18-year quest brings 1957 film home to N.W.T. Dene

People in the Northwest Territories will get a chance this week to see some real life historical footage of their Mountain Dene elders, and it’s all thanks to archaeologist Tom Andrews who spent nearly two decades trying to find it.

'I saw my uncle,' says Frank Andrew, Grand Chief of the Sahtu Dene Council, after sneak preview

People in the Northwest Territories will get a chance this week to see some real life historical footage of their Mountain Dene elders.

Three screenings are scheduled for a 25-minute silent film shot in the Sahtu region in 1957 by a French anthropologist.

It’s the first time the film will be viewed publicly in Canada, and it’s thanks to an 18-year quest by territorial archaeologist Tom Andrews.

  • Click the link on the left to hear a full interview with Andrews

Andrews first heard about the film while working on an oral history project at Drum Lake, N.W.T. in 1995.

He was talking with a group of Mountain Dene elders when the conversation turned to a French anthropologist who had visited the area in the 1950s and captured some of the experience on a 16 mm camera.

“They asked me to search for it,” Andrews says. “I honestly expected in 1996 I’d have this film under my arm.”

Instead, it took almost two decades.

Trail runs cold at Farley Mowat

Jean Michéa came to the North to study the oil and gas industry at Norman Wells, but got sidetracked by an Oblate Missionary who introduced him to the Mountain Dene and a unique way of life. (Courtesy Tom Andrews)
Andrews took advantage of the new innovation of email, which the Northwest Territories government had made available to staff the year before, to reach out to anthropologists who might have clues about the man’s identity.

He soon learned about a French anthropologist named Jean Michéa who had spent time in the Keewatin district of Nunavut shortly after World War Two. Michéa had become friends with Farley Mowat, who was then doing research for what would become Never Cry Wolf.

Mowat confirmed that the two had exchanged Christmas cards for many years afterwards, but the cards stopped abruptly in 1964.

Andrews picked up the trail again in 2007 when a Tulita woman passed his quest on to another anthropologist, Chris Fletcher, then at the University of Alberta, now at Laval University.

Fletcher took up the project with enthusiasm, eventually making contact with a former Laval professor living in Paris who was the missing link. Not only did she know Michéa; he was a former teacher and distant relative.

Andrews and Fletcher drafted a letter in French to pass on to Michéa. Then they waited.

The response was lovely, but haunting.

Jean Michéa had spent much of his life as a professor at the Sorbonne. He was now 95, mostly deaf and living in Paris. He wrote that he did have some materials from his expedition, but that it was in his summer home in southeast France, which he did not plan to visit until May. “I hope I last long enough to get to it,” he wrote.

So did Andrews.

The DVD arrives in Canada

Andrews got the call on Christmas Eve. Fletcher had received a DVD from France in the mail.

“I have to say, it was quite moving,” Andrews says about first seeing the footage. “To have spent 18 years looking for this film and then to actually see it, it’s truly remarkable.”

The fact that there are still people living today who are in the film is what makes it special.- Tom Andrews, anthropologist

The film is a 25-minute documentary.

The first half shows the fledgling city of Yellowknife, including local landmarks and residential streets.

“All the houses had vegetable gardens,” Andrews says. “I’m sure it must have been more difficult to get vegetables in Yellowknife in those days. There was no highway then, of course.”

Next are some intense industrial scenes of the gas wells at Norman Well. “In fact, as an anthropologist, that’s what he was interested in. He was actually coming to Norman Wells to see that and to study that.”

But Michéa’s journey didn’t go as planned. While in Tulita, he met an Oblate missionary, who persuaded him to meet the Mountain Dene and see their mooseskin boats.

Michéa agreed, and wound up documenting a journey into the mountains with several Shúhtagot'ine families, including people who are still alive today.

Screenings in Tulita, Norman Wells, Yellowknife

“I saw my uncle,” says Frank Andrew, Grand Chief of the Sahtu Dene Council, who grew up in Tulita and got a sneak preview of the film. “It was wonderful to see what our elders were actually doing back then. Everything was done just by traveling on the land.”

I saw my uncle.- Chief Frank Andrew

The film offers a rare example of traditional life at the time.

“For the young people today it’ll probably mean that our elders meant what they talk about,” Andrew says.

Andrews, the archaeologist, says he’s pleased that the film wasn’t shot in the 1910s or 1920s.

“The fact that there are still people living today who are in the film are what makes it special,” he says. “It’s almost like home movies for the people in Tulita.”

Screenings are scheduled for Tulita on Monday, in Norman Wells on Wednesday and in Yellowknife of Feb. 19 at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre.

Along with the film, Michéa also took many photographs, which Andrews is still gathering.

“There’s still more to come and we’re excited about that as well.”


  • The original version of this story incorrectly identified Tom Andrews. He is the territorial archaeologist.
    Feb 02, 2014 6:53 AM CT