Explorer Sir John Franklin met with Yellowknives Dene leader Akaitcho almost two centuries ago, and the impact still has people talking today.
Now 62, elder Fred Sangris remembers hearing this account as a young man from many elders, including his grandfather.
“The story I’m going to tell you is not as old as the rocks or the sky, but my story is very old – it’s older than my father,” said Sangris.
In the fall, just before the leaves turned yellow, explorer Sir John Franklin arrived in what is now the City of Yellowknife. At the time, around 1820 there were more than 20 Yellowknives Dene villages stretching from the North Arm to the northeast.
“Thousands of Yellowknives lived along the shoreline,” said Sangris.
“As Franklin arrived here from the Slave, the story goes that he went to one of the villages in Gros Cap, 60 km out of here. And the people asked him to continue your journey down, because they had Chipewyan voyageurs and interpreters from Lake Athabasca who were guides and they spoke the same T’satsaot’ine language as the people here.”
When he arrived at the old village in Dettah, people said the same thing: continue your journey to the river.
“Akaitcho is the boss, you want to talk to the boss,” said Sangris.
Akaitcho was at Wiiliideh, the Yellowknife River. Chief Kaw Tay Whee, chief of the Yellowknife River tribe, was also there, according to Sangris.
When Franklin arrived, the Yellowknives already knew people were coming.
“Right by Pilot’s Monument there was people there,” Sangris said. “The Yellowknives hunt in this area too and they were watching the lake for people and strangers.”
On top of the hill by Yellowknife River people were vigilant as well.
A smoke signal went up on the hill and at the river. They realized it was English people, who were not new to the Yellowknives. They were already trading with them at Fort Providence in the 1790s, but the Yellowknives were wary.
“So they always sent somebody who’s pretending to be a chief,” said Sangris with a laugh.
“Akaitcho sent someone out in the big crowds at the Yellowknife River, Wiiliideh site. They sent a guy up there to ask the strangers who they were and what they wanted.”
Franklin and his men wanted to talk to the chief about following a river to the ocean. They proposed to hire Akaitcho as a guide and get his help on their journey. Realizing there might be trading involved, Akaitcho and Kaw Tay Whee stepped forward. Through the interpreter, they realized Franklin wanted to go up the Coppermine River to the Arctic Ocean.
“And beyond, because they say that he wanted to go across the country to see the land,” Sangris added.
But because it was fall, just before freeze-up, Akaitcho told Franklin they couldn’t travel now, but they could in the spring.
“Franklin was, according to the elders, he was not very happy – very angry – and wanted to give orders to people in the campground to demand that they take him,” said Sangris.
“And they said no. You can go if you want. You’re not going to go far.”
Franklin still wanted to trade and continue to talk with the Yellowknives. Seeing the Europeans were carrying muskets, Akaitcho asked for 10 of each: musket rifles and ammunition, cooking pots, steel knives and axes. Franklin turned the deal down, and only wanted to give them one of each.
“I think it was on the third day in the morning when the elders said Franklin went across with his voyageur guides, to the Wiiliideh site and he spoke to Akaitcho directly. And he said we’ll give you all that, only if we leave tomorrow. We leave right away,” said Sangris.
Akaitcho warned them again about the ice, but Franklin wanted to go, so they went.
Sure enough, before the party arrived at Coppermine, the canoes started to get into ice. So Franklin decided to build a fort for the winter north of Snare Lake. Akaitcho and the Yellowknives supplied his crew with food and provisions.
“Because they made a promise with Franklin and they shook hands and they said they would look after them, from beginning to end,” Sangris said of the commitment.
Akaitcho went to the Thelon River, where the hunting was good for muskox and caribou.
In the late spring, Akaitcho and his men went to check on Franklin and his crew.
“They found him pretty hungry,” said Sangris.
So they hunted caribou for him and the women made dry-meat so he could continue his journey.
“They had a long ways to go because now they were going to go down the Coppermine River,” said Sangris.
When that journey was done, Franklin gifted Akaitcho a gold medallion from the Crown of England. Franklin told Akaitcho to take this medallion to any of the forts and buy everything he needed, to thank him for helping them survive the expedition. So Akaitcho went to the forts at Fort Resolution, Lake Athabasca and more.
“He showed them the medallion and he bought all the supplies that he needed,” said Sangris.
“What Akaitcho was doing during that time around 1825-26, he was using the very first credit card – and he’s still buried with it.”
Years later, Akaitcho died near Dettah. His dying wish was for his grave to be a secret, and his children to be adopted out and given different names, away from here.
“They also carry stories too,” said Sangris.
The Yellowknives fulfilled his last request and buried him on an island in the bay, a secret they keep to this day.
“We know where he was buried but we keep it a secret because Akaitcho was a warrior and a grand chief,” Sangris said.
The 200th anniversary of the Franklin expedition is coming up, and Fred Sangris said they plan to approach the city and put on a play to commemorate it.
“That’s going to be a very important play because many of the young generations here don’t understand much of our history,” said Sangris.