Dene Heroes of the Sahtu

March 24, 2020
By: 
Mary-Anne Neal, M.Ed

As the five Indigenous communities in the remote Sahtu region of the Northwest Territories work towards self-government, they have a pressing need to build leadership capacity in their community members. In order to accomplish this goal, they invited Mary-Anne Neal, Associate Faculty School of Business, to conduct a needs assessment and perhaps find ways to raise academic standards, improve literacy and increase pride in the Dene heritage.

Throughout her consultations, Neal found the Dene people to be thoughtful, sensitive, practical individuals who care deeply about their communities. They want the youth to become academically competent, responsible, contributing members of society who are able to compete in the modern world while still embracing their traditional on-the-land lifestyle of hunting, trapping, and fishing. Neal’s initial assessment concluded that the communities would benefit most from a project that invited them to honour their own role models in a publication that would be distributed in the Sahtu.

21st Century Learning

Neal reasoned that the Dene goals could be achieved by implementing the principles of 21st-century learning found in the Royal Roads University Learning, Research and Teaching Model. These principles include:

  • collaboration
  • the use of technology
  • inquiry-based learning
  • critical thinking skills

These are the pillars of authentic, inter-disciplinary, project-based challenges that support intellectual development, career development, and human and social development.

Thus, Neal proposed the Dene Hero Publication Project as a way to improve literacy and increase cultural pride. By participating in the Dene Hero project, participants learn about their ancestors as well as modern-day heroes. They interview elders and other role models. They reflect on their own lives, describe the admirable characteristics of people they know and dream about the future. The Dene Hero project improves literacy skills, enhances self-esteem and increases pride in the Dene heritage for all participants, not only the contributors.

As of January 2020, under Neal’s direction, the Sahtu Dene have published four books in four years.

Arctic Inspiration Prize

With Mary-Anne Neal as Project Director, the Colville Lake Youth Leadership Team was awarded the Arctic Inspiration Prize in 2018 for the Dene Hero Publication Project. The Arctic Inspiration Prize (AIP) encourages, identifies, funds, and celebrates breakthrough northern initiatives that have a measurable impact on improving the lives of people across the North. The AIP is supported by a network of people and groups, including Indigenous organizations, academia, governments, non-governmental organizations, industry, philanthropy, media, and arts and culture organizations, who share a common goal: to recognize northern innovation and excellence and encourage teamwork for the betterment of life in Canada’s North.

The Dene Hero books give northern Indigenous people a voice and a presence in Canadian literature. They set the foundation for a strong Dene presence in the Canadian discourse, and they honour Dene traditions, language, values, culture, and spirituality. The wisdom, courage, tenacity, and resilience of the Dene people shines through the stories and photographs.

Neal encourages all Indigenous Canadians to honour their own heroes in writing.

All Indigenous communities can follow the example of the Sahtu Dene and begin celebrating their own role models. It’s time to capture in writing the wisdom, courage, tenacity and resilience of Canada’s Indigenous people. We all need heroes to help us meet the challenge we face. Those heroes walk among us every day.

Look around, and you will see.