Dakelh (Carrier)

Dakelh are Dene people of over 10 000 in north-central British Columbia.

Cabins on Saik'uz First Nation, along Nulki Lake, 2006. Saik'uz First Nation is a Dakelh (Carrier Dene) community.
Nadleh Whut
Nadleh Whut'en First Nation (part of the larger Yinka Dene (Carrier) Nation) and Fraser Lake, view from Mt. Fraser, 2006.
Small totem outside Saik'uz First Nation Potlatch House, 2006. Saik'uz First Nation is a Dakelh (Carrier Dene) community.

Dakelh, also known as Carrier, are Dene people of over 10 000 in north-central British Columbia. The Carrier name derives from the former custom of a widow carrying the ashes of her deceased husband in a bag for about a year, at which time a ceremonial distribution of goods released her of the obligation. The name is also an English translation of Aghele, the Sekani name for Dakelh people. They call themselves Dakelh ("people of the land"), and add the suffixes -xwoten, "people of" or -t'en, "people" to village names or locations to refer to specific groups (eg, Tl'azt'en, Wet'suwet'en).

Dakelh territory comprises approximately 76 000 square kilometres in the Interior Plateau region of British Columbia, bounded on the east by the Rocky Mountains, in the north by the Omineca Mountains, and to the west by the Pacific Coast. Carrier winter villages were mainly located at the outlets of lakes or the confluences of rivers, or adjacent to strategic river canyons.

Linguistically the Dakelh are Dene and comprise three major subgroupings based on differences in dialect and culture: Upper Carrier or Babine, located along the Bulkley River and Babine Lake in the Skeena River watershed; Central Carrier in the Stuart Lake and Fraser Lake basins in the Fraser River watershed; and Lower Carrier in the Blackwater River region.

Social Organization

Lower Carrier social organization was based on bilateral kinship groups centred on extended families consisting of brothers, their wives and children, and married sons' families. Each group (known as a sedeku) was associated with a hunting territory and fishing and gathering sites. Upper and Central Carrier had matrilineal descent groups or clans associated with resource-use areas (known as keyoh) and fishing sites. Heads of kinship groups and clans were known as deneza. Potlatches, the ceremonial distribution of goods and food, were held by clans to commemorate deaths, the inheritance of names and other special occasions. Members of each community were connected by extensive kinship ties which served as a framework for the inheritance of traplines and the exchange of goods and services.

Economic Organization

The traditional economy of the Dakelh was based on fishing (especially salmon and lakefish), hunting large and small game (caribou until the mid-1800s, moose after about 1900, bear, marmots and beaver), and gathering (berries and plants). Salmon fishing was carried out by using weirs across river mouths or by gaffing salmon along rivers. The Dakelh used coastal trade routes to exchange hides, dried berries and meats; the routes were known as "Grease Trails" because many of the products traded along these routes were created using fish oils or grease. The Dakelh also had extensive trade ties with neighbouring groups such as the Nuxalk, Gitxsan and Sekani. After the establishment of fur trade posts in the Dakelh area in the early 1800s (eg, Fort St. James at Stuart Lake in 1806), the Dakelh traded salmon and furs to fur-trading companies (North West Company until 1821; the Hudson's Bay Company after 1821). Oblate missionaries established a mission at Stuart Lake in 1873 and discouraged potlatches and other customs. Because of the mission and trading post located at Stuart Lake, Fort St. James became an important centre for seasonal gatherings of Dakelh from throughout the region.

Influences on Dakelh Economy and Population

After the completion of a railway line in the Northern Interior in 1914, the Dakelh became involved in logging and seasonal wage labour while maintaining hunting, trapping and fishing activities. This pattern remains important. A number of changes had an impact on the Dakelh economy and population. By 1911 weirs had been banned from use on salmon streams in the Fraser River and Skeena River watersheds; in 1913-14 rock slides in the Hells Gate section of the Fraser River severely reduced the amount of salmon reaching the Stuart Lake and Fraser Lake area, resulting in increased use of lakefish, hunting and trapping. Diseases such as smallpox and measles in the 1800s and influenza in 1918 reduced the Carrier populations, which reached a low point in the late 1920s. Reserves were allocated in 1871 and in the 1890s.

In the 1980s the westernmost Dakelh groups, the Wet'suwet'en, along with the Gitksan of the Skeena River, went to court for recognition of Aboriginal title in what is known as the Delgamuukw court case (see Indigenous Rights). The Carrier population was over 10 000 in about 17 named bands (1996).

Today there are eight bands governed by the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council, and the Carrier-Chilcotin Tribal Council is comprised of three Dakelh bands and one Tsilhqot'in band. The Canadian census does not separate Babine, Central Carrier, and Southern Carrier speakers and the 2006 census reported approximately 2000 Dakelh language speakers.