DENE LAWS - Identified by Dehcho Elders in Dene Zhatıé, from the Dehcho Region (Northwest Territories)
- Ełeghaets’edendıh - Share what you have
- Ełets’áts’ęndı - Help each other
- Ełeghǫnets’etǫ - Love each other as much as possible
- Ǫhndah gots’edıhchá & godhǫą ashı ̨ ı azhǫchu - Be respectful of others and everything around you
- T’ahsıı ots’edı ́ hshǫ ̨ gogháts’ıɂáh - Pass on the teachings
- Łáųlı t’áh gogha gonezų - Be happy at all times
- Tedhe ts’ete & dzenę eghálats’ęnda - Sleep at night and work during the day
- Dene ts’ę́ nahzų gots’ęh thá t’áh dene áhdahndı ıle - Be polite and don’t argue with anyone
- Ts’elıą gots’ęh denelı ̨ ą ełegedı ̨ hchá - Young girls and boys should behave respectfully
- The Project
A video of Dene Law & Stories, shared by Dehcho Elders in Dene Zhatıé from the Dehcho Region in the Northwest Territories. To grasp a basic understanding of Dene Laws and Legal Principles, this will be the most relevant resource. While the associated PDF provides an immensely helpful textual description of Dene Laws, the video resource provides in-depth storytelling from the perspectives of community elders, in their own words. The Dehcho First Nations have graciously provided two versions, one without subtitles and one with English subtitles; it is through their willingness to transcribe these laws which allow non-community members to learn and reflect on the knowledges shared by Dehcho Elders. Running time is 14:35 min/sec.
Summary of Dene Rules
DENE RULES - Identified by Tłı̨chǫ Elders from the Community of Whatì (Lac La Martre, NWT)
- Rules were passed down from generation to generation by grandparents and parents. These oral traditions included stories about the supernatural world and how it worked, stories about how the animal world worked, stories about the disastrous outcomes when rules were broken.
- There was direct teaching by one or both parents on specific rules for doing things the right way in daily life and in special times such as pubescence. Children also observed their parents’ behaviour and learned to do things the same way. Children were punished for not doing things the right way and learned from their mistake.
- Rules were enforced by all adults and some adults had more power, authority, and special gifts to make that enforcement very strong. Leaders and specialists had the final authority and responsibility to make sure everything worked well, that the group survived and that things between the natural, spiritual, and human world were kept in balance.
- New rules were created when circumstances changed, and there was a need for a change in rules or for totally new ones. These new rules were made by the yabahti and k’àowo in consultation with all the elders. They were discussed at length and then explained to the people. They worked hard at making them appropriate and enforceable.
- Rules had a logic and consistency that made them a part of daily life and special events. The need to break the rules was infrequent and the motivation not to break them for fear of the outcome was very high.
- People who had mental or physical [disabilities] that led them to break the rules because they didn’t understand them were not put in the circle. Parents and relatives were responsible for making sure these few people were protected from the dangers of their own behaviour. They were under constant supervision.
- Mechanisms put in place to help people not to break the rules included early teaching, storytelling, direct action, discipline, ridicule, shaming, shunning, harsh words, and banishment,
We can see that the Dene had a system of local government that provided strong leadership based on the rules for doing things the right way. These rules were arrived at by consensus and were passed down to the next generation in a variety of ways.
- Joan Ryan, Lac La Martre Band Council, Dene Cultural Institute, and Arctic Institute of North America, Doing Things the Right Way: Dene Traditional Justice in Lac La Martre, NWT, (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 1995), 62-63.
yabahti – A senior man who provided guidance on decisions to numerous encampments and possessed excellent skills in trapping and hunting, wisdom, and sometimes a spiritual gift/power.
k’àowo – The yabahti’s assistant, also known as ‘the head man’ or ‘chief’s assistant.’ The k’àowo ensured peace and good order amongst the camp and provided advice to community members. If the k’àowo could not decide the appropriate response to an offense, the yabahti was consulted who gathered senior members to make a consensus-based decision.
- Equality, Sharing, and Reciprocity
Equality, sharing, and reciprocity are three overarching Dene Legal Principles which have been identified by Larry Charthand in community stories and oral traditions collected by Dene Elder, prolific author, and Vice President of the Dene Nation, George Blondin:
“An important figure in the Dene legal order is Yamoria, ‘The Great Lawmaker,’ a powerful medicine person who brought the Dene people their laws and taught them how to live a good life. The Dene have published the list of laws handed to them by Yamoria to educate youth and provide a list of principles non-Dene people should understand as a precursor to interaction with Dene peoples, culture or law. The first law, ‘share everything you have’ is the ‘umbrella law.’ Blondin’s explanation of this law, outlined in the book Medicine Power, directs Dene to share big game and fish, help elders get firewood and with other heavy work, help sick people to do their work, share in the sorrow of relatives when someone dies, help widows and their children with everything they need, look after orphaned kin, and help travellers who are far from their homeland. This umbrella law presumably originated from the scarcity of bush resources and need to share for the good of the community[.]
“Reciprocity in Dene stories is often communal and selfless, reflecting the importance of maintaining a harmonious relationship between people and the environment. This is a far cry from common law conceptions of reciprocity, which are rooted in responsibilities as between individuals and their private property. The emphasis in colonial/Canadian legal traditions on personal rights over things (largely construed in terms of the ability to exclude others from their possession and use) have slowly eroded alternative Indigenous legal discourses of mutual interdependence, harmony, and balance; in the context of respecting the natural world and our place within it.”
“A review of related Dene stories reveals the legal principle of equality and interdependency between humans and their non-human relatives. In Dene society and law, humans exist alongside animals and the environment as equal parts of the natural world. Blondin’s conceptualization of the Dene as people who ‘see [themselves] as no different than the trees, the caribou, and the raven [. . .]’ is reflective of this notion of equality. Therefore, humans must always treat animals and the environment with respect and take them into consideration when making decisions.”
A similar message is echoed in the RCAP Community Report on the Decho community, Pehdzeh Ki First Nation (Wrigley Dene Band), located in the Northwest Territories:
“The Dene's Code of Ethics included giving thanks for all life; respect for others, treating guests with consideration; to have a balance in all things; knowing the positives and negatives of one's well-being and following the guidance of visions and dreams.”
 Larry Chartrand, “Applying Dene Law to Genetic Resources Access and Knowledge Issues,” In Genetic Resources, Justice and Reconciliation: Canada and Global Access and Benefit Sharing, Ed Chidi Oguamanam, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 143. [references omitted]
 Larry Chartrand, “Applying Dene Law to Genetic Resources Access and Knowledge Issues,” In Genetic Resources, Justice and Reconciliation: Canada and Global Access and Benefit Sharing, Ed Chidi Oguamanam, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 150. [references omitted]
 Larry Chartrand, “Applying Dene Law to Genetic Resources Access and Knowledge Issues,” In Genetic Resources, Justice and Reconciliation: Canada and Global Access and Benefit Sharing, Ed Chidi Oguamanam, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 147. [references omitted]
- "Doing things the Right Way" - What happened when rules were broken?
The Following summary is originally published in Joan Ryan's, Doing Things the Right Way: Dene Traditional Justice in Lac La Martre, NWT:
“Minor offences often were dealt with by ridicule, that is by laughing and making fun of the individual’s behaviour. Or people might shun a person for a while, that is no one would speak to him or her to the message across that he or she had behaved in an offensive way.
All offences were considered within a specific context. For example, it was not theft it a person took someone’s axe without asking, provided he needed it, and as long as it was returned within a reasonable time and in good condition. Nor was it theft to take food from a trapper’s cache if one were on the trail and hungry. Again, the food had to be replaced by the borrower, then the matter was settled. Some issues required more ingenious solutions. One dog story shows this: Two men claimed the same dogs as their own. The k’àowo talked at length with the men, each of whom continued to claim ownership. Finally, the k’àowo said he could not decide who the owner was, so he would the dog. One man then said, “No! Don’t shoot the dog. It is a good dog.” The k’àowo then declared him the owner of the dog since he clearly cared about it and didn’t want it shot (FZ, fall 1991).
When the k’àowo felt an offence was too serious to deal with himself, he would raise it at the next gathering, and the yabahti and senior men and women would put the offender in the circle. This process included the whole community. The offender was kept there until he or she admitted guilt, at which point the senior people and leadership would give the person “harsh words.” These words usually restated the rules and how the person should have behaved. They also made reference to the harm done to individuals and/or the group. Once the harsh words were spoken, the gathering shifted to discussing how the individual might make things better. People arrived at consensus how the individual might make things better. People arrived at consensus about what the person might do to restore harmony, compensate the victim, and end the matter.
When a solution was proposed, the offender agreed to do what the elders had indicated would make things right. If the person did not agree, then the gathering had to decide what the outcome of the refusal would be. For example, if a man had impregnated a woman, he was ordered to marry her and to do work for her father. If he refused, the gathering might decide that she could stay with her parents and he with his, but he still had to work for her father in order to provide for the woman and their child. If he agreed, then the matter was settled. If he refused, the general decision was that he must leave the community since he would not follow rules. Banishment was rare because few young people had the courage, or lack of respect, to ‘break the words’ of the elders.
The most serious offence were ones which endangered the survival of the ground by breaking rules about the right way to relate to and handle animals, especially big game. The next most serious offence seemed to be adultery and impregnating an unmarried woman because these actions caused serious disruptions in the camps. If these could not be resolved, then banishment was essentially a death sentence. A man who could not find a hunting partner because he had abused the rules for dealing with animals could not survive out on the land on his own for long. The man who committed sexual crimes against women would be in a similar position.
There were no account dealing with murders and, in fact, most “murders” mentioned in the stories seemed not to have been dealt with, such as the death of the child due to the mother’s rage and abuse. One explanation for this failure to deal with murder may lie in the extraordinary and spiritually dangerous contexts in which they occurred. For example, deaths caused by medicine fighting were not considered to be the responsibility of any individual but were blamed on supernatural actions out of the control of ordinary humans.
One effective way of keeping people from committing offences is to create fear of the outcome if one is caught. In all our accounts, people said they feared the discipline of their parents, they feared the power of the yabahtis, they feared “harsh words,” and feared being put in the circle. When one balances this fear with respect for animals and leaders and the accepted importance of doing things in the right ways for the survival of the group, one understands that only a few people dared not to follow the rules. As well, the reality of being shamed by all those gathered if one ended up in the circle, caused many people to think seriously before committing an offence.“
- Joan Ryan, Lac La Martre Band Council, Dene Cultural Institute, and Arctic Institute of North America, Doing Things the Right Way: Dene Traditional Justice in Lac La Martre, NWT, (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 1995), 57-58.