The first families in Jean Marie River were descended from three sisters from Fort Providence: Sophie, Cecile and Marguerite. Marguerite married Baptiste Norwegian, the son of the original baby, Norwegian. Their son Louis (b. 1907) guided the development of the community for many years. Most people in the community today are descended from these three sisters who figure prominently in the band’s logo.
In the days before treaty, Dene people had only one name but the authorities insisted on being able to distinguish who was related to whom so many first names became surnames such as Sanguez. Sake was actually a nickname, meaning sunset, and became enshrined as a surname.
One fascinating story has to do with the origin of one of the main family surnames in Jean Marie River – the Norwegians. Unlike other family names in the community, that have Dene heritage, Norwegian appears to be the product of a series of remarkable events.
The story that has been told for generations starts in the 1820s when Sir John Franklin was exploring the Coppermine and Mackenzie Rivers. It is well known that conditions were deplorable on these early trips and often men were reduced to eating lichen and even attempted to eat their own boots. Among Franklin’s crew was a Norwegian sailor who, with another man, simply walked away from the hardship and made their own way down the Mackenzie River, eventually finding their way to Fort Simpson. The Norwegian settled down with a local woman who bore him a son. At one point, when he declared his intention to leave with the child, she hid in the bush with her child until he left for Liard River. The Norwegian left word for her at Fort Simpson, begging her to at least name the child after him. Taking him literally, she named the child “Norwegian”. It proved to be a bit of a mouthful, that name, and was more commonly pronounced Kor-weh-ja by the locals.
In a memoir compiled by the community, and based on interviews with the elders, James Sanguez eloquently sums up life in JMR:
“This is my life story. Throughout my life nothing has gone wrong with me…I did a lot of hunting in the bush but I have never seen hay fall down…I had 15 kids…and am thankful that I didn’t see any of my kids in the hospital.”
Source: Interviews with members