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First Nations Activist Dies after Release from Jail

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Issue: 44 Section: Original Peoples Geography: West British Columbia Topics: social movements, Indigenous

March 29, 2007

First Nations Activist Dies after Release from Jail

In memory of Harriet Nahanee, age 71

by Zoe Blunt

Harriet Nahanee, citing the Royal Proclamation of 1763, stating that Eagleridge Bluffs is part of unceded Squamish Territory.

A Vancouver Island community is in mourning following the death of an elder who fought to defend aboriginal rights and the environment. Activist Harriet Nahanee died at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver on Saturday, February 24, one month after she was sentenced to 14 days in jail for protesting the destruction of a wetlands for the Sea-to-Sky highway upgrade in the Coast Mountains of British Columbia.

The woman who once said that natives need an “aboriginal Malcolm X” to restore their pride will be sorely missed by many, including her husband, Ron Perry, her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Nahanee, age 71, was weak from the flu and asthma in January when B.C. Supreme Court Justice Brenda Brown ordered her detained at the Surrey Pre-Trial Centre. She was hospitalized with pneumonia a week after her release from jail. Doctors then discovered she had lung cancer. A news release on Sunday, February 25, briefly announced Nahanee’s death from pneumonia and complications.

Fellow activist Betty Krawczyk, age 78, was among those who attended a prayer vigil for Nahanee the night before her death. The women connected at the Eagleridge Bluffs blockade. “We were the only great-grandmothers there. It was up to us to bring it forward.”

In January, Krawczyk urged Justice Brown not to send Nahanee to jail. “I am very worried about Mrs. Harriet Nahanee,” Krawczyk wrote. “Mrs. Nahanee is not well. She has asthma and is suffering the after-effects of a recent bout of flu that has left her very weak.”

“Harriet believed Eagleridge Bluffs belonged to the Squamish Nation and she felt her band – the elected chiefs – were trading the land away for development,” Krawczyk said on the phone from Vancouver. “She wanted the land preserved for her great-grandchildren. She put her life on the line for that.”
Krawczyk wrote in her blog that Nahanee was “challenging the right of the elected chiefs of the Squamish Nation to negotiate away traditional Squamish Lands off the Squamish Reserve, lands that include Eagleridge Bluffs. This action potentially has serious ramifications for the entire band concerning who has the right to negotiate away traditional Squamish Indian lands.”

Nahanee was born on the Pacheenaht Indian Reserve on Vancouver Island in 1937. Along with the other children on the reserve, she was taken from her parents at age five to live at the Ahousaht Residential School. Five years later she and 300 others were transferred to Alberni Residential School. In 1998 she testified about the horrific abuse she and other native children suffered there, including beatings, rape and murder.

According to Lloyd Dolha, writer for national native publication First Nations Drum, Nahanee reported that children were punished for singing their traditional songs and speaking their own language. They were so poorly fed that they resorted to stealing vegetables from the root cellar. They were consequently beaten.

On December 24, 1946, Nahanee witnessed an altercation between Rev. A. E. Caldwell and a female supervisor at the top of a staircase at the school. They were arguing about a little girl who was running up and down the stairs.

“Mr. Caldwell was always drunk. You could smell the liquor on his breath all the time,” Nahanee recalled.

“He kicked the little girl and she fell down the stairs and died. That’s murder. There were other kids in the infirmary who had their appendix burst. That’s murder. Other children were beaten so badly they died. That’s murder. No one bothered to take them to the hospital.”

“The worst part of it was the loneliness. When you’re a little kid and you can’t reach out to your mom for a hug – it really hurts. It’s a wound for a lifetime,” said Nahanee.
Nahanee disclosed that she was sexually abused for four years in the school.

“I didn’t bring it to mind until 1984, when my daughter committed suicide. Then I began to look at myself. Why was I addicted to alcohol? Why wasn’t I a good parent?” When Nahanee visited a psychiatrist, she told him: “I think the church and the government did this to us deliberately in order to take the land and resources. It was all about keeping us dysfunctional, to keep us dependent.”

On February 23, the day before Nahanee’s death, the Indigenous Action Movement held a rally and prayer vigil for Harriet. Almost 100 people gathered outside the Supreme Court for a ceremonial walk to St. Paul’s Hospital.

The group prayed with drums and sang the Women Warrior’s Song outside Nahanee’s hospital room to give her support and strength. They brought flowers, cards and a large-scale photo of the Larsen Creek Wetlands at Eagleridge Bluffs before the wetlands were demolished.

Nahanee’s memorial service at the Squamish Nation Recreation Centre on Feburary 28 was attended by hundreds of friends and supporters. Her casket, adorned with the family regalia, was carried from the centre to begin the journey back to the Pacheenaht reserve.

On March 5, Justice Brown sentenced Krawczyk for her own part in the Eagleridge Bluffs protest. Krawczyk will serve 10 months at Allouette Correctional Centre.

In the weeks since Nahanee’s death, her name has become a rallying cry for justice in the treatment of natives and those who stand up to protect the land. Nahanee inspired generations of people who are determined to carry her legacy forward.

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wow...im so touched by this

wow...im so touched by this woman's work for the right to keep traditional land from being demolished. I am sorry for her death.

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