“We are Still Didene”: Stories of Hunting and History from Northern British Columbia
November 4, 2013
Review By Jillian Ridington
We read this book as the British Columbia government announced that oil and gas development will be banned in the “Sacred Headwaters,” the vast tract of land in North Central British Columbia where the Nass, Skeena, and Stikine Rivers originate. This was a huge victory for the Tahltan Central Council, and for the Iskut and Tahltan people. In his recent slim volume, Thomas McIlwraith links the struggles of the Iskut people to save their ancestral lands in the Spatsizi plateau area to the narratives about hunting and guiding in the area told by Iskut elders.
In the 1960s, Tommy Walker, the owner of a guiding company that employed Iskut men as guides, persuaded the provincial government to create the Spatsizi Wilderness Park. Although the Iskut continued to hunt and guide in the area, they had to abandon their traditional villages and move to the village of Iskut. Walker claimed to be the first white settler in the area, though Chief Louis Louie in his speech at a reunion camp on the Spatsizi Plateau (108-111) disputes that claim.
While the book is subtitled Stories of Hunting and History from Northern British Columbia, the texts presented are almost entirely short conversations rather than stories told by a single narrator who holds narrative space during a performance. In total they comprise fifteen pages of text. The only narrative by a single speaker is Chief Louie’s speech near the end of the book.
The book’s strength is its discussion of Iskut history in terms of an anthropological literature on the band organization of northern hunting people. The texts presented, with perhaps the exception of Chief Louie’s speech, could not be considered examples of First Nations literature in the same way that the stories of Okanagan elder Harry Robinson, recorded by Wendy Wickwire, or those of Yukon elders, compiled by Julie Cruikshank, clearly are.
The question of band organization is central to the contemporary issue of First Nations land claims. As McIlwraith shows, the people brought together in the contemporary village of Iskut came from a variety of nomadic hunting bands whose territories included the upper Stikine, Iskut, and even Bear Lake to the south and east as well as the Spatsizi Plateau. The territories of these people often overlapped in historic times. Chief Louie in his speech chose to emphasize the claim of people descended from the Tl’ogot’ine or Long Grass People to the Spatsizi Plateau, and disputes the suggestion by Jenness that they may themselves have come to the area recently.
McIlwraith’s review of Iskut history and hunting demonstrates that links to the land remain strong and powerful despite nearly a half century of disruption. The short conversations about hunting show that for contemporary Iskut, hunting and wage labour are not incompatible.
“We Are Still Didene”: Stories of Hunting and History from Northern British Columbia
By Thomas McIlwraith
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012. 172 pp, $21.95 paper