Editor’s note: Banner image of Dene Tha’ First Nation drummers at M’behcholia courtesy of Laura Golebiowski.
Written by: Laura Golebiowski (Indigenous Heritage Section) in collaboration with Dene Tha’ First Nation and Matt Munson (Yves Claus Didzena)
It was known as The Place of Frozen Smoke. Where, on cold winter days, the smoke from countless campfires could be seen rising high above the lakeshore. A landscape that has sustained Dene Tha’ First Nation since time immemorial. It’s name is M’behcholia, translating to Big Knife, or Bistcho Lake. The name of the lake itself is M’behcho. Multiple English spellings and translation attempts exist for these names.
For many, it is an ancestral place where all living Dene Tha’ First Nation members have a connection. Elders and knowledge-keepers tell us there are trails all around, extending from the lake. The Dene Tha’ used horses, canoe and dog teams to travel the vast expanse of shoreline, pitching tents and tipis to camp and make dry fish and meat along the way. The lakeshore was dotted with permanent settlements, seasonal camps, fishing spots, gravesites and sacred places. Each place had a Dene name, inspired by the activities that occurred there.
It was the birthplace of several Ndátin—dreamers or prophets—including Gochee (Brother), Mbek’ádhi (He is Recovered) and Nógha (Wolverine). These spiritual leaders were trained by listening to the stories of animals and powerful ancestors, and would relay visions of the future to the Dene Tha’.
M’behcholia was a special place then, just as it is now. It is the third-largest freshwater lake located entirely in Alberta and is surrounded by thousands of hectares of wetlands, peatlands and boreal forest. Numerous species of wildlife are found here, including woodland caribou, with whom Dene Tha’ share an important relationship with and who must be protected, according to Dene Tha’ First Nation Chief Wildfred Hooka-Nooza. Caribou behaviour and travels in the Bistcho Lake region are better understood thanks to Dene Tha’ First Nation’s community-led monitoring programs, which have been informed by traditional knowledge and Elder expertise. For Dene Tha’ First Nation, M’behcholia is a place that—if stewarded responsibly—can contribute to social and ecological resiliency and provide a refuge for people and wildlife for generations.
“This Beautiful Great Lake”
In the 1870s, the Oblate Missionary Émile Petitot reached the shores of Bistcho Lake from the Mackenzie River to the north: “The eighth day we arrived at an immense and beautiful lake surrounded by hills and bearing the name Bes-tchonhi…It was not less than sixty miles long and eight wide…This beautiful great lake to which I gave my name, empties into the Liard River via the Bes-tchonhiélina, which the French Canadians call Black River [Muskeg].”
Petitot’s journals refer to the Dene Tha’ as Étcharé-ottiné: “those who dwell in shelter.” He encountered several hundred Dene Tha’ individuals living at the outflow of what is now known as the Petitot River. “The people came to meet us with cries of joy, greetings, and bursts of laughter which fully expressed the satisfaction they felt at our unexpected visit.” The size of the population at M’behcholia and their ability of the Dene Tha’ to thrive in their territory is evident in Petitot’s review of the winter supply: “Oh! Those amazing Dene!…I counted 120 moose bladders transformed into enormous loaves of melted fat, more than 240 sides of these same animals, 2400 sides of caribou, enormous bundles of beaver tails, and caribou tongues.”
Stories from the ground
This rich history—and the archaeological record that conveys it—would be less-known if not for the efforts of Dene Tha’ First Nation. Between 2013 and 2019, on their own initiative, Dene Tha’ students, Elders and archaeologists from Taiga Heritage Consulting Ltd. participated in numerous archaeological surveys and excavations in the Nation’s territory.
Their efforts have furthered understandings of the historical significance of M’behcholia as a landscape of layered and longstanding occupation: where pre-contact archaeological sites lie beneath historic settlements, seasonal camps and sacred places, and where Dene Tha’ knowledge, oral histories and place names speak to how important this area was, and is, for Indigenous peoples.
Da’de’l’ee—the settlement at the outflow where Émile Petitot encountered hundreds of Dene Tha’ people—has been revisited and documented. The 2016 archaeological fieldwork reidentified pre and post-contact campsites and log cabin remains. In 2020, the Elder Charlie Chambaud was able to revisit his father’s trapping cabin on Moose Island (Kirkness Island). The significance of this tangible re-connection was captured in the 2021 documentary produced by River Voices: “I’m just happy to be at the site where my dad used to be… it’s just like a memory.”
For Elder Roy Salopree, the archaeological work serves to reestablish connections for Dene Tha’: “We can retrieve some of the stories from underneath the ground, and whatever we find, it’s like sacred or a treasure from back then. All these things can help us regain our strength and teach us something new.”
Guided by Elders and knowledge-keepers, more than 75 archaeological sites have been recorded at M’behcholia to date, including pre-contact sites, historic settlements, cabins and trails, complementing and corroborating the oral histories that have long been known by the Dene Tha’. The entirety of the Bistcho Lake shoreline has Historic Resource Values (HRVs) for lands with high potential to contain archaeological resources, even though the vastness of the lakeshore and the extent of the landscape has not yet been surveyed.
A Vision for M’Bechcholia
Today, a new vision for M’behcholia exists: one of stewardship, protection and reconnection. In September of 2022, a group traveled to Bistcho Lake to see that vision first-hand. This group included Dene Tha’ First Nation Elders, drummers and representatives from various partner organizations: Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society Northern Alberta Chapter, Alberta Wilderness Association, the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Agriculture, Life and Environmental Sciences, University College Dublin, and River Voices Productions.
In the summer and fall months, Bistcho Lake is only accessible by air. Circling above the lake before landing at Tapawingo Lodge, we were struck by the beauty and remoteness of the landscape. The autumn greens, golds and blues were spectacular. But the lasting memories will be of the relationships formed, the stories shared and the time spent together on the land. Days were spent deploying wildlife monitoring cameras and audio units as part of the Dene Tha’ First Nation Guardians of the Territory program, conducting water quality sampling, visiting cultural heritage sites, hunting, fishing and storytelling. Evenings were spent by the fire, playing hand games and witnessing the northern lights across the lake to a soundtrack of howling wolves.
Again and again, we heard that M’behcholia is a place for healing, sharing and learning, and deserves to be protected. And no one is better-suited to leading the way than the Indigenous Peoples who have occupied and stewarded this land for thousands of years. Dene Tha’ First Nation advocates for a conservation framework at M’behcholia that recognizes the historical appropriation and disposition of lands and territories, and builds relationships of trust that work to actively rectify this.
Though several months have passed, recalling our trip to M’behcholia still elicits emotion. To be exposed to a landscape so special and the people working so hard to protect it is inspiring and motivating. It is a privilege to work in this way, to think creatively about how existing tools can achieve aims, and to advocate for greater action. We look forward to continued collaboration with Dene Tha’ First Nation, to better understand this region, to help protect the significant cultural heritage imbued within it and to help share the story of this place and what it means to the Dene Tha’.
There is so much hope and so much will, and there is more to undoubtedly come for M’behcholia. Elder Roy Salopree attested: “You have hope for the greater days where people can live among here, and laugh with each other, play with each other, go hunting with each other, go fishing with each other and have a good life here together. We need that part, to regain our strength back, to this back, and to regain our culture.”
Thank you the Dene Tha’ Guardians of the Territory for being so gracious with your time and knowledge (and fish and moose meat!), and to the partners and allies for continuing to inspire with your efforts and amplification. Mahsi-cho!
Sources and further learning
Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society Northern Alberta Chapter. (2022). Views of M’behcho: the “Big Knife” in northern Alberta. Retrieved online from: https://cpawsnab.org/views-of-mbehcho-the-big-knife-in-northern-alberta/
CBC The National. (2022). Wilderness group partners with First Nation to monitor caribou. Retrieved online from: https://www.cbc.ca/player/play/2141665347777
Dene Tha’ First Nation. (2021). Reconnection, resiliency, and refuge: The case for an Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area at Bistcho Lake. Retrieved online from: https://bistcholake.ca/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/Bistcho-Lake-IPCA-Draft-Report.pdf.
Dene Tha’ First Nation. (2021). Vision for Bistcho. Webpage retrieved online from: https://bistcholake.ca/ipca/vision-for-bistcho/.
Meintzer, P. (2022). Guardians of the territory: Dene Tha’, Bistcho Lake, and Indigenous-led conservation. Wildlands Advocate: The Alberta Wilderness Association journal (Winter 2022). Retrieved online from: https://albertawilderness.ca/wp-content/uploads/2022/12/20221200_ar_guardians_of_territory_denetha_bistcho_pmeintzer.pdf
Melil, D. (2012). Those who know: Profiles of Alberta’s Aboriginal elders—20th anniversary edition. Edmonton: NeWest Press.
Moore, P., Wheelock, A. and the Dene Wodih Society. (1990) Wolverine myths and visions: Dene traditions from northern Alberta. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press.
Peitot, É. (2005). Travels around Great Slave and Great Bear lakes 1862-1882 (Laverdure, P., Moir, J. and Moir., J., Trans.). Toronto: The Champlain Society. (Original work published between 1887 and 1893).
River Voices. (2021). Bistcho Lake IPCA (full documentary). Retrieved online from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r5PgDoBDnIU.
River Voices. (2022). Bistcho Lake Indigenous Protected Area highlighted at COP15 in Montreal. Retrieved online from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9v01e2dbjCU&t=1s