Honouring Oral Histories: Wood Buffalo National Park and the Dënesųłıné

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Editorial Note: This post is the first of three in a series about a community-led history of Wood Buffalo National Park and its violent relations with Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) and their ancestors.


“According to our treaty, even before the park was formed, we were naturally there… Right now ACFN for the last 100 years basically had no existence in Wood Buffalo National Park.”

Leslie Wiltzen, January 2021

“how you could word that is, you know it was always yours and then somebody else comes out and take[s] it away from you, but still it’s yours and you know you’re a part of it.”

ACFN Elder, March 2021

In April 2021, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) began discussions with Environment and Climate Change Canada and Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs to attain a formal public apology and significant reparations for harms committed against the Nation through the creation, expansion, and management of Wood Buffalo National Park (WBNP). This campaign is one critical step in a struggle for justice in which ACFN and their Dënesųłıné ancestors1 have been engaged for well over a century.

Map of Treaty 8
Figure 1.

Research into this history has been ongoing within the community for some time, particularly under the leadership of the late Elder and former Chief Pat Marcel, who had pressed for many years for the community’s oral histories to be gathered alongside government records to tell the story. He spoke out often about his family’s traumatic experience with harms wrought against the Dënesųłıné peoples through the Park’s creation and management. Dënesųłıné oral histories, many of which were also written down in the 1970s onward, relate local knowledge, firsthand experience, and critical interpretations that have been passed down for generations.

As research consultants at Willow Springs Strategic Solutions (WSSS), we were honoured to become involved in this work starting in 2019. In advance of negotiations, ACFN commissioned us to produce an extensive research report that documents the history and intergenerational impacts of Wood Buffalo National Park. Leaders wanted to build a strong case for their campaign through extensive archival and oral historical research and through a systematic review of existing literatures and of research previously conducted by ACFN and adjacent communities. Working closely with an ACFN-led steering committee and with dozens of community members, we wrote a report that was shared with government officials, media, and the public in summer 2021 to garner public attention and inform negotiations. The research centres oral testimony shared through nearly 30 interviews with ACFN and neighbouring Indigenous residents from 2020-2021, as well as dozens of oral histories recorded since the early 1970s.2

In dialogue with the vast written archives generated by this National Park as well as the wider secondary literature, Dené oral histories indicate that WBNP played a central role in the history of colonial violence against the Indigenous peoples of the region.

“In dialogue with the vast written archives generated by this National Park as well as the wider secondary literature, Dené oral histories indicate that WBNP played a central role in the history of colonial violence against the Indigenous peoples of the region.”

Relations Between WBNP and ACFN: A Brief Summary

Globally, protected parks have been key elements in histories of colonization and genocide in Indigenous territories. From the most famous national parks like Banff and Jasper to smaller provincial parks like Desolation Sound, an expansive historiography traces the ways Canadian nature parks have displaced, dispossessed, excluded, and impoverished Indigenous peoples, with long-term, intergenerational impacts.3 Researchers have described the effects of similar processes elsewhere in the British empire and around the world.4

Map of Wood Buffalo National Park with sites of importance
Figure 2.

Dënesųłıné oral histories situate WBNP as a key player in the history of colonization in Dënesųłıné territories and as one of many ongoing treaty violations by governments, industry and settlers throughout the 20th century. WBNP’s administration excluded Dené peoples from a significant portion of their territories—including settlement sites at Lake Claire, Moose Island, Peace Point, and Dene Lake, and land-use areas along the Birch Mountains and along the five rivers listed in Treaty 8 [See Figure 2]. Park displacements and exclusions coincided with systemic violence Dené peoples in Northern Alberta were facing in the residential school system, devastating epidemics, the influx of settlers, and the increasing power of the colonial state and extractive industry. According to ACFN Elders, WBNP was a major reason why “an originally healthy and relatively affluent society… has been colonized and disenfranchised and has been losing traditional lands” for over a century.5

Wood Buffalo National Park Map with original and expanded boundary lines
Figure 3.

Wood Buffalo Park was created with the aim of preserving the last remaining herd of wood bison—a goal that Parks Branch official Maxwell Graham described in 1912 as in the interest of “the entire civilized world.”6 Order-in-Council P.C. 2498 established it in December 1922 to encompass 10,500 sq. mi. on both sides of the Alberta/NWT border [See Figure 3]. Initially, Indigenous harvesters who had taken Treaty were permitted to retain access to their harvesting areas in the Park.

Buffalo calves unloaded and heading west at Peace Point along 7 miles timber cut to open lands, 1925
Figure 4. Buffalo calves unloaded and heading west at Peace Point along 7 miles timber cut to open lands, 1925. Source – Provincial Archives of Alberta, A4727.

In 1926, the Department of the Interior expanded the Park to a total of 17,300 sq. miles through an annex of lands south of the Peace River [See Figure 3]. This expansion followed an infamous importation 6,673 plains bison from Wainwright, AB to mix with the wood bison herd in 1925. After some of the imported bison migrated outside of the original park boundaries to feed in the Lake Claire area in 1925, the Parks Branch was suddenly faced with the problem of protecting them. Their answer was to annex more Dené lands primarily south of the Peace River, where many Dënesųłıné families had lived, harvested, and moved since time immemorial.

A strict permitting system regulating access immediately followed the annex, requiring that locals make a strong case to obtain permits to harvest or even visit family in WBP. Many were denied, especially among those Dené families who happened to be camping or harvesting outside of the new Park boundaries in 1926. Later, by the mid-1930s, park officials’ focus expanded to encompass the conservation of other game, especially small fur-bearing animals. A suite of restrictive (and at times contradictory) Park and provincial game laws controlled all Indigenous land-use throughout the Park and wider region. An expanding warden system enforced these rules—granting Park officials power to fine and jail land-users and even revoke their permits to hunt, trap and travel the land.

View of a dog camp for police dogs and the Wood Buffalo warden's dogs, 1952.
Figure 5. View of a dog camp for police dogs and the Wood Buffalo warden’s dogs, 1952. Source – A17163, Provincial Archives of Alberta.

“Park and provincial game laws controlled all Indigenous land-use throughout the Park and wider region. An expanding warden system enforced these rules—granting Park officials power to fine and jail land-users and even revoke their permits to hunt, trap and travel the land.”

One of the most profound changes following the annex was a membership transfer in 1944, through which 36 Dené families who had been living in the Park—a total of 123 individuals—were transferred from the Chipewyan Band (now ACFN) treaty payroll list to the Cree Band (now Mikisew Cree First Nation, or MCFN) list. Elders speculate officials made the transfer to further reduce those with harvesting access, for indeed numerous Dënesųłıné residents and land-users were refused access to the Park after the transfer. Several Elders shared family histories indicating that those who refused to transfer bands were forced to abandon their land-use areas and homes in the Park. Many relocated to Big Point, the Old Fort, Jackfish Lake, Point Brulé, and Poplar Point. If they sought to return home later, they were not allowed. Elders explained that in some cases, wardens burned down their cabins in the Park, making their return impossible.

Point Brule.
Figure 6. Point Brule, southeast edge of Wood Buffalo National Park. Photograph by Sabina Trimble, July 2021.

For much of the 20th century, displaced Dené families faced hardship and hunger. As Dené Chief Jonas Laviolette saw in 1927, “If this country had been left to us here there would still be fur today and we would not be so poor and miserable today. Thirty years ago it was a fine country because just the Indians lived in it.”7 Dené leaders and community members frequently and clearly asserted their concerns through protest, resistance, and petition. They indicated that settler land management not only interfered with their livelihood, but also was a violation of their rights. Parks officials usually dismissed or ignored them.

“If this country had been left to us here there would still be fur today and we would not be so poor and miserable today. Thirty years ago it was a fine country because just the Indians lived in it.”

Chief Jonas Laviolette, 1927

From 1964-1969, full administrative responsibility for the Park was transferred to the National and Historic Parks Branch. The administration entered a new era of reorganization, community consultation and management planning. Starting in the 1980s, co-management structures took shape in WBNP’s planning and policy. A 2011 Management Plan incorporated commitments to reconciliation and co-management with eleven First Nation and Métis communities with claims to territories in the Park—ACFN included. Yet members who shared testimony for this work contend that this arrangement does not adequately address the violent century of displacements and exclusions. Historical distrust and a structure that tends to relegate Indigenous leaders to a consulting position has limited the potential of these approaches and left ACFN participants feeling sidelined and dismissed. Members perceive Parks Canada’s co-management and reconciliation efforts to be too little, too late.

Centring Dené Oral Histories and Interpretations: “For our relatives to be remembered”

The history of [Wood Buffalo National Park] has been widely interpreted in the community as a history of broken Treaty promises and of violations of Dené Treaty and hereditary rights.”

The history of the Park has been widely interpreted in the community as a history of broken Treaty promises and of violations of Dené Treaty and hereditary rights. As many Elders have indicated, 23 years after the community’s adhesion to Treaty 8, the promise to protect Dené people’s “usual vocation” across the land and water “as long as the sun walks and the rivers flow” were broken through the creation of the Park. Extensive oral history evidence suggests that there was little or no consultation with Dené leaders, residents, and land-users regarding the Park. If any consultation occurred, local leaders were led to believe the land would only be loaned temporarily to the government for the bison sanctuary. Yet 100 years later Dené people by and large remain excluded. Elders and members also emphasize that Park policy prioritized animals over human lives. As the late Elder Alec Bruno stated, “As I see it the government had eradicated our people from their homeland just to be replaced by bison. This is unacceptable at any given time – the government had more concern for the animals than they did for our people.”8 Land-use policies were steeped in racialized rhetoric about Indigenous land use. ACFN Elder Victoria Mercredi stated succinctly in 1998: “They broke their word long ago.”9

Elders and community members involved in this research initiative expressed a desire to advance a narrative that centres and honours the community’s oral histories. As one member stated, “It should be told. It should be out there in the open. People should know. The story should be told.”10

A key goal of this work, then, is to take seriously the lived experiences, knowledge, and testimony of the Dënesųłıné peoples whose lives WBNP dramatically altered after 1922. While settlers have sought to control narratives about the Park and direct its management for generations, Dené people have never lost sight of their rights, stories, territories and sovereignty. Dënesųłıné oral histories challenge exclusions of local knowledge and attempted erasures of Dené voices from the historical record and Dené peoples from environment. They are a call, as Elder Ernie Ratfat stated, for “our relatives to be remembered.” And they are a call for justice, for land back, for reparations, and for healing.

Up Next…

In the next post we will reflect on the research approaches and relationships that guided this work. We discuss at greater length the critical importance of attending to local, oral testimonies in order to understand local outcomes of a National Park system whose existence was predicated on colonial violence, treaty violations and Indigenous dispossessions. In the third and final post in this series, ACFN members share their personal and family testimony detailing complex intergenerational impacts of WBNP, their critical analyses of the historical events, and some of their recommendations for settlers and settler governments to acknowledge and repair the damage done.


Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation are an Athabascan-speaking people who call ourselves K’ai Tailé Dené, meaning “people of the land of the willow,” a reference to the delta of the Peace and Athabasca Rivers. We have used and occupied our Traditional Lands in the Athabasca region for thousands of years, hunting, trapping, fishing, and gathering to sustain ourselves from the lands, to carry out our livelihood and to practice and pass down our culture. Ancestors of the present-day ACFN, then known as the Athabasca Chipewyan Band, signed Treaty 8 at Fort Chipewyan in 1899. Members of ACFN continue to hold the rights guaranteed by Treaty 8, including hunting, trapping, gathering, and fishing rights. ACFN members actively exercise our Treaty rights on our Traditional Lands and carry out our traditional activities, as our ancestors have for generations. Maintaining our identity as K’ai Tailé by living from our Traditional Lands, and supporting our people and our culture through the exercise of the traditional activities, remains central to our way of life. Our hunters, trappers, gatherers, and fishers are keeping alive our connection to our Traditional Lands and passing it along to the next generation.

Peter Fortna is a Principal at WSSS, which provides research consulting services, specializing in community-based research, impact assessments, capacity building, and other community-directed initiatives. He has worked with a number of Indigenous organizations developing knowledge in the fields of homelessness, historical research, strategic planning, regulatory engagement, communications, and heritage resource management. Through working with a diverse range of clients in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, Peter has had the opportunity to develop and refine a broad range of skills coordinating, managing and evaluating community-based projects, utilizing community-based research methodologies to ensure clients obtain the information and resources they require to make informed decisions and develop effective programs. Peter holds a BA in History with a minor in Museum and Heritage Studies from the University of Calgary, and an MA in History from Memorial University of Newfoundland. To learn more about his research please visit www.willowspringsss.com

Sabina Trimble is a research associate at Willow Springs Strategic Solutions. She is also a doctoral candidate at the University of Kent (Canterbury, England) remotely completing a dissertation about the relationship of 20th century Canadian settler philanthropy to colonialism. Sabina is passionate about community-led knowledge making, the importance of listening to stories, and research that advances community goals. Sabina holds a BA (hons.) in history, with a minor in Indigenous Studies, from Mount Royal University in Calgary (2014) and an MA in history from the University of Victoria (2016).

Sabina and Peter are both white settler researchers who live and work in stolen Indigenous territories – primarily in what is colonially known as Calgary, Alberta but has been known for much longer as Mokhínstis in Blackfoot, Wîchîspa in Nakoda, and Guts’ists’i in Dené. It is an important place in the wider storied homelands of the Niitsitapi (the Siksika, Kainai, and Piikani), the Îyârhe Nakoda, and the Tsuut’ina Nations and the Métis Nation. This land became home to non-Indigenous peoples and institutions through the negotiation of Treaty 7 (1877), the terms of which settlers and settler governments have not honoured, and through the ongoing violence of settler colonialism and white supremacy in this land. Much of our work as WSSS is in Treaty 8 territory in so-called Northern Alberta, within the ancestral territories of Nêhiyawok and Dënesųłıné peoples, and the Homeland of the Métis Nation.


Notes

* Sabina and Peter have been involved with this work since 2019. We’ll discuss the initiative, its implications and our reflections on our own participation over the next three months. We do so with permissions from ACFN’s Community History Project Steering Committee. We also proceed with the agreement of Elders and community members who have shared their testimony orally for the larger project and for other writings/media that might result from it, including these posts. Community members felt that sharing their stories in multiple fora and via multiple media beyond the initial research report is important for amplifying the story and honouring the voices and work of those Dené Elders and leaders who have undertaken this struggle for justice for well over a century. In this first post, we provide a brief overview of the research initiative and a summary of the historical events and Dené interpretations as expressed through the oral histories.

1 Based on the preferences of Elders and members engaged in this research, we use the name Dënesųłıné, which translates to “the original/real people” and refers to the language of the peoples who have inhabited, occupied and moved throughout the area for at least the last 10,000 years. The name Dënesųłıné is critical because it is evidence of the original and lasting claim the Dené peoples of this region hold over the lands and waterways that were taken up by the Park. Often, we abbreviate to “Dené”, and at other times, we use the term “the community.”

The Dënesųłıné have been incorrectly labelled “Chipewyan” by government, churches, academics, industry and other outsiders for many decades. Chipewyan was a Cree name for Dënesųłıné peoples that refers to a style of clothing. Because non-Indigenous missionaries, translators and government officials tended to be more conversant in Cree during the history of early contact in Northern Alberta, the name was assumed and applied to Dené peoples of the region.

2 ACFN, Sabina Trimble and Peter Fortna, “A History of Wood Buffalo National Park’s Relations with the Denésuliné.” Final Report (10 August 2021). https://drive.google.com/file/d/1T8ZgZAwW4cHieI0R_EkLf5dVfMFicUhB/view.

3 Among many others, see for example, Ted Binnema and Melani Niemi, “‘Let the line be drawn now’: Wilderness, Conservation, and the Exclusion of Aboriginal People from Banff National Park in Canada,” Environmental History 11 (October 2006): 724-50; Jonathan Clapperton, “Desolate Viewscapes: Sliammon First Nation, Desolation Sound Marine Park and Environmental Narratives,” Environment and History 18, no. 4 (November 2012): 529-559; Tina Loo, States of Nature: Conserving Canada’s Wildlife in the Twentieth Century (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2007); Courtney Mason, Spirit of the Rockies: Reasserting an Indigenous Presence in Banff National Park (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018); Roberta Nakoochee, “Reconnection with Asi Kéyi: Healthing Broken Connections’ Implications for Ecological Integrity in Canadian National Parks,” MA Thesis (Guelph: University of Guelph, 2018); Jonathan Sandlos, Hunters at the Margin: Native People and Wildlife Conservation in the Northwest Territories (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2007); Megan Youdelis, “‘They could Take You out for Coffee and Call it Consultation!’: The Colonial Antipolitics of Indigenous Consultation in Jasper National Park,” Environment and Planning: Economy and Space 48, no. 7: 1374-92.

4 For a global overview of literature focused on eviction for conservation, see Danial Brockington and James Igoe, “Eviction for Conservation: A Global Overview,” Conservation and Society 4, no. 3 (2006): 424-470; John M. Mackenzie, The Empire of Nature: Hunting, Conservation and British imperialism (Manchester: Manchester University press, 1988). Among many others, see also, for example, Phillip Burnham, Indian Country, God’s Country: Native Americans and National Parks (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2000);  Robert Keller and Michael Turek, American Indians and National Parks (Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1998); Mark Spence, Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indigenous Removal and the Making of National Parks (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999); David Himmerflab, “Moving People, Moving Boundaries: The Socio-economic Effects of Protectionist Conservation, Involuntary Resettlement and Tenure Insecurity on the Edge of Mt. Elgon National Park, Uganda,” World Agroforestry, 2006), http://apps.worldagroforestry.org/programmes/african-highlands/pdfs/wps/ahiwp_24.pdf; Roderick P. Neumann, Imposing Wilderness: Struggles over Livelihood and Nature Preservation in Africa (Berkeley: UC Press, 1998); Klaus Seeland, “National Park Policy and Wildlife Problems in Nepal and Bhutan,” Population and Environment 22, no. 1 (September 2000): 43-62.

5 ACFN, Footprints on the Land: Tracing the Path of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (Fort Chipewyan: ACFN, 2003), p. 9.

6 Letter from M. Graham to J. Harkin, 30 June 1912, LAC RG 85, vol. 665, file 3911, pt. 1.

7 Chief Jonas Laviolette to Indian Affairs, 20 February, 1927 PAC, RG10, Vol. 6732, File 420-2B, pt 1.

8 ACFN Elder Alec Bruno, Written Questionnaire, “ACFN Elders on Wood Buffalo National Park,” (Fort Chipewyan: ACFN Community Archives, no date listed).

9 Transcript of interview with Victoria Mercredi, 20 Jan. 1998, interviewed by Lorraine Hoffman, translated by Yvonne Hoffman (Mercredi), Transcripts from Lorraine Hoffman, Cassette tape 2. (Fort Chipewyan: ACFN Office), p. 45.

10 Anonymized interview with ACFN member, interviewed by Sabina Trimble by phone, 11 March 2021.

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