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Dene hero's tale told
Yamohza or Yamoria is deeply entrenched in local aboriginal culture

Evan Kiyoshi French
Northern News Services
Published Friday, February 6, 2015

SOMBA K'E/YELLOWKNIFE
Students from K'alemi Dene School can tell you bits and pieces of a Dene legend dating to a time when it's said giants roamed the landscape.

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Mary-Rose Sundberg, director of the Goyatiko Language Society, holds an artist's rendering of the Dene legend, Yamohza. She said stories about Yamozha also known as Yamoria should be taught in classrooms as an introduction to Dene culture and history. - Evan Kiyoshi French/NNSL photo

Ashley Deavu, who teaches a mixed-grade class at the K-12 school in Ndilo, teaches students about Yamohza - the giant of Dene mythology credited with slaying giant beavers, taking a beaver wife and creating well-known landforms.

Mary-Rose Sundberg, director of the Goyatiko Language Centre in Dettah, said she's heard stories retold by countless elders, but her grandmother was the first to tell her about Yamohza.

"In the days where we had no TVs or radios, our elders would tell us stories in the evenings or whenever we had quiet time," she said, speaking in the language centre on Wednesday. "There's a lot of other Yamozha stories all the way from the East Arm to the Arctic Ocean."

Dene only tell the stories relating to their specific geography, said Sundberg, out of respect for their neighbours. The story she feels most comfortable with starts out with a giant beaver, who built a dam across the Yellowknife River, close to where the Yellowknives Dene were camped.

"At one time this part of the river looked like a white blanket ... because there were so many tents all over the place," she said. "Some people lived there all year round and some people used it as a seasonal camp to fish, to make their dry meat and get ready for winter."

The beaver's dam flooded the tents, and when people ventured onto the lake the beaver would flip their canoes and drag them down to their deaths.

"People didn't know what to do about the giant beaver so they sent a messenger to Yamohza," she said.

The giant protagonist came to the rescue and used an enormous scoop covered in babiche (a cord made of rawhide or sinew), to pull apart the beaver dam. He split the dam in two scoopfuls, explained Sundberg, and spiked his tool into the ground in two places. The evidence is two enormous rocks jutting out of the Yellowknife River, just south of where a bridge crosses it today, and an enormous spruce tree - which is still growing on the site. Thwarted, the beaver swam away toward Behchoko, she said.

Teaching students about Dene legends and history is important, Sandberg said. Giving them an idea of the people who lived here long before the city was built gives them a new perspective on their home town, and would warm the hearts of elders.

"They should know who we are, and why we live here. We have have two languages here: the dogrib dialect of Weledeh, and we also have Chippewan.

"Our people speak both languages fluently. I think that also needs to be taught, even if you had just a short little conversation with an elder," she said. "That would mean so much ... to be able to say I respect your language enough to learn a little bit. But there's just not enough funds out there to get all this work done."

Yamohza, or Yamoria - the North Slavey version of his name, meaning the one who travels - has been the subject of exhibits at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre and was made into a travelling museum, visiting schools across the territory, said Barb Cameron, director at the museum.

"Over the past decade we've had a couple of different Yamohza or Yamoria displays," she said. "The first one was a series of paintings ... of a Tlicho artist, Archie Beaulieu."

She said the subject matter hits home with residents and tourists alike, who are interested in the story which bridges the gap between mythology and natural history.

"Giant beavers did exist, we have the skulls," she said, adding they were about the size of a black bear.

She said Yamohza is remembered as a great lawmaker and a helper of people in need.

"All cultures have stories about people who were strong and powerful and who made the world a better place," she said.

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