Former missionary tackles realities, myths of the Dene

Bern Will Brown

Bern Will Brown

April 28, 2014

The Sahtu Dene people have undergone significant lifestyle changes in the past six decades, moving from dog teams to Ski-Doos, from traplines to mostly wage employment and from log cabins to frame houses. Bern Will Brown has travelled with them every step of the way.

In his most recent book, End-of-Earth People: The Arctic Sahtu Dene, Brown provides new insights on the Sahtu Dene, the people referred to as the Hareskin in Alexander Mackenzie's 1793 journal.

Having lived among them for over 60 years, Brown is well-positioned to provide a portrait of a people he has come to know intimately.

Brown, who is married to a Dene woman, went to the Canadian Artic in 1948 as an Oblate priest and travelled extensively by dog team throughout the region. He is a noted northern author, artist, photographer and community leader in Colville Lake, N.W.T., a community which he helped to found in the early 1960s.

In an interview, Brown said he wrote the book because nobody else did. "The Dene didn't write, didn't make or build anything that has endured from the period of first contact, other than the odd stone implement," he reflects in the book.

What impresses Brown the most about the Sahtu Dene is their ability to withstand the cold and endure the harsh northern environment.

One reason for that is the Dene are built slightly different than the rest of us. "Their extremities have a profusion of small capillary veins that result in a much greater circulation of blood which keep them warmer," he says.

Camping with Dene hunters in mid-winter one day, Brown noticed one of them sound asleep with one bare foot sticking out of his sleeping bag. "It was 40 below but he didn't wake up."

In End-of-Earth-People, Brown shows a series of photographs he took from the early 1950s through the 1980s, which, he says, "show the diversity of these physically striking and proud people" at various stages of life.

In the book, the former priest provides insight into the Sahtu Dene's history, physical appearance, character, language, food, social practices and beliefs. The book is well illustrated with maps and photographs.

Brown said he has always found the Dene caring and helpful. Explorer Sir John Franklin, however, assessed them harshly, describing them as "indolent, untruthful and dishonest. Their sufferings, however, are extreme. The women frequently destroy their female babies."


Around the turn of the last century, Charles Camsell spent a couple of years crossing Dene territory and referred to them as "a miserable, dirty lot, always in a state of semi-starvation."

Oblate Father Emile Petitot, a missionary who spent 10 years at Fort Good Hope, had a more favourable impression. "These good natured, though ugly, Hareskins are excitable and demonstrative, as lively and frisky as a flight of wagtails," he once wrote.

Another early white explorer makes reference to cannibalism among the Dene, a claim that is substantiated by an 1841 report from the Hudson Bay Company, which says in Fort Good Hope the Dene were living on the carcasses of more than 50 people who had fallen victims to famine.

"The picture (these white explorers) have left us is of a desperate, frightening race of nomads who, by force of circumstances, were ruled by the law of self-preservation," laments Brown.


In the book he tries to prove that the Sahtu Dene people are not as bad as they have been historically pictured.

One criticism of the Dene is that they live a hand-to-mouth existence and don't worry about tomorrow.

"The ideal objective is to harvest just enough for one's own family," Brown explains. "Any Dene who becomes overly ambitious is so burdened by expectations and requests from his neighbours that he soon falls back into line.

"Thus, the tribe, by force of custom, reduces itself to a common denominator of hand-to-mouth existence."

The Dene are not lazy as some believe. "A Dene man regulates his life on impulse and feelings and therefore is often accused of being unpredictable and unreliable," notes Brown. "He works when he feels like working, eats when he is hungry, sleeps when tired and travels when the weather is good. He lives in tune with nature."


Living off the land, the traditional Dene way of life gives rise to a development of character that values freedom and self-reliance, according to Brown. "Struggle for survival in a rather harsh environment also produces a sense of community and a readiness to help anyone in need."

Dene thinking is different from that of Europeans, maintains Brown. He says Dene decision-making is rooted in the present time, to impulse, to intuition or feelings while that of most Western Europeans is apt to be linked to logic and the future.

Dene children are raised without a sense of responsibility, observes Brown. "They might help out with daily chores if they feel like it, but work is never assigned," he says.

"They are often given a pup as a plaything but they are not required to feed it. Children attend school on a hit-and-miss basis; the parents do not insist on them going to school."


The result of this lack of training becomes evident if, later on, the person engages in hourly wage employment, laments Brown, who says shift bosses in mining enterprises in the North have found the Dene quick to learn but almost incapable of showing up on time or completing 300 consecutive shifts.

The custom of buying and selling wives has fortunately died out, but the lot of women in Dene territory is still hard and "there is not one of them who doesn't wish she had been born the opposite sex."

Animals also suffer, especially dogs, which are often chained and half-starved and not given enough water in the summer. "These are defects (of the Dene)," Brown said in the interview.