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Mapping my Way Home: A Gitxsan History

By Neil J. Sterritt

Review By Jillian Ridington

March 22, 2018

BC Studies no. 198 Summer 2018  | p. 179-180

British Columbians may be familiar with the landmark Delgamuukw case (Supreme Ct. of Canada, 1997), which established that testimony on based upon traditional knowledge and oral history is valid evidence. But most are limited in their knowledge of the culture and history of the people who fought for their homeland in this case. Neil J. Sterritt attempts to remedy this in “Mapping My Way Home” by tracing his Scottish and Gitxsan heritage.  He combines two classic metaphors of genealogy – the tree and the river – with the cycles and arrows that symbolise time to bring us to the confluence that led to the court battles.

Sterritt’s paternal roots in Canada go back to 1819 (190). A great-grandfather went west to join the Gold Rush; grandfather Charlie Sterritt was born to Lucy Simpson in Gidumgaldo’s longhouse on the banks of the Skeena (188). His Gitxsan grandmother was from the Wiik’aak house.  Neil’s mother, A. Jean Russell, led an itinerant childhood as her Hudson Bay Company (HBC) employee father was transferred to various posts. She landed in Hazelton as a teen-ager, married Neil B. Sterritt there (203), and gave birth to Neil J. and his siblings.

The  Xsi’yeen or Skeena River flows into the Pacific just south of Prince Rupert.  Through the river’s mouth, millennia ago, the ancestors of today’s Gitxsan found their way to fertile land. “Mission Flats” at the confluence of the Skeena and Bulkley rivers has long been a meeting place and settlement; it is now near the site of Gitanmaax and Hazelton, B.C.

Europeans were latecomers. Captain Vancouver found the Skeena’s mouth in 1793, but did not realize he had found the estuary of a great river.  However, his crewmen charted the area.  By 1812, Daniel Harmon had found an overland route to Mission Flats.  By 1822, Europeans began to trade with the Gitxsan. Missionaries, miners, and settlers soon followed. 

The Gitxsan owned land collectively.  They signed no treaty. Yet in 1891, Peter O’Reilly, on behalf of the Indian Reserve Commission, began laying out reserves on the upper Skeena (156-7). That same year, the Hudson Bay Company sternwheeler Caledonia began to ascend the Skeena (158). Settlers, recognizing agricultural potential, began pre-empting Crown land (159). 

By 1909, conflict began between settlers and the Gitxsan. The federal government dispatched the Stewart-Vowell Commission to meet with the chiefs, who asserted that the land belonged to them (175). In 1924, a Nisga’a/Gitxsan delegation met with Prime Minister McKenzie King (179) and presented him with written declarations of their position (180).  In 1927 changes to the Indian Act prohibited fundraising for land claims in B.C.; this clause was not rescinded until the early 1950s (285n).  In 1984, the Gitxsan joined with the neighbouring Wet’suwet’en to file suit against the federal government (307-8). B.C.’s Chief Justice McEachern dismissed their claim, refusing to recognize traditional knowledge (316).  The B.C. Court of Appeals found that title had not been extinguished, but split on whether title had been proven.  Finally, in 1997, the Supreme Court of Canada found that aboriginal title had not been extinguished in B.C. and that traditional knowledge and oral histories were valid bases for a land claim (Delgamuukw v. BC) (318).  Canada’s highest court urged that title be negotiated in good faith; to date, no settlement has been achieved.

Sterritt’s knowledge of Gitxsan culture and of his bloodlines, the stories his relatives tell, along with maps and genealogical charts, all give depth to this book.  It is comprehensive and detailed and will be of interest to all students of Native Studies. 

Mapping my Way Home: A Gitxsan History
Neil J. Sterritt
Smithers: Creekstone Press, 2016. 354 pp. $29.95 Paper.