A Colville Lake leader criticized the "imported curriculum" taught to Sahtu children, which he said lacked information about the history and contributions of Dene peoples.
David Codzi, president of Ayoni Keh Land Corporation, made the remarks as he discussed publication of a fourth book of stories about Sahtu residents, entitled Dene Heroes of the Sahtu.
Codzi said a lack of stories about Sahtu residents' contributions to exploration, science and innovation, and peoples' daily lives was the impetus behind the Dene Heroes publishing project.
"There was not that much from over here ... our own input, our own interactions, our own contributions to the modern age. There was nothing. So we were wanting to go out and get stories, and try to contribute," he said.
The fear, Codzi added, is that without talking about their own people, some Dene youth might see themselves as "irrelevant."
Dakota Orlias, from Colville Lake, accepts $100,000 for the Dene Heroes project at an Arctic Inspiration Prize ceremony.
Codzi said the Dene Heroes project represents an attempt to fill that gap and provide materials for teachers.
The latest Dene Hereos of the Sahtu book is the fourth volume in the series. Self-funded each year, the project won a $100,000 Arctic Inspiration Prize in 2018 and is kept alive on a "shoestring budget" according to editor Mary-Anne Neal.
Sahtu leaders have recently criticized the education system available to the region's youth. Ahead of the October NWT election, Paulie Chinna – now the Sahtu's MLA and a cabinet member – told Cabin Radio: "I think we need to understand our young people; to ask them, what is it that they want to do? We need to help them to dream again ... we need to be more creative."
Dene Heroes editor Neal said the books are designed to improve literacy and increase pride in Dene heritage – and, ultimately, support Sahtu self-government.
"The young people who are coming up – who will be the successors of these band leaders – they need to be skilled in negotiating, in reading, in understanding, comprehending some of these terms and concepts," she said.
The books have become an intergenerational project, Neal said, with contributors aged 10 to 80. Some stories from young people describe heroes in their lives, some are tributes to family members, and others are memories from residential school survivors.
"They're writing about their family members. Sometimes they're not around any more, and that acknowledges them and keeps the memories alive," Codzi said.
From the fourth volume, Neal highlighted 66-year-old Laura Tobac's retelling of her late brother's birth on the shores of the Mackenzie River during a bitterly cold winter. "This is within the memory of people who are alive today – that they not only survived these things but that was just their way of life," Neal said.
Morris Neyelle, who has had a story published in every volume of Dene Heroes, retells in volume four the last dog team trip he took with his grandfather.
Waking up in pre-dawn hours, following tracks and stopping to boil tea, Neyelle remembers his only connection to the outside world during the hunt being the radio. He tells of tracking caribou by snowshoe, shooting two of the caribou, and coming face-to-face with a third before letting it go.
"That summer of 1970, I told my dad about my experience with the big bull caribou I let go, even though I had the chance to shoot it," Neyelle writes. "He told me, 'My son, thank you for doing that. It was a smart thing to do because in the future when you are hungry and out of food, that caribou you let go will come back to you and you will survive another day with another meal. Mahsi for letting that caribou go.'
"I thought about what he meant. Years later, I finally figured it out. It means that you should only take what you need and leave some for tomorrow. That is the Dene law our people always followed, even until today."
Volume five in a new community?
With few opportunities to foster emerging leaders, Codzi said a group of people aged 17 to 25 coordinate and promote the Dene Heroes project.
"All of us leaders are getting older and older and we need to fill the next generation with things that need to be done, in order to give them the skills they need to meet the challenges," Codzi said.
Some teachers have used the books in their classrooms, Neal said, but their use is not yet widespread. She urged schools to use the books as a "collaborative learning, project-based learning, technology-enhanced learning" model that can be adapted to other subject areas in schools.
Having produced four volumes of Dene Heroes in a small community with stretched resources, Codzi said he would now like to pass the project to another community who can take it further for a fifth volume.
Dene Heroes books can be found in Sahtu school libraries and are housed at several of the NWT's public libraries. Copies of volume four will be given out at celebrations in Colville Lake on January 15 and Délı̨nę on January 18.