Activities & Projects

The Land and The People

Recommended by Cirriculum Services Canada

Level: Grade 6

Preparation: Print map and quotes if needed

Duration: 30 minutes

Materials: Map of Canada

  • describe characteristics of pre-contact Northern Athapaskan peoples, including their close relationship with the natural environment
  • describe the attitude to the environment of Northern Athapaskan peoples
  • use a variety of resources and tools to investigate Northern Athapaskan peoples

Begin: Have a discussion to determine what the students know about the Canadian Subarctic, and create a list on the black or whiteboard to refer to later. Where is it? Who lived there before Europeans arrived in Canada? What is the environment like? What animals live there? What are the implications of living in a cold climate in a pre-modern society (clothing, housing, food)? How did First Nations people survive there? There may be some confusion about this region versus the Arctic, which is technically above the tree-line, and traditionally home to the Inuit.

Introduce the Northern Athapaskan people. Explain that ‘Athapaskan’ is a term for many groups who occupy a vast area of the western Subartic regions of North America, covering parts of Alaska, Yukon and Northwest Territories, as well as northern British Columbia and Alberta. (Other Athapaskan-speaking peoples, the Navajo and Apache, live in the American Southwest.)

Print or project the map Distribution of the Northern Athapaskan Groups from the Who are the Northern Athapaskans? section of the exhibition Tradition and Innovation: Northern Athapaskan Footwear.

The word Athapaskan is an anglicized version of the Woods Cree name for Lake Athabasca in Canada. The people themselves prefer to be known as Dene, which in their language means ’people’. The Dene are linked by language and they share cultural attributes.

Learn: Discuss the environment of this vast region - boreal forest or taiga, with coniferous forests of fir, spruce, pine and larch, as well as muskeg or peat bogs. The climate features six month-long cold, harsh winters (temperatures below freezing), and short summers. Abundant fauna includes a prevalence of mosquitoes, black flies and sand flies (no-see-ums).

Print or project the George Blondin and Richard Nerysoo quotes on the Introductory Page and the Who are the Northern Athapaskans? section of the exhibition. Discuss the deep connection to the land that these men express. Note that they were quoted in the last quarter of the 20th century, long after the lives of their people had changed irrevocably with the arrival of European explorers. How does their attitude towards the land differ from the way we relate to our surroundings? Are attitudes to the environment changing? In what ways?

Add new information to the list created during the introductory discussion.

Click here for George Blondin's quote
Click here for Richard Nerysoo's quote

Apply: Together with the students, create a mind map to record ideas about the Dene relationship with their environment. Brainstorm to add specific examples, i.e. “living with the animals” provides food, materials for clothing, housing and tools. Refer to the list on the black/whiteboard to which you have been adding throughout the lesson. See Glossary for a definition of a mind map.

Research Project: Ask the students to research one aspect of the Dene relationship to the land from the mind map. You may wish to add contemporary options such as the Eldorado mine, the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline, and the Sahtú Dene and Métis Land Claim Settlement Act. The students can present their findings as a written report, a storyboard, or a chart, as they prefer.

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