Helm and Lurie worked together for several years in the Dogrib communities of Rae and Whatı̀ (formerly Lac La Martre). During public sessions such as Treaty time celebrations, Helm took photographs, while Lurie recorded the event on audio tape. In 1999 June Helm donated the audio tapes and photographs to the NWT Archives. Working with the original recordings, John B. Zoe of the then Dogrib Treaty 11 Council, and the NWT Archives re-recorded the songs in CD format. The CD was produced by the Dogrib Treaty 11 Council and sponsored by Nishi-Khon/SNC Lavalin Ltd.
The original recordings were made on a Butoba MT5 reel to reel recorder, and the analog master tapes were transferred to a ‘Digidesign Protools’ digital audio workstation at the Northwest Territories Archives in 1999. As Helm indicates in her note, often singers would only sing a chant once before another was begun. In order to preserve these single chants, loops were made to extend their length. As these are the only known recordings of many of these chants, it was important to loop and extend them so that they may be included in the final package. The original versions have been preserved in an unedited format, and can be reviewed at the Northwest Territories Archives (June Helm/N-2003-037). The original Sound Room was developed in cooperation with the Treaty 11 Council and was revamped in 2013.
As recorded by June Helm
In May of 1864, a large camp of newly-baptized Dogrib held "a great dance of farewell." As the witnessing missionary Emile Petitot explained, the families were soon going to separate until the following fall. The people shoveled away the snow to form a vast ring, built a great fire in the middle, and began to dance at five o'clock in the afternoon. "They danced all the night," wrote Petitot, "a night without darkness, crying out 'Eh! Ah! Eh!' fit to make the rocks tremble."
Ninety-eight years later, the songs of dancing Dogribs were recorded at the yearly ingathering of the Dogrib people at Rae in the Northwest Territories of Canada. The occasion was Treaty Time in early July of 1962. Treaty Time begins each year when Canadian government representatives meet with the Dene (Indian) peoples of the Northwest Territories at each fort to air Government-Indian issues and pay "Treaty money" to each Dene. The formal business of Treaty concluded, the enjoyments of Treaty Time begin for the people.
At Rae in 1962, first there was the feast in the early evening in which all joined. Then the dancing began and lasted until about six in the morning. In the next three days there were two hand games lasting several hours, followed by night-long dancing. The combination of chanting-drumming at the hand games and the all-night singing with the dancing took its toll on several of the enthusiastic men. They were so hoarse that they could barely speak above a whisper by the time the celebrations were over.
The 1962 Treaty festivities were one of the last years when the Dogrib people who gathered at Rae sang as they danced in the open air on the pink granite rock at Rae. Soon the reverberating walls of a new community dance hall was to blur the sound of the singing voices; the people now dance and sing inside during their celebrations. The music in this collection is the sound of their voices raised out in the twilight-night.
There are two styles of traditional Dogrib dancing music: one kind is sung with accompanying drums; the other kind is sung purely a cappella, no instrumental accompaniment at all. In English, the dancing to the a cappella music is called "tea dance." In the 1962 festivities, the drum dancing served only as a short starter for the tea dancing that then continued throughout the night.
In drum dancing, a few men stand together and sing to their beat of peeled sticks on shallow "tambourine" drums. The drum heads are covered with caribou rawhide; strings of twisted sinew (babiche) across the head add a distinctive buzz to the drumming. Dancers form a tight circle, front to back, men and women mixed as one after another person breaks into the circle.
The tea dance, far favored over the drum dance in those days, has as its only accompaniment the voice of the dancers. One Dogrib estimated that there are probably twenty-five or more separate songs for tea dances. "Leadership" in singing is spontaneous, the man with the loudest and clearest voice begins a new song, sometimes drowning out an alternate choice that someone else might start, and the rest of the dancers pick it up. When, after many minutes, the voices of singers flag and falter, another man with renewed strength begins another song.
In the tea dance men and women form an inward-facing circle, crowding tightly, shoulder-to-shoulder, as more and more dancers join the expanding circle. The tea dance circle moves clockwise, as does the drum dance circle. Well over a hundred persons may at times be on the tea dance circle. All the men are singing as they dance, which accounts for the richness of the chorus.
Imbedded in the chanting and pulsations of the songs, snatches of Dogrib words express the pleasure of singing and dancing together. "Sing good, people, do good!", "Good dancing, hurry-up!"
Helm & Lurie
June Helm was professor emerita and F. Wendell Miller Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the University of Iowa. Her nearly 50 years of anthropological research in the Mackenzie Valley began in 1951 in Jean Marie River, and went on to include 25 years of work in the Dogrib communities. Her many publications on northern anthropology include several books, including: The Lynx Point People: Dynamics of a Northern Athapaskan Band (1961), The Subsistence Economy of the Dogrib Indians of Lac La Martre in the Mackenzie District of the Northwest Territories (1961, with Nancy O. Lurie), The Dogrib Hand Game (1966, with Nancy O. Lurie), Prophecy and Power Among the Dogrib Indians (1994). She was also editor of Subarctic, volume 6 of the Handbook of North American Indians (1981). The People of Denendeh: Ethnohistory of the Indians of Canada’s Northwest Territories (2000) surveys 50 years of her contributions to northern anthropology. In the 1970s she served as advisor to the Indian Brotherhood (later the Dene Nation) and as consultant to the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry. Dr. Helm retired from active university teaching in December, 1999, and continued to pursue research on northern themes. In 1997 Dr. Helm was instrumental in having Bear Lake Chief’s caribou-skin lodge returned to the Northwest Territories. She donated her own files, correspondence, photographs, ethnographic audio tapes and ethnographic objects to the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre and Northwest Territories Archives. Dr. Helm passed away in February of 2004.
Nancy O. Lurie was curator emeritus of Anthropology with the Milwaukee Public Museum, and worked as a research partner with June Helm in the Dogrib communities in 1959, 1962, and 1967. Lurie conducted numerous research projects and other scholarly activities, including an appointment by the governor to the State of Wisconsin Historic Preservation Review Board and serving on several National Endowment for the Humanities committees and panels. Lurie has been awarded more than twenty grants to conduct research and has also been the recipient of many awards and honors, including the Anisfield-Wolf Award sponsored by the Saturday Review, the William B. Hesseltine Award from the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, and an honorary doctorate of humanities from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She has authored or co-authored more than 110 books, articles, and monographs, including Mountain Wolf Woman (1961) and, with co-author Stuart Levine, The American Indian Today (1968). Dr. Lurie passed away in 2017.
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