The importance of prayer for Elder Alexis Seniantha


By Dianne Meili Archives, 1990


The sinking sun's red light split the western sky as night drew around the tea dance ring at Second Prairie on the Assumption Reserve, 90 km west of High Level, Alta.

In the darkness, young people moved from the outer fence of the circle to join the ring of dancers who moved around the fire. The flames lit up their excited faces as they stepped 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 watched the dancers leave their footprints in the dirt around the fire. He smiled because he knew that the more footprints put there, the more it pleased Creator.

Alexis is Ndatin—a dreamer. He'd earned the right to direct tea dance ceremonies because he'd visited the other world—some know it as heaven—in his dreams. He'd lived an honest life and received messages from Creator for his people.

For years he had been the head prophet in Assumption, named the spiritual leader by Nogha (pronounced No-ah) before he died in the 1930s. 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 things ordinary people could not. They were urged by their fathers to sleep beside a tree that had been split by thunder (lightning) 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.

Some children who became prophets had the ability to journey to heaven.

Alexis spoke about his own journey, closing his eyes as he remembered 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 (Creator) saw me. 'What do you want over here?'" he said. I answered: "I'm very tired and ill but I wanted to see 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 free. 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 had not forgotten what he was told during his journey. He lived to help his people and encouraged 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 explained. During his journey he saw many relatives who had passed on and they waved to him in recognition.

Alexis prayed constantly for his people. "When I go to bed, I pray, then I 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 recalled how simple life once was when the Dene lived off the land.

Alexis often repeats the prophet Nogha's words at ceremonies, urging the people to listen to songs sent to them from the other world, and to pray with all their strength. Only by being true to traditions and Creator will they survive and find happiness.

Alexis grew up with the prophecies and knew the people’s need to gather strength from a power greater than themselves, to prepare for the future.