The Place of Frozen Smoke: Cultural Landscapes of M’behcholia

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.

M’behcholia in the fall. Source: Laura Golebiowski.

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’.

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