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Dene Narratives – Language Documentation in Délįnę, NWT, Canada


Language Dene, Northern Slavey
Depositor Ingeborg Fink
Affiliation University of Cologne
Location Canada
Deposit ID 0117
Grant ID SG0099
Funding Body ELDP
Collection Status Collection online
Landing Page Handle


Summary of the deposit

This collection focuses on personal narratives about the land from native speakers of Dene. The speakers are young adults as well as elders from Délįnę. They share traditional knowledge about the land, personal experiences about growing up on the land, cultural activities in the community as well as traditional stories and myths.
Except for a few elders speakers of Dene are bilingual in Dene and English. Even though English has become very dominant in everyday interactions in Délįnę, Dene is still spoken throughout the community. When working with elders, an interpreter was present for the interview. If there was no interpreter present, I asked the speaker to give a brief English summary of the narrative. The Dene texts were then transcribed and translated by a trained community linguists. Transcription, translation and analysis of the material are still ongoing so more material is expected to appear in the near future.

This collection contains audio and video recordings as well as a few transcription files and translations.


Group represented

The people from Déline refer to themselves as Délineot’ine, Satúot’ine, or Bearlake people. Déline is situated on the west shore of Great Bear Lake, at 65°112’ North and 123° 25’ West,
and is the only continuing settlement around Great Bear Lake. The language Dene is closely related to Dogrib (Tlincho), South Slavey and Chipewyan (Dene Suline). Dogrib and South Slavey are
adjacent to Bearlake territory and there is regular contact especially with Dogrib.

In the 1970’s Déline was held up by other communities in the region as a model in terms of
language use: children spoke Dene as their first language and did not learn English until they
went to school, many elders were monolingual Dene speakers with little understanding of
English. This situation changed rapidly in the 1980’s and 1990’s, perhaps due partially to the introduction of television into the community. Based on informal surveys, it is now estimated that only 40% of the people of high school age have an understanding of Dene, and on entering school, all children speak English. This is a community in the midst of a shift from Dene to English. An interest in revitalization of the Dene language and narratives has been reinforced during the community’s current process of transition to self-government.

Today Dene is not the language of everyday communication in Déline anymore, and, with only a few elders left who are fluent native speakers and who also maintain the earlier forms and vocabulary Dene has become highly endangered. It also has to be taken into account that there is a large amount of diversity within Déline, which may be related to factors of kin, place of origin and age (Rice, 1989). This diversity within the Déline dialect is rapidly declining.


Language information

Dene, also sometimes referred to as North Slavey, is a Northern Athapaskan language spoken in the Mackenzie District, along the middle Mackenzie River from Fort Norman north, around Great Bear Lake, Northwest Territories, and in the Mackenzie Mountains in the communities of Déline, Fort Good Hope, Tulita, Colville Lake, and Norman Wells. Ethnologue gives the number of speakers as 790 out of an ethnic population of 1600 as of 2001, and most speakers are Dene-English bilinguals. Dene is best described as a dialect complex as each community differs linguistically from the neighbouring communities to at least some extend (Rice, 1989). The following documentation project will work with the dialect of Dene as spoken in Déline, previously referred to as Bearlake.


Deposit history

The content as well as the methodology of the project have been formed in collaboration with
the language community over the past months. The Dene language is rich in deixis and spatial
concepts, and the role of the land is one of the most important issues in the current process of
moving towards self-government. The language community has expressed interest in documenting the language as a source of knowledge about the land and the land-based way of life. This project began with the idea of developing a dictionary database growing out of texts, and, at this time, community members are working to develop a dictionary database that is easy to use.

The researcher/depositor has a longstanding, close relationship to the community. In 2009, she spent two weeks in Yellowknife working on a first draft of the dictionary database, angside
Edith Mackinzo, a community researcher with the Déline Knowledge Project, Dr. Deborah
Simmons, Déline Knowledge Project and University of Manitoba, Mike West, database
programming and the linguistic support of Dr. Keren Rice of University of Toronto and former
Northwest Territories Languages Commissioner Betty Harnum. Through this work the researcher was not only able to build a first relationship with a community member, but came to understand that a text-based approach was be of interest for the community (see ‘Other Information’ below). She also realized that, given the rich deixis of the language and the expressed intense relationship of Dene people to the land, taking into account socio-cultural factors were important for the success of any language related project in the area.

As part of her research proposal, the researcher planed to record elders in Déline, and collected both audio and video material that contained narratives about traditional land use (e.g., hunting, fishing), place names, and healing as well as personal narratives. The focus of documentation of narratives related to the land contributes to past and ongoing research in the community. The work done in the field will result in a linguistically annotated corpus which will serve as the
descriptive basis for developing a grammar of space of the Dene language.


Other information

Dene has an orthography based on Latin script. An older syllabic script is not in use any more. Literacy in Dene is generally low. It will be part of any language related work in the community to help implement fonts in the community and help to increase literacy.


Acknowledgement and citation

To refer to any data from the collection, please cite as follows:

Fink, Ingerborg. 2007. Dene Narratives – Language Documentation in Délįnę, NWT, Canada. Endangered Languages Archive. Handle: Accessed on [insert date here].

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