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The People of Denendeh: Ethnohistory of the Indians of Canada's Northwest Territories

The People of Denendeh: Ethnohistory of the Indians of Canada's Northwest Territories

by June Helm

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For fifty years anthropologist June Helm studied the culture and ethnohistory of the Dene, “The People,” the Athapaskan-speaking Indians of the Mackenzie River drainage of Canada's western subarctic. Now in this impressive collection she brings together previously published essays—with updated commentaries where necessary—unpublished field


For fifty years anthropologist June Helm studied the culture and ethnohistory of the Dene, “The People,” the Athapaskan-speaking Indians of the Mackenzie River drainage of Canada's western subarctic. Now in this impressive collection she brings together previously published essays—with updated commentaries where necessary—unpublished field notes, archival documents, supplementary essays and notes from collaborators, and narratives by the Dene themselves as an offering to those studying North American Indians, hunter-gatherers, and subarctic ethnohistory and as a historical resource for the people of all ethnicities who live in Denendeh, Land of the Dene.

Helm begins with a broad-ranging, stimulating overview of the social organization of hunter-gatherer peoples of the world, past and present, that provides a background for all she has learned about the Dene. The chapters in part 1 focus on community and daily life among the Mackenzie Dene in the middle of the twentieth century. After two historical overview chapters, Helm moves from the early years of the twentieth century to the earliest contacts between Dene and white culture, ending with a look at the momentous changes in Dene-government relations in the 1970s. Part 3 considers traditional Dene knowledge, meaning, and enjoyments, including a chapter on the Dogrib hand game. Throughout, Helm's encyclopedic knowledge combines with her personal interactions to create a collection that is unique in its breadth and intensity.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Anthropologist Helm (Prophecy and Power Among the Dogrib Indians) brings 50 years of experience and observations of the Dene, the Athapaskan-speaking natives of the Mackenzie River drainage in the Canadian western subarctic. The Dene, or "the people," include the Chipewyans, Slaveys, Dogribs, Mountain Indians, Bear Lake Indians, Hares, and Gwich'in. Helm's text is divided into three major sections: "Community and Livelihood at Midcentury," "Looking Back in Time," and "Being Dene." Each comprises essays based on historical retrospectives, oral histories, subsistence practices, sources of traditional knowledge and beliefs, and personal interviews with Dene elders on being Dene. The book is well illustrated with black-and-white photographs, the majority taken by the author during her fieldwork. Helm has done a tremendous service in fluidly binding her research together into a substantial ethnography on the Dene. This first-rate and truly enjoyable work should become a heavily used resource. Highly recommended for public and academic libraries and specialized collections.--John E. Dockall, Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Honolulu Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.

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By June Helm
University of Iowa Press Copyright © 2000 University of Iowa Press
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ISBN: 978-0-87745-735-0


In 1986 I opened a letter from the president of the University of Iowa inviting me to give the university's Presidential Lecture of 1987. My immediate reaction was a short expletive. I was then immersed in difficult documentary data on multigenerational fertility levels among the Hare Dene of the Northwest Territories. I was afraid that a break in that research would mean that I would not return to it. I was right. Then an aggravation came with the publication of the Presidential Lecture by the university in an elegantly produced booklet that allowed no works cited section. To me, this exclusion rendered the essay worthless as a scholarly guide and an embarrassment to boot. As a result, I sent out fewer than ten copies, only to closest anthropological friends. In this printing of the lecture, I have restored proper citations of references.

These plaints aside, I must admit that developing the lecture gave me the opportunity to review my field and library research on the Dene that bore on long-standing issues in anthropological theory about the structure of hunting societies.

In 1889 the young Franz Boas (1974 [1889]) attacked the notion that the evolutionary "primitiveness" of American Indian languages was revealed in their alleged phonological imprecisions, termed "alternating sounds." Rather, Boas demonstrated, the actuality lay in the "alternating apperceptions" of the European listener, "who apperceives unknown sounds [of an exotic tongue] by means of the sounds in his own language." In the struggle to comprehend whatever may be actuality, even more tyrannical than the culture-bound apperception has been, as Boas also recognized, the culture-bound conception. Such intellectual thralldom is well demonstrated in the history of anthropological thought and research on hunter-gatherer or foraging societies.

Both the variegated Boasian "school" that came to dominate American ethnology after the turn of the century and the "functionalism" of British social anthropology that was emerging in the 1920s abjured universalist formulations on the "origins" and evolution of human institutions and beliefs that had dominated nineteenth-century anthropological thought. Yet even after research in the field on foraging peoples began to be undertaken by a few professional anthropologists in the decades before World War II, residues of nineteenth-century suppositions blocked comprehension of the nature and structure of the land-utilizing groups in these societies. Those residues tended to dominate theory building until a spate of ethnographic fieldwork in the 1950s and 1960s burst the confines of received knowledge and preconception.

In the history of anthropology, thinking about foraging societies has revolved around three term-concepts: the horde, the band, and the tribe. The concept of the horde was the first focus of formula making and theory building. Short of fantasy formulations, the horde was latterly incorporated into the problem of the band. Although collections of contiguous hordes or bands had long been lumped together under some sort of tribal rubric by investigators, the question of what a tribe of foragers might or might not be has been the last to be addressed critically by anthropologists. The concepts of horde and band, especially, tended to be reified as "things" that shared the defining characteristic of being fixed and solidary in personnel and in owned, circumscribed, and defended territory.

In the last third of the nineteenth century, in anthropological literature the horde was conceived not as a nomadic swarm, as in the Golden Horde, but as a small crew of foraging "savages." Theorizing about the horde took two avenues, both of them in the service of the schema of the universal cultural evolution of humankind from a primordial state. One approach we may term once-upon-a-time constructs of primal man. The other approach viewed extant foragers as exemplars or living fossils of the earliest stages of human society.

The once-upon-a-time constructs of the primordial horde served as the base for theories, in various combinations, of the origin of "group marriage," "wife capture," the incest taboo and exogamy, totemism and the Oedipus complex, and the patrilineal clan (Freud's "brother clan"). One theorist, the Edinburgh lawyer J. S. McLennan, emphasized a primordial state of chronic warfare and territorial defense among hordes.

In charting humanity's ascent from the brute, the nature of sexual relations within the horde was critical to these formulations. McLennan and the Rochester lawyer Lewis Henry Morgan postulated indiscriminate mating in the primordial horde. The alternative once-upon-a-time view was of the primordial horde as a patriarchal sexual group. "Looking far enough back into the stream of time," wrote Charles Darwin (1952[1871]), "the most probable view is that [primeval man] aboriginally lived in small communities, each with a single wife or if more powerful with several, whom he jealously guarded against all other men." Alternatively, Darwin speculated, "he may not have been a social animal, and yet have lived with several wives, like the gorilla." Here Darwin was adverting to an account published thirty-five years earlier by an American missionary, Dr. Thomas Savage. According to Dr. Savage, his native informants of the Gabon region of West Africa "agreed that but one adult male is seen in the [gorilla] band; when the young male grows up, the contest takes place for mastery and the strongest, by killing and driving out the others, establishes himself as the head of the community" (quoted by Darwin). Dr. Savage's gorilla model as sexual despot informed Sigmund Freud's 1913 formulation in Totem and Taboo of the primal, parricidal horde, the last gasp of fanciful once-upon-a-time constructs (cf. Fox 1980).

Herbert Spencer was as thoroughgoing a nineteenth-century social evolutionist as one can find, but he made no recourse to hypothetical constructs of primeval society. He turned directly to the ethnographic record of his time. "Scattered over many regions," he wrote, "there are minute hordes-still extant samples of the primordial type of society" (Spencer 1916 [1876]). His "samples" included Australian Aborigines, Tasmanians, Andaman Islanders, South African Bushmen, Eskimos, Fuegians, and "Digger Indians" of the American Great Basin. Spencer's emphasis was on the absence of political integration, the "absolute independence of small hordes." He rightly saw that, at the hunting-gathering level of technology, environmental constraints kept foragers ordinarily in small mobile groups that might on occasion be able to congregate with like hordes. In his earlier writings, Franz Boas (1974 [1889]) accepted the reality of "a number of primitive hordes" in the ethnographic record, among whom the "solidarity of the horde" required the destruction of every stranger, seen as an enemy. Here apparently Boas fell victim to misemphases in the early literature on Australian Aborigines.

It was on the Aborigines of Australia that the term-concept horde became focused in the ethnographic literature. In an 1885 article, A.W. Howitt and Lorimer Fison, who had direct field contact with the few Aborigines still surviving in New South Wales, applied the term horde to what they also termed geographical or local divisions within the tribe. These local divisions they distinguished from social divisions predicated on principles of descent on which, in their interpretation, marriage regulations were based. Horde membership of males was fixed from generation to generation, and hordes were usually exogamous. In their words, "the daughter may go away when she marries but the son remains in the father's horde." A close reading of their writings (Howitt and Fison 1885 [1880]; Howitt 1967 [1880]) indicates that their local divisions or hordes were not coterminous with on-the-ground foraging camp groups, which might include men's sons-in-law, fathers-in-law, and other adult men not linked through male-to-male descent lines. But these camp groups they alluded to only in passing.

It remained for A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, an anthropologist trained at Cambridge, to extend Howitt and Fison's patrilineal horde as the model of aboriginal local organization throughout the Australian continent. Repeatedly, Radcliffe-Brown worked on his conception of the horde, from one of his earlier writings (Brown 1913) until the final one published after his death in 1955. That final statement was:

The horde is a collection of parental families which regularly cooperate in the food quest [implication: as a camp group?], a parental family existing of a man and his wife or wives and their children. The unity of the horde and its connections with a certain territory result from the fact that all the married men of a given horde are members of one particular [patrilineal] clan. A woman belongs to her father's clan and to her husband's horde. The horde can be described as a "quasi-domestic" group. (Radcliffe-Brown 1956: 365)

By 1918 Radcliffe-Brown had designated the horde as "the primary landowning group ... each horde owning and occupying a certain area of the country" (Brown 1918). Here he equated the male composition of the on-the-ground foraging camp group with the male members of the patrilineal clan, which collectively owns a religious "estate" of sacred sites within an associated territory as well as myths, rituals, and songs. Radcliffe-Brown's overriding message was that the horde as a local group was residentially solidary, bounded, and fixed through the male descent line and through "ownership," "possession," and "dominion" (Radcliffe-Brown 1952[1935]:32 4) over a territory. Radcliffe-Brown's eminence as a theoretician of social anthropology surely worked to fix his model of the residentially solidary horde occupying its own territory so firmly in the minds of the world's anthropologists.

The work of the American anthropologist Julian Steward in the 1930s provided the foundation for modern approaches to socioterritorial units and their composition in societies of foragers. Steward (1955) sought to determine "cross-cultural regularities which arise from similar adaptive processes and similar environments." From this perspective of "cultural ecology," as he termed it, he analyzed the available literature on hunting-gathering peoples around the world. He identified three forms of socioterritorial organization among these foraging peoples.

One, the "family level of sociocultural integration," found its sole example in his own intensive field data on the Shoshonean-speaking Indian peoples of the Great Basin of the western United States. These included Spencer's "Digger Indians." Reconstructing from elderly informants the movements and social relationships among these peoples before the arrival of whites, in 1938 Steward pronounced them lacking in the "band level" of organization in that they lacked at a suprafamilial level "permanent groups of fixed membership" (Steward 1955: 109, my emphasis).

As the second form of integration, Steward accepted Radcliffe-Brown's formulation of the exogamous patrilineal horde among the Australian Aborigines, though he abandoned the term horde for band, as I shall do henceforth. From the scanty evidence available to him, Steward attributed this form of organization not only to the Aborigines of Australia but to the Negritos of the Congo, the Bushmen of South Africa, and certain other hunting-gathering peoples. Steward assumed that there was an inherent strain toward the patrilineal band form of organization in foraging societies unless special environmental variables intervened.

The third type of organization he termed the composite hunting band. In Steward's interpretation of the evidence, the composite band consisted of many unrelated nuclear families integrated to form bands on the basis of constant association and cooperation rather than of actual or alleged kinship as in the patrilineal band. He attributed this form of organization to the hunting peoples throughout subarctic North America in "aboriginal times," including the Dene peoples with whom I was to work. The ecological basis of the composite band arose, he argued, from the opportunity or necessity for subarctic hunters to congregate regularly to hunt large game herds, such as caribou and muskox. These composite bands were, in Steward's formulation, "probably not only the political unit but also the land owning and subsistence social unit" among subarctic peoples (1955:143-47).

Steward's comparative work was a profound advance in ethnological thinking about structure and causality in the socioterritorial organization of foraging peoples. Yet his formulations suffered from a triple handicap. He remained constrained by presumptions of boundedness in the form of "owned" and delimited territories and in the form of fixed membership of the band and, as both cause and consequence of these presumptions, a third presumption: that the band was the singular significant concept for the comprehension of the socioterritorial organization of foraging peoples. Since his own meticulous reconstruction of social groupings and family movements among the Indians of the Great Basin showed these three presuppositions to be invalid for the Shoshoneans, he was forced to the conclusion of "no bands" among those peoples. By adhering to these presuppositions in assessing the data from other parts of the world, Steward went astray in regard to his constructs of both the so-called patrilineal band and the composite hunting band.

Steward's constructions were the state of the art when I first went to the subarctic in 1951 to carry out field research among the Indians of Canada's Northwest Territories. All but the southern edge of this vast land was then inaccessible by rail, road, or telephone. In 1951 there were only two published field reports by professional ethnologists on the Indians of the region. Their work, carried out in 1913 (Mason 1946) and 1928 -29 (Osgood 1932), was in the old-fashioned ethnographic idiom that attended only to salvaging evidence of putative aboriginal culture traits. Trained at Chicago, where the Radcliffe-Brown school of "social anthropology" was emphasized, my goal was certainly not to inventory culture traits, aboriginal or otherwise. I aimed at a "functionalist" study of contemporary life. In any event, the received anthropological opinion was that the traditional social order of these Indians, along with their (quote) "culture," was now gone and unrecoverable, victims of the fur trade and its assumed consequences.

The total set of linguistically related, Athapaskan-speaking Indians of interior Alaska and the western two thirds of subarctic Canada may be collectively termed "Dene." Dene, in its linguistic variants, denotes "people," "the people," and the speaker's "own kind of people," as well as "person" and "male human being." The historical and ethnographic literature has parceled out the northern Dene under various "tribal" rubrics (see map). The site of my first fieldwork was in the Slavey hamlet of Jean Marie River, to which I assigned the pseudonym "Lynx Point." There, fifty-six Indians lived in log cabins on the banks of the great Mackenzie River, which drains into the Arctic Ocean.

In the course of my fieldwork among the "Lynx Point" Slavey, I learned how the community had grown through births and recruitment by marriage from a tiny mobile hunting and trapping group linked by parent-child and sibling ties that had localized at "Lynx Point" and built the first cabin there sometime around 1910 (Helm 1961). By the end of my stay, one of the number of questions that had been generated by the field data was, Was this kind of kin-community-whose nuclear families were linked by primary kin ties, parent-child and/or sibling-sibling, one to the other-a unique or recent development in northern Dene socioterritorial organization? If not, how was this structure to be reconciled with Steward's large "composite hunting band" composed of "unrelated families" to which he had assigned the aboriginal Dene? A search of the historical as well as the ethnographic literature, combined with fieldwork in subsequent years among neighboring Dene, the Hare Indians, and especially the Dogribs, began to clarify levels and patterns in northern Dene socioterritorial groups and organization. One thing that became clear was that there was no one singular entity that could be specified as the band in Dene society (Helm 1965a, 1968).


Excerpted from The People of Denendeh by June Helm Copyright © 2000 by University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission.
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