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guide about people booklet Hul'q'umi'num'


Great Horned Owl

Bruce Granville Miller, Anthropologist, UBC
49.061676, -123.147911

To honour our ancestors we become visible again

Bruce Granville Miller

The late Chief Raymond Clayton (Rocky) Wilson, 1948-2016, was a large, strong man, descended from boxers, wrestlers, and, further back in time, freedom fighters who fought to defend their homeland from an assault by the British Navy on their Lamalchi Bay village on Penelakut Island in 1863. He was also a kind, gentle man who deeply cared for both his family and Hwlitsum community members. His story, though, and his place in history, begin before his birth with the shelling of his ancestral home by the British gunboat the Forward following the killing of two settlers, an act attributed without evidence to the Hul'q'umi'num speaking Lamalchi people. This event led to the hanging of leaders by colonial authorities and the dispersal of the Lamalchi band from their Penelakut Island homeland. Many eventually settled in their historic fishing village, Hwlhits'um, on the south fork of the Fraser River at Canoe Pass.

Some fled south and joined Lummi relatives in what became Washington state and others went east to the villages of relatives on the Fraser River. For many years the Lamalchi descendants remained unrecognized by Canadian authorities as Indigenous people and as members of the Hwlitsum band. His people, Chief Rocky often said, had become invisible to the colonizers.

Rocky published an account of the Lamalchi/Hwlitsum people in his contribution to an edited volume, Be of Good Mind: Essays on the Coast Salish.1 In his own words:

Our ancestry is Hul'q'umi'num and comes down from the Lamalchi people, a tribe with village sites on the east coast of Vancouver Island and on the lower Fraser River at Hwlitsum, also known as Canoe Pass. Our oral histories tell us that the way of life of the Lamalchi people, the way they survived, was based on what some call a 'seasonal cycle,' where the people gain their sustenance starting in the spring of the year at the mouth of the Fraser River. In the Lamalchi case, our people would fish for eulachon, spring salmon, and those types of fish as well as pick berries and plants at Hwlitsum and further up the river. . . (p. 131)

Chief Rocky's great-great-grandfather was Culuxtun, a shaman and prominent leader known throughout the many Coast Salish communities. Other ancestors, too, were Siem, honoured people.

The honoured place of the Hwlitsum was undermined by the dislocation of the band but in 1985 Chief Rocky saw an opportunity to change that after the passage of federal Bill C-31,2 and the revised Indian Act. Then began a long, troublesome legal fight to have Hwlitsum status as Indigenous people recognized by Canada; they succeeded in 2000. The second fight is still underway, for recognition as a band.

It would take a number of years to organize a movement that would focus on organizing our rights from a legal perspective. Our people were dehumanized through the Indian Act, and forced to live under horrible social and economic conditions. . . My father joined my grandfather, Henry Wilson, and great-grandfather John Andrew Wilson, who had maintained residence at and around our ancestral village at Hwlitsum. . . Yet, through those troubled times, my father and the rest of the family remained strong leaders . . . (p. 134)

Chief Rocky Wilson was a commercial fisherman, proud of his families' extensive knowledge of fishing practices and of the waters and ecology of Canoe Pass, Roberts Bank, and the Salish Sea. As a boy, he learned Coast Salish cultural practices and perspectives from his father. He was also a university graduate of the UBC Department of History and the First Nations Studies program. Over time, Rocky gradually melded these two bodies of knowledge, Indigenous and academic, as he undertook to lead his community through burdensome Canadian bureaucracies while pushing for recognition for Hwlitsum people. Chief Rocky sought Indigenous allies including the Squamish and other Coast Salish tribes, and in 2003, the Hwlitsum joined with several Vancouver Island-based bands which composed the Hul'q'umi'num Treaty Group. He also met with the Penelakut First Nations elder's council, pushing to regain the Hwlitsum place in the Coast Salish world. Meanwhile, Chief Rocky worked to educate his community on the possible impacts of the expansion of the Port of Vancouver on Hwlitsum ancestral lands and waters. He used funding from industry to undertake a comprehensive study of Lamalchi/Hwlitsum fisheries, hunting, and gathering locations and band history more generally. This resulted in two volumes of research.3

Always, Chief Rocky fought against the invisibility which plagued his community. Gradually, he refined his message to the outside world: the Hwlitsum are a Coast Salish people with a place in the larger social Coast Salish network defined by inter-marriage and common cultural practices. His community had been wrongfully harmed by the colonial powers, the British and later the Canadians, and by abusive residential schools and the systemic racism of Canadian society. Now, he wanted his Hwlitsum community restored to its rightful place, to its share of the salmon catch, to a land base on which the families could reunite, and jobs to help sustain the band members. Chief Rocky delivered this message calmly, politely, but forcefully. Always, the past, the present, and the future were intertwined, and Rocky Wilson's message was that “to honour our ancestors we become visible again."4

1 “To Honour our Ancestors We Become Visible Again,' in Be of Good Mind: Essays on the Coast Salish, edited by Bruce Granville Miller. University of British Columbia Press, 2007, pp.131-137.

2 "In 1985, Bill C-31 was used to amend the Indian Act to conform with the equality rights guaranteed by s.15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms." https://www.afn.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/16-19-02-06-AFN-Fact-Sheet-Bill-C-31-Bill-C-3-final-revised.pdf

3 The Hwlitsum First Nation's Traditional Use and Occupation of the area now known as British Columbia and Volume 2: Hwlitsum Marine Traditional Use Study, both compiled and written by Chief Wilson, Bruce Miller, Al Grove, and Bill Angelbeck.

4 He was survived by his children, Kristin, Regan and Fred, seven grandchildren, and siblings, in addition to the larger body of related Hwlitsum people.