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Tribute to Gisday Wa (Alfred Joseph)
04 February 2014

Alfred Joseph
March 1, 1927 – January 31, 2014

Many of us, remember Alfred Joseph. Most times he is just like us yet he always did extra. First he and Helen brought up beautiful children of their own and many other children that needed care – at that time there was no welfare on reserves. He was never a greedy man putting his love for others ahead of his personal needs. His legacy is that he always did extra.

Alfred spent many hours on the ball field teaching the young boys how to play baseball and the results were many successful years for the Hagwilget Chieftains fastball team.

In the Wet’suwet’en culture, Alfred met the test of leadership as a hereditary chief: he was a good orator in his native tongue and he performed his duties in his culture ensuring the authority of the blanket and the laws are followed by the Wet’suwet’en.

Alfred’s historical knowledge ensured the continuity of the culture and his words will always be remembered. He has taught in many conferences across the great land of Canada, he spoke in many universities in most provinces and in return has been recognized with many awards. He maintained his humility, always going the extra mile and never seeking financial gain from his people or claiming to be their ultimate leader.

Alfred, as Gisday Wa leaves the Wet’suwet’en in a better place than when he attained the status of Dene ze. He went beyond his duties to his people and community. In the past 30 years he bravely led two important lawsuits against the Crown:

1. Delgamuukw and Gisday Wa v. HMQ (Ownership and Jurisdiction over 22,000 square miles) and
2. Alfred Joseph et al v. HMQ. (Fisheries)

Historically, the Hereditary Chiefs of Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan contributed to the economic growth of our country, beginning with many sawmills, commercial and inland fisheries, ancient land tenure system, making ties for the railroads, logging and much more. This began to change in the 60s and 70s, as our people were legislated out of the economy by the Crown.

The rest of Canada view aboriginal people through the prism of poverty, dependency on tax payers and the never ending social strife on reserves. The Indian Act continues to be a serious source of instability for us and is magnified when leaders are grandstanding on hot issues – like pipelines – and wearing traditional blankets at street protests.

Alfred has given his whole life to change our habitual belief that it is our duty to be subordinate to the Minister of Indian Affairs and other government bureaucrats. As one of the first chief councillors he resisted the government policy to restrict aboriginal people to reserves.

Gisday Wa and Hereditary Chiefs like him have maintained the growth and expansion of our people within the culture, ancient laws and land tenure system. At times, we may be political opponents however we are men of culture who share a love of common things. The greatest method of unification continues to be our house system which forces us to think in common terms.

The following is a quote from Gisday Wa’s opening statement at his trial:

Mr. Joseph: …The Europeans did not want to know our histories; they did not respect our laws or our ownership of our territories. This ignorance and this disrespect continues. The former Delgam Uukw, Albert Tait, advised the Chiefs not to come into this Court with their regalia and their crest-blankets. Here, he said, the Chiefs will not receive the proper respect from the government. If they are wearing their regalia then, the shame of the disrespect will be costly to erase….
…        (transcript)

On this death of Gisday Wa, the Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan have come to an impasse with Canada and resource development. In 1977 the chiefs declared ownership of 22,000 square miles of lands and resources. In 1997 the Supreme Court of Canada stated that rights and title were never extinguished. The BC Supreme Court has since ruled that the Gitxsan have prime facie rights and title: a strong claim of rights and a good claim of title.

The strength of the House of Gisday Wa was carried by Alfred Joseph in the past many decades and it will continue as will our matrilineal system of inheritance.

“We have lost a great leader…with courage and strength he performed his duty to his people…and we have advanced in our journey as indigenous peoples because of it…hamiyaa Gisday Wa…Hagwil leen Simogyat”
    Gwaans, Gitxsan Negotiator February 3, 2014

Sabax (the end)