The birthplace of ice hockey is said to be near a settlement on the western shore of Great Bear Lake, accessible only by winter road. The game helped 50 men survive a brutal winter at this outpost of Sir John Franklin’s Arctic Expedition. In biblical terms, could it be claimed that whoever dropped the puck – or clump of ice – that winter of 1823 was given “a gift for the common good” (1Cor. 4:7) and thus acted in a prophetic role in the future of Canada?
Prophets have played a vital role in the culture and spirituality of the settlement, renamed Deline in 1993. Home to some 570 Sahtu Dene people, it is the only community on Great Bear Lake, 544 kms northwest of Yellowknife.
As in biblical times, certain individuals were given gifts to help guide a nomadic people in their struggle to settle in a fixed location and form a community.
The most prominent of these prophets was Louis Ayah, (1857-1940) who as a young man displayed extraordinary gifts after his baptism by a missionary priest. Originally helping missionaries to spread their teachings in ethics and religion, Ayah became a spiritual leader in his own right and was widely revered as a visionary by the 1930s. “He is our Moses,” stated Danny Bayha, a local resident.
“People were drawn to his teachings and began to settle around him near the lake. He called it their promised land – for he said it would be their refuge in the future.”
Like Moses, Prophet Ayah handed down commandments of justice and respect to people who for centuries had lived in small nomadic family groups. “He taught that we human beings are all the same,” stated Morris Neyelle, a knowledge holder of the prophesies, “and that we shouldn’t judge people by the way they appear.” Gina Bayha, a community member, added, “we always acknowledge him before our meetings because he set the stage for us; how we are to govern ourselves.”
To guide them in their transition from tents to log houses, Prophet Ayah taught basic hygiene. In this harsh climate, where people live in constant fear of famine, Ahah, Moses-like, provided for their sustenance by revealing 3 days ahead of time where the caribou and moose could be hunted. Although he never learned to read or write, his knowledge was so vast that he was nicknamed ‘Ocean.’
Strong communities, he insisted, were built on large families. Parents were to be soulmates and any woman who raised 10 or more children would be guaranteed salvation. He taught by example. He did the hunting, trapping and wood-gathering for his family, while his soulmate-wife, Rosalie, was largely responsible for raising their 9 children and keeping the house. Firm in their conviction that wives share in the calling of prophets, the people believe that if Prophet Ayah is canonized, his wife, Rosalie, will be canonized, too, for they were truly one.
For 40 years people came to listen to his teachings. To them he explained the bible, every page of which he understood just by looking at it. “The angels taught him,” declared Bayha. He was revered as a holy man who gave strict guidance for moral living, and as a visionary who offered hope to the people of the Sahtu.
One of his extraordinary gifts was that of being able to read people’s minds. “He knew what people were thinking by looking at them,” stated Gordon Taneton, the local school custodian. He knew their secrets and upon meeting people for the first time, he could give testimony to things they had done in private.
He often spoke of the last judgement. “You will stand before the Lord,” he said. Charlie Neyelle, a 78-year-old elder, remembers him saying, “your mind, heart and soul are all one, like snow, water and ice are one. They belong to the Lord and you will give an account. Your choice!” Prophet Ayah also stated that he had been given the task of judging 10 of his own people someday.
Like the prophet Jeremiah, Prophet Ayah made predictions of doom. He foresaw “silver bullets dropping from the sky,” long before the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki and predicted the coming of a world-wide disease.
However, like Isaiah, Ayah was also a prophet of hope. In 1939, the government sent the RCMP to Deline to get predictions on the outcome of World War II. Even though the Nazis were advancing so fast, Ayah predicted that they would lose the war. “They don’t make the Sign of the Cross,” he said. Before anyone knew what satellite dishes were, he predicted that people would have “plates on their houses.” Today satellite dishes are seen above most Deline homes. He also possessed a special bowl that he predicted would keep his people alive during a famine.
The prevailing belief at the time was that the Creator determined the number of caribou and moose a man was allowed to hunt in his lifetime. When Joseph Naedzo, an able hunter, exceeded his limit, it is said that an angel appeared to him and gave him the choice of dying soon or becoming blind. He chose the latter and became a revered prophet as he went about teaching right living.
The gift of religious tolerance was given to the community through Prophet Andre, who died in the early 1980s.
He taught that in the future there would be many different religions in the area and that all were to be respected. Although he attended Mass, prayed the rosary and went to confession faithfully, he regarded true faith as being beyond rites and rituals. After his death, those who prepared his body for burial discovered an image of the Holy Mother on his back, one not made by human hands.
The fourth prophet was Joseph Bayha (1910-1987), who was born in the mountain region. When his parents died in the Flu epidemic in 1918, he was taken to Deline where he was raised by foster parents. In his early adult life, he became addicted to alcohol and nearly died. For 3 days he was transported into a realm beyond this life.
In one of his near-death experiences, he saw himself on Judgement Day, so frightened that he fell to his knees in fear. He then saw his book of life which was only half-written. A voice said, “you will return to earth to share your experience with your people and complete your book. We will call you back when you have finished your mission.” His grandson, Danny Bayha said, “he was so happy to receive a second chance.”
In another near-death experience, he had a visitation with his Holy Mother. She instructed him to go back to his people and tell them, “anyone who thinks about me and my Son, we will remember them at their death.” Meanwhile, the people thought he had died, but his wife, Madeleine, persisted in prayer and he came back.
After his conversion, Prophet Bayha attended Mass and prayed the rosary daily. Already in his 60s, he began to evangelize throughout the countryside. He was taught that the most sacred and powerful prayer is through the drum. From the angels he learned 12 songs to be played in life-threatening situations. “Each song is a direct cell phone to God,” stated grandson Bayha, “because angels know how to get the attention of the Creator.”
The house of Prophet Ayah has become a shrine for the people of Deline and beyond. The door is always open. Each day people come to pray in the old log building decorated in photographs, candles and other memorabilia. Through these prophets whose “gifts for the common good” enculturated the gospel for the Sahtu Dene, the people continue to experience the guidance and care of the Creator who has “pitched his tent among them.”
Every year prior to August 15th, great numbers of people make a week-long pilgrimage to the shrine where they spend time in prayer and story-telling. “These prophets are very important for our faith,” stated Gina Bayha. “They provide guidance in everything we do here. They gave us the pathway to navigate and move forward.”
Today there is no longer a resident priest in Deline. The people, however, continue to gather each Sunday at the local church where they pray the rosary and celebrate the Liturgy of the Word. According to Gina Bayha, the prophets provided stepping stones for the people to live a good life. “If we stay true to their teachings, we will be OK. They taught us how to live the life Jesus wants us to live.”
Meanwhile, hockey also continues to be considered a “gift for the common good” in the community. Plans are underway for the construction of a new all-season arena.