We Remember the Coming of the White Man

By Catherine Lafferty

by Elizabeth Yakeleya, Sarah Simon and Sahtú and Gwich’in Elders; edited by Sarah Stewart Uproute Books 2020/$37.50/256 PP.

We Remember the Coming of the White Man is an extraordinary, educational account told by Sahtú and Gwich’in Dene Elders who witnessed the meeting of two worlds—Indigenous and settler—at the dawn of the 20th century. Written from the perspective of Indigenous peoples, instead of from the all too common perspective of outsiders coming onto the territory, the book presents a series of interviews with 10 Elders done by Dene filmmaker Raymond Yakeleya for his documentary We Remember, made for CBC North in 1976. The book’s editor, Sarah Stewart, was part of Yakeleya’s team while making the film (a DVD of it comes with the book), and the text hews close to the original sources. Each chapter is a transcript of those oral histories—presented in English and the original Gwich’in and North Slavey—documenting the Elders’ recollections of the fur trade, the devastating impacts of oil, gas and uranium discoveries, the “Spanish flu” pandemic and the signing of Treaty 11 in 1921. Some 100 black and white photos accompany the stories.

The result is a book unlike anything I’ve ever read. The Elders, many of whom were children at the time, recall when they first saw money, guns and boats—such as the SS Distributor, which brought with it tuberculosis all along the Deh Cho (Mackenzie River) shoreline. They tell stories about the introduction of alcohol, of transporting uranium along the waterways (work that caused illness) and the dispossession of homes and land, a catastrophe my ancestors did not see coming.

Elder Joe Blondin, for instance, recalls the fallout from the oil rush (which he says was started when his grandfather discovered the oil near Tulita, then called Fort Norman). “Right now, Norman Wells is a white community. The Natives can’t even pitch a tent there. I was born and raised there but all I can do is walk the streets. They are choking us little by little.”

Other stories, such as Elizabeth Yakeleya’s detailed memory of bringing her young son home to die of TB, are heartbreaking. For me it brings answers to questions I have about my own grandparents’ history, about what it must have been like for my grandmother, who was born on the land when TB struck the communities and whose twin sister died from the sickness.

In all of the sadness, however, I also found delight in reading of the pure joy felt when eating an orange for the first time. This is by far one of my new favourite books. It made me laugh, it made me cry and it made me angry to know that my ancestors were treated with such disrespect. I want more from this book in that I want to hear more from our Elders, but I’m grateful that finally this history is told from the Indigenous perspective.

—Catherine Lafferty is a Dene author of fiction and non-fiction.

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