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An aboriginal race of North America

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Denes (men or people, in most of their dialects), an aboriginal race of North America, also called Athapaskans and known among earlier ethnologists as Tinne or Tinneh. They are the northernmost of American Indians, and, as regards territorial extension, may perhaps be considered as the most important native family on the American Continent. They are divided into three groups: the Southern, composed of the Apaches and the Navahoes, to whom, in THE CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA, special articles are devoted which describe their habitat; the Pacific Denes, composed mainly of remnants of tribes in Washington, Oregon, and Northern California; and the Northern Denes, by far the most important division, which covers the territory extending from Churchill River and the northern branch of the Saskatchewan to the confines of the Eskimo fishing-grounds. In British Columbia they range from 51° 30′ N. lat., and are like-wise to be found over the whole of Alaska with the exception of its coasts. The southern branch of the family is today in a thriving condition and relatively numerous; but the uncertainty of life in the dreary wastes or dense forests which have long been the home of the Northerners precludes the possibility of a population even distantly commensurate with the enormous area claimed by them. The latest and most reliable statistics give the following figures for the numbers of the three divisions: Southern Denes, 27,365; Pacific Denes, 846; Northern Denes, 19,390. It ‘is but fair to add that whole tribes or septs were almost wiped out of existence by epidemics and disorders consequent on the advent of the whites among them. The principal Northern tribes are: the Loucheux, neighbors of the Eskimos in Alaska and the lower Mackenzie, contiguous to which are, from north to south: the Hares, the Dog-Ribs, the Slaves, the Yellow-Knives, and the Chippewayans. Ignoring several intermediate or Rocky Mountain tribes, we find in Northern British Columbia the Nahanais, the Sekanais, the Babines, the Carriers, and the Chilcotins. The Yellow-Knives receive their name from the tools of native copper which were common among them in prehistoric times; the Babines are so called from their custom of wearing labrets, wood or stone ornaments inserted in the lip, and the Carriers owe their name to a custom of the women of carrying on their backs the charred remains of their husbands.

Though the Navahoes have at last adopted pastoral life, all the Dene tribes were originally made up of hunters and have remained so in the north. Yet in British Columbia the abundance of fish, especially of salmon, has made fishing of at least as great economic importance to the Denes stationed there as hunting. Most of the hard work was done by the women, who generally occupied a very low place in the social scale. They were united to men by ties which were never considered indissoluble, and polygamy was everywhere prevalent. As to society itself, it was of the crudest description. The original form of government among the entire stock was a sort of anarchy tempered by patriarchal proclivities. The septs were led by the more influential fathers of families, whose children succeeded in the male line of their rank, such as it was, and inherited their earthly belongings. But contact with aliens made the Western tribes adopt, in course of time, matriarchy, or mother-right, and its consequent institutions: the clans with their petty chiefs, the totems, and more or less elaborate social observances. These totems, or emblems, were of at least two kinds, gentile and personal. The former represented the clan, and though probably evolved from the latter, they came to be regarded as more social than religious in import. The nature of the personal totems is better understood by a reference to the theogonistic and cosmogonic notions of the Indians. In common with most American aborigines they believed in a twofold world: the one visible and purely material now inhabited by man; the other invisible, though in some way coextensive with the first, which is the home of spirits. Of these there are two kinds, good and bad, all more or less under the control of a Supreme Being whose personality and attributes are not well defined. By some he was known as “he (or it) whereby the earth exists”, or simply “the powerful”; others, like the Hares, designated him as “he that sees in front and behind”, while the prehistoric Carriers knew him as “that which is on high”, apparently confounding him with the dynamic forces of nature and the cause of rain, snow, wind, and the other celestial phenomena. As to the spirits, the noxious ones are constantly lurking among men and cause disease and all evils. The good ones are closely connected with the various elements of the created world, and are ever ready to adopt and protect individuals in return for some sort of respect and implied veneration of the animal, tree, plant, celestial body, or terrestrial entity which is their normal seat or representative. These are the personal totems or tutelary genii, of which every Dene has at least one, communion with which was supposed to be established through the agency of dreams, apparitions, etc.

It sometimes happened that the totem suddenly prostrated the native while awake and rendered him unconscious. The individual thus affected was believed to commune with some powerful spirit, and on being restored to consciousness by means of loud chanting and the rhythmical beating of drums, was considered as endowed with supernatural powers over the evil spirits and their works. Hence his services were called into requisition to cast out the evil spirits from those who were afflicted with illness, or to obtain some particular end in the order of nature, such as calm in tempestuous weather, a plentiful run of salmon, a successful hunt, and the like. These ideas were so firmly rooted among all the tribes that they long remained proof against the influence of civilization. The first encounter of the Denes with this was in the south, as is shown in the articles on the Apaches and the Navahoes. In the north, the fur of the animals on whose flesh they mostly subsisted and whose skins were utilized as garments was the principal cause of the intrusion of the white races on their desolate wilderness. As early as 1670 was established the celebrated Hudson Bay Company, whose agents were gradually drawn into close intercourse with the easternmost tribes. One of these agents, Samuel Hearne, was the first to penetrate to any considerable inland distance. In the years 1769-72 he discovered Lake Athabasca, and went as far north as the mouth of the Coppermine with a horde of Eastern Denes who proved to be as unruly, brutal, and lustful as the explorer was himself timid and gentlemanly. On the other hand, the latter extols the virtue and meekness of their women. Then came the Northwest Fur Trading Company, a member of which, Laurent Le-roux, was the first to visit Great Slave Lake (1784). This energetic corporation soon dotted the country with trading establishments, whereupon the Hudson Bay Company began a keen competition, which was the source of many disorders among the natives, intoxicants being used by each party to win them over to its own side. Then came the explorations of Mackenzie in 1789 and 1792-93; Franklin’s in 1820-22; Back’s in 1833-35; and a number of other journeys in the course of which the Denes proved valuable, if somewhat fickle helpers. They were strictly honest, anxious to please the whites and to adopt their ways as far as compatible with their own condition.

The Denes had already learned something of the Catholic religion through the French Canadian traders and voyagers. From the very beginning they showed themselves ready converts, which is not to be wondered at when we consider that the Dene, when of pure stock, is by nature eminently religious. The first missionaries were Catholic priests. In 1842 the Rev. J. B. Thibault, one of the pioneers of the Red River Settlement (now Manitoba) reached the Rocky Mountains in his apostolic wanderings, and must have evangelized some of the border tribes. Three years later he visited the Chippewayans of Ile-a-la-Crosse, which locality was soon to become the center of far-reaching missionary operations. That very year there arrived at St. Boniface the first two representatives of the Oblate Order, which has since had charge of the evangelization of all Northern Deng tribes. In 1847 Father (afterwards Archbishop) Tache visited Lake Athabasca, where he was kindly received and accomplished much good. Year after year the sphere of religious activity was enlarged, new missions being established, until that of Our Lady of Good Hope was founded by Father Grollier, August 31, 1859, within the Arctic Circle. Thence apostolic excursions were made into Alaska, first by Father Petitot in 1870, and then by Bishop I. Clut in 1872. But the Western Loucheux, rendered hostile to Catholicism by itinerant Protestant ministers and fanatical traders, proved generally rebellious. Serious Protestant missionary efforts among the Dens date from 1858. The Rev. J. Hunter then made a reconnoitring visit to the Mackenzie, and as a result a mission was established on that stream at Fort Simpson. After this work was undertaken among the Loucheux of the Yukon with some measure of success. However, in spite of the assertion of the late Anglican bishop, W. C. Bompas, that “the numbers under instruction of each Church may not greatly differ” (Diocese of Mackenzie, London, 1888, p. 108) among the Northern Denes, taken as a whole, the number of Protestant Denes is insignificant compared with those who have embraced the Catholic Faith. In British Columbia they are practically all Catholic, and east of the Rocky Mountains there is not one Protestant among the natives who repair to some fifteen of the Hudson Bay Company’s fur-trading posts. Even at Fort Simpson, the headquarters of the Church of England in the Mackenzie, half of the aboriginal population is Catholic.



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