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Issue 136

Seeing You and Looking Back: Display as Land Rights and Title
by Marianne Nicolson

“WITNESS: I want the Commission to tell us the one that sold it, and they should remember that the Indians have a law among themselves just as the whitemen have – and no one is allowed to take another man’s land without first finding out who the land belongs to.”

— Kwakwaka’wakw Testimony to the McKenna-McBride Royal Commission ( June 1914)

In June 1914, the head chiefs of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nations gathered in Alert Bay in order to testify to the McKenna-McBride Royal Commission. This commission was the culmination of decades of unresolved questions around Indigenous Land jurisdiction and the encroachment and imposition of colonial land needs and desires. It was a process that sought to dispossess Indigenous Nations of their lands and to impose severe limitations through the establishment of small “reserves.”

The photo below shows the Gigigame’ chiefs wearing all their regalia and standing inside their ceremonial house – note the remnants of the fire in the foreground. While the blankets and headdresses do indeed create a colourful and artistic display, their real meaning and importance was internal recognition of land title and rights. For instance, no chief could wear that to which he was not entitled, and the sanction was the public acceptance and validation of those rights. Each crest and image existed not only for simple display and beauty but also as a direct link to the histories telling of how each lineage came to be in the land. On the far left, the kolus headdress worn by ‘Maxwa’kutłala, Chief Johnny Scow of the Kwikwasut’inuxw, tells of his descent from the great thunderbird Udzista’lis (or, A’udzistalaga’lis) who at the beginning of time came down at K’axadakwi (“Split-in-Two Mountain”) in Xakwikan (“Thompson Sound”). In order to affirm both ancestral rights and land rights, he would have been obligated to display these privileges publicly before the rest of the Kwakwaka’wakw, who as witnesses bore testimony to its legitimacy through the potlatch system. It is only in enacting this process that he is able to legally wear the headdress that connects to the history and place of the Kwikwasut’inuxw of whom he became head chief. This is true of all the Kwakwaka’wakw chiefs who accompany him in this photo. During the McKenna-McBride Royal Commission, these chiefs testified to their great discontent and alarm at being allocated only tiny reserves within lands that they considered theirs through great lineages established “since light first came into our world.” Mostly oblivious to their concerns, the McKenna-McBride Royal Commission carried on allocating tiny postage-stamp-sized reserves on the coast and ultimately swindling away the most valuable reserve lands for more, but less valuable, lands. They did this by recommending the removal of approximately 47,000 acres valued at $13– 15 million and the addition of 87,000 acres valued at less than $500,000.1

To complete the slight-of-hand transformation of Indigenous Lands into Crown Lands, the colonial authorities outlawed Kwakwaka’wakw traditional law and governance by banning the potlatch from 1893–1951. Though hard to prosecute by 1921, the Kwakwaka’wakw Indian Agent, William Hailliday, was successful in charging with an illegal offence many of the head Kwakwaka’wakw for potlatching. Those who wished to avoid jail time were given the option of giving up their regalia. With great sorrow they brought these things to Halliday, who put them on display in the Alert Bay Community Hall and charged a quarter to people who wished to view them. For the Kwakwaka’wakw, this was a tremendous humiliation. Once sold to the major museum institutions of colonial society, Halliday paid out paltry sums, thus imitating the coercive tactics of the McKenna-McBride Royal Commission in transforming that which was worth “beyond measure” to the Kwakwaka’wakw into next to nothing.

“I am returning to you cheque No.3799 for $22.00 in favor of Abraham which he refuses to accept for his paraphernalia as he say the sum is absolutely too small for the paraphernalia he surrendered. He wants to tell you he would rather give them to you for nothing than accept $22.00 for them.”

—Letter from Kwawkewlth Agency, Alert Bay, BC to Department of Indian Affairs (May 1st, 1922)

I cannot help but think of these things today when I see the great treasures of the Kwakwaka’wakw and other great nations within the great storehouses of colonization. Even today, the display maintains the illusion that these things are there to educate and illuminate the general public of our greatness. It is only with sorrow that I can see how captured they are and how trained we have become to view them as within their natural state, when the authority and relationship with land they were originally meant to express remains as disregarded and desecrated as they were in 1914 and again in 1921. I think this while knowing that the great fish runs that so sustained the Kwikwasut’inuxw since time immemorial are also desecrated and diseased and our way of life is under such threat that our young people are occupying fish farms in our territory in order to protest them while John Horgan, the new Premier of British Columbia, reiterates to us that Norwegian- and Japanese-owned fish farms “…now [generate] $800 million in annual value…”

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