Northwest Territories — History and Culture
With nearly a dozen official languages, more than half a dozen First Nations groups, and 33 scattered communities, the Northwest Territories has long incorporated a diverse mix of people into its rich culture. Each of the ethnic groups within the Northwest Territories has its own proud musical, artistic, and religious traditions.
The Dene are among the Northwest Territories’ earliest known inhabitants, followed by the Inuit, Inuvialuit’s ancestors about 4,000 years ago and the Gwitch’in, who arrived from the northwest coast about 1,000 years ago. Although the British claimed the present-day Northwest Territories as part of the vast Rupert’s Land, the first permanent European residents did not arrive until the late 1700’s.
After European fur traders set up their first trading posts, missionaries and explorers soon followed to establish schools and trade with First Nations groups. One of these missionaries, Father Émile-Fortuné Petitot, became a renowned artist and collector of several First Nations legends. The painted murals inside Fort Good Hope’s Church of Our Lady of Good Hope, an official national historic site, became Father Petitot’s most famous masterpieces.
Although the Northwest Territories did not become a Canadian province in 1867, they did become part of the new nation. At the time, the Northwest Territories encompassed present-day Saskatchewan, Alberta, Yukon, and Nunavut, as well as large parts of Labrador, British Columbia, northern Ontario, and northern Québec. Most of this gigantic land mass was uninhabited still.
The Northwest Territories did receive a population boost following the 1885 North-West Rebellion that ended with the hanging of Louis Riel. Several Métis fled Manitoba and headed north after the controversy, and many of their descendants still live in the Northwest Territories today. Over 12,000 Métis and First Nations artifacts are exhibited at the Northern Life Museum and Cultural Centre (110 King Street, Fort Smith).
Well over a century after Alexander Mackenzie first discovered oil near Norman Wells in 1789, Imperial Oil arranged the first air excursion to the Northwest Territories in 1921. In 1930, radium was found at Great Bear Lake, while a 1934 gold strike resulted in the establishment of Yellowknife, the current Northwest Territories capital.
Travel through the Northwest Territories became much easier after the 1979 opening of the Dempster Highway was constructed on a former dog sled trail as the country’s only year-round road north of the Arctic Circle. In 1984, the Inuvialuit Final Agreement became northern Canada’s first successful First Nations land claim, followed by similar claims by the Sahtu, Gwich’in, and Tlicho in later years.
In 1998, the Ekati Diamond Mine became the first mine on the continent to extract these precious gems. Two more diamond mines, Diavik and Snap Lake, soon followed suit, helping the Northwest Territories enjoy another boom during its tumultuous history. Learn more about this fascinating area at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre (4750 48 Street, Yellowknife), the official Northwest Territories museum.
Arts and crafts are an important part of most Northwest Territories cultures. Baskets made from birch bark, intricate soapstone carvings, and elaborate porcupine quill work are among the most popular souvenirs. Although shops selling most of these handmade items are situated in most of the larger Northwest Territories communities, many smaller villages also have their own craft specialties. Inuvik’s Great Northern Arts Festival is merely the largest of the many summer arts festivals held throughout the Northwest Territories.
Music is equally important in the region, from the sacred prayer songs following Dene tea dances to the raucous fiddling imported from Scotland, Ireland, and other parts of Canada. Drumming plays an especially significant part in Inuvialuit culture, where a constant drumbeat plays during storytelling, hunting, and games. Visitors can hear all of these types of music during Yellowknife’s lively Folk on the Rocks festival.