Dene peoples have used the lands in and around Nahanni National Park Reserve for thousands of years, hunting the abundant ungulate populations of the area and fishing. The first human occupation of the area is estimated to have occurred 9000-10 000 years ago. Evidence of prehistoric human use has been found at Yohin Lake and a few other sites within the park. The local oral history contains many references to the Naha tribe, a mountain-dwelling people who used to raid settlements in the adjacent lowlands. These people are said to have rather quickly and mysteriously disappeared. 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.
First contact with European fur traders expanding into the region occurred in the 1700s, and was increased with Alexander Mackenzie's exploration of the Mackenzie River (Deh Cho), and building of trading posts at Fort Simpson and Fort Liard. 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 aboriginal residents of the region.
In the late 1800s, the Mountain Dene of the Nahanni region would travel down the Nahanni River each spring in mooseskin boats to trade the winter take of furs. These remarkable boats, based on the Hudson Bay York boats, were 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.
The stories of the Naha, and dangerous landscape that they inhabited, grew in stature with the Klondike gold rush and associated gold fever, as some explorers attempted to use the Nahanni as a path to the famous gold fields of the Yukon, or make their fortune on the Flat and South Nahanni rivers.
Legends of haunted valleys and lost gold emerged after the headless corpses of Métis prospectors Willie and Frank McLeod were found around 1908. In the years that followed, mysterious deaths of other prospectors added to the legends. The names of park features such as Deadmen Valley, Headless Creek, Headless Range and the Funeral Range, bear testimony to these stories and legends.
Albert Faille is perhaps the best-known prospector associated with the park. Faille prospected in the park area for 46 years, from the mid 1920s to the 1950s, and was featured in the National Film Board film Nahanni. His home is still standing in Fort Simpson.
Mary and Gus Kraus were the only known permanent residents of the park. They lived at Kraus Hotsprings from1940 to 1971.
Cultural resources in the park include pre-contact sites, as well as remnants of cabins, caches and trails from the era of trapping, prospecting and exploration. Little is known of the origins and significance of these resources. Click here for information on cultural resource management in the park.
The popularity of the South Nahanni River as a recreational destination increased throughout the mid-1900s. Nahanni was set aside by Order-in-Council as a National Park Reserve in 1972, and was gazetted as a national park reserve in an amendment to the National Parks Act in 1976. The park was established after the culmination of a major public debate over the future of the South Nahanni River and Virginia Falls as a free-flowing wilderness river. This process directly influenced park boundary decisions so that the importance of protecting the river from hydroelectric development was emphasized at the expense of respecting intact watersheds or wildlife habitat considerations. The park will remain in "reserve" status pending settlement of outstanding Aboriginal land claims in the region.