Dene national chief calls for reuniting of Indigenous peoples across the continent

Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya says bringing the Dene together will fulfil a promise he made when he was elected Dene National Chief.

Norman Yakeleya hopes for annual meetings between Athabascan people across North America

Norman Yakeleya says he is fulfilling a promise by trying to reunite historical members of the Dene. (Kirsten Murphy/CBC)

Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya says he hopes to unite the Dene from across North America, which would fulfil a promise he made when he was elected this past summer.

In a meeting held in Calgary on Nov. 18, Dene leadership met to discuss how to bring representation from their people under one roof.

The meeting included insight from Yakeleya, former Katl'odeeche chief Roy Fabian and Tuust'ina Chief Lee Crowchild. They discussed how to include the Navajo and Apache in future meetings.

This was a follow-up from a conference last September where Dene from the Northwest Territories were joined by people from Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Utah, Arizona, Mexico and Oklahoma.

The Athabascan people came to Alaska together over the Bering Land Bridge 35,000 years ago, Yakeleya said, but they separated into different groups across North America, with the Dene settling in the North.

"This will be an opportunity to — first of all — look at our history as Dene and how we have adapted to the lifestyle that we have," Yakeleya said. "We're very excited after looking at our first unification planning session, seeing how we can work with the other nations to bring Dene together after thousands of years of being separated."

Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya, former Katl'odeeche First Nation chief Roy Fabian, Gerald Meguinnes, Bruce Starlight and Tsuu'tina First Nation Chief Lee Crowchild at the Dene unification meeting in November. (Submitted by Raymond Yakeleya)

The idea is to bring the leaders together in one forum to discuss common issues each year. 

In 2004 — long before Yakeleya was elected Dene national chief — Raymond Yakeleya, Bruce Starlight, Allan Adam, and another person from the Apache Nation from Arizona came up with the idea of unification.

Raymond Yakeleya is a Dene filmmaker in Edmonton and Norman's brother.

By unifying, all Athabascan people would have the opportunity to look at the history of the culture, he said. 

"It's a chance to examine ourselves, a chance to talk about ourselves and a chance to understand who we are as a people," he said. "Politically and culturally, unifying is a strong thing for the Athabascan to do." 

Navajo and Apache want a seat at the table

While the Dene settled in the North, the Navajo and Apache Nations settled in the southwest United States.  

After hearing about the meeting in Calgary, their leaders reached out to Norman Yakeleya to get involved in the future, he said. 

Norman Yakeleya says the Dene, Navajo and Apache would be able to suggest ideas on how to combat the economic and social struggles in their communities . 

Bruce Starlight, an elder from the Tuust'ina First Nation, near Calgary, says relationships with the Navajo and Apache groups have always been good.   

Tsuut'ina Elder Bruce Starlight. (Nelly Alberola/Radio-Canada)

"The Dene brotherhood is strong," Starlight said. "If [unification] happens we wouldn't need government anymore, we actually can function by ourselves. We've got lawyers we've got the doctors we've got all the professional people that we need."

Once the Navajo and Apache come together with the Dene there is a chance the groups can become a family again, Starlight added.  

Now, the hope is all Athabascan people come together to share stories and educate themselves about the history of their people, particularly through their shared language, Norman Yakeleya said. 

Uniting means more than history

All three acknowledge there is an added significance if all Athabascan people unite. 

"We can work together in the economic arm, the political arm the cultural and the social arm and that can help with the education of students," Norman Yakeleya said. "We have our own businesses that are owned by Dene people. We help each other and support each other."

"All of the indigenous people in North and South America are the poorest of the poor in their own land and uniting would create the opportunity to access money," Starlight said.

Once Indigenous people see financial independence, people will begin to see social change, he said.   

The next step is to organize another unification meeting, next fall.


  • This story has been updated to clarify who attended the meeting in November.
    Dec 03, 2018 4:13 PM CT