Two are now mounted in the Grey Goose Lodge, but one cub was too damaged for taxidermy.
Another of Ayah’s prophecies, elders say, was the NWT diamond rush. There were no caribou near Tulita one winter, so its people came to Great Bear Lake to hunt, and Ayah went with them to guide them to caribou. Ayah travelled in Paul McCauley’s sleigh, pulled by dog team, and McCauley later recounted what Ayah told him. Ayah asked him if he knew of Port Radium. “’Yeah, I worked there one time,’ [McCauley said]. About halfway the land was just blue in the distance. [Ayah] said, ‘Not Port Radium, but in the east, somewhere [past Port Radium], in the future, they’re going to find two or three glass rock—like a glass—that’s going to be really rich.” Directly east of Great Bear Lake is the North Slave Geological province, where diamonds were first found in the 1990s and where the NWT’s three diamond mines currently sit.
“[Délıne’s] isolated. We don’t have a highway,” says Pauline Roche, Délıne First Nation’s band manager for the past 13 years, as we sit in her office a few blocks away from the Northern store, where a few cans of tuna and beans and some fresh spinach, as well as scissors and a $20 calling card, cost me around $70. “It is a high cost of living, for sure. But the community has a really strong spiritual guidance. I see people working together doing projects. I see people helping one another. I see people coming together.”
It was March 13, the last day of voting and my last day in the community. As I sat and talked with Pauline, the band office was nearly dead. People were either helping with the polls, gathering voters, setting up the community centre for the evening’s celebrations or helping with handgames at the cultural centre.
I left and walked around and Délıne’s main street had the most traffic I’d seen on it so far. People were flying back into the community, trucks were circuiting back and forth ferrying them from the airport, and then around to houses or to the cultural centre to visit friends and relatives. The Grey Goose Lodge, where I’d dined alone for the past four days, was suddenly packed. Délıne Dene who hadn’t seen each other in years laughed and hugged each other in the streets and in the community centre. As I sat and talked with a local woman, Morris Neyelle came up to her, smiled and said, “The lost tribe is returning!” People were coming together to celebrate a vote that seemed like an inevitable “Yes”—and if it did succeed, they’d see history made, not just for the Dene, but for aboriginal governance in all of Canada.
Elders were playing handgames with Délıne’s young men at the cultural centre. In between rounds of drums, cheers and laughter, I spoke to elder Alfred Taniton. (He speaks only Slavey, so Charlie Neyelle translated for me.) “When we look at the old days and our ancestors, they lived a good life. They had no problems. They had a very strong culture. Everything was strong with our elders. Now, today we look at it and it seems like [culture] isn’t that strong anymore. Self-government is getting everything back in one place. We’re going the right way.”
Morris, who was involved in the negotiations in the 1990s, says Délıne’s government can use the wisdom of their elders to help govern. “Sometimes there’s arguments in [Délıne Land Corp.] meetings—big meetings—and the elders would come up and say, ‘This is what Eht’se Ayah said: In the 1930s, he told the people they had to work together and he gave them an example. It’s like a road you’re travelling on. And let’s say you’re travelling on this road and there’s this big boulder blocking your way and you want to get across to get what you need. But the only way you can get what you want is to move that boulder—you won’t do it. You go back to your community and half of them go with you and try to move that boulder and it won’t move. You go back and get three quarters, it won’t move. But if you go back and get the whole people, the whole community to move that boulder, no matter how big it is, it will move.’”
Hundreds of people packed into a gym in Délıne that evening, tension thick in their guts. First, they distracted themselves with a giant game of musical chairs, accompanied by much laughter. The game ended. Hundreds of people watched the clock. A woman left the room to make a phone call, and came back in shaking her head. She picked up a microphone and said there’d be another game: this time, contestants pushed eggs across the floor with their noses. It was getting late, near 10 p.m. Children were getting restless, elders tired. But no one left. They’d stay all night to hear the results of this vote, which could give the community the power to design its own governance, to write its own laws. But the tally had been expected hours ago.
Men, women and children now competed against each other by walking backwards while clenching the handles of spoons filled with bouncy-balls between their teeth. Then a band started playing. Couples two-stepped and waltzed. The clock struck 11 and ticked on. Finally, a group of elders walked in, along with two RCMP members, Chief Leonard Kenny and Danny Gaudet. The crowd settled and for the first time all night, the room was completely silent. “There were 696 eligible voters,” said Gaudet, “not only in Délıne but people who live outside of Délıne. Of that, 527 people voted.” The crowd cheered, then went silent, waiting for the reveal. “Four-hundred-and-forty-nine voted ‘Yes.’” Somewhere among the screams, applause, laughter and weeping that followed, drums started. The crowd formed into a circle and started dancing, shaking Gaudet’s hand and tousling his hair as they passed him, hugging Chief Kenny and the elders lined up beside him.
Délıne has two years to decide how it will roll out self-government. The official transition date is April 1, 2016. The community will still have to meet territorial and federal standards of service for things like health and education, but it will be able to inject its own traditions and spirituality in any way its people see fit, and will have dependable money to do so. The tools are there, says Gaudet, not only for the community to control its future but for today’s parents to better raise the next generation of Sahtuto’ine leaders—in a system that, it is hoped, will value traditional knowledge and language as much as it does math and sciences. It won’t come easy, he admits, and the benefits might not be seen for 10 or 20 years, but at least it’s in Délıne’s own hands now.
It’s not the first self-government deal, but it’s the first for just one small community. Nunavut broke off from the NWT at the turn of the last century, but has since struggled to serve its isolated communities, each with a different culture and dialect. The Akaitcho Dene formed self-government in the 1990s, but its struggles have also come from its geographically isolated communities around the North Slave region. With just one community and one distinct people, Délıne has an advantage from the get-go—it has to worry about only its own traditions, which separate its people not only from European settler stock but from their old neighbours, the Mountain and Hare Dene, as well as the Métis.
The first paragraph of their constitution, the cornerstone of this new government, reads: “We are the Sahtuto’ine, known as the Bear Lake People. We are the descendants of the prophet Eht’se Ayah. We have lived on our land since time immemorial, long before the arrival of Europeans. For all this time our land has been called Délıne and we have been called the Sahtuto’ine.” Earlier on the day that the Yes vote won, Danny said to me: “We’ve adapted for thousands of years to the harshest conditions, and all of a sudden, ‘Gee, we can’t do it’? ‘We need other people to do it for us’? With self-government we’re saying, ‘They’ve been doing it for us and we aren’t going nowhere.’” If Délıne self-government works, they will have proven something profound, to themselves and to the world: a people can reclaim the power to shape their own destiny, to enact their own visions of their future.