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June 18, 2018. Unceded Indigenous lands of the Kanien’kehá:ka Nation 


Tenure and territorial rights are fundamental material conditions for all societies.

Our focus on Indigenous communities necessitates examination of colonial processes, which quite bluntly are capitalist processes pure and simple. By this I mean that for the last several centuries the underlying fundamental driver of global and regional economies has been the capitalist mode of production. Colonialism, the notion of one nation (or similar group) occupying the territories of another, has been and continues to be, an intrinsic part of the mechanisms of the capitalist mode of production.   I would argue, and submit that the material evidence supports this contention, that there is no colonialism separate from capitalism in the context of today’s indigenous peoples.

Tenure: notions of property – control/transmission, use, access – authority and jurisdiction. Tenure here can be thought of a process of property making – in the sense that these are the social and cultural rules whereby people structure relations to land and water domains. Within many kin ordered societies landed property is not alienable from the rights/property holding group. One of the key features of the capitalist system has been the attempts to transform property into an alienable commodity that is severed from relations with social groups. Comparative studies of this process and Indigenous responses would be a productive avenue to explore through this axis.

Territorial Rights – extent to which rights extend geographically. It would seem that scaling up in an additive sense from social holdings of kin groups leads directly to the territorial extent of an Indigenous people. But here is another key domain wherein the expansion of capitalist relations of production and the accompanying colonization of Indigenous territories have transformed any simply extension of tenure to territory within Indigenous communities. The intrusion of capitalist relations of production, combined with the superstructural legal frameworks criminalizing Indigenous practices, has had a profound effect on re-spatializing Indigenous territories in ways that blend customary with capitalist perceptions of territories. This has led to conflicts within and between Indigenous peoples and between the encapsulating colonial nation states and Indigenous polities.

Anthropological research on indigenous tenure and territorial rights has tended toward an ahistorical approach. This is not to say that history is not considered, but it is typically framed as a history of encroachment of the settler into the Indigenous spaces (history is indeed some part encroachment) in which Indigenous spaces and practices are resented as timeless essentialized entities. Much such anthropological work proceeds by interviewing contemporary community, constructing a model of what was, and then asserting that this is the way it always has been (even as noting the encroachment of colonialism).

There is a flip side to this – the colonialist narrative that suggests there has been so much change that the discontinuity renders contemporary Indigenous survivors alienated from our pasts in ways that, legally at least, dispossess us from our ancestral rights and title. Both of these naïve views are problematic and require turning a blind eye to empirical evidence that complicates the production of easy narratives.

Let’s consider an example from the north coast of BC. Three first nations: Haisla, Allied Tsimshian Tribes, and Gitxaała (for a more detailed treatment see People of the Saltwater, 2016). Each nation experienced the insinuation of capitalism into their shared regional economies similarly. However, the local outcomes and implications varied in accord with local specificities.

Haisla: This was a region initially ignored by capitalist extraction in significant ways until the mid twentieth century. Haisla community members participated as labourers in the forest and fisheries industries, but capitalism’s major foray into this region was with the establishment of a aluminum smelter that took advantage of cheap hydro electric power to transform Australian bauxite into aluminum for manufacture into commodities produced elsewhere.

Allied Tsimshian Tribes – their main economic territories were salmon rich tributaries along the Skeena River. Here they found themselves in direct competition with the capitalist salmon canning industry. Drawing upon the legal exclusions that pre-empted the commercial rights of the Allied Tribes, they found them selves displaced from their traditional territories that had been the economic backbone of their chiefly economy. As a consequence they become integrated into the industrial commercial fishery at a high level. This had implications for the functioning of their internal political system as at the same time as the economic power base to the chiefly classes was being undercut the original ten individual village polities that pre-existed Allied Tribes collapsed as political entities and the people coalesced around the Hudson Bay trading post at Fort Simpson.

Gitxaała amongst all the Tsimshianic villages was the only one to not face a displacement out of their territory. The chiefly class in Gitxaała had their territories based around coastal sockeye creeks. These were smaller, less productive (in comparison to the Skeena River) and thus of less interest to the capitalist canners. Here Gitxaała chiefs maintained formal and economic control over these sites as productive fisheries until well into the 1960s. Unlike the other chiefly groups (who lost their economic base, in terms of  the Allied Tsimshian Tribes or had an economic base that wasn’t valourized under capitalism, in terms of the Haisla) Gitxaała’s chiefs maintained their economic power in tandem with their customary authority.

In each of this cases similar notions of tenure and territoriality existed at the commencement of the colonial period, yet the ways in which the insinuation of capitalism into this region occurred was shaped by the micro-specificities of each case.

For twenty years students have worked with me on collaborative projects within Laxyuup Gitxaała. Some have conducted research as part of ethnographic field schools (2006, 2007), others have worked as research interns with Gitxaała Nation, and others still have been research assistants working directly with me as research assistants and/or collaborators.  Providing student research opportunities is an expectation placed on faculty at research universities like UBC.

Under the collaborative research relationship with Gitxaała all research data collected is considered to belong to Gitxaała Nation, but the Forests and Oceans for the Future Research Group has been granted a revocable license to publish results of our ongoing research.  Publications are reviewed by appropriate members of community leadership and/or community agencies (like Gitxaała Environmental Monitoring).  Some of the students have produced final reports for internal community distribution, others have gone on to produce theses and some have published peer reviewed articles. This post is a summary of theses and peer-reviewed publications that have emerged from the past two decades of collaborative research and highlights the work done by students.

Readers will note that most of the student researchers’ published peer reviewed articles are sole authored pieces by the students themselves (the exceptions reflect long term professional collaborations).   While acknowledging that the data belongs to Gitxaała Nation, it is important to ensure that the intellectual work of preparing reports, theses, and publishable articles of student authors is clearly recognized. Where the working relationship developed into one of professional colleagues in which we both come equally to the writing table then there is a trajectory of co-authorship.

For most of the students their involvement ended with the submission of a report to Gitxaała Nation. Their reports included any interviews or related data for use by Gitxaała as community leadership saw fit.  The data attached to those reports remained the intellectual property of Gitxaała Nation.  My own publications do not make use of or (usually) reference to the student reports. My objective has been to encourage the student authors to prepare their own materials for publication, as long as it has been reviewed by Gitxaała prior to publication.

One other technical point of note: UBC ethics requirements. Under the terms of UBC’s Behavioural Research Ethics Board (which follows the Tri-Council Policy on Research Ethics) research data must be held at UBC in a secure location for at least five years after the close of a research project. In addition, UBC considers the faculty member supervising student research (either in courses or for graduate study) to be the principal investigator (PI).  Sometimes students misunderstand this point. Being the PI of record doesn’t mean that the faculty member ‘owns’ the student’s work, it merely lays out legal obligations and responsibilities of the faculty member. Thus,  as a faculty member supervising student work I am legally responsible for the research practices of students under my supervision and have therefore a legal obligation to ensure, to the best of my ability, that proper ethical practices are followed.  This also means that I am obligated to store research data in a UBC facility for at least five years.  After five years I destroy what data may have been left with me.  Original copies of research data are held permanently by Gitxaała Nation in their research archives. Sometimes students also hold copies of research data, but for field school students Gitxaała expected them to return all materials to Gitxaała Nation at the close of their course when they handed in their final projects.

Research Reports that Became Theses

Developing out of two ethnographic field schools (2006, 2007) and a host of research internships have come a strong collection of MA Theses, listed here in reverse chronological order.

For the past three years I have been engaged in a coastal alpine project based in K’tai (on Pitt Island) within Laxyuup Gitxaała.  Up until now these trips have all taken place between May and September. Much of what has motivate these trips has been a question about the possible – what might it take to move through and live within these places in ways that approximate the lives of our ancestors. This past week we extended our seasonal experience in the K’tai mountains and spent three days walking into the core area of our ongoing field research.

I’ve been blessed with great crew members on each of these forays into the K’tai.

  • 2015: Jarek Ignas-Menzies, Cora den Hartigh, Knut Kitching, Alfred Larsen, Monica Nederend.
  • 2016: Bryn Letham, Peter Merchant, Naomi Smethurst, Arron Trowbridge.
  • 2017: Adam Huggins, Ada, Smith, Marion Travis
  • 2018: Alyssa Bell, Tianna Sturdy, Ada Smith

I wasn’t certain that we would be able to even get part of the way in given the nature of our access route which is kind of like an ungroomed Grouse Grind with two lake crossings.

This field research is focussed on an area of Pitt Island accessed from the head of an inlet and takes us up to about 650m elevation.  From there we have been establishing a base camp from which we conduct field studies between 650m and 1100m elevation – essentially the alpine ridges and peaks. To get there when there is no snow on the lower and mid elevations is tough but not impossible.  My question was whether we would be able to do it with snow and sub-zero temperatures.

Flying into the trailhead I could see that some lower elevation lakes were frozen while others had clear water.  But, it was not until we had made the 1.5km hike up to the first lake we knew the lake was frozen, but not enough to walk over.  There was lots of open water along the creek mouth shoreline where we would have previously put our rafts in to paddle the 1.5 km length of the lake to the next trail head.

Our next problem was figuring out if we could actually walk around the lake. The northern shore of the lake was shorter in distance to our next trail head, but about a third of the way is a cliff face that cuts from the step slopes straight into the lake. We were pretty sure that wasn’t passible.  The longer southern shore was also covered in fall downs, rock slides, and dense devil’s club thickets.  Rather than lug our backpacks around only to find ourselves confronted by an impassible obstacle we decided to test the navigability of the shoreside.  After tracking along for about a third of the way we decided that it was possible to get around. It was getting close to sundown so but rather than walk around the lake that afternoon we decided to pitch camp at the lakehead and work our way around it the following day.

The next morning we started picking our way around the lake, scrambling up and down the steep shoreline, at times on our hands and knees,  over fallen trees, through thickets, and occasionally along animal trails that gave momentary hope that we had left the worst of it all behind.

The walk around the lake was about 2.3km. It took us an hour and a half to do. By now the sun was up. It was becoming a warm and beautiful sunny day.   We took a break to have lunch in the sun, dry out some clothes, rest a bit, and just enjoy the viewpoint.  The hardest hike was still ahead of us -2.5 to 3km with a 500m elevation gain.

The hike up to the second lake took us two and three quarters hours. According to my GPS we clocked 3.2km. Between measurement error on the GPS, variations in specific path taken, I’ve found that this trail can measure out anywhere between 2.5 and 3.5 km.

There was only a dusting of snow at the start of this trail. By the time we reached about the 350m elevation mark we had a couple of inches and by around 400m no denying that we were walking in snow.  The top section from around 500m elevation had accumulations of between 30cm and 1m of snow making the hike up just that much more ‘interesting.’  The last couple of hundred meters of this trail follows a buried creek in a sharp little ravine.  When clear of snow we simply jump from rock to rock walking along an essentially level, but moss covered rocky trench.  The snow cover made this section more difficult than I had previously experienced it.

We were happy to see solid ice across the second lake when we came out of the trail – but before making our way to the lake we had a steep slope (almost vertical) of about 10 meters elevation that we had to scramble up through the loosely consolidated snow.

Photo: Ada Smith

Once standing in front of the lake shore we dropped packs and I went down to the lake to check the thickness.  Using a small axe I cut in to find that the ice was more than 8 inches deep.  Okay, we were free to head over the lake to the other end where a hunter’s cabin is located – though we weren’t sure what state it might be in with all the snow at that level.

Our crossing of the lake was interrupted by coming into a patch of slush over the lake about 6 inches deep or so.

Photo: Ada Smith

Given the time of day (4pm) and the uncertainty of the state of the cabin, plus the worrisome condition of the ice, we turned around to go back to where the trail had come out at the lake.

We set up camp deciding to wait until the next morning to   check the conditions of the lake  and, weather permitting, head across the lake. Far better to do this at the start of the day than to race  against a setting sun in sub-zero temperatures.

The camp site at the western end of the lake is an amazing place – summer and winter. Two years previously Bryn Letham, Naomi Smethurst, and I spent several nights camped there when we had no way to paddle over the lake. On that previous trip we had climbed the adjoining ridges (to north and then south) to work our way round this lake and the third one a bit further to the east.  As part of our camp we had built a small lean-to for rain shelter.

After setting up our tents we got a fire going and started preparing supper. We made use of the poles from the old lean-to to cut up for firewood and soon had a cheery blaze going.

Photo: Ada Smith

For my part I was so cold that I had to escape to my tent for the night. My crew very kindly brought my supper to the tent!

Photo: Tianna Sturdy

The overnight temperature dropped to around -10C.

About 4 to 6 inches of snow fell over night. It was a beautiful sight to wake up to, but the accumulated snowfall combined with a northerly wind and continued light snow made me reconsider going any further.  If I knew that I could rely upon the cabin on the far side of the lake I knew that we would be able to dry out any of the wet gear we had (or mostly I had!) accumulated. This was important.  But, if the cabin was damaged from the snow (it’s a decades old cabin) or buried by snow accumulation that would make the cabin unusable.  Rather than taking the risk to check out the cabin I decided that it would be best for us to head back down toward sea level where there was less snow and at the very least better shelter opportunities.

We broke camp, suited up, and headed back down the hill retracing our steps. The entire trek down took about four and a half hours – not too bad. By the time we were down the sun had come out and a strong nor-westerly breeze was blowing into the inlet. I had hoped we might be able to work our way to a nearby cabin (about a kilometre away, but the tide was up making walking out of the question and the wind was too strong to effectively use our packrafts. So we got ready to spend the night at the trailhead.

While we were doing that I sent a message via our satellite communicator to Ocean Pacific Air, our charter service, to ask if they could pick us up that afternoon of the next morning.  Within minutes they had responded saying they would be there within the hour.  Good thing too, as the following day turned out to be a big storm which would have left us on sight for a day or two more.

The experience trying this route in February gives a nice insight to the knowledge and equipment that our ancestors would have needed in order to navigate through these places. It humbles one to consider how, what for us today is often a rare expedition, was to them just part of a normal day.


[Note: all photos, unless otherwise indicated, by Charles Menzies.]

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