March 19, 2008

Forged Leadership

With recent events coming up the media, I thought I would take some time to do what bloggers do best: citizen media.

This past sunday, a group of natives protested at a Catholic Church in Vancouver. This group, lead by Gerry Johnson or Chief Kiapilano as he claims to be, and author Kevin Annnet, stormed the Sunday mass issuing “eviction” notices. The group then proceeded to Christ Church Anglican Cathedral and St. Andrew’s Wesley United Church, where the same Eviction Order was posted on their front doors. Gerry Johnson claims to be hereditary chief of the Squamish Nation, and on behalf of the Squamish Nation, was issuing eviction notices to the church in Vancouver and promised to occupy all of them, today. Gerry Johnson, who is Skwxwu7mesh, and registered with the Squamish Nation membership, claims to be a hereditary chief of the Squamish Nation.

Today the elected politicians of the Squamish Nation distanced themselves from Gerry Capilano. “The Squamish Nation disassociates itself with Mr. Johnston's actions and wishes to clarify that his actions were in no way representative of the Nation.” This came as no surprise, and has been a long time coming from Gerry Johnsons previous attempts at activism in the Lower Mainland.

The myth of this hereditary chieftainship business is quite strong and misleading on many parts. In 1923, 16 “chiefs” of 16 different Skwxwu7mesh villages signed the “amalgamation” unifying the nation for land claims and land rights. These 16 chiefs formed the Squamish Nation Chief & Council, which was held as hereditary until it was voted in referendum decades later to custom election codes under the Indian Act.

What’s kind of absent is what took place before 1923. In 1820, the HBC set up in Fort Langley to do business and trade with local indigenous population. Except the polity and social structure of the west coast, specifically with local Coast Salish, was something odd to these new settlers. Where they were accustomed to trading with one “head chief”, as in a representative for the entire people, the Coast Salish societal structure was less stratified with no single leader for the entire people. This idea was considered absurd. Actually, I still think having one leader for all the people is absurd. How can one person understand everything needed to represent the needs of all their people.

Well, afterwards the Catholic Church set about their mission to convert. But the project called colonization was becoming more and more sophisticated. They lacked the resource to set up presences in every village, so they instead converted covert leaders and designated these men chiefs. These men had to fit the bill of obedient, Christian, and sober. Previously the leadership was defined by: how much they displayed the values of the people (generosity, respect, and knowledge), how much they shared and distributed their resources (economic, spiritual, and cultural knowledge), or through the management of resources and distribution of those resources (potlatching). So instead of having a representative governance of the families, houses, and village, it turned into puppet-chiefs responsible for converting others to Christian agenda.

This is where it get messy. It wasn’t a dry and cut plan. Many families and individuals did convert to Christianity (and their decedents still are Christian). Other families played along and were Christian in name, but indigenous at heart. So the definition was blurred more as the lines between sell-out collaborator chiefs who sided with the Church against their people, and the hardcore resisters who still followed the way of our ancestors. It blended. So the “hereditary chieftainships” became intertwine between what was set up by the Church, and the historical culture of Skwxwu7mesh-ulh.

Yata yata yata, the Federal government ratified these chiefs through the Indian Act, and later they amalgamated and became the 16 chiefs which became the 16 member Squamish Nation Chief and Council. Many politicians on the Indian Act government are “hereditary chiefs” coming from this history. The disputes over names/titles comes from this complicated history, plus other complicated histories of borrowed chieftainships, multiple marriages, and down right theft. This is why Gerry Johnson claims to be a chief.

But one thing that needs to be clarified is that the word chief and leader are not synonymous. Nor is our Skwxw7mesh snichem word siyam synonymous with chief. Anyone and their dog can claim to be a chief, but you can’t claim to be a good leader unless you are one. August Jack Khatsalano spoke about the real meaning of the chief when he said, “Indian have no chairman, only man who says the most wise things.” With regards to our language, a siyam is a highly respected person. Yet sell out politicians all claim to be “chief”. A power dynamic of title and demanded respect. Have these same men displayed the values of the people (generosity, respect, and knowledge)? Shared and distributed their resources (economic, spiritual, and cultural knowledge)? Or even fulfilled their rightful duty of resource stewardship and distribution of those resources (potlatching)?

No, but they claim to be chiefs.

I will say that the elected politicians can represent the “Squamish Nation”, but they are not the nation of Skwxwu7mesh. Just as the Canadian Federal government does not represent all Canadians (it represents the federal government and it’s dealings). There is a important distinction between the Squamish Nation, a legal and political entity in First Nation status, and Skwxwu7mesh-ulh, the indigenous peoples. Skwxwu7mesh, meaning people of the sacred drinking water, is a mixture of worldview, history, politics, governance, land, language, people, society, customs, traditions, beliefs, and much more. But it is clear and easy to say the Squamish Nation are not those. The Squamish Nation is the 16 elected politicians that make up the 16 member Council, it’s mangers, their departments, it’s employees, and their services. A government is not a nation. Indigenous peoples of this land are nations.

So in this shark battle of prestige and title, it comes a off-handed joke to a lot of the people. Most Skwxuw7mesh don’t know who Gerry Johnson is, or his claim to legitimacy, and quite frankly the elected politicians claim, albeit a different level, legitimacy, are both founded on a decaying quagmire of fake-ness or forgery.


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