Morris Neyelle, Délı̨nę elder and knowledge-keeper who fought for better healthcare in N.W.T., dies at 71

·3 min read
Morris Neyelle, who died Wednesday, spent his final months calling for preventative care in smaller N.W.T. communities, after his cancer went undetected. (Anna Desmarais/CBC - image credit)
Morris Neyelle, who died Wednesday, spent his final months calling for preventative care in smaller N.W.T. communities, after his cancer went undetected. (Anna Desmarais/CBC - image credit)

Morris Neyelle, whose stories, spiritual knowledge and leadership still blaze brightly in the memories of those who spent time with him, died Wednesday surrounded by friends and family. He was 71 years old.

The Délı̨nę elder spent the months before his death advocating for better healthcare in smaller N.W.T. communities after the health centre in Délı̨nę failed to detect his late-stage cancer.

That's just who he was, says his daughter, Gloria Gaudet — he wanted to make things better for people, he was a leader in the community and he took care of everyone he met through his words, wisdom, and spirituality.

"I think he's going to be around everybody's soul, and I find that I keep his words and share his stories ... And I'm sure he's in a good place. We all know that," Gaudet said.

Born in the bush and raised near Tulita, Neyelle inherited his father Johnny's creative streak, making drums, playing music, painting and taking photos. He used to travel by dogsled with his dad, and eventually settled down in Deline.

He eventually put together a book of stories from Johnny's journal: The Man Who Lived With A Giant.

Chantal Dubuc/CBC
Chantal Dubuc/CBC

Over the years, he spent time as a band councillor and was part of the Port Radium working group. He worked at that former uranium mine site in 1978 when it was a silver mine and advocated for the government to recognize and address the impact that mine site had on Délı̨nę residents.

He was a rock of support for Gaudet, helping her to overcome alcohol.

"The memory I have of him of before and now, it really opened me — it made me who I am now, because of him. He's a great dad, and because of him I sobered up over three years now, because a healthy family is so important," she said.

"During my sober life, he's been there — with my children, with my community, sometimes we go to my parents and he makes drums outside ... there's a lot of memories there, so that I can share it with my kids when they're growing up."

He was also deeply spiritual and loved to talk about Dene prophet Louis Ayah. He told stories for a reason: to inspire people to persevere, and to help those stories live on. He succeeded, too — Gaudet said since Neyelle's death, she and her family have received an outpouring of messages from people whose lives were touched by Neyelle, who listened to his stories and remembered his words.

"He was a good friend to everybody. I appreciate everybody, with the messages and texting — we appreciate it so much. I wish there was a word that's higher than mahsi cho. Thank you," she said.

Neyelle and his wife, Bernice, celebrated 47 years of marriage earlier this month. They were best friends who always worked together to overcome problems, said Gaudet, and set a good example for their children.

"Me and my siblings are so proud of both of them, how they raised us."

Gaudet said Neyelle's funeral will be held Saturday.

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