Taking Stock: The Gitxsan Experience in Cultural Survival

Russell Collier
Strategic Watershed Analysis Team
Hazelton, British Columbia


It's astonishing to me, but where I live in mid-northern British Columbia, a province in western Canada, there is a prevailing attitude that anything "cultural, especially anything that can be called aboriginal culture, is somehow irrelevant to mainstream society, or, at best, is quaint and amusing. This is true in most of the non-Gitxsan communities who share the same living space we do in our traditional territories. To us, however, Gitxsan culture is central, necessary to our survival as a people, and though we have a strong streak of sometimes ribald humor in our cultural makeup, there is nothing quaint and amusing to us about our culture. We're not dead or assimilated yet. And one of the lessons we have learned over the past 100-120 years is that, far from being a "culture under glass, as in a museum diorama, our culture not only is alive and well but also is becoming central to mainstream society in ways unimagined by our conquerors. Expression of our cultural identity in a modern context is having a profound effect on the larger society we live in.

I would also venture to say that, given that UNESCO has sponsored this conference, and, moreover, is following up on recommendations made over ten years ago at an earlier UNESCO conference, there are many people around the world who would agree that "safeguarding traditional culture and folklore" is far from irrelevant, quaint, or amusing. Properly focused, traditional culture can be a very powerful force.

In this introductory part of my paper, it is appropriate for me to greet you all formally, in my own terms, as a functioning member of the Gitxsan Nation. First of all, I would like to recognize and thank our hosts, the UNESCO sponsors, for this opportunity to speak and to meet with you all.'Toyi xsi nissim, 'toyi xsi'm. I see you and I recognize you and your right to speak, your authority to represent your own people, and I thank you for recognizing the same for me and my people. Second, I would like to recognize and thank all of you here today. 'Toyi xsi nissim, 'toyi xsi'm nun. I see all of you here and I recognize you and your right to speak on behalf of your own nations, and I thank you for the recognition to do the same for my own people. My English-Canadian name is Russell Collier, and on my father's side, I am descended from a long line of ancestors from Cornwall, England. On my mother's side, my Gitxsan name is Hli Gyet Hl Spagayt Sagat, which means "the man who comes from the sharp pointed mountain" in our language. I am descended on her side from a lineage that originates in our territory from before the last major ice age, around 10,000 years ago.

I do not do this lightly, nor without the knowledge that many governments around the world might not look favorably upon an aboriginal person, especially a Canadian Gitxsan, speaking so freely before you. In many places around the world, there are many dangers inherent in speaking out as an aboriginal person who comes from a group claiming a relatively large portion of a provincial land base. In some places around the world, what I represent is so threatening to some established governments, the powers that be would rather exterminate than negotiate. And yet, I believe a part of the answer of how we are all going to survive in the next century without killing each other over cultural differences lies in our ability to tolerate and sometimes accommodate these cultural differences.


We Gitxsan have occupied our traditional territories, in our terms, "since time immemorial. When we launched our land-claims court case in 1984, this phrase was not considered useful in legal terms, so we dated our oral histories using the geological evidence contained in them and found we'd been here on our land since sometime before the last major ice age, that is, more than 10,000 years before the present. We have oral histories containing enough detail to positively connect our claims back at least that far.

In our province, the government has never rightfully concluded land-claims settlements with our people. Nor have they done so with the majority of First Nations in our province. For over 120 years, our people have been protesting the lack of proper negotiations to settle our outstanding land claims with the province of British Columbia. As far back as the mid-1800s, Gitxsan chiefs were trying to formally initiate land-claims negotiations to resolve this issue. We were refused and rebuked. The provincial government simply assumed the right to extinguish unilaterally all aboriginal title and rights. They went so far as to outlaw and make punishable under law expressions of our culture such as our feasts and our art forms and even the ability to launch land claims actions.

In 1977, the Gitxsan gave to the Government of Canada a declaration, which outlined title to our territories as sanctioned in our oral histories, totem poles, our songs, and our dances. Then we established the Gitxsan-Carrier Tribal Council, an organization dedicated to confirming our title to our lands. Within this organization, we began gathering information from our elders, especially the oral histories, or adaawk as we call them, that detail our use and occupancy and our lineages for very specific geographic areas. In all, there are around 300 audio cassette tapes of information from our elders, irreplaceable knowledge of a time not so long ago in our history. We also began a genealogical research program covering around forty of our Wilps -- Houses or extended families -- developing complete genealogies for all our people. It is possible to locate the familial position of any member of our nation within their lineage with great accuracy now as a result of this research.

In 1984, the Gitxsan submitted to court our statement of claim for the longest running land-claims court case in Canadian history. It pertains to some 30,000 square kilometers of territory, with an additional 28,000 square kilometers claimed by our close neighbors and allies, the Wet'suwet'ens.

Ripples and Waves

Every action we have taken has generated new information and material. I cannot over-emphasize this. Once we began our court case, we were committed to proving our existence by exhaustively researching our oral histories. We have around 10,000 items in our library, about 8,000 of which we used as exhibits in our 1987 legal action. The legal collection, comprising everything that went to court, occupies over 300 boxes in two archive rooms. It's an astonishing amount of information about two tribal peoples, the Gitxsan and the Wet' suwet'en. Together, this represents a unique collection of indigenous cultural identity. Few other First Nations in Canada have been as thoroughly researched as we have.

We've had to learn sophisticated methods of storing, annotating, and delivering our entire store of legal information. We've had to become adept at translating the legal and political outcomes of our court case challenge into local realities.

One very large wave has grown from our submitting our folklore, our traditional oral histories, for consideration as evidence in our land-claims court case. This was a landmark legal decision, on December 11, 1997, that confirms oral histories as admissible evidence in establishing aboriginal title to large tracts of land in our country. Understandably, our country is concerned about the impact of this decision, and understandably, most of the First Nations in Canada see this as a huge victory along the way to validating our existence in a society that prefers the Hollywood version of history -- "The only good Indian is a dead Indian.

Some smaller, but by no means insignificant, ripples spreading outward from this decision, popularly called the Delgamuukw decision, have been noted around the world by aboriginal peoples hoping that they too can use its legal framework to establish their own title to their own homelands. Australian, New Zealand, U.S.A., Canadian, Thai, Indonesian, Central and South American, and African tribes have sought to use this decision to bolster their own claims to territory with varying degrees of success. Recently, tribes in Papua New Guinea have begun using techniques for mapping oral histories originating in Gitxsan territory to demarcate their own exterior boundaries to establish protection of their tribal territories under their own federal laws. The ripples and waves are spreading far and wide.

Where Are We Today?

Today, we have a collection of information unequaled by anyone else. We have detailed information not only about our own legends and folklore, but also about long-term changes in weather, geology, and wildlife. We have over 300,000 pages of information largely ignored by the original trial judge, Alan McEachem, with around 40,000 mappable bits of information that describe an entire culture from the Ice Ae to European contact and the present. The collection is stored in a variety of media. The oldest part is on paper and audio cassette, with some on video cassette. All are deteriorating with age. The library we use to house our irreplaceable culture is relatively ancient technology -- eighteenth or nineteenth century, with a few twentieth-century features added.

We stand on the edge of influencing changes in Canadian politics and lands-and-resources decisions to a major degree. And for the first time in Canadian history, we have established that oral histories are admissible as evidence for claiming aboriginal title. We are still adding to our base research and documentation and expect to become a major influence within ten years, possibly five years. It all started with deciding we could not accept assimilation or loss of our culture.