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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.

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.

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