Dene people, the local indigenous population, and their ancestors have used the lands in and around Nahanni National Park Reserve for up to 10,000 years. There is a rich and interesting history hidden in oral accounts passed down through generations of the Dene and further supported and decoded using archaeological evidence.
Prior to European exposure, the Dene people were highly mobile around the Deh Cho (Mackenzie River) region. They subsisted mainly on hunting, fishing and trapping using a variety of tools taken from the natural world around them. Their lives engaged and intertwined completely with nature, following migratory patterns of animals. Men were mainly hunters, women were mainly homemakers. Usually people would travel in smaller extended-family groups, but a few times a year multiple groups would meet up and trade and celebrate. These celebrations often involved a fire feeding ceremony, feasting, a drum dance and hand games. Present day, many of these activities still take place, and you are welcome to join in.
Along with the more peaceful Dene, the local oral history contains many references to the Naha tribe, a mountain-dwelling people who used to viciously raid settlements in the adjacent lowlands. When the Dene in the valley finally decided to strike back at their Naha rivals, they sent scouts to find the Naha settlement in the mountains of current Nahanni National Park Reserve. They found it by going through horseshoe canyon nearby Tło Dehé (Prairie Creek). It was a secluded, difficult to access location. The Dene returned home and fetched their warriors and then lay in wait until nightfall, preparing their attack. In the middle of the night they surrounded the Naha settlement on all sides, sneaking closer and ready to strike. Once they were right alongside the teepees, they hurriedly threw open the tent flaps, weapons at the ready and…no one was inside. Silence. Fires were smoldering, sleeping bags were laid out, but there wasn’t a single human around. They had disappeared completely. Eventually word spread from the far south desert-country that a group of people had suddenly appeared and started living down there. Present day similarities between local Dene dialects and the Navajo language in the southern United States has led to speculation that the Navajo are descendants of the missing Naha.
During the 1800s, most Dene families left their nomadic lifestyles and settled into more permanent communities, often close to the trading posts. Permanent settlements were established at locations such as Nahanni Butte, Fort Liard, Fort Simpson, Wrigley and Fort Norman. Trapping for subsistence became an important part of life for the indigenous residents of the region.
In the late 1800s, the Mountain Dene of the Nahanni region who hadn’t settled into permanent communities would travel down the Nahanni River each spring in mooseskin boats to trade the winter take of furs. These remarkable boats could be up to 20 metres in length. Constructed from six to ten untanned moose hides sewn together and stretched over a spruce pole frame, these boats would transport entire families, their dogs and cargo of furs down the river during high water. Upon arrival the boat was dismantled and the hides traded along with the furs. Following a visit to the forts, these people would return to the high country with only what they could carry on their pack dogs.
Present day, Nahanni National Park Reserve is cooperatively managed with the Nahʔą Dehé Consensus Team: a joint initiative to manage the park by both Parks Canada and the Dehcho First Nations. The park remains in "reserve" status pending settlement of outstanding indigenous land claims in the region. The goal is to manage and present the park in an ecologically sound manner that respects its indigenous history and connections.
While on your travels, if you happen to find any archaeological evidence, take photos and record the location then let the parks office know – but leave things where you found them as undisturbed as possible. We are always interested in learning more about the local past.