Presentation prepared by: Dr. Raymond Pierotti

Case study:
A Death Feast in Dimlahmid 
Terry Glavin (1991) New Star Books

Things to think about for Case Study on Canadian Land Issues

Posted on: Monday, November 12, 2018 9:10:00 AM CST

You will have two weeks days to think about what you will present in class on 28 November. I wanted you all to have some time to think on your own before I provided direct advice. The first thing I ask is that you all finish reading the book to see how things weave around one another. The most obvious actors in the book are the Native peoples (the Gtiksan and Wet'suwet'en) and the Provincial government as represented by police, legislators, and judges.

The Federal government is a powerful but important force. The mounties are Federal, not Provincial Police. The Minister for Indian Affairs is the equivalent of a US Cabinet Secretary. The Supreme Court is the ultimate arbiter of conflicts between provinces or between First Nations and Provinces or the Federal Government. It can interpret law, but it cannot enforce its rulings. The Provincial government wants to be the ultimate decision maker, but it can be trumped by the Federal government, and especially by the Supreme Court.

The non-Natives in the community are an important force and many of their perspectives are discussed in the Chapter Behind Enemy Lines. That title is ironic, because the non-Natives live behind the lines established by the First Nations, but the reporter is in their communities, where the feelings about the First Nations and their land claims are complex to say the least. Keep in mind that the Province of British Columbia tried to make it illegal to even discuss or raise funds for Indigenous land claims because they knew they were on shaky legal ground from the beginnings of the province.

The Delgamuukw decision was ground breaking in that it was the first decision ever by a Western Supreme Court to establish that oral traditions of Indigenous peoples were the equivalent of written records and could be used as evidence of land use traditions and to establish a means of "ownership" in courts of law. An important thing to keep in mind is that the First Nations do not have a tradition of "private property" so they do not want the land to own, they want to have a powerful voice in what will happen on the land. this does not preclude logging, but it does preclude clear-cutting. They are perfectly happy to live alongside ranchers and timber harvesters as long as those non-Natives behave in a way they feel is respectful. They do not want to throw out these people, but they would like them to take the concerns of the First Nations seriously.
Where do the traditions of the First Nations come from? If you read the book Death Feast at Dimlahamid, it is full of references to ancestors, both recent and ancient. This is where the naming traditions come from and why when an elder passes on one of their descendants inherits their name and their responsibilities. One thing that is emphasized is that the land and the other creatures that share with with the humans must be treated respectfully. You can kill a mountain goat, but If you treat its remains in a disrespectful manner, its relatives will take their revenge on you. This is an important lesson for everyone, both Native and non-Native, which is why this story forms the basis of Chapter 7.

As far as stakeholder and decision makers are concerned, it is pretty obvious that the Native peoples, their non-Native neighbors, and the timber industry are all stakeholders. The Federal government is clearly a decision maker. The provincial government is in a hard position because it perceives itself as a decision maker, but because of its backing of the timber industry it has sort of taken on the role of stakeholder vis a vis the federal government.

Now you may be asking, where do the ancestors fit in with this? They are the holders, and possibly the originators, of the traditions that the Supreme Court has ruled can be used to establish patterns of land use and "ownership" or rights. The Gitksan ada'ox and the Wet'suwet'en kungax represent the traditions and stories of the people as developed by the ancestors. They are the ones who gave the stories that the current Native peoples will use to argue for their land rights and their ability to influence the land in which they live.

Dimlahamid itself is more a city of the mind and of the traditions than it was a physical place. This is a big issue for the courts. The First Nations (Indigenous peoples) see a community spread over a large amount of land as being basically the same thing as a city, whereas the Western mind only thinks of cities as being places with tall buildings where people live in dense aggregations. These differences in cultural traditions are at the root of all of the conflicts in the book.

To conclude I would say that the ancestors need to function to explain where these traditions come from and what life was really like in Dimlahamid, the functioning community, in which humans lived in close relationship with wolves, frogs, eagles, and fireweed (the four clans) and where mountain goats could take revenge on people who treated them in a disrespectful manner.

This is not simply a court case, this is a story about how very different cultures, with different concepts of land use, ownership, community, nature. Up until Degamuukw the only form of evidence acceptable in a court was the sort created by the Western knowledge tradition, i.e. written records, or eyewitness accounts. This case is about taking traditions from other cultures and ways of thinking seriously and according them equivalent status in courts of law.

I hope this has given all of you something to think about. Feel free to email me if you have questions or would like things clarified in greater detail. If you want some inspiration look at the image I have put as the banner for the course, which illustrates the worldview of the Dine, or Navajo, people.


Ray Pierotti