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ETHNONYMS: Atimopiskay (in the Cree language), Done, Thlingchadinne (an English misconstruction for "dog rib people"), Tlicho


Identification. The English term "Dogrib" is a translation of a Cree term. "Tlicho" (dog rib) was probably not a term of tribal self-reference aboriginally but came into use by Dogribs in the contact era, especially to distinguish themselves from neighboring Athapaskan peoples. The term "Done" (people) is the self-designation that emphasizes the Indianness of the Dogrib.

Location. The Dogrib have continued to occupy their aboriginal lands. Their hunting-trapping range is between 62° and 65° N and 110° and 124° W in the Northwest Territories, Canada. South to north, Great Slave Lake and Great Bear Lake border the Dogrib traditional range. The greater portion is in the rocky outcrop of the Canadian Shield, where the boreal forest cover becomes progressively more sparse and stunted toward the east. The westernmost range of the Dogrib includes the eastern edge of the Mackenzie River Lowlands. The continental subarctic climate is one of brief warm summers with long hours of daylight and long cold winters when temperatures may drop to 40° F or below. "Freeze-up" of lakes and streams begins in early October and "break-up" comes in May.

Demography. In 1970 the Dogrib numbered about seventeen hundred persons, contrasted to only about one thousand in 1949. European-derived epidemics throughout the nineteenth century helped hold the Dogrib population to Between approximately eight hundred and one thousand from 1858, when the first actual count was made, to 1949. The Canadian government's introduction of effective treatment for tuberculosis and expanded medical services in the late 1950s spurred population growth, which continues to the present. In the 1960s, by providing subsidized housing and through other means, the government succeeded in getting many Dogribs to settle in Rae, to which in former times, as the trading post and mission site, Dogribs had resorted only seasonally. Rae-Edzo (Edzo is an ancillary government-created complex) is now the major Dogrib settlement, although some live at Detah near the town of Yellowknife and in the small bush settlements of Lac la Martre, Rae Lakes, and Snare Lake, which the government began to provide with infrastructural support in the 1970s.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Dogrib speak a language of the northeastern Athapaskan language group, with some dialectic variation across the Dogrib regional groups.

History and Cultural Relations

The Dogrib are one division of the widespread population of the Dene or Athapaskan-speaking peoples who, by archaeological and linguistic evidence, first entered western Alaska from Siberia by way of the Bering land bridge that existed during late Pleistocene times. They subsequently spread throughout interior Alaska and the western Canadian Subarctic. As a distinctive linguistic-tribal entity, the Dogrib emerged after their ancestors' entry, at an indeterminate period in prehistoric times, into the area they occupy today. The neighboring Athapaskan-speaking peoples to the east, the Chipewyan, and to the north, the Copper Indians, were distinguishing the Dogrib from themselves in the eighteenth century, but whether some groups ancestral to the present-day Slavey were, in that period, included in this appellation is not clear. By the mid-eighteenth century a few European goods were being traded to the Dogrib for furs by Chipewyan middlemen.

With the Slavey to the west and the Hare Indians north of Great Bear Lake, also Athapaskan speakers, the Dogrib seem always to have been on peaceful terms. Those groups as well as the Dogrib suffered intermittent predations by the Algonkian-speaking Cree from the southeast in the late eighteenth century and by the Copper (Yellowknife) Indians up to 1823. In 1823 a successful attack by the Dogrib on a band of the small Copper Indian tribe brought first an uneasy and then an enduring peace. By then a few fur trade posts were established in the South Great Slave Lake and Mackenzie River region. There was no trading post in Dogrib territory, However, until Old Fort Rae (down the North Arm of Great Slave Lake from the site of the present Rae) was established by the Hudson's Bay Company in 1852. The first Roman Catholic missionary, of the Oblats de Marie Immaculée, reached Old Fort Rae in 1859. Within ten years most of the Dogrib had accepted Roman Catholicism and it remains their religion today.

With the other Dene peoples north of Great Slave Lake the Dogribs trading into Rae "signed" Treaty No. 11 in 1921. (The southernmost Dogribs, most of whose descendants live at Detah, had long traded into Fort Resolution on the south side of Great Slave Lake and had there "signed" Treaty No. 8 in 1899.) The treaty marked the advent of official Canadian government relations with the Dogrib.


As mobile hunters of the northern forest, the Dogrib used temporary lodges or tipis covered with bark, spruce boughs, or caribou hide to shelter two or more families through the nineteenth century. Then some families began to build log cabins, often clustered at a good fishing locale, which became the base from which men or family groups went on fur-trapping and hunting tours. Canvas replaced caribou hide for the tipi and about 1920 the commercial canvas tent was introduced. In the 1960s houses of lumber and plywood were erected as permanent habitations by the government.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Into the late twentieth century, the Dogrib relied on the game and fish of the land, increasingly supplemented by flour and lard from the trading post. Caribou were a major resource from September through March when the caribou retreated to the farther reaches of the barren grounds. Moose were taken year round. A large game kill was shared among all families in the local group. Contingent on its ten-year population cycle, the snowshoe hare was the major small game. With the introduction in the nineteenth century of commercial twine for gill nets, fish became an important resource. The Dogrib were drawn into the fur trade after the end of the eighteenth century and by the middle of the nineteenth century were committed to a dual economy of subsistence hunting, fishing, and snaring combined with the taking of fur animals (such as beaver, marten, fox) whose skins they traded for metal implements, guns, cloth, clothing, and so on. As Rae expanded in population and services after 1950, a few Dogrib, especially those who were bilingual, found employment as trading store clerks and janitors in government installations. Bush clearing and fire fighting are seasonal summer employments for men. In the 1980s, an Indian-operated fishing lodge for tourists was opened at the Dogrib bush hamlet of Lac la Martre. The dog was the only domestic animal aboriginally. Dogs did not become significant in transport until the nineteenth century, once firearms and twine for fish nets allowed families to provision a multidog team.

Industrial Arts. The making of snowshoes, toboggans, and birchbark canoes by men and the processing of caribou and moose hides for clothing and footgear by women were aboriginal crafts vital to survival. Decorative art rested in the hands of the women, as adornment on apparel. Aboriginal porcupine quill decoration largely gave way to silk floss Embroidery and beadwork in historic times. Containers of birch-bark, of furred and unfurred hides, and of rawhide netting, often handsomely executed, were women's work as well.

Trade. There was no consequential precontact trade between the Dogrib and neighboring Indian peoples. The fur trade was regularized in the early nineteenth century and remains the single dominant trade relation in Dogrib history.

Division of Labor. Into recent times men were the hunters of the large game without which the people could not survive. Husband and wife might share the task of gill-net fishing which became increasingly important after net twine was introduced. Women made dry meat and dry fish, processed hides for clothing and, sometimes aided by their husbands, the fur pelts for the fur trade. Rabbit snaring, firewood gathering, cooking, and other activities that could take place close to the hearth were ordinarily the responsibility of women. Especially in bush communities, all these tasks remain Important economic activities.

Land Tenure. There was no ownership of land by either individuals or groups aboriginally, and so it has remained to the present day. The resources of the land were open to all. Government-registered trap lines were never established among the Dogrib.


Kin Groups and Descent. A Dogrib's relatives are embraced by the term sehot'in, "my people." As it conveys the Dogribs' sense of kinship, those with whom one lives in relationship, sehot'in includes relatives by marriage as well as consanguines and can also refer to one's band or hamlet group. Kinship is reckoned bilaterally. Clans or any other form of descent group are absent.

Kinship Terminology. Dogrib distinguish older brother from younger brother and older sister from younger sister. The brother/sister terms are extended to cousins, cross and parallel. Parents are distinguished from aunts and uncles. Men's nieces and nephews are addressed or referred to by a single term and grandchildren of either sex by another. The same pattern holds for women's nieces/nephews and grandchildren, but women's terms are different from men's.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Prior to the introduction of Roman Catholic wedding rites, marriage was unmarked by ceremony. Courtship became de facto marriage, which stabilized after the birth of a child. At least until then, temporary matrilocality was the norm and has continued to be observed by traditionminded families. After that, the young family might join the band or hunting-trapping group of one of the husband's primary relatives or remain with that of the wife. Before conversion to Catholicism, some superior providers took more than one wife. Once the Dogrib became Roman Catholics divorce was unacceptable. An individual may, however, leave a church-sanctioned spouse to establish an enduring common law marriage with another person.

Domestic Unit. Aboriginally, probably two or more related conjugal pairs and their children occupied the temporary shelter. Permanent housing has always been in short supply; the log cabins and the more recent government house were and are apt to be occupied by two or three related Generations.

Inheritance. Into the nineteenth century, the death of a significant adult was accompanied by the destruction of not only the deceased's property but that of the bereaved relatives. In more recent times, inheritance of economically important goodshouses, guns, toboggans, canoesis according to the needs of the immediate family members.

Socialization. Children have always absorbed moral values and standards of behavior by listening to the comments and gossip of their elders. In the bush camp or isolated hamlet where people still rely heavily on the products of the land, little girls by the age of six or seven begin to help their mother in fetching firewood and water. They also "pack" and tend their infant siblings. Boys observe the activities of their fathers but are not pressed into chores as early as girls, although they may be tending the rabbit snares by age ten or twelve. At about fourteen, boys join with their father or older brother on hunting-trapping tours. In contemporary times, with primary-grade schooling available even in the bush communities, Dogrib parents hold the ideal of having their children learn English and gain other advantages of White schooling. There is, however, a high rate of truancy that is not effectively restrained by parents. Since the 1950s, a minority of young Dogribs have gone on to high school and postsecondary education "outside."

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. From aboriginal times to the Present, the Dogrib have been without class distinctions. Among men, the good hunter-trapper commands approbation, as does the hardworking woman. Some persons of mixed Indian-White ancestry are regarded as fully Indian by their fellows; others, whose families have operated as cultural brokers between Indians and Whites, are viewed as a distinctive sector of the society, but are not accorded higher status by the Indians.

Political Organization. Aboriginally, the several socioterritorial groups or regional bands of Dogribs were autonomous. Leaders, whose roles were tied to economic pursuits and in historic times to White-Dogrib contact relations, were consensually accepted on the basis of demonstrated energy, intelligence, and ability. Regional bands had recognized leaders. During the period of the Hudson's Bay Company fur trade monopoly, a "trading chief," Ekawi Dzimi, emerged as spokesman and negotiator with the company at Fort Rae. With the "signing" of Treaty No. 11 at Rae in 1921, the Government required an official installation of "chief" and "councilors." (The Detah Dogrib already had an official chief under Treaty No. 8.) Monphwi, who had succeeded the trading chief as prime leader of the Rae Dogrib, became "chief" and the regional band leaders, "councilors". Chief and Councilors continued to be chosen consensually by their male peers until 1971 when, upon the retirement of the aged Rae chief, Jimmy Bruneau, the first formal elections were held for those offices. In 1969, the Indian Brotherhood of the Northwest Territories was formed. Several young educated and bilingual Dogrib played prominent roles in the Brotherhood as they have in the Dene Nation, which in 1978 succeeded the Brotherhood as the representative body for all the Dene Peoples of the Northwest Territories in dealing with the Canadian government in respect to land claims, control of resources, and native rights.

Social Control and Conflict. Dogribs avoid confrontational behavior, a norm that may be abrogated under conditions of drunkenness. Internalized standards, gossip, and public opinion usually serve to keep individuals in line. Differences of opinion or goals between individuals, factions, or regional groups are characteristically muted. The Dogrib ideal has always been that people should "listen to one another" and come to consensus on issues. The recent exposure of young people to White-style schooling and pop culture has promoted a generational and cultural gap in values and outlook. Government police power is vested in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police; the post at Rae was established in 1924. Crimes by Canadian legal definition are tried in Territorial courts, administered from the territorial capital at Yellowknife.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Aboriginal religious beliefs, which have endured in attenuated form into present times, centered on the individual attaining a relationship with an animal or animal-like spirit, such as Raven, Spider, Thunderbird, through which he gained ink'on, "power." Summoning the enabling spirit with drum and song, the adept might control the weather or the hunt, cure illness, or divine the whereabouts of travelers. Until the acceptance of Christian divinities, the Dogrib had no concept of a supreme being or the idea of worship of a supernatural entity. With the advent of the Roman Catholic missionaries in the 1860s, the Dogribs quickly accepted the teachings of the church. In the opinion of the early missionaries, they became the most devoted Catholics among the Dene peoples of the Northwest Territories.

Religious Practitioners. Although many Dogribs had a relationship with a spirit, from aboriginal times into the twentieth century a few became recognized as having exceptional powers for curing, hunting, and so on. No Dogribs have entered the Roman Catholic priesthood.

Ceremonies. There is no evidence that aboriginally the Dogrib had any form of group religious ceremony. Roman Catholic observances came to include not only those directed by the priest but also Sunday prayer services initiated by Dogribs when in the bush apart from church and priest.

Arts. Dogribs take great pleasure, as they must have aboriginally, in group dance on occasions when regional groups come together at such times as the annual treaty payments each summer. The tea dance goes on through the night as a great inward-facing circle of dancers moves clockwise to the accompaniment of melodic song by the dancers. In the drum dance, less popular among old-timers, the drummers sing and the people dance front to back rather than side by side. The Dogrib hand game, a fast-paced hidden-object guessing game between two teams of players accompanied by drumming-chanting, is another major event when different regional groups of Dogribs assemble at Rae or another locale. The Dogrib hand game players and drummers have become a feature of territories-wide assemblies of the Dene peoples.

Medicine. In aboriginal understanding, sickness resulted from the transgression of moral norms, including violation of an interdiction imposed by one's enabling animal spirit, or from the ink'on of another malevolently directed against the sufferer. An adept in curing was called in to diagnose, with the aid of his spirit helper, the cause of the illness. In case of the violation of a taboo or a moral norm, the confession of the ailing person was required in order to restore health. For some minor physical ailments, certain botanical products were believed to have curative properties. Dogribs have Generally been receptive to modern medical services.

Death and Afterlife. There is no real information about aboriginal beliefs regarding afterlife. Death as well as sickness might be caused by an individual's transgression or the malevolent power of an enemy. In contemporary times, all belief and ritual relating to death and the afterlife fall within the purview of Roman Catholic dogma and practice.


Helm, June (1972). "The Dogrib Indians." In Hunters and Gatherers Today, edited by Mario C. Bicchieri, 51-89. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston. Reprint, Waveland Press, 1988.

Helm, June (1981). "Dogrib." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 6. Subartic, edited by June Helm, 291-309. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Helm, June, and Nancy O. Lurie (1966). The Dogrib Hand Game. National Museum of Canada Bulletin no. 205. Anthropological Series, no. 71. Ottawa.


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