SpruceRoots Magazine - September/October 2000
Tthow Hegwelth :: the sound of many shields
She offers me thick, black, coffee wrapped in fine bone china. A collection of Russian glassware from another era stands in a display cabinet next to her front door- but it's easy to overlook when faced with an imposing canvass marked by Bill Reid's passing hand. The television is on. The house is tidy and modern, full of light and windows. The dining set is old; heavy and solid.
She is Tthow Hegwelth - the sound of many shields. She is seventy-nine years old. She has fierce brown eyes. They are fading and she is profoundly conscious of it. She was once a carver, twice married. She has a dangerous tongue and delicate manners. An astounding memory. She is Lavina White and she isn't going to the elders' centre. Not yet - and not quietly.
"You should do one of three things if you are speaking in public and you want people to remember what you have to say," she says. "You can make them laugh, you can make them sad, or you can make them angry." In one sentence she can often accomplish all three.
Lavina is a Massett matriarch. She says matriarchs are the true governors in the Haida tradition, that even chiefs must listen to what they say. She believes this means it is her responsibility to speak for her people. She believes her Haida name means this is one of her many responsibilities. Some Haida men believe this means she can be a nuisance, or worse.
"I don't care what the elected say. The band councils, the Council of the Haida Nation, they don't even acknowledge the matriarchs." Lavina was once president of the Council of the Haida Nation.
I ask Lavina how she feels about white people. She pauses a moment, and then begins to tell me a story. During the eighties, when Haidas and some white people were blockading logging roads on Lyell Island, when there was a lot of angry back and forth between Haidas and whites, three journalists interviewed Lavina on the beach.
"The last question they asked me was 'what are you going to do with the white people when you get the land back?' And I said, 'put them on reserves, what do you think?'"
One of the reasons I came to Lavina's house was to ask her about a recent ICSI meeting where she said 'Haida title is non-negotiable, coexistence is.' So how does she define coexistence?
"If you support us in our land issue and you support us in self government, you are free to stay. Otherwise, you are free to go." Lavina is a woman of conviction. After speaking with her for an afternoon, I get the impression her positions don't change very easily, and her ideas about white people were formed over a long lifetime coloured by difficult and unpleasant experiences. On the subject of Haida title and rights, her conviction is clear and uncompromising.
"We carry a lot of pain and anger. We endured the legalized abduction of our children. We can't even go into the forest right now. We're invisible in our own country, in our homeland. We're trespassers.We have a right to our own way of life and we don't want to be ruled by others. Yet here we are, in the year 2000, living on reserves and nothing's changed."
What Lavina wants is straightforward - Haida title and self-government. But when
the talk turns towards how to get there, things become more complicated.
Lavina is absolutely against any kind of treaty arrangement. For the most part because her beliefs concerning the Haida relationship with the land won't allow it, but also because she doesn't trust an arrangement made in a foreign language.
"Our lands are non-negotiable, they belong to our ancestors and future generations. I'd rather shoot myself than be involved in something where I'd extinguish my title. Once when I was involved in negotiations they said they could change the word from 'extinguish' to 'surrender.' There's no such word in Haida. Haida surrender? Never."
"I have a hard time with the English language. They can translate it any way they want and they can play games with it."
She's not a fan of court either, and she questions whether or not the Haida should use the court to pursue title.
"I'm not that confident in the courts. The courts were biased on anything native people went to court with." But she concedes a Haida victory would be sweet. "If we win, that means all native people in the province win."
Regardless of how the land issue plays itself out over the next year or two or ten, Lavina is confident that one way or another the Haida will prevail.
"We know our history. We know we've always been here. We have our creation story. We survived the ice age, we survived the world flood. We'll survive this too."
In the meantime she'd like to improve coexistence. "Some time ago the government formed regional plans for everything. And the reason they did that was so we wouldn't be harping on the government and confronting them- we'd be fighting with our neighbours."
Lavina contends that these policies drove a wedge between local communities by making adversaries of them. But she can remember a time when the people in Masset were happy, hard-working, and got along well.
"Everybody worked in this village forty years ago. Everyone. The activity between New Masset and Massett used to be good, but things changed when the base came in."
For Lavina, the key to healthy coexistence lies in trust and understanding, and developing these qualities requires frank and open dialogue. It's a process she observed when BC's First Nations were initially getting to know one another, and it's one she feels would be effective here as well.
"When we first got serious about organizing the movement for our homelands, we didn't trust each other because we didn't know each other," she says. "And then we let it all hang out. That's what we need to do on these islands. We need to bring everyone together. We don't respect and appreciate each other's differences."
An all-Island symposium devoted to coexistence within the context of acknowledged Haida title is what Lavina has in mind. People from every community on Haida Gwaii could speak candidly and would hopefully leave with a better understanding of how we can all live together. Or it might degenerate into a mud-slinging match rife with acrimony and animosity.
It's the first step towards reconciling the past and a more promising future. Once the Haida move beyond correcting former and present injustices, assured of self-determination, Lavina believes they will return to the freedom her ancestors enjoyed, and the process of healing can begin.
"The learning I had is very deep, very strong. I learned from a people who only knew truth. They gave us instructions on how to live on our land so it always would be able to nurture us. We understood the language of the land, the sea, and the rivers, but that's been lost to us," she says. "When people have been oppressed for a long time, it takes a long time change that.You tend to oppress yourself for a long time. The sooner you change that it'll be better for ourselves and we can be happy people again."
SpruceRoots Magazine - September/October 2000