IMAGES FROM A STORIED LAND:
THE DANE-ZAA LIVING LANDSCAPE OF NORTHEASTERN BC

Introduction:

The Dane-zaa are First Nations people of the Peace River region of northeastern British Columbia and northwestern Alberta. They translate the name Dane-zaa as “Real People.” They speak an athapaskan language related to the languages spoken by other Dene people of northwestern Canada and Alaska. In English, the Dane-zaa are referred to as “Beaver Indians.” Anthropologist Robin Ridington has been documenting their cultural traditions since the 1960s. Jillian Ridington joined him in this work in the 1970s. Together, they have accumulated an archive of audio recordings, photographs and videos that document how the Dane-zaa are part of their country’s living landscapes.

Project:

Working with Chief Garry Oker, Dane-zaa elders, and videographer Stacy Shaak the Ridingtons have collaborated with the Royal British Columbia Museum through the Living Landscapes: Peace River- Northern Rockies initiative to create a video of short vignettes on Dane-zaa culture, as well as an interactive study guide to the archive.

Video

Doig River elders continue to join young people in camping out in their territory for the traditional spring hunt. The video begins with the skinning and preparation of a moose, just after a Dane-zaa hunter has shot the animal. Experienced hunters demonstrate their traditional skills in deftly dissecting and preparing the moose. This section ends with the moose meat and hide being taken back to the camp for further processing.

In the second segment, Dane-zaa hunter Jack Askoty teaches Dane-zaa young people how to make a flesher from the leg of the moose. Fleshers are used to separate the remaining flesh and membrane from the hide, before it is scraped to remove the hair, soaked, tanned and made into moccasins and garments.

As the Dane-zaa are signatories to Treaty 8, they are among the few BC First Nations to have their rights to hunt throughout their traditional territories assured. For thousands of years, the Dane-zaa have lived by hunting and trapping the animals of their territory. Throughout this time, hunters and hide workers have shared their knowledge of Dane-zaa skills with the next generations.

The Dane-zaa think of animals as persons. A hunter must make contact with the spirit of an animal in his dreams before the animal will give itself to him. The animals know whether or not a hunter is generous. They choose to give themselves to people who share the meat with their relatives. As skilled hunters and hide workers share their skills, they remind young people that their elders and ancestors shared a living landscape with the animal people.

The second segment is a short dramatic video about giant animals who once threatened people. Two young Dane-zaa boys spontaneously act it. With the assistance of videographer Stacy Shaak, they interpret an ancient story from Dane-zaa mythic history, which they set in modern times. The giant animals have become oil and gas installations that threaten to overcome the living relationship that Dane-zaa people have had with their landscape. The young people follow in the footsteps of the ancient transformer, Saya, in doing combat with the forces that now threaten their territory.

Part Three of the video sequence documents Doig Days, 2002. The Dane-zaa are committed to educating not only their own young people but also the non-First Nations students from the North Peace River school districts. As a way of accomplishing this, they invite young people from these districts to attend the annual “Doig Days” on the Doig River reserve. Many of these students, like many of their parents, will never have visited a First Nations reserve. Here, members of the Doig community demonstrate traditional hide-working and other skills. The video shows stages in the processing of a moosehide, as demonstrated for the visiting students. Doig Days also provides an opportunity for non-First Nations students to join their fellows from the Dane-zaa community in traditional dances, songs, and the use of the Dane-zaa language. The video shows students from diverse backgrounds dancing together to the music of Dane-zaa singers and drummers, and enthusiastically repeating Dane-zaa words and phrases taught to them by Chief Garry Oker. It also shows how the contemporary Dane-zaa community is adding musical and dance traditions from their Plains Indian neighbors to their own traditional forms.

The Dane-zaa encourage interested outsiders to learn about their cultural heritage. They know that the living landscape that sustained their ancestors will continue to sustain their children and grandchildren. Copies of the video are held at the Doig River First Nation Cultural Centre and the Royal BC Museum.

Digital Archive

The Ridington/Dane-zaa archive contains many hundreds of hours of audio recordings and thousands of photographs. These document everything from songs and oratory by elders of the 1960s to conversations and talent shows of the 1990s. Information about the archive, images, and Dane-zaa texts are available online at www.fishability.biz/Doig. Visitors may access the site using [guest] as a user identification and password. From there, the visitor can click to access the audio, images, text, and video archives. A catalogue of the audio archive, transcriptions, and some sample audio pieces are now on the website. Low-resolution versions of all of the “Old Series” images from the 1960s are available there, as is a catalogue of more recent images. A list of publications and texts of some shorter publications, and a list of the available videos completes the material now available. A selection of images from the digital archive are presented in a brief photo gallery.

Additional Resources

Folklorist Amber Ridington and visual anthropologist Kate Hennessey joined the project team in 2003 to work with Dane-zaa young people to create more material, and teach the skills necessary to maintain the website at the Doig River First Nations new Cultural Center. The first project theyl produced is a virtual exhibit, called "Hadaa Ka naadzet: the Dane-Zaa Moosehunt" for Canada’s Digital Collection website (www.moosehunt.doigriverfn.com) that showcases Dane-zaa moose-hunting traditions.

Two 24-minute videos, “Contact the People” and “Otter Man’s Prophecy” have been completed by the project team that produced the video for this project. They are now finishing work on a fifty-minute video about Dane-zaa spiritual traditions, “They Dream About Everything.” A 30 minute video “In Doig People’s Ears”, which was assembled from slides and audio in 1984, is also available. For further information on any of these videos, please contact the Doig River First Nations Office, Box 56, Rose Prairie, BC. V0N 2H0, phone (250)827-3776 or fax (250)827-3778.

Living Landscapes