Gowhaedo Gonàowo (Ancestral ways): Mapping modern treaty implementation

John B. Zoe with Jessica Simpson & Hayden King

Many of them [Elders] may be gone physically and their names may have gone
with them, but their words and system did not go with them…

—Tłı̨chǫ Elder Nick Black. Transcript on Self-Government, 1995.
Translated by John B. Zoe


Our Ancestors lived with the rhythms of the natural world and adjusted to the ebbs and tides of food sources, and relationships with other Indigenous nations with whom we have overlapping interests. In the centre of each nation is a language, culture, and way of life, practiced and honed over many generations. Much of this documented into the landscape by way of place names to record and remember how we addressed food harvesting sources and methods as well as conflict and peace. Of course, since 1492 and the following centuries, colonization has pushed Indigenous peoples towards assimilation, and over time into a new narrative as wards of the state with no recourse or options. Our resistance to those processes led to changes in assimilatory Indian policies and eventually into treaties. However, these treaties remained unfulfilled and further negotiations have led to new negotiations and new settlements. Through this history Indigenous peoples have been working to reclaim their own recognition of what was taken.

Yet, in this era of the modern treaty, even after we have come to an agreement about how to share the land, there are no policies in place to implement these new agreements (and even the older ones for that matter). If we are to contribute towards a policy of implementation, we need to ensure that our values in relation to lands takes into consideration our own narratives and methods of management to ensure that our languages, culture and way of life are captured in implementation. We have made some efforts towards this goal. The Tłı̨chǫ Government is part of the Land Claims Agreements Coalition and continues to participate in its meetings and initiatives.

Depiction of Tłı̨chǫ cosmology

Depiction of Tłı̨chǫ cosmology

An Elder once told me that if you think you have nothing to share, talk about your experiences and the rest will follow. Many of the main influences in my life are from my first teachers: my parents, grandmother, siblings, relatives, and community members. Over the years I’ve also had the opportunity to interact with most of the stories, histories and experiences that I’ve heard from the people of the land, who still are out there armed with knowledge of our ancestors. These stories from the Elders and the landscape are the foundation for our nàowo (a Tłı̨chǫ concept that encompasses our language, culture, way of life, as well as our knowledge and laws).

It has been said by our Elders that “the land is like a book.” The place-names, and their stories on the landscape are related to our traditional activities. The trails leading out to the barren lands provided natural access for harvesting food and medicines. We know that these stories tell us how to live and survive on the land as we have always done. Place-names on the landscape are built in layers from pre-contact times to the present and are the ongoing source of raising Indigenous rights and title that we seek recognition for in modern treaties. This is true of those who are negotiating treaties, and those, like the Tłı̨chǫ who have negotiated agreements are working towards implementation. It has been 15 years since the signing of the Tłı̨chǫ Agreement. Unless it is a tool to revitalize our language, culture, and importantly relationships to the land, it will be a failure.

It has been 15 years since the signing of the Tłı̨chǫ Agreement. Unless it is a tool to revitalize our language, culture, and importantly relationships to the land, it will be a failure.

What I am going to tell you now are things that I’ve heard over time and things that have informed us on where we are headed. This article covers three main eras of Tłı̨chǫ stories, or put another way, Tłı̨chǫ relationships to the land. They span from the era of legends and pre-contact history, colonization and early treaties and modern treaty negotiations towards “recognition” and the future. Each of these eras reflect Tłı̨chǫ values and priorities, and each era overlaps with or is tied to the previous era. Embedded in each era holds a vision for our future. The final section of this article considers our path forward and the challenges that remain.

Legends and Yamoozah
There are old stories told over campfires over many generations about our relationship with the animals on which we rely on for food, clothing, equipment and sustenance. In the stories the animals and people were as one and they communicated to one another. In one of the stories, there came a time when the animals and people came together to determine who they were going to be. A moose hunter wanted to become a trout and embedded all of his hunting tools and parts of moose into the head of the fish he was to become. When people caught trout, cooked and ate it, they laid out all of the bones from the head so that the fish can tell its own story. This connection between story, place-names, and custom makes co-existing with the animals a reality and gives recognition to the animals that we rely on to survive.

The late Nick Black, Tłı̨chǫ Elder

The late Nick Black, Tłı̨chǫ Elder

Eventually conflict arose between the people and the animals as to who was to be gatherer and prey. There are physical areas with place names that describe rituals performed by people to get a sense of their well-being when sites were visited. It was at one of these places that animals were acting as gatherers and people were prey. Yamoozah and his brother were found by an old man out gathering for food, took them back to the encampment and raised them to become young men. One day while the old man slept they carved a hole on top of his head and dropped in stones and he turned into a mountain. The young men parted ways and Yamoozah started to travel, and in his travels he neutralized the conflict and provided order between the animals and people so they can co-exist together.

The stories of this era provide further understanding of the relationship between humans and animals as embedded in the landscape by way of place names. The landscape that holds these early stories are better told at the sites where the stories unfolded as they should all be accompanied by an activity and an interpretation by an Elder. The land, after all, is the story. Or in more academic terms: “It is a cultural landscape where physical features are used as mnemonic devices to order and help preserve oral narratives, which themselves encode knowledge relative to identity, history, culture and subsistence” (Andrews, 2004). The stories, spanning time, symbolize and define our relationship with the animals and the natural world. These in turn are the foundations for our language, culture and way of life.

Colonization and early treaties
Anytime anyone goes anywhere, they need to eat, sleep, find a place to plan or prepare on how these resources can be harnessed for ongoing support of the local people and access to lands for the natural resources as a start. This time period of early contact is about those impacts on the Tłı̨chǫ by the newcomers. The early contact period is a time of encroachment and land occupation by people who were not Tłı̨chǫ. When newcomers came, they took an inventory of the land and the people and the beginnings of land-use and eventually of ownership.

Far away from Tłı̨chǫ territory, in the Great Lakes region, the English and the French were negotiating the terms of colonialism. After the Seven Years War in 1763, land was being exchanged between the colonial empires without considering Indigenous peoples relationship to the land. While the British Crown claimed a Royal Proclamation could bestow land rights, it also created a system where a foreign power made decisions about Indigenous lands. The pre-confederation treaties and the Numbered Treaties followed. By 1867, Canada was delegated authority to continue this process on behalf of the Crown and with these new powers, continued to take lands and resources from Indigenous people and redistribute them to settler Canadians. Of course, as these processes reached the North, they isolated Indigenous people from their own lands, resources, and ways of life. Indigenous people didn’t fit anywhere into this redistribution scheme; in fact, we were not even considered to be citizens, but wards of this new country called Canada. Indeed, the only way Indigenous people could interact with Canada was through the Indian Agent at Indian Affairs.

In this time period, things slowly began to change. People continued to live in the same areas and hunt to survive as our ancestors did since time immemorial. But as the trading increased in the North as it expanded greatly from the south, we began to see the introduction of tools and weapons, such as rifles and knives, which were welcomed by Indigenous nations as new tools for harvesting as well as to take more to trade. There are Indigenous peoples in all areas who have overlapping areas where tensions are always present. With new tools, the tensions can very easily escalate. There are stories of early skirmishes and eventually agreements being made between Indigenous peoples and one such story is embedded in the landscape by way of place names.

Explorers were also in the Tłı̨chǫ area. Sir John Franklin documented his attempt to find passage to the Polar Sea and his views are part of an ongoing narrative of how Tłı̨chǫ lands were documented as part of an inventory, along with Tłı̨chǫ inhabitants. Tłı̨chǫ posessed knowledge that was also identified as a resource of the area that could be used by the newcomers. Eventually Trading Posts were established. These allowed Tłı̨chǫ to acquire goods and tools for redistribution, which the people came to rely on and seek out, a reliance that the newcomers could use to secure support for greater encroachments in the Tłı̨chǫ area, and in other areas. Churches soon followed the traders, and new forms of religions were imposed, creating a system that conferred power on those religions. Traditional Tłı̨chǫ spiritual and cultural practices were frowned upon and this disapproval was enacted by many methods, for example, the method the Priests and traders taking censuses of Tłı̨chǫ, which involved their changing of our family names. Eventually trade networks began to replace Tłı̨chǫ movements on the lands, with the fur emerging fur trade commercializing animals and furs as commodities. In addition to the re-naming of individuals and families, new place-names were established for specific locations, such as Trading posts.

As this time period drew on, increasingly, the only way for Indigenous people to interact with Canada was through the “bubble” of Indian Affairs. Because Indigenous people were not considered citizens of Canada until 1961, if you wanted to vote, join the army, drink alcohol, or go to university you had to leave your status “at the door.” While status was a colonial designation, it also bundled our rights to the land and communities and became the only material and legal link to life as Tłı̨chǫ. The only other Canadians authorized to enter that bubble besides the government were the churches, which were collaborators with government. And this was the start of residential schools.

Next came the need to make a treaty. Mǫfwi was a Tłı̨chǫ leader selected by people to be their representative in Treaty 11 negotiations of 1921. Chief Mǫfwi pronounced: “As long as the sun rises, the river flows, and the land does not move, we will not be restricted from our way of life” (Tłı̨chǫ, 2014). He also drew the boundary for what is now known as Mǫfwi Gogha De Nihtłee. Mǫfwi was selected because of his strong character, and ability to protect the land against the newcomers who were interested in taking it for their own use. He negotiated in good faith using our naowo so that we could live in peace with the settlers who were, at this time, flowing like a river into our territory.

Instead of implementing a treaty that gives recognition and authority to how life was before the impacts of settler society, government actions after treaty signing became even more intrusive, which taken together had the effect of, in a practical sense, to wipe out Tłı̨chǫ and other Indigenous peoples. The final text of Treaty #11 was one sided, pre-written and intended to authorize Canada to distribute and exploit renewable and non-renewable resources in our territory. It also paved the way for occupation of our lands by a new form of colonial outpost, that of the Indian Agent, whose power was growing since the time of Ek’awi. Meanwhile our Elders have told us that “we just need to fulfill our version of the treaty” by affirming the word and actions of Mǫfwi.

Recognition of the Tłı̨chǫ Agreement and future generations
Between the signing of both Treaty 8 by our Dene neighbors to the south, and the signing of treaty 11 by the Tłı̨chǫ and other Dene, the lack of treaty implementation combined with the assimilative policies came to a head. For the Tłı̨chǫ, because of the resistance that emerged from the aftermath of Treaty #11, Tłı̨chǫ ultimately were able to re-negotiate our relationship towards the fulfillment of the spirit and intent of the early treaty. While there have been many changes to our politics, the Tłı̨chǫ traditional government will always be there, embedded in the landscape through history, language and culture and helped drive these new negotiations. As Chief Negotiator for the Tłı̨chǫ towards the Tłı̨chǫ Agreement, I took it upon myself to understand Tłı̨chǫ history better because it was important as we entered the modern treaty process. For us, the new treaty was about gaining recognition for the authority our traditional Tłı̨chǫ government has always had. Our job was, and continues to be, re-establishing jurisdiction in our homeland, reinstating traditional early Tłı̨chǫ place-names, and ensuring these traditions and ways of life are passed down to future generations.

 Tłı̨chǫ traditional trails

Tłı̨chǫ traditional trails

It is not an easy task. In 1982, with the patriation of the Canadian constitution, Indigenous peoples had more opportunities to pursue land-claims and self-government. We could finally get out of the Indian Act (except the federal government still decides who and what an Indian is, and attached rights to each category). But Canadian constitutionalism has also allowed the legitimization of Canadian sovereignty and the “rights” to distribute lands and resources to provinces, municipalities, and Canadians generally. Although the Tłı̨chǫ Agreement contains twenty-seven chapters that address lands and the authority over them, wrestling that jurisdiction back will take many more years. Indeed, while many modern treaties have been finalized, we now find that Canada has no overarching policy for implementation, which can often end up in disputes. We need to agree on a policy for implementation that is co-described such as a national policy, so that we can get away from the current method of using the courts when conflicts arise between Canada and Indigenous governments.

The survival of future generations of Tłı̨chǫ requires that the youth remain rooted in their language, culture, and way of life. When Tłı̨chǫ were living in the bush, the old people had everybody with them there and there were knowledge transfers every day. Now, in order to do traditional activities, we need to push the schools, where the youth spend so much of their time, to bridge the gap. We need to re-establish our culturally based processes that have been cast to the wayside for generations since the first treaty. At the time of writing, the Northwest Territories is debating the future of post-secondary education and possibly creating a polytechnic institution. For us, university is a means for developing skills that can straddle Western and Tłı̨chǫ knowledge so that all Northerners can benefit. If we move forward in this direction, it needs to be done in a way that is collaborative with Indigenous communities and governments so that we ensure the stories and the identity is embedded in our young people so as Chief Jimmy Bruneau said, that they become “strong like two people.”

A lot of consideration must be given to the kind of skills we need to develop and how to develop them, how a university will be funded, and its curriculum and governance structure. And then there is research, which is much needed, and which must seek to build capacity, develop skills, and facilitate a transfer of knowledge between communities at the highest level and with the best quality. Issues that are a priority for communities can become a pathway to develop knowledge, skills, and stable employment. Because issues are researched in the communities, we should pursue a decentralized institution where education can be brought to students where they live and with the highest standards of ethics. Education is critical to the coming eras of the Tłı̨chǫ, and for realizing the intent of the treaties.

Modern treaties are an extension of who we are and have always been. The future challenges for Indigenous peoples are still being defined, but for the first time since contact Tłı̨chǫ have an opportunity to re-establish a culture and society that incorporates our knowledge and values, breathing life into our place-names, which so much else revolves around. The Elders have always said that we need to spend more time on the land because that is who we were before all of the encroachment and impacts from foreign systems. Our history, knowledge and way of life is in the landscape. We must continue to spend time in the bush, travelling with the elders and the youth in canoes because it is more important than ever to be knowledgeable in two ways. We have inherited stories, and we have the responsibility to give this inheritance to the next generation so that the stories are not left behind – and instead, they are taken with us. ◉


Dr. John B. Zoe was the Chief Land Claims Negotiator for the former Treaty 11 Council of the NWT from 1994 until its conclusion with the establishment of the Tłı̨chǫ Government in 2005. He has an Honourary Doctor of Laws from the University of Alberta in recognition of his work in the development of the new government, as well as his contributions to projects that are built upon a foundation of Tłı̨chǫ language, culture and way of life. John is now a senior advisor to the Tłı̨chǫ Government.

Jessica Simpson is currently a Research Advisor at Hotii ts’eeda, the NWT SPOR SUPPORT Unit. She is a Tłı̨chǫ citizen from Whatì First Nations, born and raised in Yellowknife, NT. Jessica spent several years working for co-management and environmental monitoring agencies doing research and communications.

Hayden King is Anishinaabe from Beausoleil First Nation on Gchi’mnissing, in Huronia Ontario. The executive director of Yellowhead Institute and advisor to the Faculty of Arts on Indigenous Education, Dr. King’s research and commentary on Indigenous nationhood and colonialism in Canada is published widely.

Andrews, T. (2011). There will be many stories: Museum anthropology, collaboration, and the Tłı̨chǫ. PhD Dissertation, University of Dundee. Retrieved from: <https://wrrb.ca/sites/default/files/Andrews_2011_ThereWillBeManyStories_UD.pdf>

Tłı̨chǫ Government (2014). Mofwi signs Treaty #11. Retrieved from <https://Tłı̨chǫhistory.com/en/stories/monfwi-signs-treaty-11>

Tłı̨chǫ Nation: Tłı̨chǫ Online Store (2017). Tłı̨chǫ Nation and nowhere else. Retrieved from: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5MQcF52OUH4>

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