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COMMENTARY · 4th December 2011
Merv Ritchie
What follows is a very short summary of the past, the present and the potential future of everything “Indian”.

Beginning with a historical overview we very quickly bring you to the present day situation of dysfunctional broken Indian villages.

When westerners (British) first discovered Indians after they landed at Newfoundland, they hunted them as a sport. The Beotuk were pursued by the first settlers like dogs and they thoughtlessly hunted to extinction every single one except one woman who was rescued by a British Noble family. This is at the foundation of the Canadian Indian experience.

From 1700 to 1950

On the west coast the first traders found a very well structured society with organized trading systems and a hierarchal society similar to the British system with high Chiefs and slaves. The traders documented the houses and families who required their primary attention much like diplomacy. Forts or trading centers were established to act as an embassy in a foreign country. Through the 1800’s the British traders began delivering gifts to these high ranking families, primarily the treasured Hudson Bay Blankets, purposefully infected with infectious diseases. Traders then traveled extensively spreading these through the interior of BC. All of this is well documented in the diaries of the men and traders who committed these acts. Much of the same activity had taking place throughout the United States and Canada. The result of all this invasive activity was the destruction of the governance families and therefore the social order of the First Nations/Indian societies.

The British and then Canadian Governments next made declarations of guardianship over all the surviving Indians and began taking the children and placing them in what we now refer to as residential schools. As they were mostly in contact with the higher ranking families it was these children who were taken first. Many were sterilized.

From 1910 to 1927 many Indian Nation communities filed declarations of ownership of their lands and registered their opposition to the British Columbian, Canadian and British Governments. Although the Nisga’a Nation is famous for their struggle and their present day treaty, in the first three decades of the 1900’s the entire Indian Nation of BC was united under the title “The Allied Indian Tribes of British Columbia”. This included the Interior and Coast Salish, Kootenay, Tsilhqot’in, Dakelh, Kaska-Dene, Q’uwit’sun, Nuxalk, Nisga’a, Tsimshian, Haida and Gitksan peoples.

After numerous presentations to all levels of governments the Canadian Government ruled they had not proven their case of title to their lands and then passed legislation making it illegal for anyone to raise money for their legal representation and illegal for any lawyer to represent the Indians on any land claims issue.

The Canadian government then began using force (RCMP and gun boats) to collect the children from all the remote villages and then transferred the guardianship of the now imprisoned Indian children to the Churches which ran the “schools”. This transfer took place after the Canadian government received reports from their own senior health inspector how the death rate in these schools was up to a shocking 50%.

Indians were not considered persons and were not allowed to vote or participate in politics until 1949. The reserve lands were all managed by “Agents” of the Canadian Government and all traditional cultural practices were forbidden

The Present Day

It was the systematic destruction of the various Indian Nations social order, their ruling class and family structures, which left the surviving members struggling. Many Nations kept their cultural practices intact in secret, not allowing “Indian Agents” to discover them. Surviving Chief families continued to nurture their traditions and hold ceremonial feasts but much was lost. Many families had no leadership and began acting without any moral compass.

In the 1970’s the Canadian Government began to set up a new government structure for the Indian peoples based on the British Parliamentary Democracy system to run the Indian villages and reserve lands. They first selected cooperative Indians and put them in charge calling them “Chief”. This had nothing to do with any Indian traditional system and employing this term “Chief” was an insult to the true Hereditary Chief families. To this day this is the system used.

Every few years an election is held to select a new Chief and Council. Although the Canadian Government is still in charge and must approve all resolutions made by the Band Councils it is the Band Councils who run the entire process with virtually no oversight. These non traditional governments decide who they will send ballots to and how they will inform those that are eligible to vote. All across BC and Canada members of many Nations complain about not receiving a ballot, not being informed, and membership lists not being checked by independent third parties. In many cases band funds are used to promote sitting band candidates. Most elected Council members are also executives running the reserve.

It is this system that has “Elected Chiefs” living in lavish luxury while the “Hereditary Chiefs” languish in poverty and destitution. It is this system that has the children falling into a state of despair watching their respected elders get treated worse by their elected leaders than the Canadian government treated them. It is this system that has allowed nepotism to be a way of life for the ruling families and abuse of all types to run rampant throughout the Indian Nations. Drug abuse, alcohol abuse, sexual abuse, elder abuse and systemic suicide are the result of all the policies designed by the Canadian and former British Government imposition on a once thriving culture.

And it is these false elected governments which are making decisions on the future of their people and their lands, accepting money, which they get to distribute as they see fit, from industry and other government representatives in exchange for the future of the rest of their people.

In the last decade the BC and Canadian Government has recognized and encouraged the formation of “Treaty Societies” to settle the land claims issues. Once again these treaty societies are set up using British Parliamentary procedures, not traditional systems of Hereditary decision making authority. The elected board of these societies are being granted monies by both levels of government; provincial and federal, as loans secured by the Nations interests in their lands. Many of these society directors, once again, get to use these funds as the see fit, again participating in un-audited nepotism, disrespectful behaviour furthering the fracturing of their own people continuing the cycle of abuse, despondency and suicides.

The Future

Only by the respectful collaboration of all members of each nation in re-invigorating their traditional foundations of each culture can the situation be remedied. In many cases all original traditional practices have been lost. Much like the Beotuk of Newfoundland, all traces of their existence have been erased from memory. Many can only now lament at the loss of a once proud people; but this need not be repeated everywhere.

British Columbia is unique in that it was the last area of North America to be explored and taken over by the British. The Northwest corner was the last area of BC to be colonized by Canada. This incursion, in many areas, was barely 100 years ago. There are many members of Nations still living among us today who lived with their elders that had never experienced anything but the traditional life.

The Nisga’a, Tahltan, Gitxsan, Wetsuwe’ten, Haisla, Haida, Tsimshian, Tlingit, Nuxalk and Kwakiautl all belong in this group and all are struggling to teach their children and rebuild their culture. They all share in some very unique practices, which provide for fair governance for all their people.

Only through the rebirth of their culture and the re-instatement of their true Hereditary rule of order, will the youth begin to realize dignity for themselves and turn away from the perpetual despondency they, their siblings, parents and grandparents have been trapped in.

The recognition and re-establishment of one order of government does not mean the de-legitimization of the other. Just as the country of Canada has various levels of governance, so should the First Nation communities. The Nations of the Northwest are uniquely positioned to enact this new style of governance and demonstrate it to the world.

The Hereditary Way

Although many seem to believe it is the male chief who runs the Nations and clans, in north west BC it is the women who maintain the order and the structure. It is entirely a Matriarchal order.

Every member of these nations belongs to a house (crest) group. These are represented by a life form; Raven/Crow/Frog, Eagle, Killerwhale/Blackfish, Wolf/Bear, Beaver, Fireweed and maybe more. The child carries the crest of the mother, never the father. If a Haisla Raven takes a Gitxsan Wolf to be his wife, their children, both boys and girls, will be considered Gitxsan and from the Wolf Crest. Crest members are not permitted to marry; a Raven cannot marry a Raven.

Hereditary Chiefs get their authority only when the elder females of the Nation, the matriarchs, determine which male is suited to represent the title they will bestow. The title is a name handed down through hundreds of generations. This name carries with it the history and lifeblood of these peoples. It is not just a name it represents an entire culture of understanding.

Depending on the Nation there are different numbers of Hereditary Chiefs and names. All however share the same basic functions, understanding and authority;

a) Hereditary governance is a crest authority derived through a matrilineal bloodline authorized and approved by the matriarchs.

b) Each has common Crest groups, each distinct, one from the other.

c) Traditional Feasts establish the authority of Crest Chiefs, without a feast the authority is not established.

d) All Crest Chiefs discuss together any significant affair impacting their nation and stand united with their decision.

e) No Crest Chiefs speaks publicly without the consent of the other Crest Chiefs

Unlike British and European traditional monarchies, in NW First Nations tradition a father cannot pass on a name to a son. Unlike King John in England a Hereditary Chief does not have to consider having a son to inherit the name. He knows from the very beginning none of his children ever will. He became Chief only because he was the son of a woman who came from a high “Royal” house. His sister might bear a son who could carry the name but never his child. It is a unique and balanced system providing equal respect for both the male and the female.


Bringing the Past and the Present Day Together Harmoniously

Much like the Senate oversees the Parliament of Canada, the Hereditary Chiefs need to sit in a position to oversee the Village (Band) Councils. This already takes place in some Tsimshian Villages and another Band has taken the step to only allow Crest group members to select (vote) from their own Crest group candidates for a band Council seat.

In earlier days it was the High Hereditary Chiefs who held Court. Lower Chiefs (wing Chiefs) or Village managers would bring an accused before the gathered Chiefs. In a serious matter one would find Chiefs from each Crest Group present. Once a decision was made the ruling would be final and would be carried out by the managers.

The high Chiefs were seldom bothered by daily business but would be consulted on all matters.

In this way, to restore dignity and respect, to truly honour the wrongs of the past and strive towards a prosperous and strong future this very same system of governance needs to be reinstated. Elected band councils will still be required to manage the infrastructure of the villages but the legitimate Hereditary Chiefs must be provided the status of their ancestors. They must be provided veto authority over the band councils and they must be consulted on all matters.

But to do this they must hold the Chief name legitimately. And this is the last area of difficulty.

In Northwest BC the Nisga’a, Tahltan, Gitxsan, Wetsuwe’ten, Haisla, Haida, Tsimshian, Tlingit, Nuxalk and Kwakiautl are all inter-related. Most are at least cousins with each other. Each of these nations understand parts of each others cultures and all know their Crest history well.

The solution to all the difficulties and the manner in which to re-invigorate each and all the cultures together, is to form a Grand Council of Hereditary Chiefs. They could all discuss and ensure each others rightful place and move forward with strength.

None of this would be anything related to the Societies Act, Democracy or the British Parliamentary System of governance. This is an order of Men, selected by Matriarchs from a matrilineal lineage with a Crest authority. These men, from these great Nations, can debate and discuss the affairs of each of their territories. All are dependent upon the same resources, the same food, land and waters. The action on one nations land will almost necessarily impact on another. It is imperative they all work together.

The Matriarchs are usually always present overseeing the proceedings, ensuring order is maintained. They never interrupt and never intervene but one can be assured, if a male steps too far out of line, they will remove the authority, because ultimately it belongs to the women.

Moving Forward- Leaving the Recent Past in the Past

The imposition of Band councils has been an absolute failure. INAC is unable to address even the most basic functions. From the tragedy of the early trading days to the Residential schools and now the poverty stricken and suicide ridden communities, it is time to take back the truth and the reality. No amount of money and no number of commissions of investigation will resolve the matter.

Only with the re-establishment of the traditional cultural governance will dignity and a hopeful future become a reality for young and old alike. As the world observes a respectful people begin to once again thrive with dignity and prosperity; democracies, autocracies and the communists may come to learn. The system worked for thousands of years until the British traders arrived and nothing has worked since then. It is interesting to consider the British system never worked for the British people either.

It is time to take back what was the First Nations system of Governance all along, the Hereditary system, not the Predatory system.