Culture + Heritage
About Dakelh Territory & the Yinka Dene (People of the Earth)
In our language, Dakelh (da-kelh) means people who “travel upon water.” Our homeland is Dakelh Keyoh - a vast land of thousands of lakes and rivers spanning central British Columbia from the Coast Mountains in the west to the Rocky Mountains in the east.Flowing roughly through the centre of this land is the Necha-Koh - “the river in the distance.” Born in the Coast Mountains, emptying into the Fraser River, it is the most important tributary to the most important salmon-bearing river in the world.
For the ten Dakelh communities on its banks or the lake and tributaries flowing into it, the Necha-Koh is sustenance, an ancient corridor, and the place where all our stories begin.
Beyond the veil of trees to your right, Cluculz Creek bubbles from Cluculz Lake, or Lhoh-K’uz. This is “whitefish site”, the Keyoh, traditional territory, of families at Sai-K’uz, “sandy creek.” Until a generation ago, the first autumn frost brought us here on our seasonal rounds. We camped, caught whitefish in nets made of roots, hunted deer and moose, dried and cached our winter’s food, and scraped hides for clothing. Then we departed for our traplines along the Necha-Koh corridor.
Soo’onte, “keep well,” as you continue on your passage through our Keyoh. Tsuhoonti whuzainya, “we are glad you came.”
Once, there were no lakes and rivers. There was no Necha-Koh, and only one village, Chunlac. Our elders at Sai-K’uz tell us this is where ‘Utas was born. As a child, he ran off with his Grandfather’s bowl containing all of the water in the world. When the bowl tumbled and broke, ‘Utas splashed the water with his hands, creating the lakes, creeks, and rivers.
Since then, we have followed the Necha-Koh and its seasons. Dak’et, “autumn”, is when we travel to the Necha-Koh’s many lakes. In Khit, “winter”, we follow traplines for beaver and muskrat, and return to the lakes in spring, ‘Olulh, for suckerfish and trout. Traditionally, we hunted ducks and geese in the Nech-Koh’s marches near Vanderhoof, now a sanctuary for migratory birds. Shin, “summer” is when the salmon arrive. This is our most important resource. Twenty-five percent of the Fraser River’s salmon are born in the Necha-Koh and its tributaries.
Our own names too come from the waterways of the Necha-Koh. We call ourselves:
- Saik’uz, the people of the “sandy creek,” or Stoney Creek.
- Nak’azdlit’en, the “people who live where it flowed off with the arrows of the dwarves.”
- Tl’azt’en, the “people who live at the very end of the lake.”
- Nadleh Whut’en, the “people who live where the salmon return.”
- Stellat’en, the “people of the cape.”
- Lheit-Li’ten, the “people from where the rivers meet.”
- Cheslatta, “on top of the hill.”
- Burns Lake, or Tsil Kaz Koh, “where people sharpen their tools.”
- Wet’suwet’en (including Nee-Tahi-Buhn and Broman Lake), the “people of the lower drainage.”
- Yekoo-che, “at the end of the lake.”
Our traditional system of government is called Balhats, “by many people”. We are returning to it after nearly two centuries of interruption following the arrival of Europeans. At our meeting everyone sits in a circle or oval. Each extended family is represented by a dune-za’ (male) or tse-ke-za’ (female) leader. Many have been trained from birth to manage the resources of our Keyoh. They consult with elders in matters of land use, tradition and justice.
The first Europeans to live among us were fur traders. Permanent trading posts at Fort St. James after 1806, and Fort George after 1808, began to draw us from our seasonal rounds. Catholic missionaries based there also discourage our mobile lifestyle. The residential schools they established at Fort St. James and later at Lejac held our children back from the fishing camps and traplines.
The missionaries and Indian agents denounced our ways and compelled us to adopt their more hierarchical church, government, and family structures. Our name for non-Dakelh people - nedo, “above us” - comes from these times.
Through the late 1800s and early 1900s, nedo settlement of our Keyoh put more strain on our resources, while our own population diminished in the epidemic waves of smallpox and the flu. The most recent threats to our way of life have been to the Necha-Koh itself. In 1952, construction of the Kenny Dam reduces the river’s flow, drowned our traplines and camps, and irreparably damaged salmon runs.
Today, we are working with our neighbour to restore salmon stocks and limit the impact of industrial pollution.
Although we travel less with the seasons than our grandparents did, we continue to fish and trap at many of our Keyoh along the Necha-Koh. From our grandparents, we are learning about ndi yun dich’oh na’dudolyih, “letting the earth heal itself” - giving the land a rest so the berries will grow again and the fish and beaver will multiply. This way, there will be something for us to return to on our seasonal rounds.