‘For our Relatives to be Remembered’: Dënesųłıné Oral Testimony and Wood Buffalo National Park

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Editorial Note: This post is the third of four 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.

A central intention of this blog series, and the ongoing work it has discussed, is to amplify the knowledge, perspectives, and experiences—upheld through generations of oral history and testimony—of Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and their Dënesųłıné relatives with respect to Wood Buffalo National Park (WBNP).

We’ve previously highlighted the importance of listening carefully and sensitively to Dënesųłıné oral histories and local experiences. Dené Elders and members have shown us how this can challenge erasures embedded in colonial archives, presenting counter-narratives to dominant tellings of the past, and highlighting facts, knowledge, and interpretations of Park history that have often been excluded from written records. They stress that it is only through oral traditions, testimony and history that we can understand the depth and nature of Dënesųłıné relations to the environment from which they were displaced for the creation and expansion of the Park after 1922. Consequently, it is only by listening that we can learn of the intergenerational impacts of WBNP and the surrounding context of colonial violence in the north, throughout the 20th century and beyond.   

Here we share some excerpts from testimony spoken by Elders, community members and leaders whose voices are critical to this work. As we noted in the first post, Elders and members whose interview testimony is quoted here wanted to share it for the larger project and for other writings/media that might follow, including these blog posts.1 With the exception of Elder Pat Marcel’s 2013 testimony, the words below are responses to our questions about the intergenerational impacts of the WBNP, and about members’ expectations and hopes for government response to ACFN’s campaign during interviews taking place in early 2021.

Community members who shared testimony for this research felt that sharing their stories in multiple forums and via multiple media beyond the initial research report is important for amplifying the work of those Elders and leaders who have articulated and defended Dené rights since before the Park was established. The history and testimony shared for this research are part of a century-long work led by Dené leaders, members, Elders, and land-users in the pursuit of justice, healing, and reparations. Dënesųłıné oral histories and testimony are important challenges to the historical narratives of WBNP that have omitted and excluded Dené rights, knowledge and experiences. They also represent a call, Elder Ernie Ratfat eloquently said, for “our relatives to be remembered.”

Map of Treaty 8, WBNP and ACFN reserves
Map of Treaty 8, WBNP and ACFN reserves. 2021, Willow Springs Strategic Solutions.

Jimmy Deranger (Interviewed by Peter Fortna, 24 March 2021)

PF: I guess now, my question is, with so much history and so much wrong that’s happened, how do they get you back to the table? What would they need to do, do you think?

“Give us back our land. Like they said they were going to. It’s our land – give it back to us.”

Jimmy Deranger

JD: Give us back our land. Like they said they were going to. It’s our land – give it back to us. Compensate us per square foot, or per square mile, or per square hectare, for the lands that was boundaried for all those years. And the royalties that they took. And the resources that they took from it, like the timber. And the permits or whatever they used for outsiders to be in Wood Buffalo. And compensated for all the roads that they built.

I mean, it’s our land. Whose land is it? Nobody’s. Ours – ours. It’s always been ours. Now the natural grass is still growing, the water at Lake Athabasca and the rivers are still flowing. And the sun is still shining. And that’s our land. And the Dënesųłıné people and Mikisew people, the Métis people are still using the land as they did before contact and during contact, and to this very day. And will continue to use it. They had used it for 15,000 years, and they will continue to use it for another 15,000 years.

Garry Flett (6 December 2020, interviewed by Sabina Trimble)

In his testimony shared here, ACFN member Garry Flett is referring to the profound impacts of the 1944 band membership transfer (discussed in the first post) on his family. Due to Park permitting regulations and sexist Indian Act policy surrounding Indigenous women’s status, Garry’s mother, Elizabeth Flett (née Simpson), was denied re-entry to WBNP even though her parents and siblings had been transferred in 1944. Because of this, Garry and his siblings have never had access to his maternal family’s homelands in the Park, while his cousins (who were transferred to the Cree Band) maintain their rights there.

The main piece that really affected me on how all this came to light was that all of my relatives that were in the Cree Band and the Mikisew Band were able to hunt and trap on that trapline [within the Park], but culturally and historically that line had belonged to my grandfather. But when I went to Parks Canada to get a hunting license, what they call the Parks hunting license, I was denied because I had no affiliation with Parks Canada. And they said, ‘no – maybe try becoming a member of the Métis and you could try again. But ACFN, no, you’re not [allowed].’ So I was bewildered by it. I knew little of the history. And approached my mother, and she was livid about it. But there wasn’t much we could do.

So, I spent my years, if you were going to hunt in the Park, I couldn’t go with you. Even if they were my first cousins. They can all go but I couldn’t. And members of my family could. So yeah, that’s the piece that when I said that it affected me personally, that’s what it is. So, I had to stay away from there, from the Park side.

But, you know, it affects everybody uniquely I suppose… I would love an apology from them to say, ‘I’m sorry that we denied you access to exercise your rights in the park.’ My mother went to her grave being denied access to the Park and without an apology. Without doing anything wrong. I’m not saying that was front and centre of her thinking, but I know she hated the Park because of it. I think it was just the alienation of the Parks to members of the ACFN and where she grew up –  she was unentitled to have any further affiliation with that area. For that, I think that the Park missed the boat in apologizing to my mother. 

A scow unloading prairie bison at the Peace River.
A scow unloading prairie bison at the Peace River. 1925. Provincial Archives of Alberta, A4723.

Pat Marcel (Recorded by Arlene Seegerts, 2013)

When they removed us from Wood Buffalo Nation Park, the federal government knew immediately that they had done a great wrong to the Dené Nation. Not only did they forcibly remove whole families, out of House Lake and into the Old Fort and Jackfish area, but the ones that remained, that chose to stay in the Wood Buffalo Park, had to join the Cree Band. So, what you see here is the government being guilty for forcible removal from the Park, but also reducing our membership, by forcing our members to join the Cree band. The numbers of the Cree band, right now to the present day, I would assume that almost half are of Dené descent and are Dené members.2

Keltie Paul and Edouard Trip de Roche (Interviewed by Sabina Trimble and Jay Telegdi, 25 November, 2020)

And the area that we’re looking at is really a shopping cart for pharmaceuticals. It is also the most extensive, outside of the northwest coast, biodiverse area in Canada. It had geese, and moose and woodland caribou, barren caribou. You name it, it’s in there. So, this was a place that people had access to quite a bit of food. There was always, always bison to hunt, snowshoe hare was a particularly large part of the diet.

“And the cultural and spiritual significance of the land—that was their land. That was their ancestral land. That was the land they were born on. And you and I know what it’s like to be born on something, born on a farm or born into a community. That’s what it means to us.”

Keltie Paul and Edouard Trip de Roche

And the cultural and spiritual significance of the land—that was their land. That was their ancestral land. That was the land they were born on. And you and I know what it’s like to be born on something, born on a farm or born into a community. That’s what it means to us. You can imagine what it would have meant to people who were actually living off the land, who saw spirits into all kinds of things like the water, the mighty Peace, the Athabasca. And to have things happen to that and being kicked out of their own land, it’s akin to what the Israelis and the Palestinians quite frankly, and I think that’s disgusting. So they really uprooted an entire culture and took them from everything they know, landscape is important to people. It’s important to you and me. When people go through a tornado, they come out and the landscape is gone, they go into shock. They just wander around the community, just shocking. And that’s what it means to all people, is the landscape matters, the fish matter, the frog matters, everything matters because that’s what we are familiar with. We love that. We’re so connected too, and if someone comes and steals that from us, then I mean, that’s going to shock us for generations and generations because they’ve stolen. They’ve stolen, really, paradise. They’ve stolen Eden from those people who had been there.

Alice Rigney (Interviewed by Sabina Trimble, 16 March, 2021)

I’ll think about my granny living at House [Lake], probably the most beautiful forests, and then being told to move and her moving to Old Fort and making a home there. I have a beautiful picture of my granny, you know, I get my strength from her and my mother. Their life was anything but easy.

At present, we don’t have anything to do with the Park because our traditional land is in the Delta on the Athabasca River, at a place called Jackfish Lake, you know by the Jackfish Lake too, so. Yeah. But in the past? Yeah, my grandmother lived at House Lake. My grandmother Ester Piché. I couldn’t say for sure like exactly the years, but it had to be probably in the 1920s, when the Park invaded us with their rules. You know, it’s just a maddening situation when you think of all the wrongs that were done to our people.

[T]hey could give some of the Park back but I doubt if they will. They should give them more land and they took the people away, like the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation now. And I’m glad they’re [ACFN are] doing this [research and negotiations]. Because they were robbed. They were robbed of their land, they were robbed there, robbed of their traditional land. And for many years, they couldn’t even come to the park because only Cree, only Cree Band hunters and trappers were allowed to hunt in the park, right? Allowed to have their trapline in the park. And so, the Chipewyan lost out on that, they lost out in going into the park.

Jonas Laviolette with a dog at Fort Chipewyan
Chief Jonas Laviolette, pictured here, spent much of his leadership defending the community’s rights and interests in the face of stringent and exclusive colonial environmental policy in the 20th century. He also frequently spoke out about the harmful impacts of WBNP’s boundaries. ‘Jonas Laviolette, Ft. Chipewyan. 1948-1954.’ Provincial Archives of Alberta A17118.

Leslie Wiltzen (Interviewed by Sabina Trimble, 21 January, 2021)

Well I think, you know, always the big part [is] the people being disconnected from the land. That’s a big thing, right? Because I mean, like I said when I go back to the words of Treaty, where it says “the Athabasca, the Chipewyan people, the Athabasca, the Birch River, the Peace River, Slave River, Gull River,” those are all territories that were once ACFN members’, right? That’s where they always– that was their homeland. Now imagine being taken away from your homeland, and forced to go outside, you know? Long ago in – when you go back to the 1920s getting around wasn’t easy, right? Most people traveled by canoes. You know, fast machines weren’t around. Fast boats weren’t around like today. I mean today, you can go from Fort Smith, Fort Chip in one day, four hours, just like going from Fort McMurray to Fort Chipewyan. But you know, if you go on a map, and you start looking at the size of Lake Claire and you start looking at size of Lake Mamawi and that traditional territory now, when you’re familiar with an area where to go hunting, you know how long it takes to get there. You know how many days you need to get there, how many days you need to get back. You know how many days you need to hunt. So by removing ACFN members, you force them to learn a whole new area of the Park that traditionally [they knew]. But to force everybody to relearn things like that, that’s a hardship.

And you know, that’s one of the hardships for me, enduring being disconnected from the land. That’s a big thing. It’s hard to describe. And it’s hard to say how you’ve been affected because you’re affected – you’re affected. I mean, all your life, you grew up knowing that you’re not allowed in a certain area where traditionally, for 1000s of years, the generations before you lived there, then all of a sudden now you’re not allowed. And people tell you you’re not allowed there and then you become a criminal by even thinking about it. So now I mean, how do you put – how do you describe that in words? How do you justify something like that? I don’t know. It’s a good question.

ACFN Elder (Interviewed by Peter Fortna, 18 March 2021 – testimony anonymized)

Back in the day, this was twenty years ago, us ACFN, we couldn’t even go to the park and hunt and anything like that. We were restricted back in the day…there’s one place where like, you were born [but now] you can’t go [to] the river and exercise your rights there. They’re just taking [it] away from you – it’s our land. I’ve been rerouted. And yet, that land up there belonged to ACFN. Yeah and that’s good, good land up there, it’s high ground. That’s why we should be up there.

The Park formation wasn’t good. Way back in those days, the members, they all wanted to go back there and they wanted to live in the Park back then. It was our Elders and that’s how they talk about it when they would sit around having coffee. Yeah, they’d talk about the bush, you know, and a lot of them, that’s where they wanted to be in the Park back then.

“Show us you’re sorry. Do something, you know? It’s just like in the residential school. Well, they said they’re sorry, they sent out a letter and whatever. Well, so what?”

AFCN Elder

ACFN Elder (interviewed by Sabina Trimble, 21 March, 2021 – testimony anonymized)

Like, how are we going to be able to reclaim our land and all that, you know, to have it back to what it used to be before? Like we can’t even eat fish from our lake here. You know? Yeah, you can’t even, like some of the moose closer to McMurray, well we can’t eat that moose because of the sulfur and everything, so. How they gonna make it better? Like money is not going to make it better, you know? That’s just the way I see it. How, you know, like an apology – if they say they’re sorry, well it’s just empty words, you know?

Show us you’re sorry. Do something, you know?

It’s just like in the residential school. Well, they said they’re sorry, they sent out a letter and whatever. Well, so what? They didn’t really do too much about reconciliation after that. It’s like, okay, we gave you money now go away, you know? But the healing and the language and all that, well, it’s all lost. So, I don’t know how the government could make it better.

Feature Image: Fort Chipewyan, 2018. Photo by Peter Fortna.

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.


1 ACFN is also working on a book about this history, which will centre on community oral history and testimony. The hope is that the book’s release will coincide with the 100-year anniversary of WBNP, at the end of December 2022.

2 Pat Marcel and Arlene Seegerts, “The Rights to Practice Our Treaty Rights,” pp. 18-19.

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