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Standing Up with Ga’axsta’las: Jane Constance Cook and the Politics of Memory, Church, and Custom

By Leslie A. Robertson, Kwagu'ɬ Gixsam Clan

Review By Andrew Cienski

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 179 Autumn 2013  | p. 228-229

Standing Up with Ga’axsta’las; Jane Constance Cook and the Politics of Memory, Church, and Custom follows one woman’s involvement with “colonial interventions” (407) into Kwa’waka’wakw economics, government, and religion in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Jane Cook lived passionately and actively in an era of conflict, pursuing a strong personal sense of justice.

Ga’axstal’as, Jane Cook (1870-1951) was born to a noble family of the Gixsam clan on her mother’s side. She was raised largely by missionaries, Alfred and Elizabeth Hall, and was a staunch Christian. Her strong writing skills, bilingualism, and understanding of colonial legal and government systems positioned her well to be of service to the Kwa’waka’wakw. While raising sixteen children and working as a midwife, Ga’axstal’as actively sought legal reform and enforcement on local, provincial, and federal levels. But her “bicultural” stance did not fit easily into any Christian, colonial, or Kwa’waka’wakw camp.

As the grip of colonialism tightened around West Coast nations, Cook struggled against official denials of access to land and resources. The book’s principle author, Leslie Robertson, contextualizes shifts in government policy, and the role of church and colonial resource developers, especially fisheries, in effecting those shifts. Cook testified at the McKenna-McBride Royal Commission (1914) and sat on the executive of the Allied Indian Tribes of British Columbia (1922). She regularly petitioned government and church authorities to intervene in local concerns, often pertaining to women’s rights and freedoms. This brought her into conflict with the traditional potlatch system and its approach to marriage and status.

Robertson was invited by Jane Cook’s descendants to “help set the record straight” (16) about their controversial matriarch. The book is a good example of collaborative research as dialogue between academic and family. Collaborator Wedɬidi Speck calls the process ’namaɬa: “the desire to include all…in the discussion” (20). The result creates an interesting point of contact between academic historiography and Indigenous oral history.

The book reads like a conversation between research and researchers. Robertson presents ethnographic material, court transcripts, church meeting minutes, photographs, and letters to and between government officials, such as Duncan Campbell Scott — much of it from Cook family archives. In addition, her inclusion of conversations with Cook’s descendants goes a long way towards contextualizing and even humanizing the documents.

The recurring theme of historicity initially seems merely theoretical; however, its importance becomes clear as a polyphony of analytical voices wrestle with understanding Jane Cook’s motivations not only to support but to encourage the potlatch ban. The ban, which severed West Coast peoples’ access to their traditional religions and systems of government, was a key reason for loss of knowledge of customs, history, and language.

Cook lived during a time of incredible transition within Kwa’waka’wakw culture. In addition, legal enactments restricting access to resources, labour, and legal representation provide context for the crippling frustration often felt by Indigenous peoples to this day. This historically informative and nuanced biography situates the conflicting designations and alliances of a politically active, bicultural woman through an era that fundamentally shaped the landscape of First Nations’ relationship with Canada.

Standing Up with Ga’axsta’las: Jane Constance Cook and the Politics of Memory, Church, and Custom
By Leslie A. Robertson and the Kwagu’ɬ Gixsam Clan 
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2012. 596 pp, $125.00 cloth