The first inhabitants of today’s Northwest Territories were the Dene. Ancestors of today’s Dene were small bands of hunters who followed migrating caribou and other animals into areas near Great Slave Lake, Great Bear Lake and along the Mackenzie River for thousands of years. Today, there are a number of tribal groups within the larger Dene group living in communities along the Mackenzie River and near Great Slave and Great Bear Lake. These groups are the Chipewyan, Dogrib, Yellowknives, South Slavey, North Slavey, Gwich'in and Sahtu Dene.
The Inuvialuit, related to the Inuit of Nunavut and the Inupiat of Alaska,moved into the northern section of the Northwest Territories several hundred years ago. The homeland of the Inuvialuit stretches from the Alaskan border east to Amundsen Gulf and the western edge of the Canadian Arctic Islands. It is a land of rolling tundra and rocky mountains, divided by the Mackenzie River Delta.
The Métis, who were mainly descendants of French or French-Canadian men and Ojibwa or Cree women, worked as canoe men and packers for the Hudson’s Bay and Northwest Companies in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Serving as interpreters, managers, traders, guides and hunters, the Métis, were crucial to the survival of fur traders as they supplied them with business as well as food. The traditions and cultures of the Dene, Inuvialuit, and Métis, remain a major part of life in the Northwest Territories today. Aboriginal people make up about half of the population.
The original people of the south shore and East Arm of Great Slave Lake were a large and powerful band, active in the fur trade. Their Chief, Akaitcho, rescued survivors of the first Franklin Expedition in 1823. It was Franklin who named them Yellowknives, for the copper tools they carried.
The Dogrib occupy traditional territory between Great Slave and Great Bear Lake, living primarily in the communities of Rae-Edzo, Snare Lake, Wha Ti, Rae Lakes and Dettah. Their name derives from a legend that says their ancestor was a powerful dog-man.
The Chipewyan were middlemen in the fur-trade era, trading with the Dene, the Cree and the English who built forts on Hudson Bay. Their famous leader, Matonabbee, led Samuel Hearne to the mouth of the Coppermine River. Many still live in the Athabasca region of Alberta and communities in the Northwest Territories such as Fort Smith, Fort Resolution and Lutselk'e.
Members of this group live mainly in southern Northwest Territories, on the Hay River Reserve in the South Slave Region and the communities of the upper Mackenzie or Deh Cho Region, including Fort Providence, Fort Simpson, Fort Liard, Trout Lake, Nahanni Butte, Kakisa, Jean Marie River and Wrigley. Many still choose to live the traditional way by hunting and fishing for a living.
Members of this group often make their homes in the communities of Deline, Tulit'a, Fort Good Hope, Colville Lake and Norman Wells. Speakers of North Slavey include the Hare, Mountain and Sahtu Dene groups concentrated west and north of Great Bear Lake, in the Sahtu Region.
The people of the lower Mackenzie Valley have long hunted in the Mackenzie Delta and western mountains. They are related to Gwich'in groups in Yukon and Alaska and long ago adopted some of the customs of the coastal Tlingit with whom they traded.
The people of the western Arctic coast speak Inuvialuktun, which is an Alaskan version of the circumpolar language, Inuktitut. They moved to the Northwest Territories from farther west when their predecessors, the beluga-hunting Mackenzie Inuit, were wiped out by disease. Today's Inuvialuit live in Inuvik, Tuktoyaktuk, Paulatuk, Aklavik, Sachs Harbour and Holman.
Many Northerners of mixed heritage descend from Cree/French families of the fur-trade era. Like their French-Canadian fathers, Métis became voyageurs, and when they settled in the Northwest Territories, they became fur-trade middlemen, post managers and river pilots. Other northern Métis have Scottish or English ancestors who came north with the Hudson's Bay company. A new wave of southern Métis came to the Northwest Territories in the 1940s and 1950s and settled in Hay River and Fort Smith.