Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada

Natural Environment

Paul Andrew is a Shutoatine, or Mountain Dene, from Tulita, N.W.T. He grew up on the land and spent seven years in residential school. He lives in Yellowknife.

An older Dene sat on a log.

Willie had an easy smile, laughed a lot and had a peaceful way about him. He came from a respected family with strong tradition. It took a lot for him to give up on things. A traditional man, Willie had been looking for someone to pass knowledge and wisdom onto. It is what his people did. You give away what is given to you.

But who? Who is humble enough? Who has the discipline?

Illustrated map showing capillaries of trails centred around a body of water
A map of traditional Indigenous trails near Tulita, N.W.T.

Willie noticed the young man, stooped, bent over and stumbling around. He did not know his name. He called him “No Name Dene.” Willie knew that people who were mesmerized by water, fire and land had something deep inside. It was a connection to the world. Nature’s way of letting Dene know they are never alone and need never be.

No Name Dene sat by the river. A log floated by, and nearby a couple of young seagulls chipped away at something. He saw a man paddling up the stream.  The canoe and the man reminded him of his grandfather.

His grandfather! Boy, could he tell stories. Funny ones, ones that made him mad, others that almost brought No Name Dene to tears.

A traditional man, Willie had been looking for someone to pass knowledge and wisdom onto.

No Name Dene could hear his grandmother’s voice in the wind from the mountains, “Take care of Elders, teach the young.  Look out for orphans and those with disabilities.  You can do better. You know better.”

As he sat on the banks of the mighty Mackenzie watching kids on the beach having a grand time, swimming, laughing and playing in the water, he wished he could start his life over again.

Deep in the pit of his tummy, the message was constant, insidious and always the same. He was a failure. He was nothing.

Then there was the big sadness.

He wished he was somewhere else doing something else with somebody else. He had those thoughts a lot lately. His days had become a dull routine: Get up, washroom, pee, scratch, eat and watch TV. Grab food from the store, go back home, watch TV. Eat. More TV. Sleep.

He spoke limited English but created a routine that appeared “white” in that sometimes he did the 9-to-5 shift. He even lived in the same kind of house as his neighbours, and did many things to be one of them, but he would never be white. The schools did not teach him enough to survive in the wage economy.

The saddest part, he thought, was his people. “They failed to teach me to be Dene. I’m bouncing between two worlds and no one cares.” 

He looked at his hands: brown. His hair was the colour of his people and his accent was the accent of the Dene, but he was not part of them.  He could understand and speak the basics in his language but he got lost when Elders spoke of topics like being Dene, the big universe, the legend of Yamoria or the Dene version of creation. 

He got up and stumbled to the ancient river.

Anger swelled deep in his belly. Hate always followed the big sadness. It was sad to watch happy people. But walking quieted the sad heart and settled the angry soul. He did not know where he was going. It did not matter.

Suddenly, No Name Dene had a thought. Despite changes since his childhood, things were the same. The water does and always will nourish life. The animals, birds and fish are doing what they need to do so the world can survive. The wind, sky, sun and moon are doing their part.

No Name Dene gazed at the river. As long as he could remember, nature touched something deep in his soul. It happened again. He pushed it away.

But the thoughts kept coming back. Where does the water come from? Where is it going? Does it have a home? What am I doing? Creation knows its role and was happy doing its part, even if it means giving their lives so that others can live. What am I?

He felt lost and shut down that part of his heart quickly. He preferred the comfort of sadness and anger.

“Isn’t it beautiful?”

No Name Dene jumped. He was so lost in his thoughts he did not hear anything.


“I’m going to check the net at Blue Fish Creek. Wanna come?”

No Name Dene did not want to go. He was afraid Willie would find out he did not know much about land, water and fish. He wanted to say no, but his heart said, “You need to be on the water.”

The river was so calm, you could see reflections of the trees and mountains in
the background. No Name Dene jumped into the boat.

The river brought back memories of days gone by. Soon he was searching the water and the beach. He could hear his grandfather, “Don’t look for rocks or wood on the beach; look for what is not supposed to be there.” 

Other senses sprang up. He got used to the sound of the outboard motor and water hitting the boat. He began to listen for wind, air and other sounds. He began to smell the river, land and water. It was so delicious, he could almost taste the natural world. He felt the cool air as the sun gently caressed his face.

Way in the distance… something on the shore above the beach! Too dark to be a stump. He strained his eyes. What is it?

Wait, I think it moved! He turned back to Willie to point it out. Willie had seen it already. “Bear,” he mouthed.

No Name Dene turned to the river again. He felt a bit of pride. But Willie had a bigger smile. The guy is teachable! There is hope!

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