Feed on

British Columbia invests a lot of effort to assess Aboriginal rights and title. Over the years I have read many government assessments of aboriginal rights. These reports, briefing notes, and summaries tend toward narrow, highly critical assessments of the existence of aboriginal rights. While acknowledging rights and title in the abstract such reports, more often than not, diminish and deny aboriginal rights and title in specific cases. Occasionally I even get an opportunity to meet an author of a government report.

In one case the government expert was a younger person with a graduate degree in comparative literature. They were part of a government team that included representatives of the ministry of the attorney general and officials from BC’s office of environmental assessments.  I was part of a First Nations team that included elected and hereditary leadership, legal council, and consultants.

After the formalities of introductions were completed the young government expert began their presentation by recounting their own version of the history of one of the hereditary leaders present at the meeting. The room was silent. When the expert finished no one said anything. Then the First Nation’s legal council began, without acknowledging the government expert. How does one address such a breach of protocol except by walking out or ignoring it? The First Nation team opted to overlook the breach in protocol. But that opening gambit by the government expert set the tone of the meeting.  Little was really accomplished.

Sometime later it was my turn to speak. I had prepared a set of briefing notes and comments on the government expert’s report that was shared with the provincial government team. They poured over the document as I was speaking. I noticed that the government team were passing notes around, a section of my report was being redlined vigorously. Then the government expert interrupted and said that they took offence with my report.  In particular, they said “Your characterization of James Colnett is a disparaging assumption.”  They found it demeaning to Colnett, the government expert, and non-Indigenous peoples in general.

“How does one gloss abduction, rape, and killing,” I replied?  “How can it be anything other than a violent criminal act?”

At which point the government expert and team decided they needed a coffee break.

In People of the Saltwater (2016) I write about Colnett’s encounter with Gitxaała people (pages 33-34, 37). As I comment there “When Colnett’s crew ambushed, raped, and kidnapped Gitxaała people in 1787 he was setting in play a pattern that has shaped Indigenous-K’amksiwah relations ever since” Menzies 2016:37).  Colonial agents still have a difficult time reconciling themselves to their own ancestors’ criminal acts.

For reference here is the full account as transcribed by Robert Galois (2004) from Colnett’s and his officers’ logs.

“Supercargo & Self din’d onboard the Princes Royal, between four & five in the afternoon a smoke was observed thro’ the Trees, guessed it proceeded from a little Cove abut three miles to the eastward where there was remains of old houses [The location is likely the village site Ks’wan where we have, since 2011, been engaged in archaeological research.  The C14 dates we have place the age of the village to be at least 4,000years old.  The site stratigraphy indicates continuous habitation into the 1800s. The site is not recorded in the Provincial database as of this date.] Captain Duncan’s boat was man’d & arm’d with Six men & the Chief Mate, to go after the Indians; I set to the Ship desiring the Whale Boat to follow with the second Mate we soon heard the fireing of Musketts & in less than an Hour from their setting out the Sloops Boat returned with a Canoe & one Women in, the Whale boat met them but went on.  They had taken the Indians by surprize, the Chief Mate & four hands landed to get at the back of them & the other two proceeded with the Boat it being rainy weat. Matts were hung around them which served as and Excellent screen & the Vot was within two Yard before discover’d the surprize put them off their guard & landing getting close to them had render’d their long spears useless, there being four men & two women did not attempt to secure any of them appearing as unconcern’d as possible keeping on their guard to act when the others hove in sight but the Indians gaining confidence from their not acting on the Defensive two of them seiz’d their spears, both men level’d their musketts, one snapt the other fortunately went of & shot a Man thro’ the Head; two of them fled & the musket that miss’d fire was cock’d & shot the reamining one thro’ the Breast, after that he snatched the Cutlass from his Opponent’s side & struck at him several ties with it but the Man that first fired knocked him down with the But of his Piece, thinking they had dispatched those two, pursued the others.  The five men by this time had reach’d the spot where the Action had happen’d seeing no one to give them information, the Man shot thro’ head as suppos’d, the Ball had gone into his mouth & he hd recovered so as to get on his legs & seeing those men seiz’d a log of wood out of the fire to defend himself & was not got the better of till a cutlass was run thro’ him, & muskets discharged the other that had been left for dead  was fled; a person that was crawling thro’ the bushes was shot which proved to be a women the remaining one was taken prisoner in a few hours she became quite compos’d & satisfied with her situation, took great fancy to one of the men who had been at the Skirmish, & adopted him for her husband” (Galois 2004: 158-159).

It is instructive to ask what exactly one should assume is the state of being of a women who has just experienced the murder of two of her companions, the shooting of a third, and her own capture.  Is it not conceivable that she would have been in fear of her life and felt the best approach was to cooperate with the men who had captured her even if that meant she was to adopt one of her captors “as her husband”?  And, by “adopt him for her husband” one can reasonably infer that this means she was placed in the position of being compelled to have intimate sexual relations with her captor.

Taylor, one of Colnett’s officers describes the event in somewhat different terms than does his Captain: “on the 27th We saw some smoke in the Woods to the Northeast, and of course concluded some Indians were preparing a meal.  Thoughts on revenge caused a general bustle, an Officer from the Princes Royal and five men armed went in the Boat to reconnoiter the Spot.  They rowed round the point, near the place where the smoke was, and with the arms went into the Woods, to use their own words they did not intend hurting any one, providing they were peaceable, but if they found a small party to bring them Prisoners to the Ship, as they entered the woods they divided themselves into two parties, to prevent their escape if possible.  Two of the Seamen first discovered the Indians at the foot of a large Tree, clearing away their utensils after a meal, when the Indians discovered our Seamen approaching, one of them instantly grasped his long Spear, and was in the act of throwing it towards one of them, when he was dispatched by a musket ball from one of them.  He fell (81b) instantly.  By this time our two parties joined.  The Indians were only six in number, two of which were women.  The Men all armed as much as the circumstances would allow, but seeing one of their party killed, two men and one women fled to the woods, one remained and defended himself gallantly.  He received a musket shot through his Shoulder, and a Cutlass through some part of his body, yet he defended himself with a Stick on fire, till knocked down with the Butt end of a musquet, where he was left for Dead.  He afterwards rose unobserved and ran into the woods, one of the women was Killed this was not intended, when she was shot our People supposed her to be a Man.  The other women was brought away prisoner, and treated with great tenderness by the Man who took her with whom she remained for the present.  She attempted to escape to the woods with the two Men but was caught.” (Galois 2004: 161-162, emphasis added)  

Later in the text the journal describes returning the ‘girl’ who had been forcibly kidnapped to Smyogyet Seax: “Captain Duncan carried him the girl, we had now clothed her [does this imply they had previously disrobed her?], with some of the best garments purchased from her own Countrymen, besides a pair of Trousers a Ring on each Finger and many beads he appeared to be a little surpris’d at seeing her” (Galois 2004:163).  Colnett’s officer, Taylor describes the return of the ‘women’ in somewhat different terms: “A Boat man’d and armed went out to Trade with the Chief, carrying the Female prisoner with them, to return her” (Galois 2004:164).

However one might wish to characterize this event the journals clearly describe an ambush of 6 Gitxaala people of which at least two, if not three were killed in the encounter and one of the women taken onboard the vessel as a prisoner.

During one of our several field trips to this place I read the Colnett account to our crew, which was comprised of UBC archaeology students and Gitxaala community members.  We were gathered in the galley of the Katrena Leslie, a commercial fishboat owned by Gitxaala Nation.  We had just come back from Taylor’s Island ( the island used by Colnett’s crew to store materials as they repaired one of their two ships).  After I finished reading there was a momentary pause, then one of the crew members said “I’ve heard that story before.  But the way I heard it was they raped those women.”  The crew member had not heard the Colnett account before, but he did recall hearing elders in his family talk about the kidnapping and rape of Gitxaala women early in the period of encounter with Europeans.  Clearly the perspective of the storyteller will shape the telling of a story.  But even in the telling by Colnett and Taylor the violence and intensity of the struggle should be clear to a reader. When read against the oral history of Gitxaala it leaves a chilling tone in the air.

Calling the attack a rape is not a disparaging comment – it is what one calls coercive sexual intercourse.  Only a government expert charged with diminishing the humanity, history, and legal rights of Indigenous people could ever imagine such a description as disparaging to white settlers.

Partnerships in Research

This afternoon I participated in a panel on research collaboration between universities and First Nations communities. The panel was part of a two day research workshop hosted by UBC’s Indigenous / Science research cluster at the Musqueam Cultural Pavilion.

What follows are my speaking notes.

A few years ago there was a young student who wanted to study Indigenous Archaeology. He came up to me and asked if he could join in on my community’s project.

I felt worried though. Was what we were doing really archaeology?

How was what we were doing was Indigenous?

We were using our Nation’s commercial seine boat to travel through our territories, stopping at old villages, harvesting places, fishing sites, old trails, boat launches, all these social spaces that have names and histories.

At each place, once we had dropped anchor, we would go set a couple of crab traps. Sometimes we would jig a few fish, pick some seaweed and other shellfish.

Oh. We also did some percussion coring and some auger tests. Occasionally we had folks on board who could operate a 3d surveying tool and we mapped these places. Once and awhile we even dug a small hole or two. –One of the most interesting such holes was a shallow trench across a small island that revealed an old campfire, flint stones, and other evidence of European and Gitxaala use.

But I was left wondering whether the student would be cheated since we really weren’t doing archaeology. It was as though we were just out fishing. The crew consisted of an uncle a couple of nephews, a close friend and then some university colleagues and students. What we were doing struck me more like the way we go on a fishing trip; I guess that’s what made our archaeology Indigenous.

This gets at a perspective on collaboration that is rather different than most of these projects that originated from non-Indigenous researchers approaching a First Nation community. As an Indigenous researcher at a university my relations are the same yet different than my non-Indigenous colleagues. As our youth gain greater access to post-secondary education there will be more researchers like me and more projects wherein the researcher is of the community.

The medium term goals of project such as this Research Cluster is to make the non-Indigenous researcher dispensable, not indispensable.

Our Gitxaała/UBC collaborative program began more than two decades ago. Our first projects were in collaboration with the former treaty office. Then, working with band administration, an environmental monitoring agency was set up to regulate research access and external referrals. The objective was to shift the control away from outside forces and bring it under community leadership and control.

This isn’t a call for researchers to mute their voices. It is recognition that research needs to be controlled and regulated locally. It is also a call for a return to rigorous and precise work that doesn’t make over claims or unfounded assertions in any paper of the academic product.

This research cluster can make a difference. What will be important is for the coordinators to clearly identify what they want to do, what their capacities might be, and then allow us to decide if we want to engage.

This photo shows our field site from the south east. See those ridge lines tipped in snow in the center of the frame? That’s where we are heading this coming week. Most of snow from the winter has melted away, but there will be some left.  This time of year is amazing in the coastal alpine. The upland meadows will be in bloom. The local goats will have moved into their summer range with newborn kids.

Our objective this trip is to harvest enough shed wool for a weaving workshop in the fall.  Goats shed their winter wool starting in late spring into the summer. Picking the wool from bushes, rubbing spots, and along trails is the traditional harvesting method. This trip will focus on harvesting wool. But we will also be collecting DNA samples from goat dung and guard hairs!

Also on the agenda – collecting moss and plant samples.

Older Posts »

Spam prevention powered by Akismet