Becoming a Hereditary Chief – A Conversation with Merle Alexander on National Indigenous Peoples Day
On a car trip out to T’iyt Tribe territory to visit MT+Co. clients, I had the chance to ask Merle Alexander, lawyer and Principal of First Nations Economic Development at MT+Co., a few questions about his recent recognition as a hereditary chief in his coastal Tsimshian community of Kitasoo. The hereditary leaders of Kitasoo (also known as Klemtu) honoured Merle with an important name at a feast, or potlatch, earlier this month. This name, along with the title of hereditary chief, comes with new responsibilities and legal obligations under Tsimshian law. As I’m studying in the JD/JID Joint Degree Program in Canadian Law and Indigenous Legal Orders at the University of Victoria, this was a fantastic opportunity to learn about how Tsimshian law works on the ground. In celebration of National Indigenous Peoples Day, read on for the highlights of our conversation!
K: What does it mean to be named a hereditary chief?
M: A hereditary chief is a political leader in the original governance system of the Tsimshian. It comes with responsibilities to my Kitasoo House group and clan as well as to certain lands. The name that I have been given comes with title to a significant part of our territory, known as Princess Royal Island. It’s not the same as fee simple title, since under Tsimshian law lands are held collectively by House group (which is a family structure and political unit). Collective title means that you are responsible for that territory and for making decisions on behalf of the collective owners and future generations.
K: This year, we studied Gitxsan property law, which also has a collective land-holding structure. In Gitxsan law the feast is the main legal institution where decisions like this are formalized. Is that similar in Tsimshian law?
M: Yes. The feast I attended this month was the announcement that I’m receiving the name, which belongs to my uncle. He still retains his status as a chief, but I now have the ability to step in and act as an alternate in governance or other decisions. Normally you would shadow your mother or father and be raised knowing you will inherit the name, but my uncle doesn’t have a natural heir. I wasn’t raised in the community, so I’ll be a student of these legal obligations for the rest of my life, with more senior hereditary chiefs as my professors. It’s really the beginning of another education for me.
K: Can people of any gender be a chief?
M: Yes, but male names are not usually given to women and vice versa. It’s hard to know exactly how things worked before, you have to realize that you are looking at every system through the colonial history of patriarchy and the Indian Act. Our legal order is matrilineal – you are born into to your mother’s House. There’s a complex system of adoptions into different clans and House groups to maintain the structure. For example, I am Raven clan, but the name I’ve inherited is Blackfish (Orca). So I will be adopted into the Blackfish family in order to carry the name.
K: Can you tell me more about this name and what it means?
M: It’s actually associated with a famous Tsimshian oral history. Four fishermen are out fishing, and have a boat full of pelts and seal meat. They accidentally drop anchor on the roof of the Orca Chief’s Big House. The Orca Chief sends Ratfish up to investigate, but the fishermen continue to ignore him, eventually pulling off his fins in annoyance. Angered, the Orca Chief sends warrior Orcas up, who make a whirlpool and pull the boat down into the Big House. There are different versions of the story in different communities, but in Kitasoo there are four days of feasting on the fishermen’s seal meat in which the fishermen are taught to respect the wonders of the sea. It’s really a story with legal principles about conservation and respect of marine life. Anyway, eventually the fishers are released near Haida Gwaii. One climbs a tree to get the lay of the land. That is where my name comes from – it translates to “Looking both ways like an Eagle”. It carries a leadership or visionary element, a sense of looking to where you are going.
K: Wow. We learned a lot this year about oral histories as sources of law. It’s fascinating that the name contains the oral history which encodes the law.
M: Yes, the name is meaningful to me in a lot of ways. It’s about spending time away from your community in another environment and coming back with new knowledge. At the potlatch I spoke about how I too spent my life outside of the community learning about a different system of law and can now bring that knowledge back. I think it’s fairly unique that someone with my background, a lawyer with a career in Aboriginal law behind me, becomes a hereditary chief. There are big questions as Nations revitalize their laws, such as whether or not it’s appropriate for bands under the Indian Act to address questions of title and rights – since names are tied to territories. In Kitasoo, the hereditary chiefs are starting to have joint meetings with the elected band council. We’re looking at redefining our constitution as we will need both forms of leadership going forward. The scope of what I could be involved in is pretty large. It’s an interesting time to have responsibilities within an Indigenous legal order.
K: So what’s next?
M: I’m responsible for hosting my own feast. It will take a couple of years to put together and it will be an entire family event, including my in-laws. Following the feast, my chiefmanship begins officially and all of transfers of title and obligations that come with the name. Someday, I’ll pass it onto one of my sons or maybe both. Of course, Eli would have to agree to give up his trickster ways by then and be adopted into the Orca family and leave his raving raven days behind.
Congratulations, Merle! We at MT+Co. are lucky to benefit from your raven trickster humour and eagle vision!