The Dene Nation, not the organization itself, but all of the people in Denendeh, are part of a larger family of Aboriginal cultures known as the Athapaskan people. The larger family include other related Athapaskan-speaking people those in Alaska who call themselves Den’a (“the people”) and the Navajo and Apache who live in the American Southwest. The Dene were spread across an immense terrain of land to the north that stretched from the Alaska coast extending through Yukon territory and beyond the Mackenzie Delta region in the Arctic Circle and almost reaching the Hudson Bay in the east.
Dene elders, like the late George Blondin, explain the history of the Dene through stories and legends reaching as far back to the earliest days of the land, when people and animals were equals. Elder George Blondin wrote it best in his exposé the “Legend of Yamoria and the Meaning of the Dene Nation.”
Today, many Athapaskan-speaking people, particularly those who live in Canada’s Northwest Territories, are known as “Dene” which, means “people” in their language. The Dene have always called their homeland “Denendeh” which means the “Land of the People.” Denendeh is located in the western part of the Northwest Territories in northern Canada. It covers a sizable area of 1,000,000 square kilometres. The Dene are spread across a huge terrain largely south of the tree line consisting of mountains, lakes, rivers and forest. Here, snow covers the land six months of the year.
In his book “Denendeh – A Dene Celebration”, Rene Fumoleau wrote: “… the climate dictates that our people must be wily and strong, innovative and resourceful.” Geographical conditions in Denendeh have created the groups of people who make up the Dene Nation ─ Denesoline (Chipewyan), Tlicho (Dogrib), Deh Gah Got’ine (Slavey) K’ashot’ine (Hareskin) and Dinjii Zhuh (Gwich’in, once called Loucheux).
The people of Denendeh have always known that they were not inferior societies but that they were a nation and that they have a right to self-determination. Today, the Dene Nation recognizes and honours all the wonderful successes and important achievements among the Dene. They celebrate their survival.
With the patriation of the Canadian constitution in 1982, the Dene have been involved with land claims issues and making their way through the courts and the federal government. In 1992, the people of the Northwest Territories voted to divide the territory with the Inuit in the east and the Dene in the west. The territory of Nunavut came to exist on April 1, 1999 and is largely dominated by the Inuit.
Other Aboriginal groups with claims to land are the Métis in the sub-Arctic region and the Inuvialuit in the Mackenzie Valley, above the Arctic Circle.