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Barbaric move almost destroys a vibrant people


Vivian Hansen, Windspeaker Contributor







Page 11


The Story of the Relocation

of the Sayisi Dene

By Ila Bussidor and Utun Bilgen-Reinart

$18.95 (p.b.)

192 pages

In the mid-1950s, the Sayisi Dene people were relocated from Duck Lake, Man. to the outskirts of Churchill, Man. It was a move that destroyed their traditional livelihood, culture, language, and nearly one-third of their population.

Ila Bussidor reclaims this story through the collective voice of her people. The long-term effects of this move was the lack of an inherited ability to love and care for children, deterioration into alcoholism, and the near-genocide of a dynamic, healthy and vibrant Native community.

The traditional homelands of the Sayisi Dene straddled the present-day border between northern Manitoba and the Northwest Territories, a vast sub-arctic region extending north and west from Hudson Bay, all the way to the Mackenzie Valley to the Great Bear and Great Slave lakes.

Even though the population at the time of European contact was reduced by the usual European diseases: chicken pox, scarlet fever, smallpox, and a host of others, the Sayisi Dene remained self-sufficient. They hunted for themselves, not for the Hudson's Bay Co., and so maintained a self-governance based on effective hunter-gatherer economics.

One vibrant voicein the book is Betty Anderson, an Elder who recalled the way of life in detail; recounting the confusion in the terms written in Treaty 10, which was marked by a poorly understood negotiation with the Dene and ineffective translation. Betty affirms that the terms in the treaty would not have been approved if they had been understood. She challenges claims that the people fully understood the terms: "I have something the white men don't have: my memory."

The text of history, coupled with the memories of the Sayisi Dene people, portrays a horrific account of a capable people whose deterioration became complete in an obscure Dene camp on the outskirts of Churchill. DIAND reports chronicle the official lives of the Dene, while members of that community provide the real stories of the people marginalized, how they lived, or slowly died.

Seams of personal narrative connect the text, creating a tapestry of the Dene village lifestyle in Churchill. The government chronically ignored the deep social, psychological and spiritual wounds that virtually destroyed the Dene.

What is particularly revealing about this book is the clash between racist assimilation policies of the Indian Act and the oral accounts of the barbaric changes that the act enforced upon real people. Discussions were never truly possible, since few DIAND administrators spoke Dene, or even cared to attempt any genuine communication. The failed attempt at introduction of Aboriginal peoples into a wage economy precipitated such disastrous relocations. The Dene could not survive where the Dene had never learned to live.

The 1970s saw the return of the Dene to their traditional hunting lands in Tadoule Lake. Stories affirm their re-connection to life, a modified hunter-gatherer economy, and their discoveries of what went missing from those years.

Time in a new place has begun the healing: in the words of Ernie Bussidor: "Healing is a magic word for Tadoule Lake."