The Yellowknives Dene First Nation recently emailed a notice asking certain news organizations to begin — please — to correctly spell “Dettah,” the name of the largest and one of the oldest of their communities.
Their patience was extraordinary.
Dettah has officially been spelled wrong as “Detah” since 1971.
The community sits on a rocky point along the northeastern shore of Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories, in Northern Canada. It is one of what were at least 27 traditional villages spread out along the shore of the lake from its North Arm to Łutselkʼe, N.W.T., and beyond.
Dettah stands across the bay from Yellowknife. In the winter, approximately five kilometres of ice road connects the two communities. Yellowknife is more widely known, but Dettah is Yellowknife’s much older sibling.
Dettah — T’èɂehdaà in the T’satsąot’inę language — belongs to the Wıìlıìdeh Yellowknives Dene, a people often called Akaitcho, after their legendary leader and warrior Akeh-Cho.
The Yellowknives Dene have occupied the spot for thousands of years, but Dettah, as a settlement with permanent wood structures dates to at least 1795, said Yellowknives Dene community negotiator Fred Sangris.
By then the Yellowknives Dene had made contact with North West Company fur traders near Old Fort Providence, and learned from them how to build log homes around stone hearth fire places.
Officially spelled wrong
The misspelling became official in January 1971, after a name change request by the then-named federal Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. It asked that the village be renamed in accordance with the wishes of the community.
Until then Dettah was, for government officials, the Yellowknife Indian Village.
The document is chock full of errors.
Instead of spelling it Dettah, it was spelled “Detah” in the document, and defined it as “the Dogrib [Tłı̨cho] name for the Yellowknife Indian Village. It means ‘place beside a body of water.'”
But the word “Dettah” has nothing to do with water.
Not only is “Detah” meaningless in T’satsąot’inę, Sangris said the word they were looking for — “Dettah” — is not a Tłı̨cho word.
The final error in the document was noted with a handwritten correction: the location co-ordinates erroneously placed Dettah “out in Yellowknife Bay.”
The error spreads
To be fair, “Dettah” is recognized by the Geographical Names Board of Canada, to be a “variant” spelling for “Detah” — but the variant spelling is how the community spells its own name.
A number of organizations, including Statistics Canada, Environment Canada, the CBC, or anyone who relies on Geographical Names Board of Canada place names database, have persisted in misspelling the community name.
Even Google (mis)spells it “Detah.”
To its credit, the territorial government’s Department of Municipal and Community Affairs has generally persevered in spelling Dettah correctly. Department spokesperson Jay Boast stated in an email that his department was aware of the official spelling, but generally ignored it.
“Over the course of our relationship with the Yellowknives Dene First Nation we have been encouraged to follow the community’s spelling of Dettah using two Ts,” Boast wrote.
Northern News Services, the publisher of several newspapers in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, has also doggedly adhered to the community’s spelling preference.
Name rooted in historical fire
Dettah got its name following an accidental fire in the late 1800s that wiped out most of the 20 or so log homes in the village, and much of the large standing timber that surrounded the community.
A wood structure in the community that escaped the fire stands to this day.
The blaze started after a cooking fire was not properly extinguished by the last community member to leave for the winter hunt in the barrenlands. The devastation was not discovered until community members returned some time in the following March.
After they saw the destruction, the called the spot T’èɂehdaà.
Sangris said T’èɂehdaà means burnt point, or ash point, in T’satsąot’inę.
Its anglicization, Dettah, has two distinct syllables. Sounded out as “Teht-DAH,” it recognizes the distinct T and D sounds in T’èɂehdaà, while simplifying the complexity of T’èɂehdaà’s pronounciation.
It’s important that both Ts be there.
“If we say ‘Detah,’ it doesn’t mean anything,” Sangris said. But if it’s pronounced with the middle T and the D, then the word makes sense — it means burnt point.
“It’s the name of the village … there’s a history there.”
Before the fire, Sangris thinks it may have been called the point, or fish point, on account of how good the fishing is in the area.
How it came to be misspelled
Jackson McDermott, Dene/Cree from Fort Nelson First Nation and former cultural places officer with the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, said it wasn’t uncommon for settlers and explorers at the time to misunderstand what they heard, or not be careful enough about putting the spoken Dene languages they heard into written form.
There was also the general sense that many places had no names until Europeans came along — that the land was undiscovered.
“A lot of the time they viewed a lot of these lands as wilderness, or barren, or the last frontier, or terra nullius,” McDermott said.
“[So] they’d give their own names to things — or they just wouldn’t understand people.”
First Nation used to it
Exactly how the misspelling became official in 1971 — whether it was a misunderstanding, or a clerical error, or some other momentous lapse — is largely moot.
Sarah Carr-Locke, director of culture and heritage for the territorial government, said her department was eager to facilitate an official name change with the Geographical Names Board of Canada. And Jason Snaggs, CEO with the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, said they were working with Carr-Locke to make it happen.
But Sangris said the Yellowknives Dene are accustomed to outsiders — including eminent anthropologists — getting things wrong about their community and history.
Sangris said the community is building a database of more than 300 traditional place names in the Yellowknife area for lakes, rivers and other landmarks. He expects those names will someday be included on official Canadian maps.
“That might take a few years,” he said.
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