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From Potlatch to Welfare

December 21, 2009

From Potlatch to Welfare

Lutz on historical "dialogue" and the subordination of Indigenous economies in the Pacific Northwest

by Kim Petersen

A new history of Aboriginal-White relations by John Sutton Lutz.

Makuk: A New History of Aboriginal-White Relations
John Sutton Lutz
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2008

TRADITIONAL TERRITORY OF SNUNEYMUXW FIRST NATION (NANAIMO, B.C.)—Captain James Cook and the crew of the HMS Resolution encountered the Mowachat people and Chief Maquinna at Yuquot. The Mowachat said to the visitors, “Makuk.” Makuk conveyed various meanings. It was an invitation to trade; it was an indication of confidence; and it signified a request for communication between cultures. University of Victoria history professor John Sutton Lutz chose makúk as the starting point to examine how dialogue, or lack of it, could explain the history of the relationship between Europeans and the Original Peoples of the Pacific Northwest.

The story, according to Lutz, is one of “an international process—the displacement of Aboriginal Peoples from control of resources, the resettlement of land by people of European descent, and the partial incorporation of Aboriginal peoples into the new Euro-Canadian economy and into the modern welfare state.” The Europeans would later settle on the territories of First Nations, sometimes with their approval (as with the Lekwungen), at other times without (as with the Tsilhqot'in). The colonies became a basis for extraterritorial encroachments by the colonists which eventually led them to claim all First Nations territories, waterways and resources.

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Labour, writes Lutz, is how Europeans “valued themselves.” Eurocentric views about labour were seized upon to create the myth of the “lazy Indian”—and justified the Europeans in dispossessing of the Original Peoples of their land.

BC Supreme Court Chief Justice Allen McEachern echoed this stereotype in his 1991 judgment of the Delgamuukw case. He held that Original Peoples were unable to compete with the “relentless energy” of conquering Europeans.

Some fur traders called Indians “indolent” because they didn't need European goods and they enjoyed much leisure, “meaning a lack of interest in a European form of labour subordination.”

Many colonists contradict this portrayal. Lutz quotes fur trader Gabriele Franchere: “They possess, to an eminent degree, the qualities opposed to indolence, improvidence, and stupidity...” He draws upon many examples from Original Peoples demonstrating that laziness was anathema to them, noting their heavy involvement in the capitalist economy across myriad occupations, drawing on colonial accounts that contradict the myth, and explaining First Nations culture, where “everyone was expected to contribute in accordance with their abilities and place in society.”

Historical media accounts complained of Indians being too industrious and thus preventing White men from getting work. Moreover, Lutz points out that leisure time was essential to the Original Peoples's economy—spirituality and economy were not separate. Wsanec Chief David Latasse, who lived to be well past 100, revealed the secret of his long life: “I like work.”

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Around the estuary of the N'ch-ĩwana (Columbia River) lived the Chinook people. A patois form of their language, known as Chinook, or wawa, became the basis for trade and communication among the peoples of the Pacific Northwest, offshore traders, and colonists. The Original Peoples, relates Lutz, considered wawa a White man's language, and colonists thought of it as “speaking Indian.”

Despite participating in the capitalist economy, Original Peoples maintained their subsistence and prestige economies, forming an interdependence among these systems. By selling their labour Original Peoples could expand their prestige economy. Lutz calls this combination of capitalist, subsistence and prestige economies a “moditional economy.”

However, Lutz points to a power imbalance in the dialogue between colonists and Original Peoples, expressed through wage work and dependence on welfare. With the dispossession of territory and resources from Original Peoples, they were cut off from their subsistence economy. Racist hiring practices locked Original Peoples outside the workforce. Alienated from their own economies and the wage economy, Original Peoples were forced onto welfare. Reports of Indian agents, persons granted fiduciary power over First Nations by the federal government, classify working Indians as “good” and non-working or Potlatching Indians as “some good” or “no good.”

By incorporating Original Peoples in their Eurocentric economy of labour, colonists often successfully dispossessed them of their territory and their culture. Lutz calls this dispossession a “peaceable subordination”—a subordination without subjugation.

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Lutz notes that Original Peoples vanished from historical records between 1885 and 1970. He tries to explain this by looking at the Lekwungen (Songhees and Esquimalt peoples near present-day Victoria) and the Tsilhqot'in, situated in the remote Chilcotin plateau in the province of British Columbia.

Lekwungen society was hierarchical, with a gender-based division of labor, slavery, property ownership and wealth accumulation. Wealth was not hoarded for oneself; it was to be given away in Potlatch (wawa for “giving away”)—an important part of Pacific Northwest First Nations culture, particular to each nation. Potlaches were gatherings which celebrated special occasions (rights of passage, marriages, funerals, etc), repaid debts and declared status.

Most of “British Columbia" is still unceded, unsurrendered Indigenous territory. Only a few treaties have been signed; some of those by Vancouver Island Governor James Douglas when he started a “new regime of property relations” by signing treaties with six Lekwungen families for land. Initially, the Lekwungen became very wealthy from the sale of land. They helped build Fort Victoria and believed their assistance had given them a stake in the fort. Lutz notes, “In light of the consequences for the Lekwungen, it seems ironic that they welcomed, and assisted with, the building of Fort Victoria.”

The Lekwungen “participated in the capitalist economy...to participate more fully in their own.” Potlatches grew more elaborate. But a demise was nearing. The Potlatch would be outlawed by the federal government in 1885. This targeted the heart of Indigenous culture and society, with the intention of assimilation. Without Potlatch, there was little incentive to work.

Then came hitherto-unknown deadly infectious diseases, the scourge of alcoholism, racism, joblessness, the disempowering Indian Act, and the specter of starvation. The Lekwungen came to be seen by prominent colonists as a blight to be removed from the city core. The Lekwungen staunchly resisted for many years.

With the completion of CP Railway, a surfeit of Chinese workers came onto the labour market, which, along with a preference for White workers, displaced Original Peoples from jobs.

Original Peoples began to work in less skilled jobs, were paid less, received less in relief payments, and had a “disturbingly high rate of unemployment.” Kathleen Mooney's research of 1952-71 shows Indigenous men to be eight times more likely to be unemployed than non-Indigenous men.

The situation became so bad that in 1961 the Colonist warned of imminent starvation to a people who had never known hunger. Surrounded by abundant game, it was, in fact, legislated starvation.

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The Tsilhqot'in were a “poorer,” egalitarian, non-hierarchical society. Remotely situated, the Tsilhqot'in had less contact with Europeans, resisted European encroachment onto their territory, and retained much more of their culture longer than did the Lekwungen.

In 1862, politician-turned-businessman Alfred Waddington led a push to build a road from the Bute Inlet across Tsilhqot'in territory into the goldfields at Barkerville. The Tsilhqot'in opposed the road through their territory, and in one incident, eight Tsilhqot'in men attacked one of Waddington's work camps, killing 14 road workers.

The colonial administration sent a militia after the defenders of Tsilhqot'in sovereignty. Lutz notes: “The only way the colony captured any Tsilhqot'in was by luring them to a peace talk and then clapping them in irons and trying them as murderers—a practice so unethical it made the presiding officials squirm.” Presiding Judge Matthew Begbie (to be remembered by his nickname 'The Hanging Judge') found that the captured Tsilhqot'in had been “most injudiciously treated.” He concluded that if the Tsilhqot'in people had been treated well, the “outrage would not have been perpetrated.” Nevertheless, six Tsilhqot'in were hanged for attacks on the work crew and others, leaving a black mark on BC history.

Despite the formidable growing conditions on the plateau, the province sought to “civilize” the Tsilhqot'in by turning them away from game hunting and toward farming. Authorities wanted to limit their traditional subsistence economy by enacting game laws. Eventually, the Tsilhqot'in—unable to hunt game, and displaced by White ranchers—migrated and became fishers of salmon. But the government also sought to protect commercial fisheries, and the salmon season was was eventually closed. This was even though Indian Agent E. McCleod had warned that a closed season on salmon created such a hardship that it sent a number of Tsilhqot'in into their graves.

Finally, a lack of jobs and available capital or collateral to receive financing, along with the crash of the cash economy after WWII, brought the welfare economy to the Original Peoples.

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Lutz notes that “European 'settlement' was, in fact, a period of depopulation.” There was a great drop in population of Original Peoples between 1861 and 1871 (from 60,000 people to 37,000). Even so, 73.6 per cent of BC's population was Indigenous. These “lazy Indians” had been involved in many industries, such as trapping, mining, fishing, sealing, forestry, hop picking and the fish canneries.

During these years, trapping and fur trade became regulated by authorities; traditional Tsilhqot'in traplines were registered to non-Indigenous people. In the coal mines Original Peoples were displaced by Chinese; in the canneries they were displaced by Japanese. In forestry, Original Peoples were denied harvesting rights in 1910. The BC Forest Service's unwritten policy allocated only marginal timber lands to Original Peoples. Traditional methods of reef net fishing were outlawed. Original Peoples required permission from colonists to fish for food. The BC government sought to limit the size of the commercial fishery through a small boat buyback, disadvantaging the Original Peoples and favoring corporate fishers. As Lutz writes, the province “attempt[ed] to make fishing a 'white man's' industry.” After confederation, the federal government claimed the sea and the resources in it.

Original Peoples were prohibited from holding purse seiner—the most lucrative form of commercial fishing—licenses. Nuu-chah-nulth Peter Webster commented, “I think a lot of us became 'criminals' without really knowing the reason.”

During the years 1885-1970, Original Peoples were “vanished” from censuses, voting lists, annual reports, and other records. Statistics focused on formal capitalist economies. Massive immigration of other Europeans, Japanese, and Chinese to BC caused even further displacement. Game and fishing regulations pressured Original Peoples out of their subsistence economies and forced them into the wage economy and to eat White man's food, “as that was the only way to stay alive.” This caused Nuu-chah-nulth Charles Jones to lament in 1976: “I think all they do is dream up new laws against the Indians.”

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Lutz writes that it was settlement, not contact, which marked the demise of Indigenous culture and history. History, he contends, has mainly been the monologue of colonists. “What histories would have been written had we asked Aboriginal People?” he asks.

Original Peoples talked about a “White Problem.” That "Problem" outlawed their Potlatches; instituted racism in hiring; enacted legislation that disenfranchised them; treated them as minors under law; declared their reserves to be crown land, unmortgageable; deprived them of their land and resources despite no surrender, and despite treaty rights; forbade their entrance into restaurants and other public facilities in the 1960s; sought labour solidarity along racial lines as unions were white-dominated; instituted compulsory schooling that broke up family economy; and forced Original Peoples onto relief.

Even relief (at a far lower level that that for Whites) was a Catch 22; Lutz writes: “That relief was based on the principle that it would be supplemented by subsistence foods, which they could no longer obtain!”

“By 1936, per capita relief spending for registered Indians was one-third that for other Canadians.” And still, Indians had to beg for relief cheques. Relief was not shameful; the Lekwungen called the Indian Agent “siem/leader of the Indian people” and it was the “siem's responsibility ...[of] providing for his/her people.”

Stó:lō Rena Peters said, “I'm going to take the welfare but I'm not going to call it welfare, I'm going to call it spirit money.” Some people might call it reparations.

Makúk was originally a way for Original Peoples to enrich their own economies. Lutz reminds us that “Prior to the establishment of white settlement, the Aboriginal peoples of present day British Columbia were among the richest and best-fed societies in the world.”

* In October 1999, the BC government officially apologized for the hangings of the Tsilhqot'in chiefs defending their territory, and erected a plaque describing the injustice and honoring the hanged. Judge Begbie is honored eponymously with buildings, mountains, a street, a school and a larger-than-life sized statue at the entrance to the BC Parliament buildings.

Kim Petersen is Original Peoples editor at The Dominion.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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