In the early hours of Friday, January 31, 2014, Alfred Joseph, the Witsuwit'en hereditary chief Gisday'wa, passed away at the age of 86. Surrounded by his family, he will be remembered in his community, across Canada, and throughout the world for his contribution to the advancement of Indigenous rights.
Born on March 1, 1927 in the community of Hagwilget, Alfred Joseph grew up amidst two worlds colliding. His early years were immersed in the traditions of the Witsuwit’en people. He learned to follow the seasons like countless generations had: hunting in the fall, trapping in the winter, and fishing and feasting in the summer.
I remember sitting with Alfred Joseph and talking about his youth. He fondly recounted his early days, describing how children in Hagwilget would carry salmon up the hill from the canyon to the smoke houses. He also remembered how the men would travel out to the territories in the winters to trap furs (poignantly noting the long period of sexual abstinence it involved).
The young Joseph was learning to set snares and to travel out onto the territories when he was taken to the Lejac residential school at Fraser Lake. From 1938 to 1943, he was culturally dislocated into a place where his traditions weren’t practised and his language was banned. It was not until 1946 that he was able to travel out to the territories to trap.
However, while the incursions of colonial society were disruptive, Alfred Joseph maintained a connection with his traditions. He spoke the language of his people, and he continued to learn about the Witsuwit’en traditional form of feast governance.
Alfred Joseph belonged to Keyikw Winits (House in the Middle of Many), a house group of the Gidimt'en (Bear/Wolf) Clan led by the hereditary chief Gisday’wa. Among the Witsuwit'en, chief names are continually passed down matrilineally through the feast system. When Alfred Joseph was young, the name Gisday’wa had been held by Joseph Nahloochs. After Joseph Nahloochs death in 1946, the name passed to Thomas George.
After the passing of his uncle, Thomas George, in 1974, the name Gisday’wa passed to Alfred Joseph. He described in 1987 how alongside the name came "the territory and the songs, the kungax and all the responsibilities of a House Chief."
As a hereditary chief, Gisday’wa was responsible for ensuring his house members followed Witsuwit’en law, including proper procedures "when there is a feast for funerals, feast for [head]stones, feasts for marriages, and see that proper people are there to perform duties."
Furthermore, Alfred Joseph described the responsibilities for land stewardship that a chief possessed. "When the House Chief takes a name, they take on the responsibilities that go with the name. One of them which will be to make sure that the territory you have taken to protect [it] … make sure that there is no -- no pollution."
Alfred Joseph was a stalwart protector of Indigenous traditions in the northwestern interior of British Columbia. Skilled as a carver and a storyteller, he was a preeminent member of his community by the early 1980s. But the most significant events were yet to come.
In October of 1984, Alfred Joseph stood alongside Albert Tait, the Gitxsan hereditary chief Delgamuukw, and filed the statement of claim for the most important Indigenous rights case in Canadian history. The case, typically abbreviated as Delgamuukw but known locally as the Delgamuukw-Gisday’wa case, would set an historic precedence.
Respectively representing the collectivities of the Witsuwit’en and Gitxsan hereditary chiefs, Gisday’wa and Delgamuukw asserted Indigenous ownership of and jurisdiction over their traditional territories. The case challenged the refusal of the provincial government to recognize the unceded Witsuwit'en and Gitxsan title to their traditional lands. In advancing their claims on the basis of indigenous legal traditions, the hereditary chiefs also challenged what courts consider as legal evidence.
Rather than deferring to the expertise of Western-trained anthropologists on Indigenous communities, members of the Witsuwit'en and Gitxsan community took the stand as experts on their own traditions. Opening their traditions to the court, the Witsuwit’en and Gitxsan people demonstrated the incredible depth and complexity of their culture and history.
Alfred Joseph was centrally involved in the case. He was one of the chiefs who took the stand. But he did far more. Alfred Joseph conducted research to map Witsuwit’en territorial boundaries for the case. He travelled the territories interviewing elders and hereditary chiefs. And he sat in court, slowly watching the case unfold over days, months, and years.
The case, which did not formally begin until 1987, eventually became one of the longest in Canadian history. It took 374 trial days before the trial judge released his decision in 1991. The trial judge originally dismissed the Witsuwit'en and Gitxsan claim, and the case was appealed, proceeding all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada in 1997.
The Justices of the Supreme Court overturned the trial decision. The case set new precedence, establishing a doctrine of Aboriginal title in Canadian law. Further, the Supreme Court Justices recognized the validity of Indigenous traditional knowledge, such as the Witsuwit'en kungax (trail of song), as a form of evidence in the courts.
The Delgamuukw-Gisday'wa case significantly altered Aboriginal policy in Canada. The decision contributed to the development of a contemporary treaty negotiations process in British Columbia. But more than this it contributed to a recognition of the need to integrate not only Indigenous peoples but also their systems of knowledge into natural resource governance processes.
Throughout the Delgamuukw-Gisday'wa litigation and after Alfred Joseph continued to participate in Witsuwit'en governance. He regularly attended feasts and upheld his duties as a hereditary chief. He also sat on the board of the Office of the Wet'suwet'en, which represented the interests of the Witsuwit’en hereditary chiefs in contemporary Canadian governance processes.
Moreover, he was the lead plaintiff on another court case regarding the destruction of the Hagwilget fishery. In the 1950s, depleting fish stocks were an increasing concern. Rather than address coastal commercial overfishing, in 1959 the government blasted the rocks in Hagwilget canyon to enhance the fish return. This destroyed the traditional fishery at Hagwilget.
In 1985, the Hagwilget Village’s band government sued for compensation for both the economic and cultural impacts of the loss of the fishery. In 2008, nearly 50 years after the destruction of the rocks people used to fish in the canyon, the Canadian government settled out of court. They provided $21.5 million dollars in compensation.
In recognition of his long dedication and outstanding contribution to Indigenous struggles, University of Northern British Columbia awarded Alfred Joseph an honourary doctorate in 2009. But the memory of Gisday’wa’s accomplishments will be most powerfully preserved among the Witsuwit’en people.
In the original Delgamuukw-Gisday’wa case, Alfred Joseph explained how the Witsuwit’en maintain a record of their history. As he explained, remembering history is a crucial resource that the Witsuwit’en people use to re-enact their authority through the performance of house histories in the feast hall.
"My presence in this courtroom today will add to my House's power, as it adds to the power of other Gitksan and Wet'suwet'en Chiefs who will appear here or who will witness the proceedings. All of our rolls, including yours, will be remembered in the histories that will be told about by my grandchildren. Through the witnessing of all the histories, century after century, we have exercised our jurisdiction."
Alfred Joseph will not be forgotten. He was an inspiration. But more than this, his legacy forms the foundation for relationships between Canada and the Witsuwit'en people, as well as between settler states and Indigenous peoples more broadly. Through his life, he exposed the injustices that had been committed to Indigenous peoples, and gave us the possibility of seeing a new and different future. It is incumbent upon us now to live that future.
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