Dene Heroes: How the Sahtú is strengthening literacy and leadership

Photo credit: Amos Scott


Jessica Simpson, with files from Mary-Anne Neal


“I believe that true heroes are the people in our lives that
make a difference each and everyday.”

– Tyra Drybone, My Dene Heroes in Dene Heroes of the Sahtú, Volume 1


Education that honours Dene culture is a priority for Dene people of the Sahtú. Upon completing high school, students often need to upgrade their knowledge and skills in order to reach grade 12 standards.

When David Codzi of Colville Lake first became president of the Ayoni Keh Land Corporation, he commissioned a needs assessment for the education system in Colville Lake and Fort Good Hope. That needs assessment found that Sahtú Dene residents wished to build self-esteem in Dene youth as a foundation for the leadership skills required for self-government.

The needs assessment is what led to the Dene Heroes Publication Project. David Codzi says that he wants to see the history of the Dene and their contributions to society represented in the Northwest Territories education curriculum. “When I went to school, it was always taught that somebody else came to this part of the world and started all of these great things. This project is to get something personal into the literature available [to Dene students].” David believes that when youth see themselves reflected in the literature, they are more likely to build self-esteem and pride in Dene heritage – important qualities in future leaders.

The premise of the project is simple and direct: Each year, contributors write, draw, or take photographs about a Dene person who has inspired them, and who has displayed heroic qualities. The contributions are then compiled, edited, formatted, and published in a book that is distributed to all of the contributors. Copies are also sold for $10 each, and distributed widely to schools, libraries, and the general public. Each story is a lesson of courage, strength, and resilience of Dene people.

The first volume in the project, Dene Heroes of the Sahtú, was published in 2017. It features stories, drawings, and photographs of 58 school-aged contributors. Over the last three years, the project has grown to focus not only on strengthening education and literacy, but also on strengthening leadership amongst community members, especially youth. Over the last three volumes, and a fourth to be published in January 2020, the project has grown to include over 150 Indigenous authors from all five communities of the Sahtú. “Eventually,” says Dakota Orlias, a Coleville Lake youth and Team Leader of the project, “I’d like for the book to get more publicity across Canada and be in schools for history on Indigenous peoples in Canada to get more awareness of Indigenous people, knowledge and practices.” Although the books are not for sale in bookstores, they can be found in the Northwest Territories libraries, and the Library of Canada.

In 2018, the Dene Heroes Publication Project was awarded a $100,000 Arctic Inspiration Prize to build leadership and literacy among Indigenous youth. With the prize money, the project has been able to expand to include leadership training for the youth. During 2019, Project Editor Mary-Anne Neal trained Indigenous youth in Colville Lake and Délı̨nę in the knowledge and skills required to take responsibility for annually publishing the Dene Heroes of the Sahtú books. Each community has a “champion” who gets the word out about the publication, and collects the stories. According to Orlias, “Just communicating with people and getting the word out about what I’m working on and answering questions is making me a better [leader] in general.”

The Dene Heroes Publication Project has been instrumental in rekindling Indigenous pride by accurately representing Dene history and culture. Codzi believes it also strengthens future leaders. “Right now,” he says, “we have a system in Colville Lake that my generation built. Now that it has been built and fought for, for the well-being of our community, we have to make sure the next leadership base is trained…If we don’t do something about it, we’re waiting for other people to have the answers.” ◉

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.

1. The Arctic Inspiration Prize encourages, identifies, funds, and celebrates breakthrough Northern initiatives that have measurable impact on improving the lives of people across the North.

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