Rooted in Re­silience

Long be­fore Con­fed­er­a­tion, In­dige­nous peo­ple lived un­der their own com­plex sys­tem of rights, rules, and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.

Canada's History - - CON­TENTS - By Joanne DeCosse

Long be­fore Con­fed­er­a­tion, In­dige­nous peo­ple had their own com­plex sys­tems of rights, rules, and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.

This year’s sesqui­cen­ten­nial com­mem­o­ra­tions are a strik­ing re­minder that the story of Canada can be told in count­less ways from many di­verse per­spec­tives. How­ever, it is also clear that some sto­ries are told more of­ten than oth­ers. Pop­u­lar his­to­ries of Con­fed­er­a­tion and the birth of the coun­try are deeply rooted in the world views Euro­peans brought with them to North Amer­ica. Their val­ues, be­liefs, and ideals, as well as their po­lit­i­cal, eco­nomic, and so­cial sys­tems are re­flected in con­ven­tional ac­counts of the past. Yet th­ese nar­ra­tives aren’t the only ver­sions of events.

Long be­fore Con­fed­er­a­tion, In­dige­nous peo­ples shaped the phys­i­cal, po­lit­i­cal, and eco­nomic land­scape of what we to­day call Canada. Their ex­pe­ri­ences at­test to al­ter­na­tive ver­sions of his­tory. Their sto­ries chal­lenge what we know and be­lieve about our past and of­fer valu­able in­sights into the work­ings of con­tem­po­rary Canada.

In­dige­nous peo­ples in Canada are sub­ject to Canada’s laws, rules, bor­ders, and poli­cies. Yet many have held on to, and con­tinue to carry out, their own gov­er­nance-re­lated pro­ce­dures, rit­u­als, and cer­e­monies. Th­ese prac­tices are of­ten tied to so­phis­ti­cated meth­ods of man­ag­ing re­sources as well as to their po­lit­i­cal re­la­tion­ships.

For in­stance, the Iro­quois con­fed­er­acy’s Great Law of Peace is an in­cred­i­bly de­tailed his­tory and oral con­sti­tu­tion. It de­fines the rights and du­ties of in­di­vid­u­als, fam­i­lies, and lead­ers, and it out­lines tra­di­tional ways of gov­ern­ing, in­clud­ing the rules and makeup of

coun­cils, hered­i­tary laws, de­ci­sion-mak­ing pro­cesses, record-keep­ing prac­tices, and so on. The Anishin­abe and the Black­foot con­fed­era­cies de­vel­oped so­phis­ti­cated clan-based sys­tems of gov­er­nance. Read­ers might be fa­mil­iar with the Pa­cific coast pot­latch cer­e­monies, but they may not know the pot­latch’s role in gov­er­nance. The cer­e­monies — which in­cluded lav­ish gift-giv­ing — marked im­por­tant events and were used to con­fer and to val­i­date names, priv­i­leges, and so­cial rank.

Cen­turies of col­o­niza­tion and harm­ful gov­ern­ment poli­cies such as res­i­den­tial schools, seg­re­ga­tion, and dis­crim­i­na­tion led to the ero­sion of tra­di­tional styles of gov­er­nance. Yet all across the coun­try, In­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties con­tinue to work to­wards in­de­pen­dence, self-suf­fi­ciency, and build­ing a more just and equal re­la­tion­ship with the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment. The fol­low­ing ex­am­ples ex­plore the his­tory of gov­er­nance in In­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties that are to­day striv­ing to re­write con­ven­tional un­der­stand­ings of his­tory and to gain con­trol over their past and present.


Wampum belts are not just beau­ti­ful gifts of­fered dur­ing his­toric agree­ments between In­dige­nous and set­tler peo­ples, nor are they sim­ply works of art or cur­rency. They form part of an im­por­tant gov­er­nance tra­di­tion, called wampum diplo­macy, used by the Anishin­abe, Hau­denosaunee, Mi’kmaq, and oth­ers. Along­side other tra­di­tions, such as sto­ry­telling and the divvy­ing up of re­spon­si­bil­i­ties among clans, they ex­em­plify dis­tinct ways of gov­ern­ing and of un­der­stand­ing po­lit­i­cal re­la­tion­ships.

Wampum are small tubu­lar beads, made mostly from whelk shells and qua­hog clamshells na­tive to the east coast of North Amer­ica. Strings of th­ese beads are wo­ven into in­tri­cate pat­terns, com­plex sets of icons that rep­re­sent sig­nif­i­cant re­la­tion­ships between na­tions. The sym­bols can be read us­ing spe­cific sets of rules and con­ven­tions, be­com­ing con­crete records of the re­la­tion­ships they de­pict.

Con­trary to the per­sis­tent stereo­types of In­dige­nous peo­ples as strictly oral and non-lit­er­ate, wampum belts il­lus­trate “wide­spread devel­op­ment of sym­bolic lit­er­acy across mul­ti­ple In­dige­nous na­tions,” said Lynn Gehl, an Al­go­nquin Anishin­abe Kwe writer, ad­vo­cate, and artist who holds a doc­tor­ate in In­dige­nous stud­ies.

Gehl, who wrote The Truth that Wampum Tells, has an­a­lyzed the wampum belts ex­changed dur­ing the sign­ing of the 1764 Treaty at Ni­a­gara. Th­ese belts con­firm the terms set out in the Royal Procla­ma­tion of 1763, which out­lined the guide­lines for Eu­ro­pean set­tle­ment on In­dige­nous lands in North Amer­ica.

She has ar­gued that th­ese belts are con­sti­tu­tional doc­u­ments: “It is with th­ese three belts that the In­dige­nous un­der­stand­ing of Canada’s con­sti­tu­tional be­gin­nings is cod­i­fied. And it is in this way that the [1763 Royal] Procla­ma­tion is only one of Canada’s first con­sti­tu­tional doc­u­ments.”

The three wampum belts were ex­changed fol­low­ing the lengthy dis­cus­sions and de­ci­sions that took place dur­ing the treaty process. One of the belts de­picts “a chain se­cured to a rock on Tur­tle Is­land, run­ning through the twenty-four Na­tions’ hands, and at­tached to a British ves­sel,” Gehl wrote. “This rep­re­sented the ne- go­ti­at­ing process In­dige­nous na­tions were to take to en­sure their equal share of the re­sources and bounty of the land.” As such, the belts cod­i­fied an equal re­la­tion­ship between in­de­pen­dent al­lies.

As with con­tem­po­rary con­sti­tu­tions, great care is taken to pre­serve wampum belts. The belts are care­fully kept by wampum keep­ers, in­di­vid­u­als who are re­spon­si­ble for pre­serv­ing wampum records and knowl­edge.

Over time, many wampum belts have been lost, stolen, or oth­er­wise re­moved from In­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties. Some have been repa­tri­ated. Re­mark­ably, sev­eral of th­ese belts’ mean­ings and sto­ries have been kept alive un­der­ground, like much In­dige­nous knowl­edge over the last few cen­turies of col­o­niza­tion. Though they are of­ten the sub­ject of much de­bate, th­ese belts and the al­ter­na­tive nar­ra­tives they em­body chal­lenge na­tional his­to­ries of Con­fed­er­a­tion. They of­fer im­por­tant con­text for the breaches of treaties that fol­lowed the found­ing of the coun­try as well as land claims in present-day Canada.


Reef-net fish­ing is a tra­di­tional way of catch­ing sal­mon that’s unique to the Strait Sal­ish peo­ple of present-day British Columbia. The method is used in the Sal­ish Sea — an area of coastal wa­ters off south­west­ern British Columbia. A net is sus­pended between two ca­noes us­ing a set of un­der­wa­ter an­chors. Wa­ter is fun­nelled in through the use of a lead in front of the nets. To be ef­fec­tive, reef nets must be used in spe­cific lo­ca­tions, and their use re­quires de­tailed knowl­edge of sal­mon mi­gra­tion pat­terns, tide flow, and the lo­cal en­vi­ron­ment.

“It is more than just a fish­ing tech­nique,” Nick Clax­ton, a mem­ber of the Tsawout band and WSÁNEĆ na­tion, wrote in his Ph.D. dis­ser­ta­tion. “It is a model of gov­er­nance over an in­te­gral part of what it means to be a WSÁNEĆ per­son.” Clax­ton, who teaches at the Univer­sity of Vic­to­ria, said the Saanich reef-net fish­ery’s his­tory is in­ti­mately con­nected to the val­ues, spir­i­tual be­liefs, eco­nomics, so­cial sys­tem, and self-gov­er­nance of In­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties once sus­tained by sal­mon. For the Saanich peo­ples, the reef-net fish­ery is based on a pro­found spir­i­tual re­spect for the sal­mon and for the in­ter­con­nect­ed­ness of the en­vi­ron­ment and all liv­ing things. This holis­tic per­spec­tive is in­her­ently linked to a dis­tinct way of sus­tain­able gov­er­nance of the land, its re­sources, and the peo­ple liv­ing within it.

Within this sys­tem, each Saanich fam­ily was headed by the CWENÁ­LYEN. The CWENÁ­LYEN was most of­ten the el­der in the ex­tended fam­ily unit. Th­ese cap­tains were re­spon­si­ble for pass­ing down and over­see­ing Saanich fish­ing prac­tices, his­tory, laws, teach­ings, and knowl­edge. Through gen­er­a­tional trans­mis­sion, they up­held gov­er­nance struc­tures that pro­tected a Saanich per­son’s right to NE,HIMET — that is, their right to their per­sonal be­long­ings, their reef net, their fish­ing and camp­ing lo­ca­tions, the long­house, and ac­cess to fresh wa­ter. Fam­ily fish­ing lo­ca­tions, or SWÁLET, were of par­tic­u­lar im­por­tance given the com­plex­ity of reef-net tech­nol­ogy and were passed down with fam­ily names. As em­pha­sized by Clax­ton, reef-net fish­ing “formed the core of Saanich so­ci­ety” and al­lowed mem­bers of the com­mu­nity to main­tain their unique iden­tity and way of liv­ing.

Reef-net fish­ing was made il­le­gal by the British Columbia gov­ern­ment in 1916. Schol­ars such as Clax­ton have since ar­gued that the ban con­tra­vened the 1852 Dou­glas Treaty. That treaty between the preCon­fed­er­a­tion colo­nial gov­ern­ment and the Saanich na­tion out­lined the Saanich right to carry on with their fish­eries, to “fish as for­merly.”

As Clax­ton as­serted in an ar­ti­cle, since “WSÁNEĆ peo­ple’s tra­di­tional gov­er­nance, so­cial or­ga­ni­za­tion, and use of the land and re­sources, in­clud­ing the reef-net fish­ery, were all in­ter­twined … [this right] means more than just the right to fish…. It means a right to own­er­ship of all those fish­ing lo­ca­tions … and to the sys­tem of gov­er­nance that stood in WSÁNEĆ for thou­sands of years or more.”

Nev­er­the­less, a later pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment saw reef nets as “fish traps.” The new reg­u­la­tions soon dis­man­tled tra­di­tional fish­eries, forc­ing the Strait Sal­ish to adapt to Eu­ro­pean meth­ods of self-sus­te­nance and re­source man­age­ment. Saanich claims to tra­di­tional fish­ing rights and to the lands of which they were dis­pos­sessed re­main un­re­solved to­day.

In spite of this trou­bled legacy, Saanich peo­ple are striv­ing to re­vi­tal­ize reef-net fish­ing as well as the key role it played in Saanich so­ci­ety. “A new re­la­tion­ship needs to be forged between First Na­tion peo­ples and the state,” said Clax­ton. “His­toric treaties such as the Dou­glas Treaties should be rec­og­nized as such; then a new na­tion-to-na­tion [re­la­tion­ship] could emerge where both na­tions have some­thing valu­able to of­fer, and both could pros­per not at the ex­pense of each other, or at the ex­pense of the en­vi­ron­ment.”


Through­out the nine­teenth cen­tury, hun­dreds of Métis fam­i­lies came to­gether to par­tic­i­pate in sea­sonal, large-scale buf­falo hunts across the western prairies. The herds of bi­son pro­vided th­ese com­mu­ni­ties with a sta­ble food source, formed the cen­tre of their mo­bile econ­omy, and helped to shape a dis­tinctly Métis form of self-gov­er­nance.

Buf­falo hunts were an or­ga­nized af­fair. Métis fam­i­lies from dif­fer­ent re­gions pooled their re­sources and skills to en­sure their mu­tual safety and to make cer­tain that ev­ery fam­ily ben­e­fit­ted from the hunt. The dis­tri­bu­tion of re­spon­si­bil­i­ties and du­ties was de­ter­mined through open dis­cus­sions, vot­ing pro­cesses, and the elec­tion of tem­po­rary lead­ers, in­clud­ing a chief of the hunt and sev­eral cap­tains who over­saw smaller hunt­ing par­ties.

Adam Gaudry, as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor in the Fac­ulty of Na­tive Stud­ies and Depart­ment of Po­lit­i­cal Sci­ence at the Univer­sity of Al­berta, said the hunt was or­ga­nized in a man­ner that we would to­day call demo­cratic, and it fa­cil­i­tated the co­or­di­na­tion of hunt­ing strate­gies and armed re­sis­tances when nec­es­sary. The au­thor­ity of the lead­ers was tem­po­rary, pre­vent­ing power from be­com­ing con­cen­trated in one place. This helped Métis com­mu­ni­ties to work to­gether while also main­tain­ing the in­de­pen­dence of sep­a­rate fam­i­lies. No­tably, fam­i­lies were not forced to par­take in hunts or mil­i­tary con­fronta­tions but were able to choose whether to join in.

“The demo­cratic strength of the Métis com­mu­nity … lies in its or­ganic forms of gov­er­nance and its abil­ity to or­ga­nize it­self with­out cen­tral­ized au­thor­ity,” Gaudry wrote in his 2009 the­sis on re­claim­ing Métis cul­tural spa­ces. “Tra­di­tional Métis lead­er­ship is sit­u­a­tional, and never co­er­cive. Since con­sent to lead­er­ship could be re­voked at any time, all Métis life re­mained in­de­pen­dent of a per­ma­nent cen­tral­iz­ing force like a state sys­tem.”

The free­dom to live in­de­pen­dently was a fun­da­men­tal el­e­ment of Métis iden­tity. The life­style, how­ever, was not with­out its du­ties and obli­ga­tions. Métis val­ues and gov­er­nance were — and con­tinue to be — deeply rooted in kin­ship and fam­ily, said Gaudry. Métis peo­ple main­tained ex­ten­sive fam­ily net­works and could call upon each other in times of need, know­ing that help would be re­turned in the fu­ture if needed. Sig­nif­i­cantly, fam­ily ties of­ten went be­yond na­tional, re­li­gious, and lan­guage bar­ri­ers, re­sult­ing in a di­verse set of in­ter­twined com­mu­ni­ties. For in­stance, while many Métis were Catholic and French- or Michif-speak­ing, some were Protes­tant and English-speak­ing, while oth­ers fol­lowed tra­di­tional In­dige­nous spir­i­tu­al­ity and spoke mostly Cree or Ojibwa.

Métis gov­er­nance, an­chored in con­sen­sus and kin­ship, shaped Métis his­tory in ways that stretched be­yond the buf­falo hunt. Buf­falo hunt tac­tics in­formed Métis re­sis­tance against Cana­dian in­cur­sions into their ter­ri­to­ries. The model of the hunt was used by Métis men to take Up­per Fort Garry in the 1870 Red River Re­sis­tance and again to com­bat fed­eral gov­ern­ment forces at the 1885 Bat­tle of Ba­toche. Com­mu­ni­ties brought their val­ues and gov­er­nance strate­gies with them as they moved west and formed new set­tle­ments.

Over time, they had to deal with new ob­sta­cles. As white set­tlers rapidly col­o­nized the West, the buf­falo herds dis­ap­peared, and the Métis lost a ma­jor source of sub­sis­tence and suf­fered wide­spread dis­crim­i­na­tion. Still, their de­sire for in­de­pen­dence, self-suf­fi­ciency, di­rect par­tic­i­pa­tion in pol­i­tics, and last­ing kin­ship ties en­dured. Th­ese val­ues con­tinue to res­onate in mod­ern Métis com­mu­ni­ties and in their ef­forts to es­tab­lish con­tem­po­rary self-gov­er­nance.

Peo­ple in the Van­cou­ver Is­land vil­lage of Qu­atsino are dressed for a pot­latch, circa 1895–98.

The Dust Fan Belt of the Onondaga Na­tion rep­re­sents the Tree of Peace and is used to ex­plain the Great Law. It also rep­re­sents the need for chiefs to have clear vi­sion. The belt sym­bol­i­cally wipes the dust — is­sues that ob­scure clear vi­sion — from the lead­ers’ eyes.

A model of peo­ple and ca­noes en­gaged in reef-net fish­ing. The rep­re­sen­ta­tion cre­ated by Nick Clax­ton and Saanich elders be­came a fo­cal point for the cur­ricu­lum of a school at Tsawout First Na­tion, British Columbia.

JOANNE DECOSSE is a bilin­gual pub­lic his­to­rian and in­terim pro­gram co­or­di­na­tor for Canada’s His­tory So­ci­ety. She thanks Nick Clax­ton, Adam Gaudry, Lynn Gehl, and Brian Rice for their help with this ar­ti­cle.

Buf­falo Hunt­ing in the Sum­mer by Peter Rindis­bacher, 1822.

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