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Q&A with Fred Sangris

Jorge Barrera
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Jan 28/02) - Fred Sangris is a community negotiator with the Treaty 8 Yellowknives Dene. He says it is time for the Akaitcho people to seize their own destiny and map out their future.

Where did the Akaitcho name come from?

Akaitcho was a well-known leader in the early 1800s. He's buried in the south islands. Akaitcho was well known because he was a warrior chief. He was the grand chief of our people, protecting both the person and the land they inhabited.

He met people like Sir John Franklin and Alexander Mackenzie. He guided them. He saved people when they got in trouble, and in return he was rewarded with muskets and gunpowder. He became an important person in the fur trade. You couldn't get by without dealing with Akaitcho.

Akaitcho had seven wives. He wanted them to take him to the mouth of the Yellowknife River to be buried when he died.

They made a sled and pulled him from the East Arm down as far as Wool Bay. There, the ducks were flying -- a sure sign of spring. So he couldn't make it to the mouth of the river because the ice was breaking. They took him to the island. There he was buried. The Weledeh people called the island Akaitcho Island.

And why was the name taken on by Treaty 8?

FS: The elders, during a workshop in Lutsel K'e in the early 1990s, took his name, and the land was recognized as Akaitcho territory.

I may be a Yellowknives Dene or a Lutsel K'e Dene, but we're all Akaitcho people. We speak mainly Weledeh, a mix of Chipewyan and Dogrib, Dogrib and Chipewyan.

What are the Akaitcho communities today?

Deninu Koe, Lutsel K'e, Dettah and Ndilo, with a little over 2,000 people in total.

Over time settlements grew at Wool Bay, Dettah, and a camping place on the tip of this island (Latham).

We were the only ones living here until the 1930s.

Then gold was discovered in Alaska and prospectors came up this way.

Old lady Lyda Crooked Hand -- while she was picking berries with the other women ladies -- found a gold nugget lying around. The old ladies giggled at the rock.

Old Lady Crooked Hand took the nugget home. One day a prospector stopped in Dettah and had a meal in Old Lady's home and he noticed the nugget on the stove. He asked her about the nugget and he asked so many questions she said gave it to him.

He looked at it and asked what she wanted in return. She said a stove pipe and stove. She got it and a year later he discovered gold in the area that became Giant Mine.

Who was the prospector?

FS: I don't remember his name, it could be Johnny Baker.

Soon after that gold rush started. And at the protest of the Dene, they still went ahead. Chief Drygeese intercepted prospectors at Walsh Lake in 1930, and he told them they couldn't continue looking for minerals and had to leave. They left and were escorted to Fort Resolution.

The Dene used to hunt all over the place here.

There was a settlement at Burwash, named after a big spruce tree.

Those people told Weledeh people that no one should build on the left side of the lake because it is the most important habitat, and if one person built a house there the animals would move away.

Eventually the town slowly built up because DIAND (Department of Indian and Northern Affairs) gave them the right. The mines continued and our people didn't work there.

Did anything good come out of development in your backyard?

The settlement across the river was good because we didn't have to travel to Rae or Hay River or Lake Athabasca to get supplies

We co-existed.

Since 1973 we've been talking about land settlement, not a land claim, because we aren't claiming land.

The Dene want to live in their homeland in peaceful co-existence with exclusive rights to lands they choose. We want to look after our own affairs. We want our own citizenship and governance as they had been for the last 1,000 year.

Right now we are working on treaty relationships. 100 years ago we signed Treaty 8 at Fort Resolution.

According to chiefs at the time, the treaty is not about surrendering land but about co-existing. So the Akaitcho Dene were a nation and the Crown represented another nation, and the two nations made an agreement.

Today, 100 years later, we're still honouring it. But the treaty has not been implemented on the government's side.

We abide by it because the Dene keep their word. Those who write on paper don't keep their word, and now there are two versions of the treaty. One with surrender and the other one without.

In 1973, in the Paullette case, the judge said the Dene have not surrendered their lands. The Crown still has to fulfil those treaties.

If other people think Indians are getting subsidies, nothing is free. Our lands, resources and taxes are taken in exchange for our being looked after. We have paid with our land.

The treaty is still valid and that is why the Akaitcho are working on treaty implementation arrangements not a comprehensive claim.

What is the difference?

Comprehensive gives you a large tract of land in exchange for surrendering other lands. On top of that you're not given governance arrangements. In that, at the end of the day, DIAND has the last say in governance. The minister has the last say on disagreements in bands. For the Akaitcho people that is not good.

At the end of the day the Akaitcho will have a constitution of their own for their own constituents.

Tell me a bit about the Akaitcho Dene land settlement?

In 1991, the Dogrib and Yellowknives decided to part and the Dogrib went for a comprehensive claim. In the early 1990s, the Akaitcho chiefs got together and held a meeting to join forces.

In July 2000, in Fort Resolution, for our 100-year treaty celebration, we signed the framework agreement. That agreement set the stage for negotiations. We signed the interim measures agreement last June. The next step is implementing those measures.

We hope to finish in the next three years.

Can we talk a little about boundaries?

There has to be a boundary between the Akaitcho and the Dogrib. The Dogrib claim large tracts of land that do not belong to them. The Akaitcho always had villages here and named lakes and rivers for thousands of years.

What's the sticking point over the boundary?

With each having their own claim there is going to be management boards for things like land and wildlife. What's happening is that the Akaitcho are not happy with someone else's management boards overseeing their territory. The Akaitcho are going to set up their own boards. When you have two interests on the same land it's going to cause problems. That's why we need a boundary, so the Dogrib and Akaitcho can have their own boards governing their own land.

What land do the Dogrib want as a settlement area?

The Dogrib claim all of the North Slave region. The Yellowknives have occupied the North Slave, and Lutsel K'e is not comfortable with the Dogrib across the lake.

So, once you resolve the land settlement, what changes?

Once our treaty is in place we can move with other governments into the future. We will become a part of Canada as a new nationhood with authority that will give us comfort. Our future will be secured.