Dene Ts’ı̨lı̨ – We Are Dene

The history of the Dene people around this huge lake called Sahtú (Great Bear Lake) goes back for thousands of years. The people here are defined by our stories passed on orally for generations.

We call ourselves Sahtúgot’ı̨nę, people of Great Bear Lake. We are related to the Tłı̨chǫ̨got’ı̨nę (Dogrib people), K’áshógot’ı̨nę (Hare people), and Shúhtagotı̨nę (Mountain people) of the Central Mackenzie Valley in the Northwest Territories, and we maintain strong ties with our neighbouring relatives.

We are participants in the Sahtú Dene and Métis Comprehensive Land Claim, signed in 1993.  There are some 2,800 registered as beneficiaries in the whole settlement area. Sahtúgot’ı̨nę beneficiaries number about 900, and about half of that number speak their language in their everyday lives.

Edırı nę́nę́ is our concept for what is called “the land” in English. This term encompasses the ecological, historical, cultural and spiritual aspects of the land. History tells us that those that survived on the land with their families maintain strong ties that enable them to understand their ancestors’ relationships with the land, water and wildlife.

People lived and hunted in their language, constantly moving according to the cycles of annual movements of animals and fish. People generally did not stay in one area very long and travelled great distances, but they did maintain a pattern of land use through the seasons that tied them to certain core areas. Journeys were often occasions for gatherings with other peoples, including the Tłı̨chǫ (Dogrib people), K’áshógot’ı̨nę (Hare people) and Inuit. Trapping also became very important as a source of exchange for goods during the fur trade era. Délı̨nę, formerly known as Fort Franklin, became a permanent settlement in the early 1950s, when a school was established.

The history of our people is written on the land in place names that relate to the family areas around the lake. A good example is the name for people bordering the treeline in the east regions of Great Bear Lake, Dechı̨lagot’ı̨nę (End Of The Trees people).

Our Ɂehtséokǝ (grandfathers) believed that we exist to be part of edırı nę́nę́ (“the land”). We must contribute to that connection with edırı nę́nę́ in order to be true Dene. Our contributions must not interfere with the natural cycles or edırı nę́nę́ ɂeɂa (laws). This powerful guiding principle can lead to a good future for our people.

Sahtúgot’ı̨nęk’ǝ Gokǝdǝ́ – The Sahtúgot’ı̨nę Language

This project works with speakers of the dialect of Dene language in the community of Délı̨nę. The dialect is called Sahtúgot’ı̨nęk’ə gokǝdǝ́, and was formerly referred to as Bearlake Slavey. The Sahtúgot’ı̨nę dialect is one of the four related Dene language dialects spoken in the Sahtú Region of the Northwest Territories. Shúhtagot̨’ı̨nę (Mountain) and K’áalogot’ı̨nę (Willow Lake) are spoken in Tulı́t’a, and K’áshógot’ı̨nę (Hare) is spoken in Fort Good Hope and Colville Lake.

Together, these four dialects have been referred to as composing the North Slavey language. The four dialects are closely related to Tłı̨chǫ Yatiì (Dogrib), South Slavey and Dene Sųłiné (Chipewyan).

The map shows the area of the North Slavey language as well as the other official languages of the Northwest Territories (see map 1).

map 1

Map 1

Sahtúgot’ı̨nek’ǝ gokǝdǝ́ belongs to the Athapaskan language family. This language family is part of a larger group — the Na-Dene languages. These languages historically originated from the same mother language

Athapaskan languages are spoken over a wide area in the north of Canada, and in parts of the United States, including Alaska, Oregon, California, and the southwest. The Northeastern branch of the family includes the Dene language, where Sahtúgot’ı̨nek’ə gokǝdǝ́ is one dialect, as well as several other languages.

Language Structure 

Sahtúgot’ı̨nek’ə gokǝdǝ́, like the related languages, has a large consonantal system.

The following table shows the consonants of Sahtúgot’ı̨ne Dene.








stops, affricates
voiceless unaspirated b d dz dl j g gw
voiceless aspirated t  ts tl ch k kw
glottalized t’  ts’ tl’ ch’ k’ kw’ ɂ
voiceless      s ł sh x wh h
voiced      z l zh gh w
oral r y
nasal m n

(Rice, 1989:29)

There are six oral vowels, five nasalized vowels, and five phonetically long vowels in Sahtúgot’ı̨nę Dene. The nasalized vowels are written with a mark beneath them.

ı ı̨              u ų

e ę

e          o ǫ

a ą

Tone is important in Sahtúgot’ı̨nę Dene. There are two tones: a low tone and a high tone. In the orthography the high tone is marked with an acute accent. The low tone is not indicated.

lajuh       “mitts”

júh        “hook”

 (Rice, 1989:103)

gots’ę́      “to, onto”

gots’ę      “from, off”

(Rice, 1989:286)

The verb word in Dene is recognized for its complexity. In addition to expressing the main action or state, it includes information about the subject and object and also about where the action or state already occurred, is going on, or has not yet occurred. For linguists, the order of these concepts within the verb word is surprising, as it is very different from most other languages of the world.

A verb can be a whole sentence:

goyı̨de                                        “s/he talked“

(Rice, 1989:17)

nánenııta                                 “I kicked you (sg.)”

(Rice, 1989:21)


The basic constituent order is SOV (subject-object-verb).

setá          ɂı̨ts’é        whehk’ǝ́                                   “my dad shot a moose“

my.dad  moose     he.shot

subject   object      verb

(Rice, 1989:17)


Continuity and Change

Sahtúgot’ı̨nęk’ə gokǝdǝ́ is at a critical threshold in that language use and transmission has declined over the past twenty years, and the language could easily cease to be spoken in a short time. At this time, the language is still regularly heard in the community.

The community of Délı̨nę brings together people from various areas around Sahtú. Even though the community has existed for some time, there is some variability in the language of different people, based in part on the different places of origin of different families.

There is an understanding in the community of what is happening in terms of declining language transmission, and a strong desire to reverse the trend. We Sahtúgot’ı̨nę are looking for ways to strengthen our language, stories, songs and way of life, including our connection to the land as we make the transition to self-governance.