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Dene Indian Fact Sheet

Native American Facts For Kids was written for young people learning about the Dene tribe for school or home-schooling reports. We encourage students and teachers to visit our main Dene website for in-depth information about the tribe, but here are our answers to the questions we are most often asked by children, with Dene pictures and links we believe are suitable for all ages.

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    Dene Tribe

Are the Chipewyans and the Denes the same people?
Yes. "Chipewyan" is a name given to the tribe by their Cree neighbors. It means "pointed skins," and refers to their distinctive pointed tunics. The community's own name for themselves is Dene, which simply means "the people." Sometimes they also use the longer name Dene Suline, which means "original people." Although Dene people do refer to themselves as Chipewyan in some contexts, most of them prefer their own tribal name.

How do you pronounce "Dene"?
It is usually pronounced deh-neh, although some speakers pronounce it more like deh-nee. Dene Suline has a more complicated pronunciation-- it sounds a bit like deh-neh-soont-lee-nay.

Where do the Denes live?
The Dene Indians are original people of northern Canada, especially the Northwest Territories, Alberta, and Saskatchewan.

How is the Dene Indian nation organized?
The Dene First Nation in Canada is organized into independent bands. Each band has its own reserve, which is land that belongs to them and is under their control. Dene bands have their own government, laws, police, and services, just like a small country. However, the Denes are also Canadian citizens and must obey Canadian law.

In the past, each Dene band was governed by a chief or headman. The Dene chief was chosen by clan leaders, usually on the basis of his leadership skills or medicine power and his family's prestige. Today, Dene bands are governed by elected tribal councils.

What language do the Dene Indians speak?
Dene people speak English today, but many Denes also speak their native Dene language. Dene is a complicated language with many sounds that don't exist in English. If you'd like to know an easy Dene word, "edląnet'e'" (sounds similar to ed-lah-net-ay) is a friendly greeting in Dene. You can also read a Dene picture dictionary here.

What was Dene culture like in the past? What is it like now?
Here's a link to the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. There you can find information about the Denes in the past and today.

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How do Dene Indian children live, and what did they do in the past?
They do the same things any children do--play with each other, go to school and help around the house. Many Dene children like to go hunting and fishing with their fathers. In the past, Indian kids had more chores and less time to play, just like early colonial children. But they did have dolls, toys and games to play. Dene mothers traditionally carried their babies on their backs, using a moosehide strap called a baby belt to hold them in place.

What were Dene homes like in the past?
Most Dene people lived in large hide tents known as teepees (or tipis). Dene communities used to move the locations of their villages frequently to follow caribou herds and other food sources. Since a tipi was designed to set up and break down quickly, Dene communities could migrate easily. In winter, when the Dene did less traveling, they sometimes stayed in warmer and more permanent earth lodges, which were made from wooden logs packed with layers of earth. Other Dene people lived in teepees year-round, packing snow around the tepee's base to provide extra insulation. Today, Native Americans only put up a tepee for fun or to connect with their heritage. Dene people live in modern houses and apartment buildings, just like you.

What was Dene clothing like? Did they wear feather headdresses and face paint?
Dene men wore a breechcloth with leggings. In colder weather they would also wear a belted caribou-skin tunic with pointed flaps. In some communities women wore tunics and leggings similar to the men's, while in others, they wore long dresses. Dene people wore moccasins on their feet. In winter they added mittens, fur caps, and robes or long coats. All of these clothing articles were frequently decorated with colorful beadwork in floral patterns. Here is a website with images of Athabascan clothes, and some photos and links about Native American clothing in general.

The Denes didn't wear long headdresses like the Sioux. Normally they wore fur headbands or went bare-headed. The Denes painted their faces for ceremonial occasions, but not in daily life. They did wear tribal tattoos on their faces. Both men and women usually wore their hair long. Unlike most other Athabascans, Dene men sometimes grew out their beards.

Today, some Dene people still wear traditional beadwork designs, but they wear modern clothes like jeans instead of leggings... and they only wear fancy regalia for special occasions like a dance.

What was Dene transportation like in the days before cars? Did they paddle canoes?
Yes, the Denes used moose-hide or birchbark canoes to navigate the rivers. Here is an article with pictures of different canoe types. Overland, Dene people used tools like snowshoes and toboggans to travel across the snow. Today, of course, Dene people also use cars... and non-native people also use canoes and snowshoes.

What was Dene food like in the days before supermarkets?
The Dene Indians were hunting people. Dene men hunted caribou, moose, and small game, and caught salmon and other fish in the rivers. Dene women gathered roots, berries, and other plants. Here is a website with more information about traditional Native American food.

What were Dene weapons and tools like in the past?
Dene hunters used bows and arrows, spears, and snares. Fishermen used nets and basket traps. In war, Dene men fired their bows or fought with war clubs. Here is a website with pictures and information about the Native American war club.

What are Dene arts and crafts like?
Dene artists are known for their fine basketweaving and beadwork. Here is an online photo gallery of Athabascan artwork.

What other Native Americans did the Dene tribe interact with?
The Denes traded regularly with neighboring tribes. They were particularly friendly with the Beavers, with whom they sometimes intermarried. They sometimes fought with the Cree and Inuit people, although they were peaceful trading partners at other times.

What kinds of stories do the Dene Indians tell?
There are lots of traditional Dene legends and fairy tales. Storytelling is very important to the Dene Indian culture. Here is one Dene legend about the Sun's promise to the people. Here's a website where you can read more about Dene mythology.

What about Dene religion?
Spirituality and religion were important parts of Dene life, and some people continue to practice traditional beliefs today. It is respectful to avoid imitating religious rituals for school projects since some Dene people care about them deeply. You can read and learn about them, however. You can visit this site to learn more about Athabascan spiritual beliefs or this site about Indian religious beliefs in general.

Can you recommend a good book for me to read?
Two great illustrated books for kids about contemporary Dene life are The Caribou Feed Our Soul and Fort Chipewyan Homecoming. Older readers may be interested in Northern Passage, an excellent ethnography of the Dene. Younger kids might like The Girl Who Swam With The Fish, a picture book based on an Athabascan legend. For more basic information about Dene culture and history, two good sources are Denesuline and The Chipewyan. You can also browse through our Indian book recommendations in general. Disclaimer: we are an Amazon affiliate and our website earns a commission if you buy a book through one of these links. Most of them can also be found in a public library, though!

How do I cite your website in my bibliography?
You will need to ask your teacher for the format he or she wants you to use. The authors' names are Laura Redish and Orrin Lewis and the title of our site is Native Languages of the Americas. We are a nonprofit educational organization working to preserve and protect Native American languages and culture. You can learn more about our organization here. Our website was first created in 1998 and last updated in 2020.

Thanks for your interest in the Dene Indian people and their language!

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Learn More About The Dene Tribe

Dene Indian Tribe
An overview of the Dene people, their language and history.

Dene Language Resources
Dene Indian language samples, articles, and indexed links.

Dene Culture and History Directory
Related links about the Dene Native Americans past and present.

Dene Indian Words
Dene Indian vocabulary lists.

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