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Hidden cemetery near Burwash Point
Burial ground holds Dene victims of 1928 flu outbreak

Evan Kiyoshi French
Northern News Services
Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Surrounded by a picket fence on Yellowknife Bay, across from the houseboats and south of Burwash Point, a seldom-visited cemetery tells the story of how influenza struck the territory in 1928.

NNSL photo/graphic

The roof of an old house marks the spot south of Burwash Point where a Dene village once stood - from sometime in the 1800s to about 1950. A cemetery near the old village is believed to hold the remains of villagers who perished during a flu-outbreak in 1928. - photo courtesy of Randy Freeman

Randy Freeman - traditional specialist for the Yellowknives Dene First Nation (YKDFN) - said the overgrown burial ground across the bay is filled with Dene victims of a flu outbreak in the late 1920s - an epidemic estimated to have killed more than a third of the Dene and Inuvialuit living in the territory at that time.

"There used to be a cross on the shoreline marking it, but it was struck by lighting in the 1930s," said Freeman, adding it's been several years since he's visited the site.

"Up until very recently people were saying they could still see the remains of the cross but I couldn't find it when I was there," he said. "Maybe it's rotted away completely."

Freeman said crosses like the one that used to stand near Burwash Point used to be found all around the bay and out toward old Fort Providence - built in 1789. They helped boaters to find burial sites along the shoreline and in many instances those people were the victims of the 1928 flu.

Influenza had already killed millions during the 1918 Spanish flu outbreak, said Freeman. However, the limitations of travel at the time meant those infected and travelling North would show symptoms before they arrived and could be diverted. But by 1928 railways crisscrossing the continent put the territory within range of the flu.

"Since in 1918, the flu never got this far, the Dene and other people in the territory didn't have the antibodies to fight it. Some estimate that as many as half of the Dene and Inuvialuit died. It was probably more like a third," said Freeman.

Freeman said the virus spread from Chicago to Edmonton making the final leg to Yellowknife aboard the paddle steamer SS Distributor.

Frederick Banting - a Canadian physician and Nobel Prize laureate credited with being the first person to use insulin on humans - was in the territory during the 1928 outbreak on a painting expedition with Group of Seven painter A.Y. Jackson. They recorded the horrific effects of the flu on aboriginal populations, said Freeman.

"When they arrived (in a Dene village) there were people dead all over the place," he said.

Freeman said it's difficult to know exactly how many perished because many infected people fled into the bush.

"Afterward, when people went out in the forest, they found entire villages dead, just bones and bodies," he said.

Freeman said he knew a Dene village with permanent houses stood at Burwash Point as late as the 1950s but he was never able to find the cemetery. He said historian Ryan Silke was the one who pointed the place out to him.

Silke said he learned about the cemetery when YKDFN members built a new fence around the site about 20 years ago.

"It's right on the shore," he said.

Freeman said the small village used to stand to the south of Burwash Point - and the old Burwash Mine site.

"The Yellowknives Dene had houses there," he said. "You can still kind of see the foundations and there's one with a roof where someone has taken all the boards out of it and it's fallen to the ground."

"They were there after the 1928 epidemic. But most people claim the cemetery associated with that village is mostly people who died during the 1928 influenza epidemic."

YKDFN member Fred Sangris said the fence surrounds a small area - about 30 metres by 40 metres - but there are no gravestones.

"We don't believe in headstones," he said, adding Dene graves are marked with ribbons or other small tokens attached to nearby trees.

"When you put a huge rock where the person dies, he has to carry that stone with him," said Sangris. "That's what we believe."

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