The sinking sun's red light splits the western sky as night draws around the tea dance ring at Second Prairie on the Assumption Reserve, 90 km. west of High Level.
In the darkness, young people move from the outer fence of the circle to join the ring of dancers moving around the fire. The flames light up their excited faces as they step in time to the pulsing beat of the drums.
Earlier in the evening, the people offered tobacco for the fire, feasted on potatoes, chicken and bannock and listened to the elders speak about their dreams and remind them to live a good life.
Alexis Seniantha, 83, talked about the importance of prayer and his belief the world will be safe if people honor the ceremonies and treat the earth and each other with love and respect.
Then he picked up his drum from the rack and other elders joined him in song, the centuries-old spiritual communication of the Dene Tha'.
Alexis watches the dancers leave their footprints in the dirt around the fire. He smiles because he knows the more prints put there, the more to please God.
The Dene Tha' of northern Alberta, Alexis is Ndatin--a dreamer. He's earned the right to direct tea dance ceremonies because he's visited the other world--heaven--in his dreams. He's lived an honest life and receives messages from God for his people.
For years he has been the head Prophet in Assumption, named the spiritual leader by Nogha (pronounced No-ah) before he died in the 1930's. The Dene Tha' say Nogha was a great prophet and many of his predictions have come true.
In his childhood, Alexis absorbed the teachings of his elders. Youngsters destined to be prophets listened to stories of animal people and powerful ancestors who had performed heroic deeds.
These children were sensitized to see thins ordinary people could not. They were urged by their fathers to sleep beside a tree that had been split by thunder (the active component of lightning, the Dene believe) if they wanted to have a vision.
After the young person had spent time alone, he might receive a song or an animal helper. Once, the Dene believed almost exclusively in animal spirits, but as Christian missionaries influenced them, they added Catholic beliefs to the Dene tradition.
Today, when people place their tobacco in a bowl inside the tea dance ring, to be offered later to the fire, they kneel and make the sign of the cross before getting up.
Some children who became prophets had the ability to journey to heaven.
Alexis speaks about his own journey, closing his eyes as he remembers what "the other world" looked like and grabbing his shoulders and shaking them when describing how he was thrown out.
"I was sick and just about died. If I put an offering in the fire for myself, I knew I might live. I wanted to know what would happen so I placed an offering on the fire. I started to sleep. I don't know what happened. I must have gone to my Father's land."
"He (God) saw me. 'What do you want over here?'" he said. I answered: "I'm very tired and ill but I wanted to You."
He was smiling, looking at me. "Way down there, people are pitiful. Work for them," he said.
:I was grabbed and pushed out. There was nothing but blue sky. That's where I was set fee. He's holding my arm. I went back to earth. I was so thankful when I saw the world. My feet were together on the ground again."
Alexis has not forgotten what he was told during his journey. He lives to help his people and encourages them to live pure lives so they can return to their Creator when they die.
"Heaven looks really nice. There is no dirt in that land. There is tall grass, but it's not the same as here. I saw it with my eyes. I thought it looked very beautiful."
"When the people die, we remember the dead. There is a land for them. All the nations are together," he explains. During his journey he saw many relatives who had passed on and they waved to him in recognition.
Alexis prays constantly for his people. "When I go to bed, I pray, thenI sleep. In the morning I get up and pray again. After that I drink tea. I don't eat, I just drink tea. I look what is happening.
"Why do people drink? I pray they won't do that. It should be quiet. They should just pray. Myself, I don't bother with liquor. Never once has liquor touched my mouth."
Alexis realized how complex the world has become and that his people are challenged by the changes the dominant society has brought upon them. He recalls how simple life once was when the Dene lived off the land.
"We lived at Tu Lonh (Zama Lake, west of Assumption). I lived in a tent but it was nice. We were heading further and further with our traps. Out there, I killed three moose. Three cow moose. It was wonderful to feed everyone, I thought."
"We went for furs. My traps were still set. We set camp for the night. At the next camp I killed three moose--one fat cow and two young, quite big."
"Next morning we started on our journey. We headed back for Zama Lake. I had good dogs. Our blankets... all our belongings were packed on the sled. We returned to our house. I cut some of the wood and made a fire and went back out to work. When it go warm, I went inside."
Years ago, people were strong and believed the Creator would help them in their lives. They gave offerings to the spirits and were shown, in their dreams, where to go to find animals for meat.
Alexis often repeats the prophet Nogha's words at ceremonies today, urging the people to listen to songs sent to them from the other world, and to pry with all their strength. Only be being true to Dene traditions and God will they survive and find happiness.
Alexis grew up with the prophecies and knows the people need to gather strength from a power greater than themselves, to prepare for the future. This is why he call tea dances and finds the energy to attend meetings, funerals and gathering, gently reminding the people to pray.
And, as long as he's alive, they will.
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