Raymond Yakeleya’s grandmother always said the 1928 Spanish Influenza epidemic was “like living in a dream.”
The timeline was simple but brutal. That year, a Hudson’s Bay boat named the SS Distributor travelled down the Mackenzie River – carrying passengers infected with the flu – and stopped in what is now Tulita to deliver supplies.
This exposed local Dene and Inuvialuit communities to the disease. Within 24 hours, it started claiming lives.
“All of a sudden, [people] started dropping in the grass,” Yakeleya says, remembering what his uncle, Johnny Lennie, had told him.
“They would get hot and sweaty. They didn’t know what it was, this sickness.”
Yakeleya’s maternal grandmother, suffering from a fever, went to the Mackenzie to splash water on her face.
She remembers seeing a body floating in the river and questioning reality. Was this a fever dream?
“She didn’t know if it was real or not,” Yakeleya says.
Yakeleya’s grandmother survived but not everyone was so lucky.
The virus claimed between 10 and 15 percent of the NWT’s Indigenous population, according to the Yellowknife-based Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre. People were dying faster than they could build coffins, Yakeleya said, and mass graves were eventually dug to keep up with the death toll.
It was unlike anything Indigenous communities had experienced. Now, Covid-19 is drawing comparisons.
“Granny made it through but the old Elders that we had … this Covid-19 sickness is really hitting the Elders hard, and that’s what it was like in those times,” Yakeleya said.
‘An emotional and wonderful journey’
Those parallels make the recent release of Yakeleya’s new book, We Remember the Coming of the White Man, timely.
The book, released on April 21, collects interviews with 10 Sahtú and Gwich’in Dene Elders in the NWT, written in their traditional Gwich’in and North Slavey languages alongside an English translation.
The interviews recount lives and experiences in the 20th century, from the arrival of missionaries and fur traders and discovery of uranium and oil to the creation of Treaty 11 – and the influenza epidemic.
The book has been a long time coming, drawing on a documentary Yakeleya created for CBC North (the documentary, titled We Remember, was released in a two-part series in 1976).
“Travelling with dogs and canoes” from the National Photography Collection held by Public Archives Canada.
In the course of making the film, Yakeleya and his crew gathered 24 hours’ worth of interviews with the 10 Elders. According to Sarah Stewart, whose husband Bill co-edited the documentary with Yakeleya, it’s “24 hours of pure gold.”
“It’s just such an emotional and wonderful journey that we go on with the Elders,” Stewart says.
There had to be a way to get the full interviews out there. So, over the next 42 years, Sarah Stewart and Yakeleya worked together to transcribe the interviews, compile archival photos from the time period, and edit everything together into a single manuscript. It was a true labour of love.
Most importantly, it would ensure the Elders’ stories would not be forgotten.
“I think that’s really important – that their words will live, I hope, forever,” Yakeleya says. “And it will help people to see things from the Dene perspective.”
This is something Yakeleya has been passionate about for years. His filmmaking has captured Dene voices and ways of life so wider audiences can come to know his people.
Yakeleya’s other works include From the Spirit, a series profiling Indigenous artists, and The Last Mooseskin Boat (1982), which explores the cultural importance of mooseskin boats to the Shotah Dene people of the NWT.
The power to act
A remastered version of the We Remember documentary accompanies copies of the book.
“We can’t always have school teachings [about the Dene] from the white man perspective, because we know it’s limited,” Yakeleya says.
“They don’t understand our people. But I think through films like this and books like this, they will understand our people – that we have different ways of looking at things, we feel differently about things.”
Honouring the knowledge of the Elders is an important part, Yakeleya points out. They have always guided communities and carry the oral histories of their people through generations.
Elizabeth Yakeleya (nee Blondin), born in 1906 in Norman Wells, was Raymond Yakeleya’s grandmother. Photo: Supplied
A driving voice within the book – and in everything Yakeleya does – is that of his late paternal grandmother, Elizabeth or “Granny” Yakeleya.
According to Stewart, Granny Yakeleya’s stories have stuck with her the most throughout the years.
“She’s so resilient, so wise,” Stewart explains.
Stewart is proud to have been a part of the project. She says she learned a lot from the Elders, such as sharing in times of scarcity and the healing power of humour.
“They own their feelings, they love the land and respect it because the land gives us life,” she says. “And it just strikes me that, you know, the sincerity and honesty and the strength of character has really… it’s helped me in my life.”
Leanne Goose, a communications, arts, and cultural management professional from Inuvik, is happy she contributed to Yakeleya’s vision.
Goose produced an audiobook segment in which Elders tell their stories in their traditional language. She narrated the English translations.
“Tipis made of caribou hide at Great Slave Lake” from the Provincial Archives of Alberta’s E Brown Collection.
“Our culture is an oral history, and we have a responsibility to recognize that the Elders left us this legacy,” says Goose, who is of Inuvialuit, North Slavey Dene, and Métis descent.
“They left us their words. They gave us the power to be able to act on those by sharing these thoughts with us, to be able to do our work and to continue to move forward.”
Part of moving forward is addressing gaps and injustices in Indigenous communities, Goose says.
“We’re not a recovering people. We’ve always been here. We just haven’t been able to thrive because of systemic policies that have forced indigenous people to suffer in poverty and to be victimized because they are impoverished, because we’ve had so many atrocities happen to us.”
An anniversary not to be celebrated
Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the signing of Treaty 11, which outlines negotiations between the Crown and NWT First Nations regarding land ownership rights.
The document had a huge hand in shaping the NWT as it is known today. To Yakeleya, the anniversary is not worth celebrating.
“Our research is telling us it’s nothing but theft, fraud, and embezzlement by the Government of Canada toward the Northwest Territories Dene people,” he says.
“[That] needs to be brought to the table and talked about.”
The book’s cover. Click here for more information from the publisher.
Learning the stories of the Elders and the history of your people makes finding a way forward possible, says Yakeleya – much like the Dene experience with influenza offer insights into how communities can address Covid-19 and follow proper social distancing precautions.
The book may have been released in the midst of a pandemic, but Yakeleya is happy with the result. He praises Stewart and Lorene Shyba, who served as the publisher from Durvile & Up Route Books, for their help in making the book possible.
His biggest thank-you goes to the Elders. While they have all since passed, Yakeleya remains grateful for their generosity.
“I really want to thank our Elders for their graciousness,” he says. “We owe so much to them. And I want to acknowledge that.
“Mahsi. A big thank you to them.”