Photo Credit: Photo: Office of the Wet’suwet’en
One hundred years wiser Reflecting on our joint kungax during Smithers’ centennial
In the Witsuwit’en language, “yin tah” is the word for “land,” but it carries more weight and more context than its English equivalent. In a film by the Office of the Wet’suwet’en to protest the proposed Enbridge pipeline, yin tah is explained more as cause and effect: “The health and well-being of a territory reflects the health and well-being of a people.”
The Town of Smithers, celebrating its centennial this year, is a place that has always known wealth from the land: wildlife habitat, an abundance of edible plants and natural medicines, fish in the rivers. After one hundred years, the Town of Smithers’ relationship with the Wet’suwet’en is on an upswing, but that doesn’t mean that a difficult history has been forgotten.
“Without our land, we’re nothing; without our water, we’re nothing; without our culture, we’re nothing.” Chief Na’moks (John Ridsdale), the soft-spoken hereditary chief of the Tsayu (Beaver) Clan of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation is calm and confident, a man whose strength is in his resolve and his pragmatic positivity. For a people who have lived on their land for thousands of years, one century is a tiny ripple in time’s big pond. But more has changed in the last 100 years of Wet’suwet’en history than in the previous 900.
When asked about the past, Na’moks doesn’t shy away from describing heartbreaking injustices, but he chooses to be positive and forward thinking. His leadership has inspired many people, not only here in northern BC, but across the country.
“As Wet’suwet’en, we’re very adaptive and very progressive,” he says. “Never forget your history but always remember you have a future together.” Context is everything. He describes another important Witsuwit’en word, kungax—the story, the history.
“I’ll tell you a story,” he says, “one of the first stories that we know about a non-native, one person that came towards Moricetown. The people came to the chief and said, ‘There’s this person across the river, he doesn’t look right, he looks like he’s really ill.’ They said they wanted to kill him because they didn’t want disease spreading and the chief said, ‘Yeah, go ahead,’ but then he changed his mind and said ‘No, let’s go see this person.’ They went and this person had no colour and lots of hair everywhere, really thin and starving. The chief looked at him and said, ‘That’s still a human being, let’s nourish him back to health.’
“They got it down to the basic: that is a human being, same as me, same as you, same as our children. But,” Na’moks adds, laughing, “they still couldn’t get the right colour back to him.”
This is the underlying ethic that seems to drive Chief Na’moks: we’re all human beings. “We’re human, we’re here to stay, let’s move forward together. Simple, simple, simple.”
In this story, shared humanity meant a happy ending, but the initial reaction was to get rid of the potential threat. Early European immigrants had the same reaction to the Wet’suwet’en and other First Nations. Something so different, so seemingly foreign, must be dangerous. “We don’t understand it, so let’s get rid of it. That’s basically what happened to the Wet’suwet’en.”
The prevailing viewpoint of immigrants into Wet’suwet’en territory was that land was free for the taking, provided nobody was using it. “Our people have use for every single centimetre of land in the territory,” Na’moks says. But if there were no structures, he explains, then it was considered fair game. “In the ’20s and ’30s, you come over Hungry Hill and they’d call it the years of smoke ‘cause that’s all you’d see: blue smoke because they were burning the buildings down. If you removed the structures, there was nothing in the way.
“I’m the highest chief of the Tsayu and I don’t hold animosity about that,” he says. “It’s just the way that the history was written at the time. The Euro-centric view was that ‘you guys didn’t exist until we got here.’ We’re basically a nuisance; we’re in the way. And it’s sad but it’s true. It’s part of history.”
The early history of our co-mingling cultures wasn’t all bad, though. “Not everybody had this you’re in the way, get out thing,” says Na’moks. “There’s lots of history of give and take and helping each other. We’ve talked to a lot of non-native elders and they say that in times of trouble they depended on the Wet’suwet’en. We taught them how to get their meat, their fish, their vegetables, what to gather out in the territory. It was give and take.”
Sadly, there was a long period of recent Wet’suwet’en history where it was mostly take. Niwhts’ide’ni Hibi’it’en - Ways of Our Ancestors: Witsuwit’en History & Culture Throughout the Millennia, a history book recently produced and published by School District 54 and the Office of the Wet’suwet’en, describes “Indian Town.”
“It’s right across from where the Civic Centre is—all those industrial areas along Chicken Creek, that was where the town used to be. Everything you see there, the A&W, the car dealership, that’s where the village used to be,” Na’moks says.
When Smithers started to flourish and expand, the people living in the settlement were told to relocate to Moricetown or Hagwilget, but both reservations were full. Instead of creating another reservation to house residents of Indian Town, “they just got rid of the town.”
Na’moks flips through the book, pointing out different periods of Wet’suwet’en history. He pauses at the page describing First Nations’ involvement in World War II. His finger touches the black and white photos. “That’s my uncle, that’s my uncle, that’s my auntie…” Their stories are moving and deeply tragic. “My dad is a second world war veteran,” he says. “He was overseas the entire time Canada was at war over there and when he came back he still had no rights ‘cause he was First Nations. You get treated good anywhere else in the world because you’re Canadian and you are there to protect rights and freedoms, but when you come back to your own country, they’re three or four decades behind the times.”
And have the past three or four decades seen positive change? Yes, says Na’moks. “With Smithers turning a hundred years old, there’s some pretty dark history,” he says thoughtfully, “but it’s getting brighter and brighter and brighter.” He describes the relationship between the Wet’suwet’en and the Town of Smithers as being ground-breaking, noting they are one of the few nations that have a protocol agreement with a municipality.
“We’re making strides, leaps, and bounds into this year,” he continues. “It’s not us-and-them—it’s a we. We live here together, we need to move forward together. Us and them… that was yesterday. We’re realizing we’re human beings, we’re realizing we have the same needs, wants, aspirations for the quality of life that we have on Wet’suwet’en territory. I look at people here and I see people with freedom in their eyes, and I see people with access to the mountains, to the lakes, to the rivers, to the land—and that’s what needs to continue.”
Smithers’ last hundred years has been a period of intense and dramatic change, and the next hundred will no doubt be similarly tumultuous. But the Wet’suwet’en people’s resolve means the yin tah we are lucky enough to share as a community—human beings, every one of us—will always be protected.
“The Wet’suwet’en will never give up our land, our rights, and our freedoms. If you want to live with us, enjoy it, because it’s a privilege,” Na’moks says.
A Wet’suwet’en salmon barbecue is being held at Main Street and Broadway Avenue in conjunction with centennial celebrations on Friday, Aug. 2 from 5 to 7 p.m., prior to a dedication ceremony for the new Legacy Park and Stage.