When the announcement came Sunday that the Wet'suwet'en Nation and the B.C. government had reached a proposed agreement to acknowledge land title rights, it confirmed the power of longstanding alliances between First Nations, such as the Wet’suwet’en and their neighbours, the Gitxsan.
In the past, when the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en Nations were heading into battle together, they would hold a ceremony. Art Wilson, who holds the Gitxsan hereditary name ‘Wii Muk’wilixw, learned about it from his grandfather.
“He told me the history of our alliance with the Wet’suwet’en. They used to meet at the Suskwa [River], when they summoned the Wet’suwet’en. They used to drink out of one pot and they called the ceremony gitwiltxw,” Wilson says.
Wilson was in New Hazelton Feb. 24 when RCMP arrested 14 people, including three Gitxsan hereditary chiefs, and removed a railway blockade in support of the Wet’suwet’en Nation. Supporters — who included Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan members, as well as non-Indigenous people — blocked traffic on Highway 16 for eight hours to demand the chiefs’ release.
All 14 were released on a promise to appear in a Vancouver courtroom in April.
The relationship between the neighbouring northwestern B.C. First Nations has been solidified over past decades through joint litigation and recent solidarity actions.
But the nations share a history that dates back millennia. They also share a boundary, as well as the Morice and Bulkley Rivers — known to the Wet’suwet’en as Widzin Kwah — and the resources, like salmon, that their cultures depend upon.
“I think just being allies was a big deterrent with other outside people — better not bother the Gitxsan, they’re going to come back with the Wet’suwet’en,” Wilson says. “Historically, we’ve been allies with any major problems we have. When we have problems here, they show up to help us. So, I think that old alliance is still alive.”
The Gitxsan were among the first to publicly support the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs when they evicted Coastal GasLink pipeline company from their territory earlier this year and closed the Morice West Forest Service Road.
On Jan. 16, the Office of the Gitxsan Hereditary Chiefs released a statement saying, “the Gitxsan Hereditary Chiefs — as they have done since the historic case at Delgumuukw/Gisday’wa — extends its full support to its neighbour nation.”
Wilson’s son, Kolin Sutherland-Wilson, a University of Victoria student, took a simple cardboard sign and went alone to spend the week of Jan. 6 sitting on the steps of the B.C. legislature.
A month later, “unprecedented” demonstrations were underway, with hundreds of people blocking access to the building, derailing events planned around the throne speech on Feb. 12.
Kolin’s brother, Denzel Sutherland-Wilson, was among those arrested at Gidimt’en camp, 44 kilometres along the Morice forestry road, on Jan. 7.
When RCMP first began making arrests at Indigenous camps along the remote forestry road on Feb. 6, supporters on Gitxsan territory blocked Highway 16 for two hours and began a six-day occupation of the railway in New Hazelton.
The railway re-opened when a meeting between Wet’suwet’en chiefs and government officials appeared imminent, but the protests resumed Feb. 24 as RCMP removed rail blockades and arrested 10 people in Tyendinaga, Ont.
Currently, all barricades in northern B.C. have been removed.
On Sunday, following three days of talks, Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chief Woos and federal and provincial Indigenous Relations Ministers Carolyn Bennett and Scott Fraser announced the parties had reached a draft arrangement for formalizing Wet’suwet’en rights and title. Coastal GasLink announced it would resume work on Monday.
The Wet’suwet’en conflict has been framed as an internal issue around who speaks for the nation. Five of six Wet’suwet’en elected band councils have signed benefits agreements with Coastal GasLink, which is building a $6.2-billion pipeline to carry gas from the province’s northeast to an LNG plant in Kitimat. Hereditary chiefs oppose the project.
But the band councils, imposed under the Indian Act, are responsible for governing reserve land. The Coastal GasLink pipeline does not pass through any reserves.
Hereditary chiefs represent traditional governance systems that were in place well before Europeans arrived. The positions are not inherited at birth; they are earned. Potential leaders, particularly those displaying an interest in the culture, are identified at a young age and groomed to take a hereditary name, which is passed down when the previous holder dies.
“The individual who holds a chief’s name is seen as a temporary custodian of that name,” the Gitxsan website says. “They are obliged to hold up the honour of the name and thereby the honour of their Wilp [house group] by acting in a chiefly manner at all times and by fulfilling their chiefly duties.”
Hereditary chiefs have jurisdiction over the territory outside of reserves. Decisions impacting the nation are made in the feast hall, with all clans present. Elected chiefs and councils are responsible for government on the nation’s six reserves.
The hereditary chiefs’ jurisdiction has been affirmed by the courts. In another act of gitwiltxw, the Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan joined together as plaintiffs in the Delgamuukw-Gisday’wa case. In 1997, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in favour of the hereditary chiefs when it found that their title to 55,000 square kilometres of land (33,000 for Gitxsan and 22,000 for the Wet’suwet’en) had never been extinguished.
Gitwiltxw far pre-dates modern history. For longer than anyone can remember, the relationship between the neighbouring nations has been peaceful. Their shared stories, like the relationship, date back thousands of years.
“We joined the Gitxsan when the Haida tried to come upriver to defeat the Gitxsan and move into our territory,” says Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chief Chief Na’Moks, whose English name is John Ridsdale. “Where I live, in Hagwilget, just around the corner down river is where we rolled boulders onto the Haida to sink their canoe and sent them back.”
Hagwilget Village has a commanding position above a canyon on the Bulkley River and a unique place in the Gitxsan-Wet’suwet’en relationship.
In the early 1800s, a rockslide in the canyon below Hagwilget blocked migrating salmon from reaching the Wet’suwet’en community of Witset (formerly Moricetown), 30 kilometres upstream. “Because it was restricting some of the fish coming up and it was a better place to get fish, they were pooling there, we had an agreement with them,” says Na’Moks. Wet’suwet’en residents made their way to Hagwilget and were welcomed by the Gitxsan, who offered a village site next to the river.
Over the years, the debris began to clear and some Wet’suwet’en returned to Witset. In 1959, the federal government destroyed the fishery when it blasted the rock that was impeding salmon migration. Fifty years later, after a drawn-out court battle, the village reached a $21.5-million settlement with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in 2009.
To this day, Hagwilget remains a Wet’suwet’en community within Gitxsan territory. It is the only elected council not to sign an agreement with Coastal GasLink.
Sitting 120 kilometres north of the pipeline route, Hagwilget is not considered within the pipeline corridor. (Although an agreement signed by the Witset elected council is widely cited as proof of Wet’suwet’en support. Witset is 90 kilometres from the pipeline route.)
When Coastal GasLink asked to meet with Hagwilget’s former chief councillor, Dora Wilson (' Yaga’lahl), she insisted the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs be present.
“We witnessed her telling them, ‘The village looks after the village and the territory belongs to the chiefs,’” Na’Moks says.
Gitxsan Hereditary Chief Spookw, whose English name is Norman Stevens, says the roles of hereditary and elected chiefs on Gitxsan territory are undisputed.
“In the Gitxsan Nation, there’s no conflict whatsoever between the band councils and the hereditary system. Whether it’s Hagwilget, Gitanmaax, Kispiox or Glen Vowell, they all recognize that the authority for title and rights lies with the hereditary chiefs,” he says.
Spookw was among those arrested Monday evening on his territory, along with chiefs Gwininitxw (Yvonne Lattie) and Dawamuxw (Larry Patsy).
“The only reason there’s conflict in the Wet’suwet’en is when they started the consultation process, Canada and B.C., were talking to the hereditary chiefs, consulting with them in regard to that pipeline, and things were fine until they said ‘no’ and when they said ‘no’ they switched around and looked for someone to say ‘yes.’ They found that with the band councils,” he says.
“They’ve made this problem. They’ve empowered the small bands by giving them money because they would voice a positive opinion of the pipeline.”
Gitxsan territory is not considered within the pipeline corridor and Coastal GasLink was not required to consult with the nation. However, the Gitxsan have seen their own conflicts over resource development.
In 2016, 12 of the Gitxsan’s 64 hereditary house chiefs signed benefit agreements with TC Energy, Coastal GasLink’s parent company that was planning the 900-kilometre Prince Rupert Gas Transmission pipeline that would carry natural gas from Hudson’s Hope to a facility near Prince Rupert.
A news release announcing the agreements recognized the authority of the hereditary chiefs.
According to Spookw, the house chiefs were entitled to sign agreements for their own house groups. At issue were clauses within the agreements committing them to quell dissent for the project within the nation.
Art Wilson was among the hereditary chiefs who signed.
“Anything that happens on our territories, we have to benefit,” he says. “We watched the whole process unfold and we were the very last to agree. We didn’t want to agree, but if there were 10 groups along the line and nine of them already agreed, then it puts us in a no-win situation.”
The project was shelved in 2017 when investors pulled out. Wilson says he’s fine with that.
The spirit of gitwiltxw is at the heart of the current movement to support the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs. It’s part of a cascading effect that begins in the headwaters of the Skeena watershed — literally, at the Unist’ot’en Healing Centre, where opposition to Coastal GasLink began — and flows through Wet’suwet’en and into Gitxsan territory.
Unist’ot’en, a house group of the Wet’suwet’en, translates to “people of the headwaters of the Widzin Kwah.” The English translation for Gitxsan is “people of the river of mist,” referring to the Skeena. The nations are inexorably linked in their connection to the water and dependence on its resources.
“It was not acceptable for the Gitxsan Nation to sit back while the Mohawk were getting arrested for standing up for rights of the Wet’suwet’en,” said Spookw, referring to arrests at an Ontario blockade. “The rights of the Wet’suwet’en are the same as the rights that we hold.”
“[The Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en] recognized a long time ago that if they stand together, they’re stronger with any enemies that are invading. They stood together before the Europeans arrived. We stood together in Delgamuukw. Now as industry invades and Canada and B.C. allow an invasion and use their courts and injunctions to invade our nations, we have to stand together.”
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