Northwest B.C. and beyond is in mourning after the passing of well-respected Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chief Gisday’wa (Dr. Alfred Joseph) who died last week in Hazleton.
He was 86.
Gisday’wa belonged to the Gitdumden Clan, House of Kaiyexwenitts, and is well-known as a carver, historian, education advocate as well as a champion for indigenous people around the world.
He received an honourary doctoral degree from the University of Northern British Columbia in 2009 and was instrumental in the development of courses on aboriginal cultures at the school.
Gisday’wa may be best known taking a leading role in the historic Delgamuukw-Gisday’wa court case that recognized and reaffirmed aboriginal rights and title to traditional lands in the Supreme Court of Canada.
“Officials who are not accountable to this land, its law or its owners have attempted to displace our laws with legislation and regulations,” he said in an address to the Supreme Court on May 12, 1987.
“The courts, until perhaps now, have similarly denied our existence. In our legal system, how will you deal with the idea that the chiefs own the land? The attempts to quash our laws and extinguish our system have been unsuccessful. Gisday’wa has not been extinguished.”
Debbie Pierre, executive director of the Office of the Wet’suwet’en, said she was honoured to have been able to work closely with Gisday’wa over the years.
He was very kind and embraced people from all walks of life, she said.
And he never stopped learning and was eager to share his experiences with others.
“He was culturally grounded and it was important to Alfred to pass his knowledge on through stories and bringing forward important life lessons into the contemporary world,” Pierr said. “He kept our laws alive and demonstrated that our Wet’suwet’en laws are just important today as they were generations ago.
“Although Alfred was our historian, he also loved to learn. He always said you’re never too old to learn and he loved to read and he read up until he couldn’t see anymore.”
Skeena-Bulkley Valley MP Nathan Cullen said Gisday’wa had an incredible talent in bringing different cultures together.
“He was so graceful and dignified in his leadership, I don’t know if we’ll see the like again,” Cullen said. “There was a long time where the tension was so high, the racism so strong that there was no conversation to be had. There were a few people who were consistent bridges in the community and he was one of the most important ones.”
Cullen shared a story of meeting Gisday’wa at one of the first feasts he attended in Moricetown. Unsure of the proper protocol, he asked an older gentleman sitting next to him, unaware he was speaking with one of the most influential Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs.
“I was utterly ignorant of the process and nervous,” he said. “I was sitting beside him and just said, ‘I feel a bit shy here, I don’t know what to do or say.’ He just said to me: ‘Look people in the eye and smile and accept the gifts.’
“He was incredibly humble and a true ambassador. Leadership when it’s focused on people is an amazing thing to watch.”
A smoke feast took place on Saturday in Hagwilget and the memorial service is Wednesday at 11 a.m. in Hagwilget Village.
“Alfred was a very powerful individual and an amazing leader who will be dearly missed,” Pierre said. “I thank his wonderful family for supporting and sharing with us throughout his career – he sacrificed a tremendous amount of time with his family to work on Wet’suwet’en title and rights, pre and post Delgamuuwx-Gisday’wa.
“Alfred has enriched so many lives near and far.”