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Manitoba History: Review: Lorraine Brandson, From Tundra to Forest: A Chipewyan Resource Manual

by Graham A. MacDonald

Manitoba History, Number 15, Spring 1988

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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From Tundra to Forest: A Chipewyan Resource Manual. Lorraine E. Brandson. Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature, 1981. 45 pp., ill.

Until the need to service the northwestern arctic with oil and gas pipelines started to impress itself upon Canadians in the later 1970s, the identity of the widespread Native Athapascan speakers, or ‘Dene’ as they prefer to be called, remained submerged and largely a mystery. The high seriousness with which Chief Justice Berger took his duties and the entry into the debate by scholars such as Mel Watkins placed the Dene front and center for a number of years. The Papal visit to Fort Simpson in 1987 might be considered the apogee of the systematic revival of Dene identity. Revival would be an appropriate word in terms of the Roman Catholic Church, for with respect to the Dene, there has been a long association with the Oblate order. The author of the study under review has been in a particularly unique position to undertake research because of her position as archivist at the Eskimo Museum in Churchill, an institution founded by the Oblates. Through the great energy of the late Brother Jacques Volant OMI it has achieved wide fame for its collection of Inuit sculpture.

Compared with the large Algonkian speaking groups to the south such as the Cree and Ojibwa, or the Siouian speaking tribes such as the Dakota Sioux, little is known about the Dene. Until the final extension of overland exploration by Samuel Hearne and the push by Nor’Westers such as Peter Pond into the Athabasca country, reports on these peoples were sparse. For practical purposes, European contact with the Dene is a story which commences in the 19th century. This book is particularly welcome as an introduction to the study of the Dene, and particularly to the most easterly subdivision of the Dene in the sub-arctic, those characterized by Sir George Simpson in 1820 as “the Caribou Eaters” or the Et Oeneldi-dene. This designation is one of four established by the Oblate Missionary and scholar Emile Petitot during his long stay in the northwest country. Petitot’s contributions to knowledge are made clear in the select bibliography which concludes this study.

From Tundra to Forest is precisely what it purports to be: a resource manual aimed at those interested in initiating research or museological projects. The genesis of the book can be traced to the practical work undertaken at the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature in the early 1970s when plans were afoot to develop a new Arctic-Sub-Arctic Gallery. It is gratifying to see that such a useful book is a by-product, so to speak, of a major research effort which had a quite different purpose.

In structure, the book constitutes a bibliographic essay supplemented by visuals which portray representative items in the Chipewyan tool kit. Items related to dress, transportation, shelter, and cooking, as well as other cultural artifacts are identified by purpose and source. The book begins with a brief historical introduction to the Dene with special attention given to the Duck Lake (or Churchill) Band, one of the five major bands which traditionally have been recognized as composing the “Caribou Eater” group. A number of historical issues are also raised in this section, issues surrounding the circumstances of the relocation of the Duck Lake Chipewyan to Churchill, some 140 miles to the south-east, after 1948. The uses, but also the limitations, of a collection of oral history tapes completed some twenty years after the relocation, are also suggested.

For those interested in exploring some of the major debates concerning the place of the Chipewyan in the life and culture of the sub-arctic, the select bibliography provides an excellent starting point. These debates were given a strong focus by Kai Birket-Smith, the renowned anthropologist attached to the Fifth Thule Expedition of 1921-24. Birket-Smith finished his contribution by coming to Churchill to prepare a report on the ethnology of the Chipewyan of that quarter. Just what the ultimate connections might have been between the Innuit groups to the north such as the Caribou Eskimo, and the Chipewyan is still a matter of scholarly debate.

Finally, it should be noted that the compilation of the manual was assisted greatly by Northern residents themselves, people such as Mary and Allen Code of Tadoule Lake and the Late Bishop Omer Robidoux of Churchill. Their contribution is acknowledged by Ms. Brandson.

Page revised: 18 December 2021

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