BANFF — A little over 40 years ago, Dene filmmaker Raymond Yakeleya set out to create a documentary capturing the Indigenous experience of the white men's arrival in the NorthWest Territories.
His award-winning documentary We Remember the Coming of the White Man Oral Histories by Dene Elders showcases a transformative period of Indigenous history.
“These are the people who were first talking about the white man coming to the North – people telling our perspective on the history of the North as seen by the native’s side,” Yakeleya said. “It was a change of life, the world was now coming to us.”
Yakeleya, who hails from Tulita, N.W.T, gathered hundreds of hours of “incredible material,” he said, that focused on what his people went through upon the arrival of the Europeans.
The film was originally released in 1976 and marked the first time people were able to hear elders speak candidly and share their experiences of this turbulent time.
“They were sharing information, that they had witnessed things,” Yakeleya said.
The documentary has found new life in the form of the book We Remember the Coming of the White Man Oral Histories by Dene Elders set to be released in March of 2020 by Durville & UpRoute Books.
The project initially began with recorded interviews with elders who had been present for transformative moments of Indigenous history, he said, including the signing of Treaty 11 along with the discovery of oil and uranium.
“The elders have all these great stories."
The film was funded by CBC North and was initially intended to be a half-hour documentary. However, they received such amazing material from the elders, Yakeleya said they were inspired to create a longer one-hour film.
It was a striking experience creating We Remember, he added, because 100 years later his people continue to feel the effects of colonization.
There are generations of trauma, he explained, because in their perspective everywhere the Europeans showed up it was “bad news" for Indigenous communities.
Yakeleya said it was an especially powerful experience speaking with Chief Johnny Kay, the last living chief to sign Treaty 11.
“For our people, it has always been called a thief’s treaty,” he said.
In the film, Kay recounts how the Dene trusted the white men in the spirit of friendship when they signed the treaty, Yakeleya said. However, the government failed to provide proper translation, or legal support. Instead, they took what they wanted with little to no regard for the Indigenous people of the area.
“We found out later it was not all good ... They wanted the land because of the oil.”
Treaty 11 opened the land for the white men to pillage taking the “treasures of the North” that included, gold, diamonds, oil, water and uranium, he added.
This was made worse because the government failed to tell people uranium was radioactive, Yakeleya said and would give those that came in contact with it cancer.
It was a pattern of disregard for the life of the Dene, Yakeleya said, and almost an entire generation of men died due to exposure to uranium, leaving in their wake a generation of widows and children without fathers and grandfathers.
“Grandpas and grandmas have a really important job – to ensure that kids get taught,” Yakeleya said. “It really created a hard time for our neighbours, our families … there were a lot of implications.”
Indigenous people in Canada continue to deal with the consequences of the white man's arrival to this day, he said, from the theft of resources in communities to resulting health care crises.
However, Yakeleya fought to find a light in the darkness while making We Remember.
“We always say amongst our people that we are going to confront hard times in our lives,” Yakeleya said explaining the challenge lies in finding joy during difficult times. “The way we handled it is with humour. If we didn’t laugh, we’d really be crying.”
Lorene Shyba, Durville & UpRoute Books publisher, said she knew she had something important when the We Remember manuscript was placed in her hands.
“The first time I saw that film, I thought, ‘holy crow this material is so important,’ ” Shyba said. “There is footage of these elders talking about their memories of the first time they’re confronting the white man.”
Yakeleya said he and his editor Bill Stewart became brothers exploring the great Canadian North while working on the project. Stewart’s wife Sarah Stewart transcribed the interviews from the film and served as editor for the book.
The book features transcripts of the oral histories of ten elders sharing their memories of the early 20th century, Shyba said, including the early days of the fur trade, guns and the arrival of missionaries.
The interviews have been transcribed in both English and the Dene Gwich’in, Shyba said, forming the “nucleus” for the book. She added that the manuscript spent more than three decades waiting to find a publisher.
In the book, the stories are paired with challenging photographs that highlight the effect of the white men’s arrival in the North West Territories, Shyba said. One of the most shocking and especially powerful images she found, Shyba added, features bags of uranium being loaded into floatplanes to be taken to Los Alamos, N.M. The uranium was used to make the atomic bombs that were dropped on Japan during the Second World War.
“Apparently it was kids that were taking the bags of uranium out of the hills with this radioactive material,” Shyba exclaimed.
Other photographs in the manuscript capture the day-to-day experiences of the Dene community, including traditional practices like beading and snow shoemaking.
“It captures a very warm spirit,” Shyba said.
We Remember can serve as a part of reconciliation, Yakeleya said, because it provides a glimpse into the damage done to the Dene people including the loss of their families, homes, culture and lifeways, while celebrating the rich heritage and traditions of the community.
He added he is glad people are seeing the film and will have the opportunity to read the book because it can be an educational experience.
Yakeleya recently finished recording a director’s commentary of the film. The plan, Shyba said, will be releasing a re-edited version of the film with the commentary to include with the book when it is released.
“It’s teaching a new generation of people,” Yakeleya said.