The ill-fated marriage of the Gwa’sala-’Nakwaxda’xw and Kwakiutl

It’s fitting that Thomas Point is so rocky; so was the marriage that was established here in the 1960s.

Arranged by the government, it was shortly thereafter dissolved with hollow-sounding apologies and “we meant well.” I guess they thought the shared history of the betrothed would be enough.

Thomas Point near Port Hardy.
Thomas Point near Port Hardy.

The Gwa’sala and ’Nakwaxda’xw people were forest-dwellers and fishers in the region now called Smith and Seymour inlets, tucked into the B.C.’s mainland. They traded and intermarried with the dozens of other aboriginal bands that line the coast and participated in the trade with white men, especially here, a base of operations for the Hudson Bay Co. And though they lived in relative isolation, they were not shielded from the European introduction of residential schools, disease, and liquor.

The Fort Rupert band — the Kwakiutl — lived here next to what would become Port Hardy, though to them it was Tsaxis, as it had been for the 8,000 to 10,000 years they called it home. The sharp mountains of Tsaxis were veined with coal and the Hudson Bay Co. coveted it. Though the Kwakiutl won the right to mine and trade with HBC, it wasn’t without cost: the residential schools, disease, and liquor taxed them as they had the Gwa’sala-’Nakwaxda’xw.

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But neither band disappeared, and by the mid-1940s, the Gwa’sala-Nakwaxda’xw were getting stronger and recovering from a half-century during which their customs, artwork, and forests had been plundered. Canada began to pitch in some social programs, though the First Nations who were not willing to fully assimilate into European culture were still consigned to reserves.

Bands like the Gwa’sala-Nakwaxda’xw were far less likely to assimilate because they were isolated in their hidden inlets. Thus the marriage was proposed: Move to Tsaxis, Canada urged, and we will give you land, housing, education, health care — the sort of life you’ll never have in your backwards back country. But if they chose to stay on their ancestral lands, all social programs would be cut off.

fort rupert bc1

I imagine the boat ride across strait was long, quiet and cold. Behind them, their homes were being burned to the ground. There was no going back. Thomas Rock, here at the edge of Fort Rupert, is cold and black and must have seemed like the end of the world.

This may surprise you (if you’ve never opened a history book), but the Gwa’sala-Nakwaxda’xw say they got far less than they bargained for. And the Kwakiutl? The marriage was forced on them, too. They lived eight miles apart, like a couple that must remain in the same house so retreat to separate beds.

According to a Gwa’sala website, a government staffer wrote a book about the situation that was called, “How a People Die.” He must not have met these people.

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The unwanted marriage was dissolved in 1969. Their joint council was dismantled and the hard work of splitting land and resources began.

“What was done was honestly believed to be the best thing at the time,” Port Hardy’s director of community affairs told the North Island Gazette. “I think the fact you are dissatisfied now indicates that after it’s over, looking back on it, it was wrong. … It was an honest mistake and we’ll correct the things that are wrong now.”

Let’s not pretend things have been completely corrected in the past 45 years. But let’s celebrate alongside the First Nations who are finding a way to renew their customs and languages by rebuilding their communities with schools and other resources.

“Families hold potlatches and young people are learning to dance and sing, learning their names, so that they can potlatch when their time comes.”


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