issue 186 - August 1988
The Circle of Reason
The gulf between native people and whites is a wide chasm that is rarely bridged.
Marie Wilson is a member of the Fireweed clan and an elder of the Gitksan nation
in the mountainous northwestern part of Canada's British Columbia province.
Here she reflects on her people's culture and relationship with white society.
The one thing the Gitksan people are not is missionaries. We do not attempt to impose our cultural beliefs on other people. We simply exhibit them. Strangers are accepted as long as they obey the rules. Gitksan leaders are chosen at a very early age and are trained. They are selected partially for the values seen in the growing child and partially for their heritage. If they come from a family of leaders they are more likely to be chosen. The important thing is that they are trained both in the philosophy of leadership and in survival. They are taught self knowledge about themselves and about people. They are also taught self-control: outward control. And the criteria for their decision-making is that it must be good for the people; they should look into their heart and do what is right and good. We all know that a secret appraisal of our own action is sterner than any outward judgement of what we have done.
Leaders fully understand that having been selected, they surrender their personal freedom. Even in my own way, I am quite aware that the people have selected me; they trained me and they set me free and they trust me. And so I am watchful of what I do or say, extremely watchful that I do not offend them in any way, that I don't overstep my boundaries.
As one elderly man said to my husband, 'I am fearful the younger chiefs don't understand the power that comes with the blanket.' By that he means the experience and the energy of all other people who have worn that authority. He said, 'They should reach in there and use it, but they must never wear it like a crown.' And there is a difference: you use this vital energy and experience and then you put it back. And as you progress through your leadership you add to it, or detract from it. It's a heavy responsibility, to leave it as clean as it was given to you. This terrible responsibility can fall on the shoulders of any Gitksan that accepts a position of authority. You are immediately aware that you are there at the will of the people.
Politicians today do not bear this terrible responsibility to the people. Their responsibility is to the system. They can reduce people to digits and relieve them from their minds as persons. It's much easier to govern harshly or thoughtlessly or sternly. They treat leadership as one would a large business. Governing seems now to be a machine for making profits. People are incidental to the process.
All people on this planet must dignify their existence by attempting to analyse their relationship to the rest of creation. The Gitksan came to the conclusion that all created life is equal and necessary. What other guide do we have? We call this the circle of reason.
Our ancestors lived within the myriad of life forms around them. They were not removed from other creatures or the cycle of life itself, When we asked the elders 'What is your philosophy?' the older people were very impatient with us, they felt we should know. They said, 'Truth. Truth. What else'?' And we realized that they were talking about the fundamental truth upon which they based their lives. It took weeks to translate those few words they told us. We took the Gitksan word and we broke it down into its root meanings so that we understood where the words came from. Then we went to English dictionaries and we looked up the words with the same root meanings. To our amazement we found one English dictionary that defined philosophy as 'the fundamental truth by which one chooses to live,' which was exactly what the old people were telling us.
We hold a covenant with all other created forms: that we will respect all created life; that we will keep the balance: that we will not take and take until there is a vacuum. We have this great desire to keep the balance, then we will be comfortably supplied. If we take more than we need there is an imbalance in this covenant with creation.
Our people fully understand the limitation of a human life span. So we have inherited responsibilities and inherited authorities. You are responsible not only to your family, but also to your clan. But you are responsible to all other human life around you and to all other created life that sustains your human existence. I believe all people once lived by these rules the Gitksan live by, and the rules just became too convoluted, too complex until people lost the reason for the first rule. They became entangled in their rules.
Photo: Ian Crawford
Conflict is a serious matter in Gitksan society and is dealt with promptly. That is the ideal. Take the case of trespass - everyone in authority, the chiefs and the witnesses, must comment in a peaceful manner. There is a feast at which one chief always begins by saying, 'This is the way it is,' and he puts the problem in the middle of the table. It's like something pinned with a knife, you can't escape it. We have to walk around the problem making suggestions until we come to a consensus which all can live with, not love, but live with. Once there is an oral witness it is not discussed any further. This peaceful resolution is necessary because life is valued and no group can live in isolation. There is an interrelationship with others. Problems are not allowed to fester and grow too large.
In the old days if someone was murdered land was transferred to help deal with the pain of those who lost the loved one or names were surrendered temporarily to show respect for life taken. Eventually, of course all these surrendered things were returned. One of the phrases for that return was, 'The pain has passed.' When the pain had decreased and time had taken care of it, land would be returned in a formal way because land was life. To give up a portion of your land was to give up some of the comfort of life for your people.
In the West much depends upon written law and, as we're sadly finding out, the narrowest form of justice is that which is based on the written word. There are loopholes that have nothing to do with justice or fairness or even truth. So many of the legal controls placed on people in Western society encourage them to attempt to break the rules, to go as far as they can. Look at the speed limits along the roadway. Because I am Gitksan I believe in trusting those whom I vote into office until they prove they are not trustworthy. I assume those road limits are there for a reason, not to punish me as a driver or a rider. They are not there to diminish me in any way. I marvel at people who break laws because they're saying as long as they are not caught it's all right. That's the difference with the Gitksan understanding of law: if you are alone in the forest you still obey the rules because your action will have consequence.
So why do Canadians make laws if they wish to break them? Why go through the farce? That is what happening now with many of the laws in Canada. It seems to me their philosophy and their understanding of the rules of their society have broken down badly somewhere. And of course, I have to stand in shame and say the Gitksan today take the same attitude about the highway. There has to be order and yet it will never stand if people do not have inner control to obey the law - not out of meekness, but out of knowledge of the impact of breaking the law that one has made for one's self.
There is a fear that of the Gitksan and Wet'suwet'en win our land claim we would expose non-Indians to retribution. Having hurt us, they fear we would retaliate in kind. It is hard to assure them that in our philosophy that could not happen - or else we would no longer be Gitksan and Wet'suwet'en. The minute we retaliated we would lose the power of our own identity. Our identity says, there is life in your eyes and if you love the country as we love it and if you are willing to work with us to restore the land so that we are once again partners with the land, then you are welcome, you are human.
I see life in your eyes and that is all I see, not the color of your skin, not the shadows of your past; just the fact that you are seeking shelter and peace and prosperity in this land. There is a grand fear that we are not human enough to govern ourselves. But governing is just a political process. White people should examine our philosophy of governing, our philosophy of living together.
How can you respect yourself if you don't understand who you are. I have taught my children the only way I know which was the way my mother taught me and I have lived it to the best of my ability. The quality of future life depends on how we demonstrate our beliefs to our children. Anyone who has read any psychology knows self-knowledge can be a powerful agent in life - people need to know the history of their people. The rest of the world is searching for such beliefs and all we have to do is turn around and put it around our children's shoulders like a comfortable garment.
In the progress of time we will change but we will still be Gitksan. The thing no one can take away from us is our view of how human beings should relate to the planet earth and other humans. We are just one of many thousands of species and the planet could go on without us very comfortably. Humans are the ones breaking the balance. If we're the problem then it will be corrected without us; we will just disappear. Creation takes the shortest form to correction.
We believe there is a power larger than the self. If you do not test or torment that power then you live within the circle. We believe in reincarnation - the energy and experience of our ancestors does not disappear into nothing. It exists around us.
Interview conducted by Ian Crawford of the Indian Friendship Centre in Smithers, British Columbia.