Henry Alfred, the Wetsuwet’en hereditary Chief Wah Tah K’eght, passed away in the early morning hours of September 23, 2018. Eighty-four years old, Wah Tah K’eght had participated in events that redefined how people understood this valley, province, and country.
In the 1980s, he was a plaintiff in the historic Delgamuukw-Gisday’wa case in which the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs claimed ownership of and jurisdiction over their traditional territories. In the case, Wah Tah K’eght and other elders took to the stand and explained the traditions that gave them the authority to steward the land. The case would eventually redefine the place of Indigenous peoples in Canada.
When I met Wah Tah K’eght, it had been over 25 years since he testified in the Delgamuukw-Gisday’wa case in 1988. I remember him sharing stories about what it was like to go to court. He still remembered it clearly. Initially, they only expected him to testify for a few days; his testimony eventually extended over weeks.
Wah Tah K’eght led Tsee K’al K’e yex (House on Top of the Flat Rock) of the Laksilyu (Small Frog Clan). Going to court he was nervous, afraid that he might not remember all the names that described his territorial boundaries. But on the stand as a witness before the court, he remembered all the names.
He remembered how Peter Bazil, who held the title Wah Tah K’eght before him, took him on the territories and taught him the names of all the boundary markers. Their trip had been in 1963, 25 years prior to his testimony. Despite his nerves and all the time that had passed, the knowledge came back to him as he spoke for his ancestors and all the generations to come.
Wah Tah K’eght also explained to the court how his house governed its territory. Government lawyers demanded to know whether he had the appropriate hunting permits and hunted in the accordance with conservation guidelines. Wah Tah K’eght stressed that conservation was central to how he managed his territory, rotating traplines to ensure that particular areas would not be over-harvested.
While the trial court ruled against the hereditary chiefs, the Supreme Court of Canada eventually overturned that decision in 1997, determining that the trial judge had mishandled the hereditary chiefs’ evidence. In Delgamuukw-Gisday’wa, the Supreme Court Justices determined that Indigenous oral histories were a valid source of evidence. They also established a doctrine of Aboriginal title, providing the foundations for the Tsilhqot’in Nation to win the first recognition of Aboriginal title in 2014.
The Delgamuukw-Gisday’wa case prompted the British Columbia government to begin to negotiate with Indigenous people and begin a long process of reconciliation. In meetings and conversations, Wah Tah K’eght always stressed the need to respect the wisdom of the elders and make decisions for future generations.
Together with his wife of 63 years, Sue Alfred, he had raised five children: Dolores, Rick, Lester, Anthony, and Marjorie. Those children provided him with six grandchildren and five great grandchildren. Wah Tah K’eght always stressed that decisions needed to reflect the interests of the children, grandchildren, and those yet to come.
I remember sitting with him and talking about some of the developments that had occurred on his territories. I remember him tearing up, thinking of all the harms that he has been unable to stop. He struggled with his responsibility to protect the land and all the disrespect of Wet’suwet’en law.
He embraced the principle of a reconciliation that recognized a place for Wet’suwet’en jurisdiction in Canada. He wanted Canadians to understand who his people were and to negotiate a relationship based on a respect for Wet’suwet’en traditions.
After a lifetime of fighting for this vision of reconciliation, we are making some initial steps in the right direction. I was really honoured that Wah Tah K’eght offered to host the feast to launch the Shared Histories book and mark that step on the journey to reconciliation. I am also sad that he will not be present for the historic recognition of Wet’suwet’en jurisdiction of children and families by the Canadian and provincial government later this month. These are steps towards reconciliation that Henry made possible.
Henry always had a gentleness and a kindness in how he engaged with people. But he also had a firmness in his commitment to his people and traditions. Henry taught me the importance of living together with respect for our differences. For all your guidance, Wah Tah K’eght, you will be missed but never forgotten.
–Tyler McCreary is assistant professor of geography at Florida State University.