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Weiss arrived in Haida Gwai with the weight of dead generations of settler anthropologists before him. These sojourners were drawn to the deep sea Haida homeland. Their fascination was rooted in a settler sense of deracination and dislocation – it is as though the settlers’ own sense of loss is salved through emersion within another peoples’ place-based society isolated and alone off the coast of Canada. After visiting the anthropologists returned home with chests and minds filled with the memorabilia of their visits.   They proceed to write books that speak to audiences in metropolitan centers of colonialism, not Haida Gwaii. Weiss is part of the sojourners’ tradition, though he also speaks from within an emerging new anthropological voice that is as much concerned with Indigenous subjects as it is with the settlers’ own implication within colonialism. It’s not our father’s anthropology; it’s new kind of permission seeking sensitive anthropology that at least tries to be less controlling.

Weis is at pains to show (implicitly and explicitly) that he is not imposing himself upon Haida people to do his study.  We learn clues, for example, about how Weiss navigated permission in his acknowledgements (Pp. xi-x) where he thanks, using the Haida word, the communities of Old Masset and Masset: “And first among firsts, I am grateful to Agnes Davis and her family. I learned the Haida word for thank you, how.aa, sitting at Noonie Aggie’s kitchen table, and she [and family] … were my first hosts in Old Massett” (Pp. xi).  Later Weiss thanks the formal governance structures of the Haida Nation (Pp x). There is no clear foregrounding of how permission was obtained – but we know from the acknowledgements, and textual inclusions throughout the book, that it was indeed granted. This is a common thread in current ethnographies that no longer include those painfully self-reflexive chapters of an earlier generation of experimental ethnographies. Instead authors paint their authenticity and sincerity through measured inclusions – such as the challenge from ‘Lauren’ Weiss faced discussed in chapter one  (see, pages 21-25): ‘what makes you different from all the others who have come and gone’ Lauren asks. Weiss doesn’t really tell us directly, but he clearly leaves the impression that he is different and, I would have to agree – he is trying hard to apply the lessons Indigenous peoples have been trying to teach settlers – respect us as we are, don’t tell us what we should be, pay attention to who we are as real present people in our own worlds.

I share a space with Weiss as an anthropologist. I share a space with Haida as an Indigenous person from a neighbouring coastal nation (Gitxaała). My own family links me to Haida people, I share an understanding of ’home’ in the same manner that Weiss describes for the Haida (pp. 63-90). As a Gitxaała person I have witnessed settler sojourners passing through our laxyuup (territory/home).  As an Indigenous person paid to be an anthropologist I am of mixed minds when I read works like Weiss’.  Shaping the Future, and other recent similar books are not Evans Pritchard ethnographies in which The Nuer are marched into the ethnographer’s tent from their refugee camp to answer his questions.  Yet, the agenda remains driven by concerns and forces and theories that arise from the settler’s world and responds to questions the settler is asking. Where is attention paid to the authority and jurisdiction of the sm’gygyet (hereditary leadership)? The anthropologist asks for permission, but what are the conditions under which this permission is granted? This is not a critique of how individual anthropologists build respect and rapport, but an interrogation of the wider context within which individuals manoeuvre as they seek permission.  Weiss does a good job navigating this dilemma.

The strength of the book is its focus on Indigenous futures. Futures here used to examine what people, specifically Haida, are doing to actively engage and shape their world. Set against a disciplinary history of chronicling the ‘disappearing Indian’ and a settler state actions to ensure ‘Indians’ did disappear Weiss listens to the different Haida voices that speak to actually existing Haida conceptions of where they are going. Weiss listens carefully to his Haida interlocuters and allows there is more than one Haida act of future making. This is important, especially in a discipline  (anthropology) so strongly influenced by the euro-centrism of Durkheimian thinking. What might, perhaps link the rich diversity of future making is how it is “a way of thinking [and, I would suggest, acting] out from within the temporal brackets of settler colonialism’s” acts of disappearing ‘the Indian’ (Pp. 183).

Shaping the Future is erudite, sensitive, informed, and relevant. It is everything that one might ask for in a new-times anthropology book. Weiss is aware of his subjective location. He is cautious in making overclaims. He does not simplify Haida people into The Haida. It is a book I would commend us all to read. At the same time I realize I would rather be reading a book by a Haida author even if this settler author has given us one so sensitively and carefully done as Shaping the Future.



These four videos are provided in support of my film event presentation as part of the Un/Predictable Environments Conference.

This blog post is a reflection on a larger project I am working on: a case study of the transition in modes of production from a kin ordered mode of production to a capitalist mode of production.   My account follows Ts’bassa, a Gitxaała hereditary leader, as he first arrives on the coast, millennia prior to K’amksiwah arrival, and then through his more recent history prior to, at, and well after K’amksiwah arrival.

At the heart of my work is a concern with resource dependent communities – fish-harvesters, forestry workers, and labourers in general. My academic career began where I was born, along the north coast of British Columbia, and with the people amongst whom I came of age, commercial fisher folk both Indigenous and K’amksiwah). This earlier writing focused on issues of class struggle at the level of the commercial fishing vessel and the wider political struggles between fragments of the working and capitalist classes in their material form. Due to the particularities of anthropology as a discipline, my chosen academic guild, my work turned to issues of class and class formation amongst Breton fisherfolk. With the transition from graduate student to faculty member I was able to return my focus to the north coast of BC. This time, though, conditions drove my work toward more applied questions of indigenous fisheries management and concerns with affirming aboriginal rights and title. Now I am returning to my earlier interests with the explicit ideas of class and class struggle.

Gitxaała live on the northern outer coast of British Columbia. This is a body of water and islands that stretch about 200 miles north to south and 50-75 east to west. The terrain varies from coastal mountains with alpine areas to lowland sphagnum bogs. It is a temperate rain forest. This area first attracted K’amksiwah merchant capitalists for furs as part of a tripartite trade that involved early industrializing zones of western Europe & eastern US with the pacific northwest and eastern Asia. Then came the industrial capitalists interested in exporting cheap foodstuffs (salmon), timber, and then minerals.

The core of my larger project is divided into four sections: Becoming, Disruption, Realignment, and Enactment. Each section highlights a particular era of Gitxaaɫa history from the arrival of Ts’bassa on the coast to the present time.

Part 1: Becoming consists of two key stories: 1) the arrival of Ts’bassa into the area now known as Gitxaaɫa territory, and 2) the story of how the alliance of Ts’bassa and Seax unites Gitxaaɫa. Gitxaała history is framed as stories about individuals, but a listener must appreciate that in this convention the named hereditary leader is both an individual and a representation of a collectivity. Thus while these stories are about particular people they lay down the foundation for claims to territory and the social relations between groups. They are in this sense ideologies of the chiefly classes and historical accounts of particular people, walps, and lineages.

Part 2: Disruption is the history of K’amksiwah (newcomers) arrival in Gitxaaɫa territory and the effects—both ill and good—that resulted. Here are stories of bloodshed, fur trade, and the role played by Ts’bassa as he consolidated his maritime chiefdom. This section is also about the arrival of Christianity, colonial displacement, and the beginnings of the long period of cultural malaise that ensued in the wake of the K’amksiwah.

Part 3: Realignment brings us to the period of industrial fishery and forestry. This corresponds to the period of what might be thought of as high modernism—fordist processing plants, industrial employment, and trade unions. What was the nature of alliances between Gitxaała and K’amksiwah, between and within classes? In what ways was the colonial state instrumental in shifting the balance of class forces within Gitxaała’s political economy and Gitxaała’s role within the wider capitalist political economy?

Part 4: Enactment is the present moment of late capitalism in which the performance of indigeneity becomes a value in and of itself, but also the precursor to a return to Indigenous sovereignty—not as an ethnic group, as one of many within a multi-cultural state—but as an indigenous form of nationhood based on the authority and jurisdiction of the customary laws of Gitxaaɫa with a new leading class integrated into capitalist forms of administrative power.

In this blog post I focus on two aspects of the larger project, two moments in the transition between chiefly and capitalist power. The first moment is that of disruption. I focus on that period of low intensity warfare and displacement that was the maritime fur trade, 1780s to1830s. From our vantage point today we can say this was the pivotal moment of change. The second is that of realignment – this refers both to realignments internal to Gitxaała’s own political economy and within the overall newly emerging political economy of British Columbia. This is the moment of the industrial fishery and forestry, 1860s to 1910s.

The standard account of the maritime fur trade portrays the interaction as relatively benign with little disruption to coastal indigenous societies (se Robin Fisher’s 1977 book, Contact and Conflict). K’amksiwah and Indigenous people are said to have met as relative equals and mutually benefited from their exchanges. The situation was, however, far more disruptive than Fisher portrays. According to Fisher it wasn’t until 1858 and K’amksiwah settlement that ‘culture’ started to change. Fisher may well be correct in a superficial sense, but at a fundamental level the maritime fur trade brought a period of intense dislocation and disruption that, as described by Eric Wolf (1999), represented a fundamental shift of class power away from hereditary leaders within the Indigenous kin ordered mode of production to a transnational and emerging regional capitalist class.

The maritime fur trade involved the articulation of a merchant capitalist form of production and a kin-ordered chiefly form of production. Thus control over the production of trade goods by Gitxaała remained in Gitxaała hands and gave the semblance of cultural continuity. But the nature and the intensity of production altered. This is an important point. So while Fisher focuses on the fact that Gitxaała and other Indigenous peoples maintained direct formal control over their relations of production the ways in which the logic of capitalist production pervade these exchanges is ignored.

Merchant capital didn’t just bring economic opportunities and this needs to be taken into account. With the expansion of European trade and settlement came several waves of disease. Starting in the mid 1700s epidemics coursed along the coast leave death and disruption in their wake. In laxyuup Gitxaała at least three waves of disease occurred from the late 1700s to the mid 1800s. Charles Bishop, captain of the sailing vessel Ruby in 1787, describes one of the earliest. His journal describes his first meeting with Gitxaała chief Seax who was already showing signs of smallpox. A few weeks later as Bishop returned to the area to trade with Seax and other Gitxaała he found that many of the chief’s household had perished in the epidemic. These waves of death created local and regional turmoil, essentially clearing the indigenous landscape of people and opening up the social landscape for conflict and expansions by those who survived: Eric Wolf’s Envisioning Power, speaks to this issue in his section on the Kwakwaka’wakw (1999:69-132) in which capitalism establishes itself not simply through economics or force but also by disease. Gitxaała narratives of these waves of death speak of the dead being so numerous that survivors had to bury people in mass graves.

In this context a period of low intensity warfare emerged between Indigenous nations and also between K’amksiwah traders and Indigenous groups. James Colnett, one of the earliest recorded venture capitalists to travel through laxyuup Gitxaała, trade with Gitxaała, and engage in acts of coordinated violence against Gitxaała. The K’amksiwah ships’ logs describe such encounters as justified and make references to what they consider the proclivities of the local indigenous peoples toward thievery and deception. Colnett defends his crew’s kidnapping and rape of one women and the murder of two other people in terms of the constant thefts of materials. Colnett is blind to local Gitxaała protocols and regulations governing access to laxyuup Gitxaała and use of materials and foods removed from it. Colnett’s actual thievery is at the root of the acts of retribution waged against him, though none of Gitxaała’s actions were as violent or as aggressive as was Colnett’s.

The social violence was not just between K’amksiwah and Indigenous. There were increased inter-Indigenous struggles. Anthropologist Donald Mitchel writes about “Sebassa’s Men,” Indigenous traders and raiders from Gitxaała Nation who travelled up and down the coast well beyond the historic boundaries of the traditional laxyuup raiding and attacking other indigenous traders. Ts’bassa had a tactical advantage based on the outershores of laxyuup Gitxaała. This is where the early venture capitalists arrived in their ships. This geographical advantage gave leaders like Ts’bassa an advantage over other indigenous traders in terms of access to the new trade goods and weapons brought by the K’amksiwah. Written and oral accounts record Ts’bassa’s travels up and down the BC coast interrupting other less well armed and organized Indigenous traders and extracting tribute for passage.

All of this occurred in a moment in which disease is killing people in ways that undermine the traditional economic systems. The longstanding processes of production used stone, bone and shell for butchering and preparing fish and marine and terrestrial mammals. Woven blankets were made from the wool of dogs or gathered from mountain goats. Other fibres – bark and plant- were used for clothes and containers. Cooking was done in wooden vessels with water heated with stones or directly on the fire or in pits.

Introduced metals, manufactured tools, imported textiles, and new food substitutes (rice, flour, and sugar) were also labour saving devices arriving at the moment in which two factors were driving a need to increase the productivity of labour: death and new economic opportunities. The older technologies and processes of production required a high degree of labour. Without either finding new labour power (which was partly accomplished through intensified slave raids) or increasing the productivity of the labour, remaining Indigenous coastal societies faced a serious difficulty in meeting basic production needs. The solution, which took place within the local form of production, was to simultaneously increase labour productivity and to adopt the new more efficient materials and technologies. This brought the coastal Indigenous economies more closely into the emerging global capitalist economy.

By the 1860s industrial capitalism was fully in play along the coast of British Columbia and throughout laxyuup Gitxaała. This was not an industrial manufacturing zone. It was one that was now fully integrated into a global capitalist economy as a supply zone of raw or semi-processed commodities. Cheap food to the industrial manufacturing zones of Europe (canned salmon), dimensional lumber and within a few decades kraft paper and pulp to the US and Asia, and minerals in ingot form to the industrial centers globally. In the early decades of capitalist extraction political and economic alliances between K’amksiwah capitalists and rising Indigneosu entreprenuers were critical in securing access to labour power (especially in fisheries in the early decades before there was a significant itinerant settler working class).

Legal historian Douglas Cole in his book, Landing Native Fisheries, has a short description and discussion of a lease from Ts’bassa to to a non-Indigenosu fishing company. Ts’bassa leased the right to harvest salmon from a stream in his territory to the businessman for five years. We can also see the ways in which Ts’bassa, instrumental in negotiating reserve lands for Gitxaała, selected key sockeye salmon streams (the economically valuable fish of the day) as the basis for selecting reserve lands. Land records also show local K’amksiwah securing private land holdings adjacent to these same reserves and upon which commercial canners where often built. These are coordinate intra-class alliances between an emerging Indigenous capitalist class and the incoming settler capitalist class.

The government file RG10 includes correspondence between officials of government (fisheries and Indian Affairs) and complaints from Indigenous people themselves. These files reveal that there are serious power struggles on the ground within the Indigenous community and between Indigenous and K’amksiwah. These documents, in concert with oral accounts of the time regarding intra community disputes, reveals a constant struggle between those with access to commercialized fishing location, those who once may have held them, and those who want to gain access to them. As the new capitalist economy reaches deeper into the sinews of the Indigenous economy there continues to be a constant sense of flux and realignment of political economic power at the local level.

Other social scientists and historians of the north coast have homogenized the experience of Indigenous communities – essentially as a valiant cultural persistence against a racialized colonialist onslaught. However, one needs to break down the big models to look into the specificities of how capitalism established itself as the dominant economic mode and the ways in which actors –both Indigenous and K’amksiwah – made decisions, entered into agreements, and engaged in overt or covert struggle. There are variations community-to-community, decade-by-decade, and what is required is a detailed examination of how things actually happened on the ground.

This is a detailed and long story. What I am sharing here is only a partial picture and leaves many details understated. This post focuses on only two moments bracketing the establishment of industrial capitalist relations of production on the northwest coast of Canada. This is a general topography within which the particularities and details have been set aside.   This is a report of work in progress.

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