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'Every place there was a footprint of Joe Punch': Remembering a beloved N.W.T., elder

Joe Punch, a trapper, family man, orator, traveller, builder, healer, and influencer, died Wednesday in Fort Simpson, N.W.T. He was 90 years old.

'He didn't have to go to a crowd, a crowd came to him,' recalls Herb Norwegian

Born in Fort Providence, N.W.T., in 1926, Joseph Denetre, later known as Joe Punch, was a legend across the North for his oratory gift and benevolent heart. (submitted by Phoebe Punch)

Joe Punch was "a man of the hour."

When Sambaa K'e, N.W.T., elder Joe Punch would walk into a meeting, everything would stop, said Herb Norwegian, grand chief of the Dehcho First Nations.

"As soon as he walks in the door, you would see his big halo come through the door," said Norwegian.

"The meeting would stop and everybody would walk over there. Holy smokes, and he'd be shaking everybody's hand. Oh he was such a happy guy.

"He was a shining light everyplace that he went."

Joe in Fort Good Hope in 1987. (Rene Fumoleau fonds/NWT Archives)

A trapper, family man, orator, traveller, builder, healer, and influencer.

There are too many words to describe exactly who Joe Punch was, according to his loved ones.

"There's so many things that dad has done. He's well known all over the place," said Phoebe Punch, his daughter.

"He's touched so many lives."

The beloved elder of Sambaa K'e, pop. 110, passed away at the age of 90, last Wednesday in Fort Simpson. Joe went into hospital for pneumonia just before he died.

Joe and Trout Lake

Born in Fort Providence, N.W.T., in 1926, Joseph Denetre, later known as Joe Punch, was a legend across the North for his storytelling gift and benevolent heart.

He arrived in Sambaa K'e (formerly known as Trout Lake) in 1946, after spending a few years in residential school and working as a steamboat deck hand on the Mackenzie River.

'He was a shining light everyplace that he went,' says Grand Chief Herb Norwegian. (Rene Fumoleau fonds/NWT Archives)

"We said 'Hey Joe, tell us a little bit about Trout Lake. How did Trout Lake come about?'" recalled Norwegian, who's known Joe since a very young age.

"'Well,' he said. 'Yeah, I discovered Trout Lake,'" recalled Norwegian. "And all of us young guys would laugh our heads off. Yeah right, Joe Punch discovered Trout Lake."

But Joe, known and remembered for his humour, was only half joking. He was central in building up the once isolated community. 

From Sambaa K'e's first air strip to its first elementary school in a cabin, Joe was integral to building up much of what exists today, said his daughter.

"All my life, I volunteered, he said," said Phoebe.

"He was very proud of his volunteering awards. He received that a couple times, That's the one thing that was important to him," said Phoebe.  

"He volunteered to his last."

Joe Punch at Drum Lake in 1980. (Rene Fumoleau fonds/NWT Archives)

A 'jolly old man'

Joe travelled throughout the Dehcho on dog sled.

"Every place there was a footprint of Joe Punch out on the land," said Norwegian. "Whether it was out on the land, out on the trap line, or dance halls… He has a large footprint."

And wherever he went, his humour and stories drew people to him.

"He didn't have to go to a crowd, a crowd came to him," said Norwegian.

'He was a man of the hour,' said Norwegian. (Rene Fumoleau fonds/NWT Archives)

Joe also had the ear of many leaders, politicians and people. "Everybody looked up to him."

"God, when we were just young guys, we'd think 'Gee, wouldn't mind growing up to be like Joe Punch one of these days,'" said Norwegian.

"He was a jolly old man."

Joe's hidden talent

Another hidden talent of Joe's was his knack for cooking fish. Particularly, filleted pickerel.

"He was one of the best," said Norwegian, who shared a story about visiting Joe's home in Sambaa K'e.  

"He had this big pile of filets there, both trout and pickerel, he had his potatoes all done up, he had this tea and coffee, and all we did was we sat there," said Norwegian.

Joe broke trails, trapping and dog sledding across the N.W.T.'s Dehcho region. (submitted by Phoebe Punch)

"And he just shuffled back and forth to his little stove and his skillet, and he was just laying out these big slabs of pickerels.

"We must have inhaled at least 50 pounds of fish just sitting down with Joe Punch one afternoon, and Joe just didn't stop."

'Life without Punch… pretty bleak' says grand chief

Norwegian said he was able to see Joe a few days before he passed away. 

Even in the hospital bed, the two exchanged a sweet moment together: one last hand game.

"I showed the [bottle cap] to him in my one hand, I juggled it in behind my back, and I just switched it, I crossed my arms…  And he pointed to my left hand, and that was exactly where I had it. And I said, 'Joe you're incredible. Oh boy,' he just smiled and he was happy. That's how I remember him," said Norwegian.

The community and people across the territory will too. 

"Life without Punch, ol' Joseph there, is going to be pretty bleak here for a while, until somebody else rises out of the battlefield."

Joe's funeral service will be held on Wednesday at 2 p.m. in Sambaa K'e.

Clarifications

  • This story has been updated to reflect the community's recent change of name from Trout Lake to Sambaa K'e.
    Dec 13, 2016 12:47 PM CT

with files from Lawrence Nayally, Kate Kyle, Joanne Stassen