Understanding First Nations
“The Wet’suwet’en have said no! This is the final word that our people will say on this. This is final law and cannot be broken. My wish is that Government/Industry would learn about the Wet’suwet’en, and understand that they have no right to go against the Decree of the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs/Clan/Members.”
Chief Na’Moks, Wet’suwet’en First Nation
My first encounter with First Nations people in North Coast BC was in 1957 when I worked for a summer aboard a mission boat sailing out of Alert Bay. White people referred to the ‘natives’ collectively as Indians, all the same with no real identity. Quaint sounding names such as, Kwakwaka’wakw, were just map references with no connection with the people that lived there. Names such as Cowichan, Tzouhalem, Qualicum or Nanaimo. No one seemed to care what the meaning of the names were, they were just names.
The ‘Indians’ who lived in Alert Bay and had continuous dealings with and were forced to abide by white customs and rules seemed to have an underlying bitterness that whites just could not understand. Here they had all they needed. Houses built for them, schools, stores, a hospital; what more do they want? How ungrateful.
Visiting villages, Hopetown, Kingcome, and others, ‘Churched’ names for native villages, but the people were by far more friendly and welcoming away from the white culture. Attending ceremonies at their longhouses and listening to the stories of the elders I was too young and naive then to see the yearning in their hearts, like the longing for a lost treasure. I never understood this until my own father became ill. A man who had served all his life in the British Army in India and was forced to find a new life when India gained independence. At the age of 50, he never really fit in with Canadian culture and later when he took sick and was unable to work, that same look of longing was in his face. His stories of how it was had that familiar tone I had heard from the Elders in those native villages.
My impression of First Nations people changed dramatically, although even working in the North, my attitude was still generally based on encounters through the ‘white’ culture, how they were adapting. It wasn’t until the day our Dept. of Fisheries vessel was assigned to attend the opening of the Museum at Bella Bella, First Nations name, Heiltsuk, people of Wáglísla. When the missionaries came to convert the native population, they stole nearly all of the aboriginal tools and artifacts. Churches and museums and private collectors were now giving many of the stolen items back. Like a u’mista, a Kwakwaka’wakw First Nations term for ransom paid, the lost were returning.
An account of the Museum and Artifacts can be found here Looking for Bella Bella.
My lasting impression came from talking with the Chief at Bella Bella that day. No bitterness toward the people who had raided their village nearly 100 years ago but a very understanding, almost philosophical approach. He said, “If the church hadn’t taken these artifacts, they would have rotted away and we would not have them today.” The First Nations, just as all aboriginals, were and still are in tradition, a people of oral history, not souvenirs.
One concept that needs understanding by all Canadians; First Nations culture, passed down through the oral stories by the elders, is not just history. It is their roots, a people tied to the land they live in, the oneness of nature and peoples. Like religious doctrine it encompasses the past, present and future. To threaten the land is to threaten the peoples themselves.
Imagine if a corporation threatened to take away, destroy your belief system, be it Christian, Jewish, Islam, Tao, Hindu or any other. What would be the reaction for Canadians if in the event of a corporate mistake, our democratic governance would come to an end? An oil spill on the North Coast threatens the land of the First Nations, threatens the First Nations traditions, threatens the peoples themselves. No u’mista will bring it back. There is no ransom that can be paid. When a Chief makes a decree or an agreement, he speaks not only for his people today, he speaks for all the generations to come.