Recreating Cultural Literacy: A Dane-zaa Knowledge Perspective

by Garry Oker, MA

Gary Oker is an Executive, Strategic Thinker, Project Planner, Corporate Facilitator, Design Consultant, and Entrepreneur in the art of leadership development. He provides counsel to profit and non-profit organizations who wish to identify strategic processes that incorporate Indigenous design principles with business development frameworks. Oker is a member of Doig River First Nation in Northeast British Columbia.

How do we create experiences that brings out the literacy deeply embedded in nature? How do we create an Indigenous worldview that networks Indigenous knowledge so we might better influence the teachers of our youth? Our global challenge is creating “the future of the past.”

Learning our place in the world through the evolving stories of the universe is the ancient practice of Indigenous people. The elders remind us that we are spiritual beings having earthly experiences. Indigenous thinking links us to the depths of the earth: our knowledge system builds upon thousands of years of life experiences and environmental tradition. Our quest is to understand the sacredness of a tree so we may discover the relationship between a material world and our spiritual consciousness.

The Dane-zaa knowledge worldview requires that we understand seven dimensions. The four directions: south, north, east, and west; the center; the spiritual world; and the under world. This teaching mythology is a study of our unconsciousness spirit. This human interplay between realities is what we call indigenous science. Mapping our mind helps connect and synthesize ideas so we may see the truth of our sacredness.

The act of dream mapping is a ritual that explains the Dane-zaa people’s understanding of our spiritual universe by creating a pathway to spiritual design. Spiritual design details the memory of a spiritual journey. This moose hide drawing on the right is dreamer Charley Yahay’s explanation of that view. Dr. Robin Ridington took that picture in 1966. The drawing below is my own version of the seven dimensions.

Dane-zaa people always look for a good place to camp so they may live well on the land. A good place allows the hunter to see in all directions. A good place includes water, shelter, firewood, and wildlife. A good place is also a sacred place to dream. When we sleep well, we connect to the spiritual wonder of our ancestors’ dreaming traditions. Good places are energy portals that connect us to nature. Such places exist all over the world.  


Disremember To Remember

 It is essential to incorporate thoughts of higher consciousness by remembering the future and waking towards our identity. We together will redefine our roles and rediscover the meaning of the universe. For us, nature has a literacy, which we are called to read. Indigenous people know what to offer the world. But we must awaken our spirits and act upon what we know. We need places to be oral so we may speak the spiritual truth. If the world is shaped by our thoughts, we must better understand the process of unlocking what we know about ourselves.

Aboriginal people need a cultural literacy so we may share our natural gifts. We need sites where we discover our purposes and roles. We must reshape our cultural literacy so we may discover new approaches to life that allow our minds, bodies, and spirits to evolve new thoughts. Such principles should promote common goals and visions. They should improve relationships by aligning them with shared opportunities and processes. Finally, our cultural literacy should empower creative processes and initiatives that include heritage development and inspired innovative workplace culture.

If our thoughts create our world, the world must be integrated to reclaim the holistic designs of nature. We must combine an Indigenous knowledge system with emerging scientific knowledge so we may transform our conscious mind. What would conceptualize cultural literacy disciplines look like if they were to promote mental awareness? To understand this concept, we must understand the information already flowing through a complex system.


Cultural Design Thinking

 Traditional knowledge keepers communicate multi-dimensional stories about the universe. Literacy principles – arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy, archeology, mythology, and psychology – are keys for understanding “Cultural Design Thinking.” For example, we apply arithmetic to evaluate a number of seasonal rounds so we may view a thousand years in one day. Geometry helps us map sacred places by discovering the volumes of spiritual vibrations and how sacred locations relate to each other. Drumbeats use the timing and rhythms of seasonal songs to become active with the land, and astronomy maps the universal sky so we may discover the trail to heaven in time and space. Archeological literacy exhibits how our ancestor’s mythological stories shape our imagination with archetypal characters that teach us to understand our own experiences. Our Dene cultural literacy helps us recognize wise stories that bring happiness.

The Dane-zaa people have a collective long-term memory triggered by the sensory cues of a song, a scent, a flower, an archetypal character, or the shape of a sunrise. These symbolic cues guide us as we travel back in time to see how people behaved when meeting new situations. Many stories tell us how things come about. How was the world created? What happened to the giant animals? Who are Dane-zaa cultural heroes? How did the red fox get its color? And, how do dreamers bring back songs from heaven? Each story challenges our consciousness, jolting us from conclusions too quickly made in the face of uncertainty.


Songs Ahead Of Time

 Our greatest challenge is to seek personal power songs in sacred places. A song waits to help each person discover his or her power. The Dene people shape the world through singing dreamers’ songs so the land can feel needed and continue to provide for us. We align our energy by dancing together in the rhythm of natural cycle to see something greater than ourselves.

We sing songs for people because, as song keepers, we are socially responsible to care for others. That’s our tribal literacy. We have songs for everything – wind, animals, children, women, weather, war and peace. We seek the right songs for each ceremony by remembering the future. Prayer songs are “songs ahead of time.” The songs are sent ahead of people so, when they arrive at their destination, the location is already blessed.

How do songs govern social interactions with sacred places on the land? The birth of songs and relationships becomes nature’s mosaic. Birds, animals, and humans share songs. Nature’s literacy is translated through vibrational drumbeats so we may evaluate when to be act upon the land. These drumbeats can be explained as acoustical engineering to help reduce unwanted noise caused by outside forces. All of nature’s soundscapes are unique. They occur only one time in one place and can never be replicated. For this reason, dreamers’ songs are used to hold the space of spiritual astronomy when mapping the dream world.

I wrote a song called "Rise" for a new sunrise ceremony. The inspiration came from the time the dreamer asks the creator to place the song on the tip of a sunlight beam so when the sunlight awakens the world people would be blessed with dream songs. Rise  is an idea for  early morning inspiration to create new ideas for the day.

You can listen to "Rise" here:

This second recording is an original traditional song composed by dreamer (Makanunatune) in the 1700s. It is performed by The Doig River Drummers, led by elder Tommy Attachie who teaches us to play these old ancient prayer songs.
We play these songs for ceremonies and funerals to help people heal their spirit. Prayer songs are “songs ahead of time.” The songs are sent ahead of people so, when they arrive at their destination, the location is already blessed.  These songs are melodies of the land. They have no words. They are spiritual guide with the intent to connect your spirit to ancient wisdom.

Design of Memory Tree

 The Dane-zaa elder’s have always said we are part of nature, and nothing exists but nature. I always wondered why the elders told stories about thunderbird, spruce tree, and animal? I believe it is their way to teach the symbolic memories of a place. Traditional stories guide our behavior when we enter these places. The lesson is to be quiet so we may hear the beauty of life flow. Dawn is the best time when the chickadee sings.

One famous Dane-zaa legend is of big old spruce tree. Here the thunderbird (Natunna) comes to make babies. It is a sacred place because thunderbird berries grow there. Here also a dreamer asked daylight to help him send his songs to the world. The world is too big he said, help me put a song on the tip of the light beam so when the sunlight hits people they will know. This is why today, when people awake, they are blessed with dream songs.


Nature’s Laws

Our DNA is encoded onto the land. We are constructed with treelike patterns, and the blood that runs through our veins is mostly water. Natural law dictates the flow of energy. When we are close to it we understand its flow. We see the truth of living things. The brain always seeks patterns that make sense. This why it likes music, stories, and smells. A lighting bolt’s flow system for discharging electricity is a tree branch structure. The river basin produces similar architecture, moving water currents from headwaters to mouth. Tree-like patterns emerge in nature because they are effective designs for facilitating energy. The design structures of water systems, river basins, our lungs, and lighting bolts share similar design principles as tree roots. Such similarities are neither random nor accidental. This is why to live in harmony means we must be stewards of the land.

Natural law is the evolving flow of social systems of our land’s cultural language. The psychological foundation of the people is at stake. To be alive is to keep flowing and transforming. Dane-zaa people do this by harvesting the land through seasonal rounds of spring, summer, fall, and winter. The psychological well-being of the people is renewed by going to different areas of the land for medicines and food throughout the year. Visiting burial sites of relatives, going to dance sites, hunting, fishing, picking berries, and walking ancient trails are activities of the land that create the psychological spirit and literacy of the Dane-zaa people.


Intellectual Language

I now understand that the flow of nature makes us come alive. When water flows, it is alive. The same with our blood: when it flows we are alive. To flow, systems must have clear pathways so energy may move through them. This energy flow helps elders find a “good place” where you feel the energy of natural order.

Every culture is a branch of family kinship. What does it mean to be human when you lose a language for seeing the world? Your intellectual wealth is gone. The history we know is stopped when cultural exchange no longer exists, and we are disturbed because we no longer have the wealth that makes us Dene.

 Today we are witnessing the loss of our social, cultural interaction with the land and the language that describes it. Half the world’s indigenous languages are extinct. Our own Dane-zaa language is on the verge of extinction. The beauty and poetry of our language is the literacy of our sacred places. (KEMA ahwhojode) is where we are shown the beauty of tranquility and purity.

(Wholeha ta hada) means everything is alive. This concept describes that the flow of spirit is a movement of relationship to all living things. Our people today still acknowledge this connection by saying “All my relations.” They are talking about spiritual beings at the molecular level. Everything that moves is a flow system. Knowing a good spirit flow is the primary goal of our cultural literacy. When man disrupts nature, nature becomes unnatural and the spirit darkens.

The Dane-zaa dreamer’s code of honor state; “Take only what you need.” To know why things behave as they do, we must recreate a literacy that allows us to see what flows through us, what shapes our structures, and what emerges. Natural law tells us why patterns form which empower us to predict change. We must retain or recreate this literacy so our culture may survive and grow.

Garry Oker