Morris Neyelle, a pillar of Délı̨nę’s community, is being remembered as an artist, activist, musician and historian who cared tremendously about his people.
Morris served as a band councillor and sub-chief for the Délı̨nę First Nation, took part in land claim negotiations and worked for the housing corporation. He passed away of cancer last month, aged 71.
“Morris told it straight and his words were always worth listening to,” said Kevin Flood, a federal negotiator who became a close friend of the family.
Paulina Roche, Morris’ sister, said: “I don’t think I can see anybody else in his role in the community. Just why, you know? Why him? He was this perfect person that lived in this world and now God has taken him.”
In 2019, Morris translated a collection of traditional and personal stories from the journals of his father into a book called The Man Who Lived With a Giant.
A year later, he appeared in the documentary A Moral Awakening to tell the story of his community’s history with Port Radium, a uranium mine that supplied material for World War Two’s Manhattan Project – work led by the United States to produce the first nuclear bombs.
The community was never informed of the uranium ore’s intended use, nor the inherent danger in handling the radioactive material.
In the film, Morris – who worked in the mine – describes being warned by scientists that even walking through the former site is dangerous.
“You can’t see it, but the radiation goes through your body, injures your blood cells, and in 10, 20 years, creates tumours or cancer,” he says on camera.
Morris and Bernice, ‘like teenagers’ together
Friends and family describe Morris as a spiritual leader, husband, grandfather, brother, and friend to many who remained active well into his final days.
He most recently spent time collaborating with a filmmaker on a documentary about his great-grandfather, working from old journals and documents. He still regularly ice fished, as he loved to do.
On February 24, he appeared on the Dene Yati podcast. A day later, he decided to fly from Délı̨nę to Yellowknife to address a continued burning pain in his stomach that the local health centre could not diagnose.
He and his wife, Bernice, booked two seats on a sold-out Friday flight. Despite the urgency, they couldn’t resist stopping to visit their grandchildren before continuing on to the emergency department.
Gloria Gaudet, Morris’ daughter, said he appeared in pain when he made that stop.
“I never thought of cancer,” she said. “When I saw him, I knew something was wrong and I knew that it was bad, but I didn’t want to believe it. He’d been so busy, so active.”
Within hours of arriving at Stanton Territorial Hospital, the news came: advanced colon cancer. Bernice never left his side, sleeping in a cot beside his hospital bed.
“They’d been together 47 years,” Gaudet said. “They did everything together. They were both really connected – my dad said it himself. Like best friends.”
The two grew up in Délı̨nę before the Sahtu community had power lines and running water, at a time when fewer than 200 people lived there.
They married in 1975 in a joyful double wedding with their friends, the late John and Irene Tetso. They loved boating and fishing together, watching movies, and hosting friends and family in their home, not far from where they first met. Gaudet said Morris loved teasing her mother and joking around.
“They were both really funny together,” she said, “like teenagers.”
Family members brought puzzles and books to the hospital for Morris, Gaudet said, and an iPad loaded with recordings of Elders talking about the past and telling stories.
By early April, he was able to return home, but his health was deteriorating.
Roche, his sister, said he wanted to spend his last days in Délı̨nę with family. Morris was one of the eldest of seven siblings, all close.
“My dad loves to play the guitar,” Gaudet said. “One of those last hours, when he was in bed, he played music on his iPad and my children were dancing for him.”
“I believe God can create miracles,” said Roche of Morris’ final moments, “and I believed that if God would do it for anyone, God would do it for him.
“His breathing was getting shallow but he kept saying, ‘I love you. I love you. I love all of you.'”
On Saturday, April 23, a funeral service held for Morris received an overwhelming turnout.
“We were getting so many messages from people Morris knew, more than we ever imagined. From New York, Newfoundland, Vancouver, Ottawa… across the country, people have been writing us and sending donations for the funeral,” said Roche.
“Even David Suzuki,” she added, referring to the environmentalist and broadcaster. “He has a vest Morris gave him that he still wears all the time when he goes on talk shows and things.”
‘His words meant so much’
Jolean Coleman never knew Morris personally but followed his teachings online and listened to him speak and lead community events. She found him to be “instrumental” in helping her recovery from childhood trauma.
“I knew him from seeing him at hand games and drum dances and things like that. But when I found his writing… it changed my life. His teachings gave me a sense of hope and direction, not only for myself, but for my whole generation,” Coleman said.
“He was just like a big rush of water for the seeds already planted by our ancestors, hundreds of years ago. He brought so much back to light for us, for me and for a lot of my friends. We were talking the other day about how important a man he was, how he pushed us all to be respectful, to be kind, to focus on our families, our culture and our language.
“His words meant so much to so many people – he was a great man.”
At the service, longtime friend Danny Gaudet spoke of Morris’ talent as a musician, playing drums and guitar with exceptional skill, and his passion for photography.
“I don’t think Morris ever left his house without his camera. He was always capturing moments. He loved taking pictures of people,” Gaudet said.
Despite the harm Morris experienced both in residential school and at the Port Radium mine, Gaudet described how he patiently worked with federal negotiators and officials to build a bridge of understanding.
“Morris and Bernice took them into their home and taught them about our traditions and customs, because he thought it was important, so the government could understand instead of dictate,” he said.
Morris took the same approach with researchers and students who visited the community.
“I don’t know how many students he took on – I think he adopted them all,” said Gaudet, to chuckles from those gathered.
“He helped them with their research because he knew that their work would help future generations. But he also made it clear to them that the knowledge from the people belongs to the people, and they can’t take it somewhere else where it doesn’t benefit our people.
“He always tried to make sure that researchers respected our traditions and knowledge.”
Gaudet spoke of the years Morris spent working to prove that long-term cancers in the community were being caused by their work with uranium ore, a claim governments have denied.
Morris also lobbied for better healthcare services in Délı̨nę. “We’re not getting the healthcare we need,” said Gaudet, “and Morris was willing to take on that battle, but that battle will continue.”
Roche still cannot believe her brother has gone.
“When we lost our mom and dad, that was one thing,” she said.
“But the longer you spend time with somebody you love, the harder it gets. This is just such a great loss.
“When I walked to work, he was always outside, working on his drums or boiling some meat for us. And he would call out and invite you to lunch. I just can’t believe I won’t see him again.”