Dane-zaa are Dene-speaking people from the Peace River area of BC and Alberta. They were called Beaver by early explorers after a local group, the tsa-dunne, however the people call themselves Dane-zaa ("real people"). The Sekani to the west speak a dialect of the same Dene language and call themselves Dane-zaa. Their neighbours to the north are the Slavey, and to the east are the Dene Tha (variously called Beaver and Slavey). Also to the east are the Cree, who occupied the eastern part of their territory in historic times.

Alexander Mackenzie passed through Dane-zaa territory in 1793 and by 1794 the Northwest Company established a fur-trading post near the present town of Fort St. John. Dane-zaa oral history gives a vivid account of early fur trade history.

Dane-zaa (Beaver) traditional territory.
(courtesy Victor Temprano/Native-Land.ca)

Social System and Early Economy

The Dane-zaa traditionally lived in small nomadic hunting bands of 25-30 people. They came together into larger groups along the Peace River for summer ceremonies at which they sang, danced and played the hand game, a guessing competition between teams of men. Dane-zaa children were sent into the bush on vision quests to gain supernatural power from the animals. Most food came from hunting large game animals: bison in the prairie country near the Peace River, moose in the muskeg and forests, caribou near the mountains, and bears. Before they obtained firearms from fur traders, hunting was often done by groups of people who surrounded animals. These communal hunts were led by religious leaders or prophets known as "Dreamers." Later the Dreamers adopted an indigenous form of Christianity that blended traditional prophecy and Roman Catholic teachings. The first Roman Catholic missionary, Henri Faraud, visited the Dane-zaa in 1858.

The introduction of rifles made individual hunters more efficient. Within 25 years of first contact, hunting to supply furs to the traders led to a decline in game populations, particularly bison, which became extinct in the area by 1900. The Dreamers tried to help their people understand and anticipate the changes brought about by White people. Although most Dane-zaa had converted to Roman Catholicism since the early 1800s many now accept evangelical Protestantism and combine organized religions with traditional beliefs. The Dane-zaa have adapted successfully to the new conditions.

Today, several Dane-zaa bands have built new halls that serve as community centres on their reserves. Bands (referred to as First Nations) as well as individuals manage businesses that serve the oil and gas and timber industries.


The Dane-zaa of Fort St. John signed Treaty No 8 in 1900, formalizing their right to live by hunting and trapping (see Treaties). Their understanding was that the treaty was a peace and sharing agreement between sovereign nations rather than a surrender of title. The Dane-zaa bands continue to negotiate with the federal government regarding treaty lands, entitlements, and the number of Dane-zaa First Nation members.

Many Dane-zaa continue to live on reserves and approximately half of all registered Dane-zaa live off reserve; there are four Dane-zaa reserves in BC and two in Alberta. After a long court case, the former Fort St. John Band was granted the right to negotiate a settlement for the improper transfer of mineral rights to their former reserve land. They have also entered into negotiations with the federal government regarding a shortfall of treaty land entitlement following extensive research to establish the actual number of people when the reserve land was first surveyed and allocated. Much of their former land is developed for farming and petroleum production, but hunting and trapping are still part of the northern part of their territory and are important activities as sources of food and income, and help to maintain a sense of identity.

See also Aboriginal People: Subarctic and general articles under Aboriginal People.