People sure knew how to have a good time back when Mary Jane Cazon was growing up on the land with her parents near Wrigley in the early ‘60s.
Families and friends who’d been long separated would reunite in spring at camps down by the Mackenzie River, to set up camp, fish, tan hides, pick berries and celebrate over the summer.
“Back then, people were getting high off life. Everybody was sober and everybody was so happy,” she says. “Oh goodness, I remember that.”
Cazon, who now works as a Dene Zhatie (South Slavey) translator, says she wants today’s generation of youth to know what that was like, and believes the tradition of sharing Dene love songs is key to making that happen.
A poetic, a cappella music tradition, Dene love songs (ets’ulah) aren’t like the pop ballads you now hear on the radio. Though many profess love between individuals, a great number are more akin to hymns expressing the deep appreciation for the land, water and animals that is rooted in Dene values.
“It’s for everything in nature. The environment. Dene love songs for the wind, for the four seasons, for the returning of spring; the winter song, the returning of the geese, the ducks, the birds; there was a song for the water, the land, for the berries, for the flowers. You name it,” says Cazon, one of the few remaining keepers of the songs in the Northwest Territories.
“When you come to think of it, it’s like a song for everything… All the land. It’s just for every, every thing that you see out there.”
Songs that share love of the land are usually for places where the singer has experienced significant events in his or her life, like this one by Elizabeth Chocolate, sung while cutting up meat in the barren land:
It is very beautiful in the barren land.
Here I am.
As long as we live, we may not have another chance.
It sounds very beautiful.
Others, like the following song written by William Tinqui, is what Cazon would call a “sweetheart” song: “where you’re supposed to be getting together and you separated because it wasn’t meant to be.”
I was with my girlfriend for a while
Then the plane took me away
It sounds just like this doorrrooo
Stay one more night
She told me, stay one more night
The plane took me away
It sounds just like this doorrrooo
Preserving language and values
While Dene love songs are important means of celebration, Elders and academics say the tradition is vital for passing down Dene culture, values and language, as well.
Laura Tutcho of Deline did her Master’s research on ets’ulah, which she calls “the most neglected of the musical expressions of culture, yet one of the oldest traditions for representing kinship links, family legacies, and ties to the land and life on the land.”
As Ethel Blondin-Andrew tells Tutcho in her interviews, “[A] Dene love song can be used to give expression and evocation of a certain emotional or spiritual event. It can be a joyous welcoming, a mournful farewell departure, a worshipping of the land and a giving thanks for what it gives us. All these occasions have their own vocabulary, it all has to be just the right words or the message is lost and awkward. Semantically speaking it is all very specific, clever and 100% appropriate, it is like that Dene have a word for everything.”
In their article, “Musical Expression of the Dene,” Tlicho eductor Lucy Lafferty and ethnomusicologist Elaine Keillor write that the songs are repetitive so children can learn their own language, grow an awareness of the songwriting process, express appreciation for the world, and get a sense of how to live on the land:
“Listening to and learning songs of the land can inculcate enjoyment of the land, increase self-confidence in managing the land, provide understanding of the importance of the land for survival and how all of its creatures are interrelated, engender appreciation for how the Dene obtain food from the land with their technology, furnish knowledge of the importance of being familiar with the land at specific locations, develop skills to be able to survive on the land, and be familiar with the traditional ways of being on the land.”
While many are humorous and performed as a way to tease one another — especially those commonly heard at talent shows across Dene country — there are also Dene love songs that express grief and sadness. Some include stories of historic events or give messages, like where to find caribou. Others were written down as notes to be shared in times apart.
“My mother said my dad used to send her messages when he was way out on the trapline and it took many months to get back,” Cazon says. “Whenever there were trappers going back to the main camp, dad would give a message to them to give it to my mother, and it was always written down. She said it was scribed right into birch bark and rolled up. He used to send these little notes to my mother in syllabics. My mother said she’d look at it and it was just like the song would come into her mind and all of a sudden she’d be looking at the words and start singing it.”
Celebrating, the Dene way
Some of Cazon’s earliest memories are of Dene love songs, sung by her late parents, aunts, uncles and other Elders.
“I remember my aunties had never come together for a very long time, for a couple of winters, and all of a sudden they had all gathered at our campsite. I was about four years old, way down by the river where my parents had a camp, and all of a sudden we had all these boats and all my aunties came by from Fish Lake to visit us,” she recalls.
“My late father built a fire and then after that, they all had tea, bannock, dry meat, moose fat and some fish. After, the women began to gather together in a little setting and started working on their moose hide. As they’re working on their moose hide, they’re stretching it, some are de-hairing, and all of a sudden a song would begin from one of the sisters. It would just go around in a circle and there was be just laughing and laughing; some would be just holding their stomachs and laughing so hard.
“It’s just the way it went, each one of them kind of threw in a different line. It sounded just beautiful. I remember, I used to sit there with my mouth open just watching, the way they sang it. I guess that’s how I picked it up. It’s just a talent I picked up from my aunties and late uncles. Even the men got together and just chant[ed] songs.”
Though Cazon says she was very fortunate to have spent her childhood on the land, those who were forced to attend residential school were separated from their language and culture. Still, work going on in communities to record the songs means they will be preserved for future generations.
“It’s important that our young people get the hang of how their great grandmothers and great grandfathers used to celebrate. It will strengthen our culture and strengthen them, too,” she says.
“All of us are gonna be old. Maybe someday we’re in long-term care and get lonely, then we can fall back on our Dene love songs.”