The Dene Nation have historically inhabited central and northwestern Canada throughout the Mackenzie Delta, west into Alaska, east into Nunavut and south into the prairies. Their homeland is referred to as Denendeh, meaning "the Creator's Spirit flows through this Land." Dene, meaning "the people," are part of the Dene (Athapaskan) linguistic group, the largest linguistic group in North America (see Aboriginal Languages of Canada). The Dene Nation comprises the Tlicho, Denesuline, Gwich'in and the South Slavey and K'asho Got'ine (North Slavey).

The Dene Nation (prior to 1978 the Indian Brotherhood of the Northwest Territories) is the political organization that was established in 1970 to represent the Dene, or northern Athapaskan-speaking peoples and their descendants, of Denendeh, which includes the Mackenzie River valley and the Barren Grounds in the NWT, in the settlement of outstanding land and governance issues with the government of Canada.

The organization evolved in response to long-standing concerns over the written terms found in the federal government's versions of Treaties 8 and 11 signed with the Dene in 1899-1900 and 1921-22 respectively. This concern led soon after incorporation to the filing of a caveat (or legal warning to third parties) respecting continued Dene interests in lands described in these treaties. This caveat (the so-called Paulette caveat) was challenged, but in 1973 Mr Justice W. Morrow of the Supreme Court of the NWT found that certain Aboriginal rights continued to exist. Although this judgement was subsequently overturned by the appeal court on technical grounds, it led the federal government to accept that further negotiations on the Dene interests were necessary.

The Dene Nation consistently held that Aboriginal Rights negotiations were essentially over the establishment of a political relationship between the Dene and the Canadian state: a view that was underscored by the wording on self-determination in the Dene Declaration (1975), in the preamble to a proposed Agreement-in-Principle (1976) and in evidence led at the Berger hearings on a proposed Mackenzie Valley Pipeline (1975-77). Incompatibility between this position and that of the federal government has been an ongoing concern since that time.

Land Issues

In 1981, the federal government and the Dene worked to negotiate an agreement with respect to nonpolitical aspects of the outstanding land issues. The government suspended negotiations with them after a resolution insisting that Aboriginal and treaty rights be affirmed in the final agreement was passed at the annual Dene Assembly in 1990. An agreement with terms similar to those negotiated in that final agreement was subsequently reached with some regions of Denendeh.

The Dene Nation has also been engaged in programs concerning Dene health, education, community development, legal issues, land and resource development and communications. The first president (now known as National Chief) of the Dene Nation was Mona Jacobs of Fort Smith in the NWT. Subsequently, Roy Daniels, James Wah-Shee, Georges Erasmus, Stephen Kakfwi and Bill Erasmus have held the senior executive position.

See also Land Claims; Aboriginal People: Political Organization and Activism.