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Dene Tha Indian Fact Sheet

Native American Facts For Kids was written for young people learning about the Dene Tha tribe for school or home-schooling reports. We encourage students and teachers to visit our main Dene Tha 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 Tha pictures and links we believe are suitable for all ages.

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    Dene Tha Tribe

Are the Dene Tha and Slaveys the same people?
Yes. Dene Tha is the tribe's own name for themselves, which means "regular people." It can also be spelled Dene Thah or Dene Dhaa. "Slavey" or "Slave Indians" is a name that was used for the Dene Tha tribe historically, but is not preferred now. Some Dene Tha people also call themselves Dehcho Dene, after the Dehcho River that runs through their territory.

Why were the Dene Tha called Slaveys? Did Canadians enslave them?
No, the Dene Tha were never enslaved. The usual explanation is that the name "Slavey" was a translation of what the Dene Tha were called by their Cree neighbors, who used to capture Dene Tha women in raids. However, our Cree volunteers say this is untrue. The Cree word for Dene Tha people, Ayaciyiniwak, does not mean slaves or captives--it means people with a strange language. More likely the name came from a French mispronunciation of a Dene place name which sounded to them like the French word "esclave." The Dene languages have a distinctive letter in them, "ł", which often sounds like "scl." Regardless of its true origins, however, "slave" is such a negative word in English that most Dene Tha people don't use it today.

Where do the Dene Tha live?
The Dene Tha Indians are a Canadian tribe. They live in Western Canada, in the provinces of British Columbia and Alberta. Here is a map showing the location of traditional Dene Tha lands.

How is the Dene Indian nation organized? Do the Dene Tha live on a reservation?
The Dene Tha 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 Tha bands have their own government, laws, police, and services, just like a small country. However, the Dene Tha are also Canadian citizens and must obey Canadian law.

In the past, each Dene Tha village was governed by a headman, or village chief. The headman was usually male, and was chosen by clan leaders on the basis of his leadership skills or medicine power and his family's prestige. Today, Dene Tha villages are governed by tribal councils. Councilmembers are elected and can be either male or female.

What language do the Dene Tha Indians speak?
Dene Tha people speak English today, but some Dene Tha, especially elders, also speak their native Dene Tha language. Dene Tha is a complicated language with many sounds that don't exist in English. If you'd like to know an easy Dene Tha word, "mahsi'" (sounds similar to mah-sih) means "thank you" in Dene Tha.

Today Dene Tha is an endangered language because most children aren't learning it anymore. However, some Dene Tha people are working to keep their language alive.

What was Dene Tha culture like in the past? What is it like now?
Here's a link to the Dehcho First Nations homepage.
There you can find information about the Dene Tha in the past and today.

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How do Dene Tha 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 Tha 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 Tha mothers traditionally carried their babies in moosehide bags attached to cradleboards.

What were Dene Tha homes like in the past?
The Dene Tha lived in villages of small earth houses. An earth house was made of a cone-shaped wooden frame packed with earth and moss to insulate it. In the summer, as Dene Tha people moved from place to place more often to follow the caribou and other food sources, they would build temporary brush houses for shelter as they travelled. Here are some pictures of Native earth lodges and brush shelters like the ones Dene Tha Indians used. Athabaskan people do not live in old-fashioned earth houses anymore, any more than other Americans live in log cabins. Dene Tha people today live in modern houses and apartment buildings, just like you.

What was Dene Tha clothing like? Did they wear feather headdresses and face paint?
Dene Tha men and women wore very similar clothing: a moosehide tunic with trousers or leggings. Dene Tha people wore moccasins on their feet. In some communities they sewed their moccasins directly to their pant legs to keep out the snow. In cold weather they added mittens, long robes, and fur hats. All of these clothing articles were frequently decorated with fringes and colorful beadwork in floral patterns. Here is a website with images of Athabascan clothes, and some photos and links about Native American Indian clothing in general.

The Dene Tha didn't wear long headdresses like the Sioux. In some communities women wore basket caps on their heads. The Dene Tha rarely painted their faces, but men wore tribal facial tattoo designs. Both men and women usually kept their hair long.

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

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

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

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

What are Dene Tha arts and crafts like?
Dene Tha artists are known for making colorful embroidered designs from quills and beads. Here is an online photo gallery of Athabascan artwork.

What other Native Americans did the Dene Tha tribe interact with?
The Dene Tha traded regularly with neighboring Athabaskan tribes. Their closest ally has historically been the Dogrib tribe. The Dogribs and Dene Tha sometimes helped each other out in times of famine. They sometimes fought with the Kaska and Cree tribes, although at other times they were peaceful trading partners.

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

What about Dene Tha religion?
Spirituality and religion were important parts of Dene Tha life, and some people continue to practice traditional beliefs today. It is respectful to avoid imitating religious rituals for school projects since some Dene Tha 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 Native religion in general.

Can you recommend a good book for me to read?
You may enjoy Come and Learn with Me an excellent book for kids about the life of a contemporary Dene Tha girl. For older readers, we can recommend Ways of Knowing, an interesting book about the Dene Tha culture and worldview. Younger kids might like The Girl Who Swam With The Fish, a picture book based on an Athabascan legend. You can also browse through our reading list of recommended Native American children's books 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 Tha Indian people and their language!

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Learn More About The Dene Tha Tribe

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

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

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

Dene Tha Indian Words
Dene Tha Indian vocabulary lists.

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