‘Dehcho Dene Zhatié: Indigenous Language Revitalization Program

I’m beyond thrilled to finally have a piece written up and presented to Tea and Bannock about a very special and hardworking group of Deh Cho Ladies who are involved with the ‘Dehcho Dene Zhatié: Indigenous Language Revitalization Program.

I hold this program close to my heart because firstly I saw firsthand how they have been working day and often very late nights on reclaiming their language, taking in as many Dene Zhatié words and phrases, reclaiming their space and identity as a dene person– here is a group of fearless women who are dedicated and determined to revive their mother tongue to teach their children, siblings and others who are interested. I can’t help but to feel excited and extremely proud of these ladies.

I reached out to Dahti Tsetso who is from Fort Simpson and asked if she wanted to explain who she is, why it’s important for her to attend the Indigenous Language Revitalization program and what it’s all about. Thankfully she agreed and I managed to get my mother, Joyce McLeod (who is also in the program), to send me photos to add to the blog. Thank you both (as well to the others involved) for being so brave to save such an important part of the Dene culture. I commend you for all being such trailblazers for our Dene communities!

You can find a lot of great information and videos on their facebook page called “Speak to me in Dene Zhatie.”

– shawna mcleod

{cover imageDene Zhatie Mentor Louisa Moreau teaching Joyce McLeod, Dahti Tsetso, Nicole Perron, Terri Sapp, and Leonie Sabourin Dene Zhatié phrases as they fry bannock.}




First presentation on learning Dehcho Dene Zhatie. Everyone was required to come up with phrases and present it to the class; almost everyone was nervously shaking and scared to make mistakes.

Dahti Tsetso súzhe. Sı́ Tłıcho Dene o’tę gots’ęh Łíidlii Kų́ę́ náhnde. My name is Dahti Tsetso. I am Tłicho Dene and I live in Fort Simpson, NT. I was born here and spent my early childhood growing up by the river. I met my husband while attendıng university and am now married into the Dehcho region. The Dehcho is our home and this is where we plan to raise our family.

Practicing our Dene culture and passing the culture on to our children is very important to us. However, like so many others of our generation, neither one of us speak our Dene language. Language loss is an intergenerational impact of residential schools that has had a massive impact. The legacy of residential schools has denied almost a whole generation of Dene the ability to speak their own language. This means many of us could not communıcate with our unilingual grandparents. We could never listen to their stories, or learn our oral histories in our language. A Dene person without their language is missing a very key part of their cultural identity. And personally, it has left me feeling confused and at times disconnected from my own family and culture.

This is why learning to speak the language is such an important endeavour; for me, it has become an act of reconciliation. Learning the language empowers us to connect to our culture and elders in ways that are deeply meaningful, but it is also vital for the well being of our communities as whole. Our language is at a critical point in history. As our parents’ generation ages, the number of fluent language speakers is declining. This means that if we do not reverse this trend, we risk facing a reality that one day there will be no fluent speakers left.

Learning to speak the Dene language has been a long-held and deeply rooted goal of mine. My hope is to become fluent in the language, and to share what I learned with others. My dream is to see my children conversing in the language with their grandparents one day. I want them to learn their oral histories while immersed in the language of this land. This is why I chose to enrol in the ‘Dehcho Dene Zhatié: Indigenous Language Revitalization Program’.


Learning nouns, verbs and incorporating into simple phrases while Cooking and sewing in Dene Zhatié- Nicole Perron, Lori Anne Bertrand and Terri Sapp learning to make muffins with Denise, Dene Zhatié Mentor.

The ‘Dehcho Dene Zhatié: Indigenous Language Revitalization Program’ is a University of Victoria post-secondary program that is being community-delivered in partnership with Dehcho First Nations, the Dehcho Divisional Education Council and the communities of Fort Providence and Fort Simpson. The goal of this language program is to create new language speakers and teachers of Dehcho Dene Zhatié.

All fluency levels was accepted into the program, so there is a wide range of language ability. From new language learners (like myself) to those whom Dene Zhatié is their first language. There are also diverse backgrounds in our program. While the majority are Dehcho Dene, I am Tlicho Dene, there is one Cree student (also married into the Dehcho region), and one very special non-Dene member.


The DDEC board visits the Dehcho Dene Zhatié: Indigenous Language Revitalization Program’ in Fort Providence

The language program has taught each of us how to begin our own language-learning journeys, and perhaps even more importantly, it has taught us how to share what we learn with others. The program has done this by teaching us a language immersion method known as the ‘Mentor-Apprentice-Program’ (or MAP for short), and by learning language writing and literacy from highly trained language specialists from our region. Andy Norwegian and Violet Jumbo have been instrumental in teaching the language in our program. Their wealth of experience and knowledge is humbling, and our cohort is continuously grateful for their teachings.


Indigenous Language Mentorship course – Belinda Sabourin, Leonie Sabourin, and Instructor Trish R. – Sewing Demonstration – learning Dene Zhatié words and phrases – needle, thread, embroidery, stroud, etc.

Personally, I have experienced exciting and empowering language growth since the start of this language program. Before this program I had difficulty even counting from 1-10, or greeting someone properly in the language. Like most children I knew some basic colours, a few animal names, and a few basic commands (like “calm down” or “eat” – the common phrases often expressed to children). And while I took evening classes whenever the opportunity arose, I did not retain meaningful language from those lessons for the long-term.

After almost two years in this program and 400 MAP hours, I can now have short and simple conversations in the language. I can pick out bits of fluent conversation between fluent speakers and can work to understand the gist of their conversations. Without regular practice I risk losing my language gains. Time invested in immersion is the key to achieving language progress. I am still not near fluent yet, but I’ve taken steps towards my goal and that is an amazing feeling!


Group photo at Telemia Camp – Nicole Perron, Terry Sapp, Cecile Deneyoua, Patricia Bouiver, Gracyn Tanche, Dahti Tsetso, Trish R, Evelyn Sabourin, Kim Hardisty, Joyce McLeod, Nimisha Bastesdo, Beverly Hope, Leonie Sabourin & Jonas Landry (who has completed the program already) Missing from photo: Cheryl Cli, Belinda Constant

A major factor in my language journey so far, and one of the program’s biggest strengths is the group identity that has been fostered by the program. I have not done this as an individual, but as a member of a cohort.

Collectively, we are thirteen strong-minded women. We learn alongside each other; supporting and encouraging each other as we go. We have experienced this program and the empowerment it has brought to our lives together. We have borne witness to each other’s growth.


Students of the ‘Dehcho Dene Zhatié: Indigenous Language Revitalization Program spent a week learning at The Telemia Camp outside of Fort Providence.

There are just six months left in this language program: some of us will choose to continue on and pursue a Bachelors degree in order to become fully certified elementary and secondary school teachers. Some of us will be satisfied to finish in April 2016 with a Diploma in this program. Whatever each one us decides to pursue, the end of this program is just over the horizon, and we will each hold our own responsibility to continue on in our language journeys. I am both thankful and hopeful for the road ahead.

Sedzée t’áh máhsi enéhthę. Łı́e dzęne, nezų Dene K’ę́ę́ gohndeh gha. Azhíi dúyé enéhthę! Mahsi dúyé!

[With my heart I am thankful. One day I will speak well in the language. Anything is possible for me! I am very thankful!].


While at the Telemia Camp, the students learned how to traditionally tan a hide while only using Dene Zhatié words and phrase – scrapping, holes, hard surface, scrapper, etc.

In closing, I will leave you with an oath to learning Dene Zhatié. As a cohort we chose to adopt this oath and I hope that in reading this some of you might be inspired to do that same…


the place of gathering

As a child, I remember spending most of nights with my friends and family at the old wooden arbour located in the centre of town. We would run around, playing hide and seek or sit and watch the talent show or participate in the drum dance. The red painted arbour held so many great memories for me. It was taken down many years ago and I truly felt like my community lacked a gathering place since.

I was happy to learn that there was a new one being built by the Hamlet of Fort Providence. The arbour can seat up to 600 people and is built in a circular shape with a fire pit in the middle, it will hosts many traditional gatherings, drum dances and special events. Arbours are pretty common now days in the North and are used as a positive place for community members to socialize.  The one built in Fort Providence was like none I’ve ever seen. It’s such beautiful piece of art; it represents the union of the First Nations and Metis’ people in the community.

So when I was asked to capture the official opening of the Fort Providence’s Arbour, I was stoked and jumped at the opportunity. I knew I would see many elders, old friends and get to participate in a sacred fire feeding ceremony. It was a well-organized celebration, with several speeches and warming welcomes, to prayers and well wishes. And it wouldn’t be a celebration if it didn’t end with a tasty feast.


I’m relieved that my hometown now has it’s gathering place back – it’s going to be a place for many other friends and families to make fond memories, and to celebrate the culture and traditions for years to come.

 – shawna mcleod 

women gathering/women creating

I’m very lucky and fortunate to have made so many positive connections through my photography.

I was honoured to team up with Tania Larson Studios, Kamamak Cosmetics and Dickson Designs to create some magic of our products on some of most gorgeous Indigenous women from the Northwest Territories. I traveled to three communities to complete this collection and made sure most of the Northern cultures were represented.

Working on a collection like this one is something I hold so close to my heart. I believe it’s important to make sure we encourage each other as women whether we are entrepreneurs, mothers, aspiring models, designers, or acquaintances. I wanted to make sure that all the women I photograph feel empowered, comfortable and supported.

A huge heartfelt thank you to our models – Britney Nadli, Tanis Darlin, Dehga Scott, Ariel Hardisty Charlene Chapple and Charlene Menacho. I admire your confidence, bravery and class throughout our time shooting together.

 – shawna mcleod

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“Behind every successful woman is a tribe of other successful women who have her back” – unknown

Keeping Dene Culture Alive

The Dene community of Fort Simpson almost doubled in population during the 4th Annual Men’s Handgames Tournament as they welcomed spectators, drummers, and handgame players to the community. Fort Simpson is a larger First Nations Dene community located where the two rivers meet – the Liard River and The Mackenzie River – and they expected roughly 300-500 people for a highly intense competition.

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This year, they hosted 19 teams and about 300 people into the community. Many folks traveled by road, by air and by boat to take in the festivities. It was pretty neat to see first hand how the tournament was organized; they had a designated area in the community for people to camp, there was drum dances every night, the hand games committee provided the players dinners and made sure that all visitors were well taken care of.

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Traditionally, the men played the hand games as a way of survival. Often times the Dene men would be out hunting for long periods of time and would play hand games while they were out on the land. It’s known back then as a trading game, for things like furs, bullets, food, guns, and dog teams – anything useful for survival out on harsh land conditions. Sometimes the game would be played for long periods of times, last for hours or even days.

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The hand games competition can be quite confusing for somebody who has never seen it played before. There is people crowed into a tight circle, the is drummers singing surrounding the hand game players and the players are seated or kneeling on the mats chanting, hiding their token and/or making hand gestures.

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The energy produced by these men wearing their traditional hand made vest, singing their hearts out, drumming and handgame gestures is quite euphoric. It’s almost like you want to jump right in there and start drumming or playing the game too.


Usually teams of eight compete against each other, sitting face-to-face kneeling on a mat, guessing which hands the opposing players are using to hide the token, such as a coin or a small rock.


The guesser is on the opposite team of the ones hiding the token in their hands. If the guesser correctly guesses the hand with the token, he is then out. For each incorrect guess, the team hiding the token gets a stick.


The team hiding the token will continue to get sticks until everyone on their team is out.

It is played best out of three format; once a team wins two rounds of 21 sticks, they win that entire game and goes on to play entirely new team.


There was an overall sense of pride from everyone involved. There were grandfathers, grandmothers, mothers, fathers, youth, toddlers and babies all gathered into one place to socialize, to teach one another, to celebrate a culture and a everlasting tradition.


 – Shawna McLeod 

Forever Sunsets

When I jumped on board with the Tea & Bannock team, my initial thought was that this would be the perfect opportunity for me to use this space to share the unique life North of 60. Share stories and images of the pristine land, the beautiful people and the rich culture that many don’t get to experience.

I’ll be honest when I was thinking up my next blog post (this one right here), I was stumped – not sure what to share and just so happened to be on my way to my partner’s yearly family reunion in Jean Marie River (JMR).

It wasn’t until I was camping in Jean Marie River that it hit me, why not share the beauty of this community? The land, water and sky.

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Jean Marie River is a very tiny community in the Northwest Territories with a population of roughly 60 people. It is located in the Deh Cho region, right on the shore of the Mackenzie River. The traditional way of living is still very strong in the community of JMR. Most people still live off the land; using it for harvesting and traveling. The closest grocery store is an hour away; the water is delivered house to house by truck and the people are very friendly.

During our stay in Jean Marie River, we would spend most of the day trying to escape the heat by jumping in the creeks near by, boating and seadooing on the river or playing on a large makeshift slip N’ slide with the kids. The heat would finally calm down around nine in the evening and that’s when I would notice the sky… OH MY!

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Don’t get me wrong; I’ve lived in the North my whole life. I’ve noticed the 24-hour summer time sunlight and the beautiful colored sky before but never took the time to capture it. I’ve never been one to capture landscape images, I’m not exactly sure why. I honestly couldn’t tell you. All I know is that I like to photograph people.

So while spending my nights camping under the Midnight Sun in Jean Marie River, I decided to challenge myself and keep my camera hanging around my neck… just shoot the sky I thought to myself.

So I did.

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…And then I fell in love with photography and life in the North all over again.

 – shawna mcleod 

Kamamak and Beauty

I first met Angela during a collaboration for a photography project with Dickson Designs and Creations for Continuity. Angela Jack is the owner of an Indigenous owned makeup line, Kamamak Cosmetics.

We all gathered in Heather Dickson’s hotel room – photography gear, makeup, jewelry, with wardrobe in hand and children in tow. Together – all Indigenous female entrepreneurs – we created beautiful art for our own businesses and everlasting friendships.

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With both of us residing in Yellowknife, Angela and I quickly became friends – I love her positive attitude and fun energy. I was immediately drawn to her makeup; I’ve never known anybody who has owned his or her own makeup line before. This is huge deal for a makeup hoarder like myself.

Kamamak means Butterfly in the Cree language and all of her makeup packaging is made in high quality covers with a beautifully designed butterfly. Angela started her business in 2014 and has collaborated within her makeup line with artists like Alicia Smith and Jared Kane – West Coast indigenous designers who created two separate butterfly designs for Kamamak packaging. She says, “I love having art incorporated in the line and promoting fellow female entrepreneurs!”

Kamamak Cosmetics has everything from colorful eye shadows, blush to N’iso cream (used for both cheeks and lips). All of her products are unique and one of kind, with names that give a nod to her own Indigenous cultures – Cree caramel eye shadow, Mukluk eye shadow, Fresh Berries N’iso cream, Regalia Blush and Fancy Dancer blush to name a few. You can also find the meaning, proper punctuation and where the names come from on her packaging.

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I love that she is honoring her culture and other indigenous cultures through her make up. When I picked up her makeup, I became instantly engaged and interested in why and how she choose the names. It was a perfect opportunity for us to share and converse about how Angela’s makeup line came about.

She had a dream and she worked hard to make it a reality. Angela said her goal was for the line to reach all nations and tribes.

View More: http://shawnamcleod.pass.us/hanky

My favorite part of these types of collaborations is of course the conversations and friendships but also the part of uplifting each other as women – sticking together, helping each other out and not seeing each other as competition but rather support.

When we get together to create we ultimately want keep each other inspired – to refresh, to come up with new ideas, to get together and have some fun doing what we love to do. Nine times out of ten, we often surprise each other. Sometimes we can’t believe we take an idea from paper and made it reality in an image or on a model.

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In the end we do an old fashion trade – like our ancestors use to do. She let me capture her makeup creation and I get more photography experience for my own business in lieu of digital copies for her business. Win win situation!

Every time I’m looking over the images, I know I have to share with Tea & Bannock. Angela knew I was so desperately wanting to share her line with the world, so she agreed – everyone must know about Kamamak Cosmetics and Angela Jack – the kick ass makeup artist and business woman.

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Find Kamamak:

Website: http://www.kamamakcosmetics.com

FB: https://www.facebook.com/kamamak

 – shawna mcleod