After spending a few days in this remote area located on the north western corner of Alberta, one can see why the Dene Tha’ people call Bistcho Lake “the last frontier.” Perry Moulton, Director of Education for the Dene Tha’ First Nation (DTFN) included Bistcho Lake in the “Science and Culture on the Land Project,” part of the five-year Dene Tha’ Education Plan. “This is the second trip we’ve made to the lake with the original intent to educate the children and youth,” Moulton said. “What better way but to show them this pristine and undisturbed area that is the traditional territory of the Dene Tha’ people.”
On Monday September 16, 2013, representatives from Taiga Archaeology, Dene Tha Community School, North Peace Tribal Council, University of Alberta (U of A), and a writer of the First Nations Drum were invited by the DTFN on a three-day trip to Bistcho Lake to examine and explore new areas surveyed this past summer, review the wolverine research project, and continue more archaeological digs. The U of A and the DTFN are working together on the wolverine research project starting this winter, and U of A is hoping to assist the Dene Tha’ in conducting an environmental monitoring project on their traditional lands.
The geologists and biologists are there to research and explore Bistcho, but as experts with the environment, they are also assisting with education ideas that could make the lake an important virtual tool for many generations to come. They also share similar goals and interests with the Dene Tha’ people: protecting the land and environment.
Greg Kwiecien, geologist for Taiga Archeology, says this project is unique for DTFN because students have the opportunity to see where their ancestors once lived and are able to embrace their culture and history. “When we first came on the first trip, I was so impressed to see the kids take such an active interest in the archeological digs on their traditional lands,” Kwiecien said. “It is so unique and exciting on so many levels, not only for the children and youth learning of their culture, but for us as well, because we’ve found artifacts that could well date at least a thousand years.” In their first trip, archeologists found an artifact they called a “prehistoric swiss-army knife,” and on this second trip they found more artifacts including an arrowhead, which will be examined to determine its age.
Kwiecien said he hoped this project would prove that potential developers must take extreme caution on the DTFN lands of Jack Fish Point and Bistcho, including the entire area around the lake. “We are impressed with their chief and councillors because they’re taking matters into their own hands and sharing their history and lands with us, and as archeologists, this is an opportunity we are grateful for,” Kwiecien said. “We are discovering a lot of interesting finds on the digs, and this place needs to be protected so that everyone can enjoy this area at its most natural state.”
Surrounded by the lake’s natural beauty, the boat ride to the backwaters or tributary was a serene moment. As we drifted around one corner, we could barely see cabins in the distance. Once we got off the boats and walked up the riverbank, we could see the Dene Tha’s old log cabin village, also known as Bistcho Lake Indian Reserve #213. As we walked through the abandon village, one could imagine a time when the area bustled with activity: Dene Tha’ men fishing, women skinning or cooking outdoors, children eating cranberries and playing, running from cabin to cabin. But why did the Dene Tha people leave this beautiful area tucked behind the great Lake?
Harry Metacat is Dene Tha’ and one of two elders who accompanied the group on this trip. He recounted stories about growing up in the log cabin village and swimming in the lake. “We did everything on our own here. It was a tough life, but we didn’t know it was tough because that’s all we knew,” Metacat said. “But we all moved away from here when people got sick.” In the 1930s and early 1940s, the Dene Tha’ people began moving away from from Bistcho Lake because of a major flu outbreak that devastated the area. A lot of the people died, including Metacat’s Father who passed away in 1942. The group visited and paid their respects to the “spirit houses” or Dene Kih Kohoanh. These houses are placed on the grave in a ceremony one year after the actual burial. Archeologists were able to dig in the area and found artifacts that proved people had been living in the area for a long time.
Day two included a visit to Jack Fish Point and the discovery of an arrowhead by Ashley Dixon of Taiga Archeology. “We are just amazed at all the finds we’re discovering,” Dixon said. “It sometimes takes an archeologist years to dig up a find, but here we’ve been finding so many objects, and it’s exciting to know there is a lot of history here, and we want to discover that.”
With every artifact collected, the group shared ideas that could benefit the DTFN education plan. Matt Munson, DTFN lands and environment director, shared his idea that all the areas could be included in a Google map website. “There are so many education possibilities here that we can do with artifacts that are being discovered,” said Munson. “We can create pop-up interactive sites for kids to locate key areas of the Dene Tha land.” For example, if a student wanted to see where the “swiss army knife” was found, they could click a link to open a Google map, and it would include information describing what the tool was used for and how old it is. The log cabin village could also be included in the educational virtual tour of Dene Tha Traditional lands.
Great education ideas that would benefit the culture and traditions of the Dene Tha people, the archaeological discoveries, the wolverine research project, and the discovery of this beautiful Canadian frontier would not have been possible without the invitation from the DTFN people. In future issues First Nations Drum will feature the Five-Year Dene Tha’ Education Plan and look at their management areas, including Culture & Education, Social & Health, Economic Development, and future developments that could affect the environment of Bistcho Lake and the Dene Tha’ people. Bistcho Lake covers about 415 kilometres and is the third largest lake in the province. It is one of the only large lake in North America that is pristine and free of any contaminants of human development.