Dene language groups

On the left, Tatânga Mânî [Chief Walking Buffalo] [George McLean] is in his traditional First Nation regalia on a horse. In the centre, Iggi and a girl engage in a “kunik,” a traditional greeting in Inuit culture. On the right, Maxime Marion, a Métis guide, holds a rifle. In the background, there is a map of Upper and Lower Canada, and text from the Red River Settlement collection.

This blog is part of our Nations to Nations: Indigenous Voices at Library and Archives Canada series. To read this blog post in Denesųłiné, visit the e-book.

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By Angela Code

The Dene (also known as Athabascan, Athabaskan, Athapascan or Athapaskan peoples) are among the largest group of Indigenous peoples in North America. Their traditional territories expand all along the northern and western regions of the continent, covering a total area of about 4,022,000 square kilometres. There are approximately 48 distinct Dene languages and various dialects. Dene, Eyak and Tlingit are subdivisions under the Na-Dene Language Family. Haida was also considered to be a part of this language family, but it is now determined to be a language isolate (not connected to other languages). In 2008, a number of linguists supported a proposal connecting Na-Dene to the Yeniseian languages of central Siberia, which further broadens the language family into Na Dene-Yeniseian.

Dene languages are categorized into three groups: Northern, Pacific Coast and Southern.

Black-and-white photograph from an elevated view showing a large group of people standing together in an elongated circular formation in the middle ground. Behind the group are four white canvas tents, and beyond the tents is a forest.

Treaty dance of members from Tłı̨chǫ (formerly Dogrib) First Nation, Behchokǫ̀ (formerly known as Rae-Edzo or Fort Rae), Northwest Territories, 1937.

The Northern Dene language group ranges across Alaska, Yukon, the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. There are 32 Northern Dene languages: Holikachuk, Ingalik (Degxit’an/Deg Hit’an), Upper Kuskokwim, Koyukon, Tanaina (Dennina/Dena’ina), Ahtna, Tannacross, Upper Tanana, Middle Tanana, Lower Tanana, Gwich’in (Kutchin/Loucheaux), Hän, Northern Tutchone, Southern Tutchone, Kaska, Tagish, Tahltan, Sekani (Tsek’ene), Beaver, Dakelth (Carrier), Shutah (Mountain), Bearlake, Hare, Tłįchǫ Yatiì (Dogrib), Northern Slavey, Southern Slavey, Dëne Sųłiné (Chipewyan), Babine-Witsuwit’en, Tŝilhqot’in (Chilcotin), Nicola, Tsetsaut and Tsuut’ina (Sarcee).

There are nine Pacific Coast Dene languages, originating in Washington, Oregon and northern California. These languages comprise Hupa (Hoopa Chilula), Mattole–Bear River, Wailaki (Eel River), Cahto, Upper Umpqua (Etnemitane), Lower Rogue River (Tututni/Coquille), Upper Rogue River (Galice-Applegate), Tolowa and Kwalhioqua-Clatskanie (Willapa).

Black-and-white photograph of a woman carrying a young boy on her back. The boy is secured by a beaded baby belt that is strapped across the woman’s shoulders. She is wearing a dark shawl with long fringe. The woman is smiling and turning her face toward the boy. Behind them is a one-storey log building with a chimney.

Caroline Kaye (née Robert) carrying her son Selwyn in a beaded baby belt, Teet’lit Zheh (also known as Fort McPherson), Northwest Territories, 1947.

There are seven Southern Dene languages spoken in Utah, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma and northwestern Mexico. These languages are Navajo, Western Apache, Plains Apache, Lipan, Jicarilla, Chiricahua and Mescalero.

Additional Resources:


Angela Code worked as an archivist with the Listen, Hear Our Voices project at Library and Archives Canada.

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