of the THELON

Some Native History of Northern Canada

Caribou skin tent along Thelon River at Baker lake, Nunavut

The central Thelon region native history is somewhat unique in the North in that there had been very few permanent Aboriginal settlements as compared to other regions. Although the remote Thelon valley was (and still is) unusually rich in wildlife, shelter and firewood than many other section of barrenlands, indicators show that the natives only periodically traversed the Thelon area for brief hunting forays. History shows us that the Thelon region was held in high esteem by the natives - an area so rich in wildlife and shelter could hardly be overlooked by the people whose very lives depended on these values. Yet for some reason, as much as the area was respected, it was also equally feared. The avoidance by native bands to utilize the Thelon for a more permanent habitation was perhaps due to apprehension ignited by the 'old stories' told by their Elders - stories of 'strange spirits' that roamed the tundra. More than likely trepidation was enhanced even further by the worry of encountering conflicting bands (Dene'-Inuit clashes) in that strange and forbidden land...

The occupation of natives in the Northwest Territories & Nunavut began as far back as the last ice age, not long after a time when woolly mammoths ruled the land. The native population fluctuations and specific areas of occupation varied in direct relation to ice & weather patterns, and perhaps even more so to the changing cycles of migratory animals and sea mammals upon whose procurement, skins and flesh their lives depended.

Two major and distinctly different aboriginal societies dominated the Canadian Arctic lands when the first European explorers began arriving in search of the Northwest Passage in the late 1700's and 1800's - and these two societies prevail to this day: These are the Inuit (Eskimos) that occupied the eastern and far northern barrenlands, primarily along the Arctic & Hudson's Bay coastlines - and the Dene' (Indians) that lived and dwelled in the more southern Arctic and sub-Arctic zones, primarily along the edge of the forests.

Both Inuit & the Dene' are broken down into multiple linguistic groups, each with their own distinct dialects, beliefs and specific regions of occupation. The histories of these varied and prolific peoples would fill countless of volumes, the very subject of which has enthralled the attentions of archeologists and anthropologists and invited the study of the histories and living patterns of these native bands over the past several decades. The archives of the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife probably contains the best accumulated reference material and studies found anywhere.

Both Inuit & Dene' peoples hunted within and occasionally occupied the Thelon area since the withdrawal of the last ice sheets some 8000 years ago. Recently the division of the once immense Northwest Territories to accommodate the creation of the new Territory of Nunavut was supposedly based on the significant historical areas of occupation of the Inuit & Dene' peoples that dwelled in that region of the mainland Arctic & sub-Arctic. The Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary was divided in half by this new boundary, and of which the political & environmental consequences have yet to be determined.

Map showing the Northwest Territories & Nunavut boundary and the Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary / click map to vierw more detailed maps

The specific linguistic groups of each major society that has left evidence of the most long-term effects on the Thelon region were the inland groups of Inuit that lived and hunted along the lower Thelon and Back rivers, specifically the Hanningajurmiut, Ahiarmiut/Ihalmiut, & Utkuhiksalingmiut Inuit peoples, and the more nomadic 'Etthen Eldehi', likely a sub-sect of the Chipewayan Dene'. The common theme of these peoples, and later for the white explorers and barrenlands trappers that followed in their footsteps centuries later was caribou.

Barrenground caribou 'bunch' of cows & calves of the Beverly herd along Thelon River during the post calving period when they flood southward from the calving ground. // Photo taken by trip leader Terry Elliott during the Ecoventures Great Summer Caribou Migration trip in year 2000

The great caribou herds that migrated across, give birth upon, and graze off these remote lands were - and still are - the lifeblood of the mainland Arctic. When the caribou came it was a time for joyous celebrations, seemingly unlimited hunting and gluttonous feasts. However when the caribou did not come it would often bestow great suffering and death. Without caribou meat these people often underwent starvation; without caribou they had no hides for clothing to protect them from the harsh Arctic winters, nor walls for their tents needed to protect them from the same elements.

Because of the array of clothing, food and tools that the barrenground caribou provided the natives of the land, the caribou was dubbed by Canadian author Pierre Burton in his delightful 1950's book 'The Mysterious North' as a 'walking department store'. Burton writes: "The entire animal is edible, from the eyes, which are considered a delicacy, to the half-digested mosses in the stomach, which make a tundra salad. The fur provides blankets, clothing, sleeping bags, shoes and upholstery. The scrapped skins make kayaks, buckets, tents, drums, and dog harness. The sinews become fish & harpoon lines, drawstring thread and lashings. The bones and antlers are turned into needles, thimbles, arrows, knives and tools. The marrow & fat serve as fuel." Not only is what Burton writes here true, but much is still applicable to the natives of today. An excellent book written and available by the Government of the Northwest Territories biologists called 'People & the Caribou' is a highly recommended read on the subject.

The Thelon & Kazan Caribou Inuit - 'People of the Deer'

Although most Inuit peoples of the circumpolar nations lived along and depended upon harvesting the Arctic seas for their survival, the Caribou Inuit were an exception to this rule. The Caribou Inuit often traveled long distances and occasionally even stayed and resided far inland from the coast, and depended largely upon the procurement of caribou meat and hides for their survival. The primary linguistic groups of the caribou Inuit were the that lived along the lower reaches of the Thelon River in the Beverly Lake region and Back River area were the Hanningajurmiut, Ahiarmiut/Ihalmiut,& Utkuhiksalingmiut.

The Princess Mary Inukshuit in Nunavut

It was the Ahiarmiut/Ihalmiut people that Canadian author Farley Mowat wrote about in his books 'People of the Deer' and the 'Desperate People'. Within those books Mowat claims he saw extreme starvation and death among the Caribou Inuit, and blamed this on the trading posts and missionaries for altering the native survivalist lifestyles to that of Christianity. trapping, and the aspiration of white man's goods. He also criticized the Canadian Government for inaction when it all backfired, a claim which the Government adamantly denied. Mowat then himself came under extreme criticism by that same Government for his writings, and is still to this day dubbed by northerners as 'Hardley Knowit'.However, the fact remains that the Caribou Inuit did starve and die from smallpox in great numbers in that region in the 1940's and 1950's as Mowat first reported, leaving behind evidence of that catastrophe in the form of grave after stone grave lining the rock and permafrost-laden shores of the upper Kazan River and its tributaries.

Old Inuit kayak rack along shores of the Kazan River

When British explorer David Hanbury first explored the Thelon region in1800's he found that most of the caribou Inuit living along the shores of Beverly and Schultz lakes of the lower Thelon River. Evidence of this litters the shores of these lakes and upstream on the Thelon all the way to Ursus Islands in the form of stone tent rings, long houses, inuksuit, cairns and the occasional open grave - all of varying ages. Hanbury's' famous book 'Sport & Travel in the Northland of Canada' remains one of the very best anthropological reads about the lower Thelon area. Hanbury's writings was one of the first treatise to show due respect to the natives of the region and their abilities to survive - a somewhat unusual deviation for the British explorers of the era.

It was not until later that the Thelon Inuit were relocated by the Canadian Government to the current site of Baker Lake, as it provided better access for ships supplying the trading posts. This however, was not the ideal location otherwise as it was not a particularly rich caribou crossing as compared to further upstream on the Thelon & Kazan Rivers, nor was there rich protected fishing areas close by. Subsequently the caribou Inuit experienced some starvation here until the lifestyle altered from dependency on the caribou, to become instead trapping oriented.

Although the New Nunavut boundary suggests that the Inuit did not ply further west than Lookout Point on the Thelon River - Great Canadian tourism expeditions over the past two decades have located several Inuit sites much further west than that - including Inuit tent rings along the Clarke River, hunting blinds and stone fences behind the Gap, and again as far south as the Elk and Thelon Rivers confluence. Perhaps of greatest significance was the discovery of a fully-intact century-old carved wooden kayak paddle on western Lynx Lake in the Thelon headwaters area.

Innu tent-ring along Thelon River between Beverly Lake and Ursus Islands

The Early Indians - The Nomads

Some 7000 to 8,000 years ago, during the period immediately following the decay of the last glaciers from the Canadian mainland Arctic, archaeology shows us that indigenous peoples lived and hunted caribou in the shadow of those receding ice fields, and in fact traveled along with the caribou for most of the migratory cycle. These first nomadic Indians were called Northern Plano, and they evolved into the 'Shield Archaic' that thrived some 3,500 to 6,500 years ago - which represents forest dwellers during a continuing warm period.

Hank Faess and Gordon's archeological assistant examing more recent (possibly Talthelei era) tent rings at the outlet of Lynx Lake on the upper Thelon River, 1975

This was followed by the 'Pre-Dorset' groups some 2,650 to 3,450 years ago: the only non-Indian culture that came from the north in response to a worldwide climatic deterioration. Finally, 'Taltheilei' (2,600 years ago to the present) appeared when climate warmed and grew during as its people took maximum advantage of tundra water crossings. The Late Taltheilei people survived to develop into the modern Dene' of today.

Flakes (remanants and discards of the stone tool-making process) lying on the ground  are indicators of a 'Chipping station' - an ancient work area at the Gordon's Whitefish Lake site

The primary archeological studies of the Thelon area were conducted by Dr. Bryan Gordon in the early and mid-1970's as part of the Archaeological Survey Of Canada. Gordon's work is cumulated in his treatises 'Of Men & Herds In Barrenland Prehistory' and the book 'People of Sunlight, People of Starlight'. Quoted from the latter, Gordon writes: "Hunters of the Beverly caribou range of Canada's Northwest Territories have been dependant on and influenced by seasonal migrations for 8,000 years. Historical records document that the Dene conformed to a seasonal cycle in response to caribou movements: four out of five nineteenth-century baptismal certificates show Dene births in February, March and April in the winter-range forest-nine months after massed herds were intercepted at tundrawater crossings,

nine months after nutritionally fit caribou provided adequate fat to allow Dene women to conceive. Prehistoric evidence agrees with historic observations.The herd influenced people, and the people adopted to the herd. Range wide archaeological sites extend from the northern calving ground, south along the migration border to the boreal forest. Sizes of ancient camps mimic density of caribou at any given point in the range. Sites are small near the calving ground, large and stratified at major water crossings near the tree-line where the herd massed, and small again in the forest where the herd dispersed over the winter range". During the early 1975 to 1977 archaeological survey, Dr. Gordon discovered a series of four significant archeological caribou water-crossing sites along the central and upper Thelon River basin. The first of the two of the largest of these sites is at what we now call the 'Dukesite' - just upstream from Warden's Grove; and the second on the NW shore of Whitefish Lake near the Great Canadian main wildlife camp, and is now called 'Gordon's' Esker'.

Gordon's archaelogical camp at Gordon's Esker on Whitefish Lake, NWT.  From left to right: A young Tundra Tom with the funny hat; Hank Faess, Dr. Bryan Gordon and his young son immediately below him with Salvation the wonder dog lying at his feet; standing and sitting in middle are students involved with the dig; extreme right - anthroplogist Madge Gordon.

Solid copper knife discovered on upper Thelon by Ecoventures trip leader Brigit Goldammer in 1999 - more evidence suggesting that this was the Hearne route to the Coppermine?  / Photo copyright Steve Maka

During one exploratory sojourn along eastern Lynx Lake, Hank Faess, accompanied by Gordon, discovered a solid copper spear point on a small esker island water crossing site. Gordon speculated that the discovery might be an indicator lending to the theory of Lynx Lake being the 'Cat Lake' written about in the journals of Samuel Hearne.The Gordon archeological team removed thousands of stone tools from these sites, all now in the Museum of Civilization in Ottawa, Ontario - including the copper spear point.

Musk ox skull and projectile point in the foreground.  Upper Theon, NWT / photo copyright Steve Maka

Today a person can hike the still extremely remote Thelon barrenlands country and commonly come across chipping stations and ancient native work areas that have never been previously discovered. However, it is important to know all such archeological sites are regulated by the Northwest Territories Archaeological Site Regulations. Disturbance of such sites, or the attempted removal of artifacts is strictly against the law, and punishable with a fine or even jail. Please note that Great Canadian Wilderness believes in the protection of these sites and strongly endorses this law. We will report any violators.

The Etthen Eldehi - 'the Caribou-Eaters'

It is not quite certain where exactly the term 'Etthen Eldehi' originated from - essentially it translates to 'caribou eaters' in the Chipewayan tongue. It showed up in the writings of explorer and paddler PJ Downes book 'Sleeping Island', an account of his 1930's explorations north of Reindeer Lake to the upper reaches of Nueltin Lake and the Windy River areas in southern Nunavut.Perhaps the best written account however, is in the late author and renowned Norwegian anthropologist Helge Ingstad in his rather famous book - 'The Land of Feast & Famine'. During the 1920's Ingstad lived along the tree-line and briefly on the tundra to the east of Reliance on Great Slave Lake.

He also traveled by dog team in the dead of winter with the 'Caribou-Eater' Indians to the upper Thelon region. About these people Ingstad writes:

"Antoine was not a member of the Slave Lake tribe of Indians - he was a 'Caribou-Eater. The hunting grounds of this tribe lie far off to the east and southeast of the lake. There a mighty arm of forest extends far into the barrenlands; it is crossed and re-crossed by countless rivers and chains of large lakes. It is richer in fish and game than many other section an in olden times was the scene of many a bitter conflict between the tribes. From the caribou these Indians derive most of the food they require. They live a more isolated life than the other tribes, and are renowned as an energetic, nomadic hunter-folk, covering vast distances in the course of their travels. There exists many legends concerning their adventurous life, and their bitter struggles against hunger and cold when the caribou fail to appear. To be sure, the Indians who live in the neighborhood of Snowdrift [Lutsel K'e] are dependent upon the caribou during the greater part of each year, but the name 'Caribou-Eater' has a natural association with the eastern plains, where the ancestors of this present folk chose emphatically to settle. Originally there were large numbers of them, but sickness had claimed its toll [likely smallpox and tuberculosis] and today only a small number of them are left.."

Towards the end of their known occupation of the eastern wilderness in the 1930's and 1940's, the Etthen Eldehi lived in a series of small villages on the extreme East Arm of Great Slave Lake near the site of the Old Fort Reliance; on Artillery Lake, Nanacho Lake on the Talston River, Rennie & Damant Lakes of the upper Elk River, and Whitefish Lake on the headwaters of the Thelon River. Similar villages likely also exist on the barrenlands to the north of Reindeer Lake and eastward to north of the Seal and Churchill Rivers, as this area also consists of northern Chipewayan folk.

A still intact 1940's cabin at suspect 'Etthen Eldehi' village on Whitefish Lake - the upper Thelon Headwaters.

Regardless of the source of the term, it seems a plausible theory that the the 'Etthen Eldehi' - or 'Caribou Eater' Indians were perhaps the final link between the Taltheilei people of Bryan Gordon's treatise, and the Chipewayan Dene living along the edges of the same barrenlands still today at places like Lutsel K'e on Great Slave Lake, Fort Chipewayan, Black Lake and Fond Du Lac near Lake Athabasca in Northern Saskatchewan, and Brochet at the northern end of Reindeer Lake, Manitoba. These modern day people contact and communicate freely with each other, and still travel by snow machine to visit each other and hunt caribou across the very same wilderness ranges that were home to the 'Etthen Eldehi' of Ingstad's and Downes time.

On that same line of thought, it is also plausible - perhaps even likely - that those same 'Etthen Eldehi' were the Chipewayan that led Samuel Hearne from the Prince Of Wales Fort in Churchill across the barrens to the infamous Inuit slaughter at Bloody Falls on the Coppermine River in the 1700's. Perhaps they were the same people that met J.B. Tyrrell at the mouth of the Churchill River and assisted in his explorations of the Dubawnt River and Thelon areas. Perhaps it was this same Chipewayan people that gave advice routes to John Hornby, Back, Pike and many other of the early white explorers that attempted to lay claim to the supposed 'discovery' of the Thelon and other Arctic regions.

Dene gravesite on Whitefish Lake, NWT.  In tradition, the plate was placed for visitors to leave offerings of tabacco & tea to the spirits.

Truly the native elders - those of the Inuit to the North and east, and the Dene' to the south and west - remain the great knowledge-holders of the last great tract of Canadian mainland wilderness called the barrenlands. The Europeans who attempted to lay claim to its discovery were in reality just simply just passing through, and probably could not have done even that without the on-going help of the natives that always lived there, and who were in tune with the real rhythms of the land and waters...


Related External Arctic History Links

The Aboriginals of the Thelon

Caribou Inuit

David Hanbury - Sport & Travel in the Northland of Canada'

Casper Whitney: On Snowshoe to the Barrengrounds

Helge Ingstad

The Dreamcatcher Expeditions

1928: William Hoare and the Thelon Game Sanctuary

JB Tyrrell's Expeditions

Commander George Back

C.H.D. Clarke

John Hornby

Arctic Profiles - John Hornby (1880-1927)

The Legend of John Hornby

Dr. Bryan Gordon's archeological studies on the Thelon

Arctic Dawn - The Journeys of Samuel Hearne:

1928: William Hoare and the Thelon Game Sanctuary

Dr. Bryan Gordon's archeological studies on the Thelon

Cosmos 954

Guy Blanchet

P.J. Downes

The Rat Lodge on Artillery Lake

The Franklin Mystery

A history of - and some current issues about - the Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary

Great Canadian Wildlife Adventures

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