The life of the legendary We’suwet’en hereditary chief Alfred Joseph (Gisday’wa) is now the subject of a book by University of Northern British Columbia professor Ross Hoffman.
Songs of the Earth: The Life of Alfred Joseph, published by Creekstone Press in Smithers, will be officially released April 3 at The Gathering Place in Hagwilget.
“The launch just makes total sense that we would be having it in Hagwilget, where he lived all his life, basically, except for the time he was out working in various places around Canada,” Hoffman said.
According to a Creekstone press release, “Hoffman opens the feast hall doors, throwing light on what the Wet’suwet’en have lost and what they have preserved since settlers came to their lands.”
Hoffman said he does this by telling Joseph’s story starting with living on the territories south of Houston as a small child, Joseph’s four years at Lejac Residential School near Fraser Lake and the 16 years he spent “out roaming and working, because there was a lot of work in the ‘40s and ‘50s and Indigenous people were actively involved in the economy.”
From there, Joseph settled in Hagwilget, got heavily involved in band council leadership and eventually became one of the longest standing hereditary chiefs holding the name Gisday’wa from 1973 until he died in 2014.
Hoffman writes about Joseph’s passion for art and his role in revitalizing the northwest carving tradition through the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s. An accomplished artist, Joseph’s work is held in private collections and museums across the country. He basically had to give it up, though, when he got involved in the landmark court cases of Delgmuukw v. British Columbia in the late 1980s — which eventually went to the Supreme Court of Canada — and later, Joseph v. Canada. Those cases made Joseph famous well beyond northwest B.C.
Hoffman sees a direct connection between those cases and the recent announcement of a new round of rights and title discussions between the Wet’suwet’en and Province.
“The fact that Delgamuukw-Gisday’wa exists, the fact that the government is coming to the table, I think, is a direct reflection of this earlier work,” he said.
“If you look at Tsilhqot’in, which went another level completely, it would have never happened without Delgamuukw-Gisday’wa. What I see happening is their Aboriginal rights have been established, and it’s been established how they demonstrate that and that those rights are not just hunting-fishing rights, they’re non-exclusive. So, in other words, they can use the land as they see fit. That’s all in the Supreme Court [of Canada] ruling.”
Beyond the legend, Hoffman said, Joseph was an extraordinary person.
“Alfred was an amazing friend, extremely humble, great sense of humour, very mellow, he was just a great guy. I always looked forward to just hanging out with him,” the author said.
Hoffman first met Joseph in 1996 when the former was working for the Office of the Wet’suwet’en developing a course for UNBC on Wet’suwet’en culture.
“I had the amazing luck of being teamed up with him to put together a curriculum for the course, that’s when I first realized what an amazing guy he was.”
Following that project, Hoffman left Smithers and eventually received a doctorate from Trent University in Ontario in First Nations Studies. When he went to work for UNBC in 2006, he was given some funding to do post-doctoral research and started a project to write a history of the Wet’suwet’en people.
“Pretty soon I realized that was a monumental job and I asked [Joseph] if we might form it into his life story and some of the history of the Wet’suwet’en people would come out of that,” Hoffman said.
Despite having known Joseph for many years, the author said in researching the book there was still a surprise or two left for him. The biggest thing, he said, was just how sharp Joseph’s mind was.
“I had all his transcripts from Delgamuukw-Gisday-wa, which was in the late 80s, I was given access to the Joseph case, which was on the destruction of the fishery in the Hagwilget Canyon in 1959, so he was giving commission evidence in ‘08-‘09, and I had all my hours of interviews with him and the level of accuracy would blow your mind,” Hoffman explained.
“When I look at the power of oral history, of the oral mind, it’s astounding how they related.”
Although an academic, Hoffman said he didn’t want Song of the Earth to be an academic text.
“I wrote this to be read by everybody,” he said. “For me, if a person in [Joseph’s] family, if one of his grandchildren can’t pick up this book and read it, then I certainly didn’t do a very good job.
“I wanted it to be accessible so people, not just Wet’suwet’en or Gitxsan, but also people throughout that region could learn a little bit more, of course about Alfred, but also the Wet’suwet’en people.”