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First Nations and Diamond Mines of the Glittering Northwest Territories

Updated on February 11, 2017
Patty Inglish, MS profile image

A descendant of Mohawk Nation and trained in anthropology, Patty has researched and reported on indigenous peoples for over four decades.

Yellow Knife, Northwest Territories. Diamond mining is active here.
Yellow Knife, Northwest Territories. Diamond mining is active here. | Source

Arctic Circle Diamonds

Some cannot imagine living on the Arctic Circle, but over 42,000 individuals live there in Canada's Northwest Territories.

They enjoy the glittering lakes, the Northern Lights, bright snows in the winter, and city lights every night. Canadians know the capital, Yellowknife, as the Diamond of North America, because workers mine diamonds here.

Hearing that the NWT reaches the Arctic Circle, we might imagine a territory including only glacier fields and white expanses that cause daily snow blindness, but we would be incorrect. We might envision lone igloos set up miles apart, full of fur clad families and packed with sled dogs but again, we would be wrong.

There are no Eskimo here, but the NWT is home to a few First Peoples that have actual ethnic names like the Dene, the Inuvialuit, and the Metis First Peoples or First Nations. With them live people from over 90 other different countries in the NWT.

A whole new world functions above the United States at the top of Canada, and many Americans know nothing of it. What fun to visit there!

Through the NWT Seniors Society, tribal elders and others in the Arctic Ambassadors program greet travelers at the Yellowknife Airport in order to greet them and give them directions and suggestions for visits.

Canada contains six active diamond mines, four of which are all in the Northwest Territories.

NWT Diamond Mines

Ekati NWT:
Ekati Airport (YOA), Fort Smith, Unorganized, NT X0E, Canada

get directions

Diavik, Lac de Gras, NWT:
Diavik Airport, Fort Smith, Unorganized, NT X0E, Canada

get directions

De Beers Snap Lake Mine NWT:
Snap Lake Airport, Fort Smith, Unorganized, NT X0E, Canada

get directions

Kennady Lake North 63°26′04″N 109°11′10″W:
Fort Smith, Unorganized, NT, Canada

get directions

De Beers Gahcho Kue Diamond Mine. Drilling began in 2010.

Yellowknife NWT:
Yellowknife, NT X0E, Canada

get directions

Territory Capital and map reference point.

Average Seasonal Temperatures in the NWT

Temperature C
Temperature F
This 1970 issue the first bear-shaped plate, made to commemorate the NWT Centennial of founding in 1870.
This 1970 issue the first bear-shaped plate, made to commemorate the NWT Centennial of founding in 1870.

NWT Diamond Centre - Mining History of NWT

NWT Diamond Centre

  • 5105-49th Street, Yellowknife NWT

This cultural center presents the history of two large diamond mines, the Diavik and the DeBeers Snap Lake Mines, both of which are 190 miles north of the city. Diamonds were not discovered in NWT until 1990, but have added much to the local economy, along with mining for other minerals, which has a longer history - this includes gold, now in decline, but also uranium and others.

Mining diamonds in the Arctic is different from mining in South Africa diamond mines. The diamond center shows us some of the local geology of NWT, especially that of diamond containing kimberlite deposits (named for a South African town), along with the technologies needed for mining in the cold weather. The process of extracting rough diamonds and creating polished and cut gems is fascinating as it is explained at this museum.

The newest mine in the area is the DeBeers Gacho Kue and First nations in this area north of Yellowknife filled letters at its inception to request adequate measures of environmental protection be ensured in mining operations. Prime importance is the impact of mining on the local caribou herd, which is a large part of indigenous livelihood (Reference: Northern Journal. Meaghan Wohlberg, August 13, 2013).

The Northwest Territories geology holds at least 150 volcanic kimberlite pipes, which are often home to diamonds. These mineral pipes were recorded by geologists in 1997.

A Few Stops on the Ice Road that Connects Diamond Mines

Tibbutt Lake NWT - The DeBeers Mines 63°36′20″N 110°52′00″W:
Fort Smith, Unorganized, NT, Canada

get directions

Dome Lake NWT:
Dome Lake, Fort Smith, Unorganized, NT X0E, Canada

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Maintenance Point

Pellatt Lake NWT:
Pellatt Lake, Fort Smith, Unorganized, NT X0E, Canada

get directions

Jericho Diamond Mine 65°59′50″N 111°28′30″W:
Nunavut X0C, Canada

get directions

The Tibbitt to Contwoyto Winter Road is an ice road in NWT that has been featured on Cable TV in Ice Road Truckers.

Diamond Centre and Visitors Center

NWT Diamond Centre 5105-49th Street, Yellowknife NWT:
5105 49 Street, Yellowknife, NT X1A 1P8, Canada

get directions

Northern Frontier Visitors Centre:
Northern Frontier Visitors Ctr, 4807 49 Street, Yellowknife, NT X1A 3T5, Canada

get directions

NWT Heritage Center:
Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, 4750 48 Street, Yellowknife, NT X0E, Canada

get directions

Tipis and Northern Lights at Aurora Village, Yellowknife

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Notice the white quest tipis in the background,. This is one of the famous tours in southern NWT.Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre: Aboriginal watercraft.
Notice the white quest tipis in the background,. This is one of the famous tours in southern NWT.
Notice the white quest tipis in the background,. This is one of the famous tours in southern NWT. | Source
Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre: Aboriginal watercraft.
Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre: Aboriginal watercraft. | Source

First Nations of NWT

Canada's agency fo First Nations counts at least 26 Aboriginal Peoples in the NWT.

The First Nations of the Northwest Territories are very well organized in democratic governments in towns that have economic development agencies, cultural and arts institutes, museums, festivals, recreation, and all manner of things found in large cities in Canada and the USA.

Yellowknife is growing. Between 2011 and 2014, the population increased from just over 19,000 to 23,000 individuals.

Certainly not a colony of a few igloos, the NWT is home to people from 90 different countries and has 11 official languages for 43,000 people, compared to the USA's one official language for 319,200,000 (October 20, 2014).

The languages spoken by the First Nations of NWT include Cree, Dene, Inuktitut, and Ojibway, as recorded for the 201 Canadian Census, but other indigenous languages are found in the MWT as well.

Historically, the five separate Tribal Groups in the NWT that signed a treaty with Canada in 1970 were: the Dogrib, Chipewyan, Southern Slavey ("slaves of the Cree"), Northern Slavey and Loucheux. They became the Dene Nation in 1975. The umbrella Dene Peoples in NWT include are named for their language dialects: Akaitcho, Dehcho, Gwitch'in, Sahtu and Tlicho, all of which became official languages of the NWT in 1990.

The Metis People incorporated as an official group in 1972. These are individuals that are have descended largely from intermarriage of Dene Nation peoples and European settlers in the NWT. They are an incorporated First Nation of their own.

Canada 2011 Census of Aboriginals in NWT

Region Number, from North to South
Number of Aboriginals
Total Population in 2011

Source: Statistics Canada

Aboriginal Communities

Akaitcho Territory Government of First Nations

  • Deninu Kue First Nation - Fort Resolution
  • Lutsel K'e Dene First Nation - Lutselk'e
  • Salt River First Nation Reserve #195 - Fort Smith
  • Smith Landing First Nation - Fort Smith
  • Yellowknives Dene First Nations of Dettah and N'Dilo

Deh Cho People of Eleven Nations and Bands

  1. Fort Providence Deh Gah Gotie Dene Band,
  2. Fort Providence Metis Nation,
  3. Fort Simpson Liidlii Kue First Nation,
  4. Fort Simpson Metis Nation,
  5. West Point First Nation,
  6. Jean Marie River First Nation,
  7. Ka’a'gee Tu First Nation,
  8. Nahanni Butte Dean Band,
  9. Trout Lake's Sambaa K’e Dene Band,
  10. Tulita's Begaa Deh Shuh Tah Got’ie, and
  11. Wrigley's Pehdzeh Ki First Nation.

Dene Nation - Largest Group in NWT

  • Sahtu Secretariat Incorporated - Includes seven Sahtu land corporations four Dene land corporations and three Métis land corporations since June 1994. Its five communities include Collvile Lake, Deline (The Birthplace of Hockey, with a well developed tourism program), Fort Good Hope, Norman Wells, and Tulit'a. See more about the Dene Nation further below.
  • Sahtú Dene people are often found to be related to the Hare/Hare-skin and Gwich’in groups living in NWT, Yukon Territories, and Alaska.

Gwich’in Tribal Council in Beaufort Delta, Democratic Govt. Founded 1992

This group is a permanent member of the Arctic Council in partnership with Gwich'in groups in Alaska and the Yukon Territory. The Arctic Council is an international group founded in 1996 to promote cooperation among and the rights of Circumpolar Nations around the Arctic Circle (60° N. Latitude). Besides Indigenous Peoples and other northern nations, Canada and the USA are members.

  • Gwichya Gwich'in Council - Tsiigehtchic
  • Tetlit Gwich'in Council - Fort McPherson, miles above the Arctic Circle and near the Yukon Border.
  • Ehdiitat Gwich'in Council - Aklavik, Mackenzie Delta
  • Nihtat Gwich'in Council - Inuvik, Makenzie River

Tlicho Government - See The Tlicho History Project (1921 - Present):

  • Behchokǫ̀ - Located in Rae and Edzo (Rae's suburb)

Accessible only by air except for months in which an ice road functions well and connects with Highway 3:

  • Gamètì, Wekweètì, and Whatì

Inuvialuit, Inuit Region

  • Paulatuk, Sachs Harbour, Tuktoyaktuk, and Ulukhaktok

Additional First Nations

  • Enterprise Community
  • North Slavey (also home of the Hare-skin People) and South Slavey Métis Alliances
  • Katl'odeeche First Nation or Hay River Dene Reserve

Major Communities on the Map

On the map below, notice that a few communities are far above the Arctic Circle, while most others are in the southern region. The large Dene community in Deline is between the clusters and still above the Arctic Circle. The many forts were small communities and trading posts in the late 1700s and early 1800s.

Some Aboriginal Communities in the NWT

Inuvik NWT:
Inuvik, NT X0E, Canada

get directions

Inuit and Qwich'in populations predominate.

Fort McPherson NWT:
Fort McPherson, NT X0E, Canada

get directions

Tsiigehtchic, NT X0E, Canada

get directions

Deline NWT:
Déline, NT X0E, Canada

get directions

Located on Great Bear Lake, with many tourist opportunities.

Fort Simpson:
Fort Simpson, NT X0E, Canada

get directions

Fort Providence:
Fort Providence, NT X0E, Canada

get directions

Rae NWT:
Rae, NT X0E, Canada

get directions

Akaitcho NWT:
Akaitcho Bay, Fort Smith, Unorganized, NT X0E, Canada

get directions

Fort Resolution:
Fort Resolution, NT X0E, Canada

get directions

Fort Smith NWT:
Fort Smith, NT, Canada

get directions

Deline, NWT in winter, on the banks of Great Bear Lake.
Deline, NWT in winter, on the banks of Great Bear Lake. | Source

The Dene Nation at Deline NWT and the Northwest Passage

Deline is pronounced "day (long a) - li (short i) - neh."

Deline officially claims the invention of the Canadian National Sport of Hockey. It is also home to the biggest lake trouts in the world, and is also the only community on the western shore of Great Bear Lake (see the accompanying map), named for Nanook. Air access is the only option for traveling to and from Deline, so airports are well maintained.

Deline is a community of Sahtu Dene and Metis Nation Peoples who speak a North Slavey language or dialect of the Dene language, along with English.They operate many travel related business and enjoy having visitors from all over the world.

Hockey Invented Out of Boredom

It is well known that during the winter of 1825 - 1826, above the Arctic Circle in Deline, Sir John Franklin and his crew searched for the Northwest Passage. Today, enough ice has melted that the passages are visible and used by freighters.

The Franklin crew stayed the winter among the Aboriginals at a Hudson’s Bay outpost called Fort Franklin for his good will toward the peoples in NWT. His men had brought ice skates with them and had always loved field hockey. Thus, the Franklin crew combined the two on the thick ice of an Arctic winter, not realizing that they were making history.

Today's Dene People say this about that event:

“The elders we knew . . . they didn’t say 'hockey' or 'skating' - they didn’t know what it was. But they said they saw these guys flying across the ice like they were floating. That’s how they would express it,” -- Morris Neyelle, Elder of the Dene in Deline. (Reference:

B. Dene Adventures is a Traditional Dene Cultural Camp business which teaches the Dene way of life, with many package and day-tours available - fishing, Aurora Borealis viewing, etc.

At the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, Dene Nation hosted "Dene Nation Day" as part of its people's 40th Year Celebration, 1970 - 2010.

Deline , the Only Village on Great Bear Lake

Deline NWT:
Déline, NT X0E, Canada

get directions

Great Bear Lake, Canada:
Great Bear Lake, Northwest Territories X0E, Canada

get directions

The Inuit People have lived in Siberia, Alaska, Northern Canada, Greenland and even Iceland, where Inuit DNA of the past was recently found.

Inuits in NWT and Nunavut and Nanook the Bear

Inuit Peoples live in parts of NWT that extend into the next territory to the east, Nunavut. Most live more modern lives that their ancestors did in the time of igloo communities, but plenty of snowshoes, sled dogs, and hunting can still be seen.

The Inuit population is larger in Nunavut than in NWT, but in this far north region, most of the population is Aboriginal.

Filmmakers made Nanook of the North in the early 1020s as a documentary of Inuit lives. It was not totally a reality film, but actors were Inuits and scenes that were staged gave an accurate view of general life. A cutaway igloo, for example, was a very good idea for showing the inside of a dwelling.

Nanook the Great Bear

Nanook is a founding power animal in the history of the people of the far Canadian north. The bear needed to give permission for hunters to slay bears for their livelihood. This included food, clothing, blankets, and trade. Each approved hunter was worthy - a good steward of nature.

The Great Bear can be seen in indigenous artworks, as it can in Western Canada on carved cedar poles and in paintings on longhouses. The poles are considered people that are telling stories from the beginning of each clan's founding. The Great Bear Nanook is a founder of the people in the far north of Canada.

The First Documentary

In 1989, "Nanook of the North" was one of the first films selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. It was declared "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

Cultural Anthropology and Entertainment in the World's First Documentary

Nanook of the North (The Criterion Collection)
Nanook of the North (The Criterion Collection)
This is the Director's Cut. In this tremendous 1922 silent film documentary, the Inuit hunter Nanook and his family survive the harsh winter conditions of Canada's Hudson Bay area. The director employed Inuit actors who were descendants of the ancient people who lived their lives in the outdoors near the Arctic Circle and who themselves continued to live there.

Additional Sources

  • Alison K. Brown. First Nations, Museums, Narrations: Stories of the 1929 Franklin Motor Expedition to the Canadian Prairies. UBC Press. 2014.
  • Helen Dwyer and ‎Michael Burgan. Inuit History and Culture. Gareth Stevens Publishing. 2012
  • Historical Canada: The Canadian Encyclopedia.
  • Bruce W. Hodgins and ‎Gwyneth Hoyle. Canoeing North Into the Unknown: A Record of River Travel, 1874 to 1974. Dundurn Press. 1997
  • Ordinances of the Northwest Territories, Canada. 1898.
  • Perseus Books Group. First Nations in the Northwest Territories. 2010

© 2014 Patty Inglish MS


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