Wah Tah K’eght Henry Alfred: 1934 – 2018

Wah Tah K’eght Henry Alfred died September 23, 2018 at the age of 84. He was the last of the Witsuwit’en plaintiffs in the landmark Delgamuukw-Gisday wa court case. Our home beside Driftwood Creek is right on the edge of his territory. Just over a year ago, I asked him and his wife, Wilat Sue Alfred, some questions about the Driftwood watershed. But this part of his territory had long been occupied by settlers, miners, and loggers and he didn’t spend much time here. While he’d been into Silverking once as a young man, he said, he couldn’t do it now. His kidneys were failing and he required regular dialysis.

Much of his personality showed through in that short visit. He told stories of his uncle Peter Bazil from whom he took his name. He cracked jokes. In many ways, he reminded me of my father and uncles – prairie farm boys – who couldn’t resist teasing, who told groaners, who worked hard and could fix almost anything.

Henry was in the hospital in Prince George for much of the following summer, while a group of Witsuwit’en and settlers and researchers worked with Tyler McCreary and Creekstone Press to get Shared Histories to the press. On September 8, Henry’s daughter, Marg Dumont, flew into PG and, after the day’s dialysis session, drove him to Witset so he could welcome the community to the feast his clan, the Likhsilyu, hosted to launch the book. We felt so lucky to have him with us – smiling and talking about the need for our communities to work together – after what must have been an exhausting day. He died just two weeks later.

Dave de Wit gives Henry his copy of Shared Histories.

Ian Michell wrote in his memorial tribute to Henry:

Uncle Henry has led our clan and did a great job. He lived the ways of our Ancestors. The life of … both living off the land and in the boardroom has inspired me to mentor and try to live the old ways. Chief Wah Tah K’eght all of my life, my leader and grandfather in our Wet’suwet’en ways. Strong leader. Thank you.

Shared Histories author, Tyler McCreary, also wrote a tribute to Henry, one that was published in the Globe and Mail, a suitable honor for a man of Henry’s stature. It tells the story of how Henry acquired the knowledge that Ian respected so much, knowledge he took to the courtroom as an expert witness in Delgamuukw-Gisday’wa.

We went up the hill on his [Peter Bazil’s] line, the court transcript reads. Took us about four or five hours walking … he was pretty old. We went up pretty high. We sat down and have lunch. We made some tea and drank tea. For about an hour we sat there, and he pointed out to me … boundary lines in each corner.

Sitting together, Peter taught Henry the names of the boundary markers, [which he later] recited to the court. … It had been 25 years since the day when Peter Bazil took him out on the territory, but he remembered all the names of the boundary markers.

But those names weren’t readily available to Henry throughout those preceding 25 years. I heard him on the radio tell the story of how he was having trouble remembering them until his day in court, when they all came back to him. When he needed the knowledge, it came.

After Peter died, Henry took on the name Wah Tah K’eght, in 1967. Taking responsibility for the name in the feast hall, Henry committed to protect the territories for future generations.

The story of Henry’s life reminds me of the life of Harry Robinson, an Okanagan storyteller, born in 1900 and dying in 1990. In Write it on Your Heart: The Epic World of An Okanagan Storyteller, a collection compiled and edited by Wendy Wickwire, she talks about where his stories came from. As a child he was charged with looking after his half-blind grandmother:

… and during their many hours together, she began to tell him stories which would later become the centre and meaning of his life. ‘Somebody’s got to be with her all the time. And when we’re together just by ourselves, she’d tell me, “Come here!” And I sit here while she hold me. And she’d tell me stories, kinda slow. She wanted me to understand good. For all that time until I got to be big, she tell me stories. She tell me stories until she die in 1918 when she was eighty-five.’

Other elders told Harry stories as well. But during the long years of his ranching life, years of hard work and responsibilities, he didn’t have the time or inclination to tell stories. “’I don’t care for it,’ he explains, ‘and I forget.’” But as a hip injury and old age slowed him down almost thirty years later, he began to remember: “’The older I get, it seems to come back on me. It’s like pictures going by. I could see and remember.’”

The link between caring for elders directly, a task which creates opportunities for knowledge to be shared, and becoming a repository for that knowledge seems clear. Henry’s life exemplified this. Tyler writes:

He was committed to taking care of the elders in his community. Living with his grandmother, he had supported her when she went blind. He also helped care for Peter Bazil, the son of his grandmothers’ sister and former holder of the name Wah Tah K’eght. Henry would bring him water and cut his firewood, and eventually brought him to live in the family home during the winters.

Many of the other tributes to Henry clearly illustrate the love he engendered. His daughter Marg writes:

Wah Tah K’eght didn’t tell us how to live, he lived, and let us watch him do it. Wah Tah K’eght was a man of few words but said so much with the look in his eyes and body language. You knew he loved you if he teased you. We always knew Wah Tah K’eght only went to Grade 4 but to us, he was our professor. A professor who knew so much about our ways, our protocols, our culture, our land, and our language. Dr. Wah Tah K’eght.

One of the links between these two men is their relationship to the land their people have occupied for thousands of years. Philosopher Julian Bagginni, in an excerpt from How the World Thinks: A Global History of Philosophy, reminds us that Indigenous relations to the land serve to “provide a corrective to the assumption that our values are the universal ones and that others are aberrations. It makes credible and comprehensible the idea that philosophy is never placeless; thinking that is uprooted from any land soon withers and dies.”

As Ian said, Henry was at home both in the boardroom and on the land. Our family and Creekstone Press feel honoured to have lived on his territory for over forty years.

Thanks to Harry Kruisselbrink for the above photos.

Stories looking for home

We writers are always talking about the importance of stories. Of the ways in which stories reflect a culture back to itself – for teaching, for entertainment, for the record. For thoughtful commentary. So we’re always tickled to find anyone who agrees. Especially a couple of law professors. Of course common law is really based on old stories, so I guess it makes a kind of sense.

In “Indigenous Law and Legal Pluralism”, Val Napoleon and Hadley Friedland illustrate ways in which indigenous legal traditions can be respectfully accessed by “applying legal analysis and synthesis to … stories, narratives, and oral histories.” (Napoleon and Friedland are part of a movement trying to build a bridge between indigenous and western legal traditions. Val is the director of the Indigenous Law Research Unit at UVic; Hadley was its research director until last year.)

The article opens by quoting George Blondin from When the World was New: Stories of the Sahtu Dene:

It used to be that every family with a living grandfather or grandmother possessed a storyteller from another time. The duty of storytellers was to tell stories every day. That is why Dene tradition is so complete, as far back as the days when [Naá]cho–giant now-extinct animals–roamed the world.

Over the years, we have heard many stories from the Driftwood watershed. The year Cronin mine mailman Joe Pekoe was killed in an avalanche. Other men killed in sawmill accidents. The time Katherine Harvey stole her husband Peavine’s chimney from his cabin beside his mine workings because she and their son Gordon had run out of money. Instead of coming home, he had her charged with theft and she spent the winter in jail in Vancouver (this may be apocryphal as there’s also a story about him breaking an arm and Katherine using a stove pipe for a splint). The time two women stood outside the foreman’s cabin in Silverking Basin at night at 30 below, their ski boots in their hands, ready to depart because they got the old airtight burning so hot it was a reverberating bright red.

Hadley and Val conclude “Indigenous Law” with a reference to a statement in Harold Norman’s article, “Crow Ducks and Other Wandering Talk”. Creek elder John Rains saw ten dead and mangled crows on the snow in the bush: “Some story will come along and find those crows, and use them,” he said.

Norman continues:

To the Cree, stories are animate beings. One could tell a biography of a single Cree story (which would be a story in itself) just as one could tell the natural history of an animal.  In this respect, one could ask, What do stories do when they are not being told? Do they live in villages? Some Cree say they do. Do they tell each other to each other? Some Cree say this is true as well. Certain stories live out in the world, looking for episodes to add to themselves. Therefore, we can understand John Rains’ belief that eventually a story would find the torn crows. Later that story would find a Cree person, inhabit that person awhile, and be told back out into the world again.

What a tantalizing concept for a writer! Stories do seem to find themselves, to create themselves and some of us are lucky enough (or not) to be inhabited by them. Think of the possibilities.

Now think of all that stories that might find their way into the creek: the water running, slipping and sliding down, down, down as it always does, some splashed up into the air, some going down your thirsty throat, some pausing in a back eddy or a quiet pool. It parts and connects, parts and connects in a most lively manner. Think of the stories swirling down its path to find their way out into the world.

The time our neighbour, in the wild spring freshet, launched his canoe, paddled down to the fossil beds, and survived. You’ve heard that expression, three sheets to the wind? Years later, we found a half-crushed canoe beside the creek. Not his, he swears. I still have a piece of it my office. Now I know why I’ve kept it all these years. I’m waiting for its story to stop by and pick it up.

Think of the gossip in every back eddy.

Did you see the moose stumble and fall? Ah yes, that moose is nothing but bones now and see, here comes a trickle of its blood. Did you see us tear that bridge right off its footings? Oh yes, we shoved it right up against that house, they were all asleep and we scared them silly. Remember those kids throwing rocks for the big red dog, how he scrabbled to retrieve them? The mud he churned up? Well, here he comes, look out!

And swoosh, those molecules of hydrogen and oxygen are thrown back into the melee, molecules that held shape and form in three dimensions, snow that held a preening whiskey jack, snow that was eaten and pissed out by goats, by moose, by thirsty skiers and sawyers.

Remember, says the muddy stream, thick with memories, carrying a spruce branch drunken with sorrow, travelling together long enough to tell about the mittens snagged on the branch, the smell of wet wool bringing back the spruce’s memory of the sawyer stripping off his shirt in the heat of the work and tossing it down on top of the tree when it was barely bigger than a twig, and now the branch is useless, no needles, no purpose, a forgotten vestige broken off in a skier’s passing, dropped onto the snow on top of the ice and here it is telling the creek about the smell of horses, of diesel and the cries of working men.

Around and around it all goes until something – a pebble tossed, a rubber boot slipping off a stone, a fox bending to drink – sends it all off again, the water and the stories together.

And this time of year, the whole world, it seems, is dripping and melting and water is trickling, burbling, sending little creeks running through the woodshed, under the deck, down into the garden, into the pond, under the road and into the still half-frozen creek. Past the old spruce tree where raucous crows are nesting. Everywhere, winter stories looking for a home.


The stories I miss – the ones I hear only as rumours – are Wet’suwet’en stories: rumours of sacred places, of marmot hunts, of goats, of the vanished caribou. C’ide’ Yïkwah or Driftwood Creek marks the division between two territories, that of Wos of the Gidimt’en Clan and that of Ut’akhgit of the Likhsilyu Clan, a name currently held by Henry Alfred. You know it carries many stories. It’s time to listen up.

“Indigenous Law and Legal Pluralism” appears in a special issue of the McGill Law Journal, 61:4.