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I HAD A DREAM ...
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore— While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door. "Tis some visitor," I muttered, "tapping at my chamber door— Only this and nothing more."
EDGAR ALLAN POE, excerpted from The Raven
I was brought up in a small coastal Indian village of Lax Kw'alaams on the northwest coast of British Columbia. My community was part of the Tsimshian Nation, a group known for its highly complex culture that developed in the mists of the mystical coastal temperate rain forest. For the last two centuries the rich culture, spirituality and highly-evolved artistic traditions of the Tsimshian and other Northwest Coast Indian groups have captured the imagination of scholars. One eminent anthropologist has pointed out that, even though the coastal peoples were genetically and linguistically similar to the other tribes found across North America, in some ways they were different from all others. These cultures have a pronounced oriental or Asiatic tinge which is thought to be evidence of a basic kinship, and long-continued contact, with the peoples around the north Pacific Rim. Most of all, the cultures were distinguished by a local richness and originality thought to be the product of vigorous and inventive people in a rich environment.
When Captain Cook (in 1778) and other European explorers and fur traders first visited the coast, they encountered one of the highest densities of First Nations settlements found anywhere on the North American continent. Due to the bounty of a lush environment, fully one-third of the Aboriginal population in Canada lived in British Columbia. Between the Kodiak Archipelago of Alaska and San Francisco Bay, several hundred thousand people lived, speaking more than sixty distinct languages—a linguistic diversity far greater than that of the continental interior—attributed to the ecological complexity of the sustaining coastal lands and waters. In only a few other places in the world did comparably-advanced societies arise on a foundation of natural abundance, rather than one of farming or herding.
Although their patterns of land ownership and utilization did not accord with European legal notions, the coastal peoples were nonetheless quite sophisticated in this regard and had clearly-defined concepts, which were mutually-respected. For example, natural boundaries such as rivers and the ocean defined specific geographical areas where a tribe was recognized to have exclusive use and control of the natural resources contained within the boundaries of that area. If another group wanted to use those resources or conduct trade within that area they had to receive permission from the tribe and often had to pay what amounted to a tax for those privileges. They also proved to be shrewd business people who, the early fur traders soon learned, were formidable commercial competitors. Originally, tribal leaders of the coastal people exploited trade to develop their cultures further along their own distinctive lines. Had it not been for the ravages of several decades of introduced disease, alcohol and gunpowder, they would have been a greater force when settlers began to arrive.
Throughout the nineteenth century, the Tsimshian were significantly involved in industrial production, manufacturing, mercantile enterprises, and wage labor. The Tsimshian Chiefs were quick to expand their existing tribal trading privileges and monopolies to include the new European markets. "Through such [trading] monopolies, they could control a large amount of the trade, especially that of the land-based Hudson's Bay Company [the American and Russian fur traders, on the other hand, came in ships by sea], and to some degree could regulate the price of the furs (Fisher 1977: 30)." The Tsimshian trade competitively expanded into the interior of British Columbia. By the time the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) arrived from the east in 1826, the Tsimshians were already trading to the inland tribes European goods received from American traders on the coast. Upon their arrival, the Hudson's Bay Company traders were greatly surprised that they could not afford to match the prices for furs offered by the aggressive Tsimshians who already dominated those markets. When diseases such as smallpox began to decimate the Aboriginal population, HBC traders had access to inoculations, but sometimes distributed these strategically to only those Tsimshians who were non-trade competitors. Despite their purported "Christian" values, such decisions were tantamount to a death sentence for the most capable Tsimshian entrepreneurs of the time.
In 1834, the Hudson's Bay Company established its trading fort at what is now the site of the community of Lax Kw'alaams ("Island of Roses"). Nine tribes of the Tsimshian moved to Lax Kw'alaams soon after the establishment of the fort. The community is also known as Port Simpson, named after Amelius Simpson, superintendent of the marine department of the Hudson's Bay Company of the time. Lax Kw'alaams was soon to become headquarters of the fur trade on the Canadian side of the north coast. One of the largest towns on the BC Coast at the time subsequently grew up around the fort at Lax Kw'alaams. In 1891, the first major hospital on the north coast was founded there by an Act of the provincial legislature.
A FRONT ROW SEAT
Sadly, when I was a lad, the Tsimshian were but a pale shadow of their vigorous ancestors who prosecuted trade and commerce so enthusiastically throughout the Victorian era. Growing up on an Indian reserve, I witnessed first-hand the complex web of social and political pathologies resulting from a noveau culture based on welfare dependency and government transfer payments. My father was a commercial fisherman and a fine one. Though he had made a good life for our family, I was well aware that life in an Aboriginal Indian reserve had a very sinister side to it. Such a bad environment has persisted so long in most Aboriginal communities that many Aboriginal people have, over generations, been socialized into thinking that this widespread dysfunction is normal. Imagine a situation where tragically high youth suicide rates, gross unemployment figures, frequent banana republic-style corruption, and persistent abuse—both substance and physical—prevail, and you might begin to understand what life is like on many Aboriginal reserves.
My grandmother, Maude Helin, was Chieftain of one of the largest of the nine tribes in our community. In the Tsimshian system it was not uncommon for women to be in high positions of power such as the role of Chieftain. Her Chiefs name was Sigyidm hana'a Nt'sit'hotk ("Grandmother of the tribe"). Unlike the English system of assigning names, the Tsimshian system provided an example of a social structure built on the two themes of kinship and rank (which were much more important than to Europeans). English people receive only one name, which usually reveals the sex of the individual and the father's line, while titles and honorifics can indicate marital status, educational attainment, occupation, or rank. Conversely, Aboriginals on the northern coast took a series of names of higher and higher rank as they aged. Such names usually revealed to the other members of the tribe the person's sex, age-group, lineage, rank, and sometimes role (such as successor Chief). My Grandmother's Chiefs name had been passed on from hereditary Chief to hereditary Chief in her tribe for thousands of years. Though it brought her great status, it also imposed many obligations that involved duties, responsibilities, and originally prescribed considerable formality and a code of conduct.
RESPONDING TO A CHALLENGE
Kites rise highest against the wind ... not with it.
In Tsimshian society, my grandmother was an aristocrat from the royal house of Gitchiis. No matter how blue her blood, however, she would have to endure firsthand the many humiliations of the legacy of colonial policy and law which ensured that Aboriginal people of her generation were treated like second-class citizens. Throughout most of her life, she could not vote in federal or provincial elections. Indians –along with Chinese and some other minorities—were forced to sit in separate areas from whites in movie theatres, could not go into bars, and were effectively barred from becoming doctors or lawyers. In many ways, her generation was subjected to grotesque racial indignities similar to those endured by African-Americans in the deep South, or South African Blacks under the apartheid regime.
Add to this a system where land and resources and the means to a livelihood were simply removed, and where Aboriginal culture and language were effectively outlawed. What was instituted to replace self-sufficient Aboriginal societies was an incompetent and patronizing bureaucracy whose prescription amounted to a heavy dose of welfare. In light of these circumstances, you might begin to understand what piqued my grandmother, raising her ire and indignation.
Along with my grandfather, Henry Helin, my grandmother worked tirelessly to improve the lot of Aboriginal people. Together they were instrumental in founding the Native Brotherhood of British Columbia, the organization that for almost 75 years has represented Aboriginal workers and fisherman in the fishing industry. Every chance she got, she would urge me to "Get an education and become a lawyer and fight for the rights of Indians."
GRAMPA AND GRANNY HELIN
Portrait of Henry and Maude Helin in traditional regalia. Tsimshian chieftains of two of the nine tribes of Lax Kw'alaams. Henry Helin's Chiefs title was Sm'ooygit Nees Nuugan Noos and his tribe was the Gitlan. Maude Helin's Chief's name was Sigyidm hana'a Nt'sit'hotk which meant "Grandmother of the tribe." She was Chieftain of the Gitchiis tribe. Both were lifelong activists advocating for constructive action to make the lives of ordinary indigenous people better.
In seeking to obtain an education, I was greatly handicapped by circumstances. As a child, I was stuck in an atrociously-run federal Indian Day School with very low academic standards and exceedingly low expectations from the federally-appointed administration. Since my family at the time were "non-status Indians" and quite poor, there was no money to obtain a better education elsewhere. I am indebted to the generosity and good graces of my grade 8 teacher, Greg Millbank and his family (particularly his father and mother, Bob and Betty Millbank), for providing an opportunity for me to attend school in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia. After finishing high school, I went into the fishing business where, thanks to 24 percent interest rates in the early 1980s, I earned my first PhD in business by going spectacularly broke. Failing miserably in the family business forced me to get around to earning a law degree.
Twenty years later, much observation and reflection has led me to conclusions I could never have imagined. I have learned that the Aboriginal population and its issues are not simply questions to be pondered at the leisure of do-gooders and altruistic liberals. I also realized the mainstream Canadian population has a very poor understanding as to why such a question is absolutely critical to the future well-being and vigorous development of Canada as a nation.
A contemporary translation of the question with which my grandmother challenged my generation is: "What can be done to make the lives of ordinary indigenous people better?" Sounds like a simple enough question, doesn't it? Nevertheless, after a century of high falutin' talk between the federal government and Indian politicians, ordinary Aboriginal folk are left to wonder: "What is the practical legacy?" Are Aboriginal people any further ahead? The truth is that for the vast amount of resources expended, most statistics indicate that the social and economic dividend has been nominal.
The crux of the problem is that parties have largely assumed that the whole solution to sorting out Aboriginal woes can be provided for, or solved by, the federal government. There is no question that its policies and programs are important. However, a search for a real solution must begin outside the current dependency mindset.
My grandmother's question has been pondered for the past 200 years, and most solutions proposed have had little effect. Government has put forward "solutions" that frequently have exacerbated already bad situations. Though the system was created through no fault of their own, a host of past Indian chiefs have made an industry of pointing fingers and assigning blame. Expensive Royal Commissions have come and gone with supposed answers. In the meantime, the stark reality of grassroots Aboriginal people in Canada has changed very little. Aboriginal children and youth see no hope at the end of the tunnel of despair and poverty. As shocking statistics reflect, Aboriginal youth continue to commit suicide and abuse substances at truly horrifying rates. Grassroots community members continue to be victims of an Indian Act system in which they are individually and personally disempowered and largely politically neutered. At the same time, Aboriginal folks have passed muster on the federal government-supported reserve system by voting with their feet. Today approximately 50 percent of Aboriginal people in Canada live outside of reserve communities, primarily in urban areas where there are, quite simply, better employment, educational and economic opportunities, and higher incomes.
The fact of the matter is that neither Aboriginal people nor the Canadian public can afford another lost generation of youth. The staggering human and economic costs are simply too great, particularly when the opportunity to take a giant leap forward is at hand.
The good news is that Aboriginals are likely in the best position ever to integrate economically with the mainstream, to partner with industry, and create wealth and opportunities for all. With reserve lands and only a handful of modern treaties concluded, Aboriginal people currently own, lock-stock-and-barrel, over 600,000 square kilometres of land—an area over eight times the size of Ireland, over twice the size of either New Zealand or England, and larger by a substantial margin than either France, Germany or Spain. And there are still many, many more settlements to come. Some estimates suggest Aboriginal people will eventually own or control one-third of the entire Canadian land mass—an area equivalent to a third of the total land area of Europe! Current settlements have resulted in approximately $2.5 billion to $5 billion in cash payments. Some estimate that there may be between $10 billion and $20 billion paid in future settlements.
With growing resource development in their traditional territories as the result of huge, unremitting commodities-demand in the world markets, and legal decisions requiring genuine consultation, Aboriginal Canadians for the first time have real leverage over a substantial area of the Canadian economy. This results in an unprecedented opportunity to forge a new era of self-reliance. There is real hope and a practical solution—albeit one that may not be popular with those parties benefiting under the current chaos, and whose interests are entrenched in maintaining the status quo.
Excerpted from Dances with Dependency by Calvin Helin. Copyright © 2008 Calvin Helin. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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