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Cree Burn Lake

Cree Burn Lake is an area nestled in northeastern Alberta. It is an area filled with archeological evidence and oral history that potentially hold clues to unlocking the mystery of the Dene’s connection to the land since time immemorial. Emile Petitot, who was a Catholic priest, Oblate of Mary Immaculate, explorer, and scholar, recorded an oral tradition from the Dene that was told to him on his explorations of the Athabasca and MacKenzie Valleys:

In the time of giants, "He Whose Head Sweeps the Sky," Yakke-elt’ini, used to wander by the Artic Ocean. One day he met another giant whose name was Bettsinuli and they engaged in a fierce fight. Bettsinuli was the stronger of the two and would surely have won, but "He Whose Head Sweeps the Sky" was saved by a Dene man, whom he was protecting, who cut the back of Bettsinuli’s ankle with an ax made of a giant beaver’s tooth. The bad giant fell backwards in to the sea in such a manner that his feet lay in the West and his head rested in our own country. His head reached the area around Cold Lake, and it is for this reason the Dene of these parts call themselves Thi-lan-ottine, "the people of the end of the head."

The giant’s body became a huge mountain, stretched out as it was, and, in time, it became the natural route of migration for the caribou.1

Cree Burn Lake is located in the head area of the fallen great giant. In 1999, it was designated as a Provincial Historical Site. "The site is also important to local Chiewayan, Cree and Métis residents, as it documents their own pre-contact history as direst descendants of the people who arrived later in the area" (The Gathering Place, 13). It is a site filled with oral and archaeological history that traces thousands of years. It provides a foundation in learning how the Dene and related Athapaskan speaking peoples came to exist in this location. The Dene named this place Ena k’ering k’a, which means Enemy Burnlake or Stranger Burnlake. The name possibly comes from around the time that the Cree first acquired guns and used them in war.

According to a Dene Elder recorded by Harvey Scanie the story of Cree Burn Lake is about trade, war and shame:

Ena K’ering K’a Tuwe… Anyway, I guess what had happened according to the stories that I heard, when the fur trading came in, the Cree people got the guns first and at the time they say that there were a lot of people around here that used to trade, come here to trade, and that it was a nice place. Many Dene people were slaughtered, except for a little girl who was captured by the Cree … While that was happening over there, they say the Cree people came back here and went to that lake that had steep banks down there, and they made a big fire. They say, the Elder was telling me, the People could see the glow from the fire at night from a long ways, they say. Those people were jumping into that fire, committing suicide because they felt ashamed of what they had done in the region. So that is how it got its name, they say that the lake got its name, Ena K’ering K’a Tuwe, Cree Burn Lake (Oral history recorded by Harvey Scanie). 2

In addition to Aboriginal oral history, Cree Burn Lake contains a vast amount of archaeological evidence about the first human activity in the area of northern Alberta. The location is said to have developed into an historic lake as a result of glacial melt. Beaver River Sandstone is found in this area. This is an important substance used to make tools that had a sharp edge. Artifacts containing Beaver River Sandstone are found throughout Alberta, demonstrating Cree Burn Lake’s connection to trade routes that existed prior to contact. In addition, leaf-shaped points have been found at the site. Leaf-shaped tools came into popularity about 8,000 years ago.

Cree Burn Lake is known as a gathering place for the Cree and Dene groups. Prior to contact the Cree and Dene had a social structure that was composed of bands and extended family groups that did not travel together year-round. They used the Cree Burn Lake area as a summer meeting place for trade, family reunions, marriages, and spiritual ceremonies. Currently, Cree Burn Lake continues to be used for gatherings.

Historically, Cree Burn Lake is known as being the location where the first recordings of Slave Woman by James Knight occurred. He came across a Dene woman whom he called Slave Woman. Oral tradition says that she is the young girl who was kidnapped by the Cree during the confrontation. When she returned to this area as a grown woman, she met the Factor of York Fort, James Knight. She passed away in 1717.

Recognizing the importance of Cree Burn Lake as a gathering place for Aboriginal people in the immediate and surrounding area, Peter Pond of the Northwest Company built the first fur-trading fort in Alberta near Cree Burn Lake in 1778.


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