Hereditary chiefs’ power now seen beyond territory
People always recognized their role, but now police, politicians, industry observe it
Antonia Mills sighed Thursday as she remembered the words of B.C.’S chief justice in a history-shaping lawsuit 28 years ago.
“No written language, no horses or wheeled vehicles,” chief justice Allan Mceachern read aloud to a shocked courtroom in 1991. “Aboriginal life in the territory (before European contact) was, at best, nasty, brutish and short.”
But as Mills recalls it, those words were not the most outrageous heard by the Wet’suwet’en and Gitksan nation hereditary chiefs who launched the lawsuit against British Columbia.
No, most disappointing was the judge’s declaration that Indigenous rights “are extinguishable at the pleasure of the sovereign” — because the colonial-era Crown had already intended to eliminate any rights to the land that “might otherwise have prevented it from transferring title to its settlers.”
Mills, now 76 and a professor in the University of Northern B.C.’S First Nations Studies program, had worked as an anthropologist for the Wet’suwet’en since 1985 as they prepared their case. Its hereditary leaders, and those of its northern B.C. neighbour the Gitksan, would eventually win in Canada’s highest court in a watershed Indigenous rights ruling known as “Delgamuukw” after one of the hereditary Gitksan chiefs.
The importance of hereditary leaders came to the forefront this week, after heavily armed RCMP tactical officers stormed a Wet’suwet’en barricade set up to block workers for the planned Coastal Gaslink pipeline.
Two days after police arrested 14 people there on Monday, it was hereditary chiefs who led the RCMP past a second checkpoint. It was those hereditary chiefs who helped negotiate a temporary end to the impasse. And on Thursday, it was the hereditary chiefs from the nation’s five traditional clans with whom Coastal Gaslink negotiated an agreement.
But the clash at the barricade has led to public confusion about the distinction between the hereditary leaders and the elected chiefs and councils of the five First Nations bands of the Wet’suwet’en, four of which have signed agreements with Coastal Gaslink.
Confusion appeared to be shared even at the highest levels.
“The challenge for governments, federal and provincial, is determining how we bring together the historic band council model,” Premier John Horgan told reporters Wednesday, “with the emerging hereditary model that’s very much manifesting itself in Unist’ot’en territory.”
Mills was blunt in her reaction to the premier’s words: “Hereditary chiefs are ‘emergent?’” she exclaimed. “As if the elected chiefs were the old ones?
“I think somehow he doesn’t understand that the hereditary chief system is thousands of years old. It’s traditional and it never ceased.
“It’s been in continuous existence but had to go underground without letting anyone know because the stupid Canadian government would not accept the First Nations’ ways of doing things and made it illegal.”
Under Canada’s 19th-century Indian Act, today’s roughly 2,500-member Wet’suwet’en nation is divided into five independent First Nations governed by band councils, spread over more than 20 small reserves.
Coastal Gaslink boasts benefit agreements with every band council along its planned route; for the 150member “Wet’suwet’en First Nation,” for instance, it offered $13 million for its support.
But while that band’s elected council signed the deal, all five clans in the larger Wet’suwet’en nation reject it. The clan chiefs say that the First Nation’s band council only has jurisdiction over the reserve, not their entire traditional territories.
Wet'suwet'en hereditary Chief Namoks and Chief Madeek, right, listen to RCMP liaison officers at a meeting at the Unist'ot'en healing lodge on Wednesday afternoon.