Henry Alfred, who died on September 23 at the age of 84, was the last living plaintiff in the landmark Delgamuukw-Gisday’wa court case, which articulated the doctrine of Aboriginal title and recognized the legal merit of Aboriginal oral histories. Hereditary chief of the Wet’suwet’en, a First Nations people who live in the northwest interior of central British Columbia, he bore the title of Wah Tah K’eght and was part of a generation leaders who redefined indigenous rights in the province, the country, and the world.
Born March 31, 1934, Henry Alfred came from a line of distinguished Wet’suwet’en leaders. His father, Peter Alfred, held the hereditary title of Kanoots. Her mother, Madeline Alfred, held the hereditary title Dz’eeh, a title her mother held before her.
Like all Wet’suwet’en, he belonged to his mother and grandmother’s house and clan. Thus, the elders of Tsee K’al K’e yex (House on Top of the Flat Rock) of the Laksilyu (Clan of the Little Frog) taught Henry the traditions of his people. His father’s house in Gitdumden (Bear Clan) also supported him in difficult times.
Henry was raised by his grandmother, Lucy Pius. When he was young, his grandmother would take him to trap in the territory of their house in the vicinity of Witset. In late fall, they caught mink, weasels and squirrels. After his father gave him his first rifle at the age of 10, Henry first killed a coyote on the trapline with his grandmother.
He fell in love with a girl from his village, Sue Williams, and they were married in November 1955. They will remain together for 63 years. He built their family home. He is survived by his wife and five children, Dolores, Rick, Lester, Anthony and Marjorie, as well as his grandchildren, Rob Alfred, Jeremy Dumont, Alexandria Dumont, Christopher Duncan, Candice Duncan and Caitlyn Duncan, as well as his great- grandchildren Darius Alfred, Briley Alfred, Dayin Alfred, Hadley Alfred and Mayah Alfred. He was predeceased by his sons Frederick and George, his daughter Jacqueline and his grandson Gabriel Dumont.
After his marriage, Henry always worked hard to provide for his family. He got a job with CN Railway, working 13 years as a section foreman. After that, he held a position in the Department of Highways, moving from laborer to truck driver, then to grader operator for 15 years. Eventually, he became a freelance truck driver, hauling logs until his retirement.
Working for a salary never stopped Henry from maintaining a connection to the land. He hunted and fished to feed his family. He also maintained a trapline, capturing beavers, swallows, lynxes and squirrels. After collecting the furs, her in-laws, Margaret and Alex Williams, prepared the skins. Henry used the hides to make a cradle to keep his family close to the tradition.
He is committed to taking care of the elders in his community. Living with his grandmother, he supported her when she went blind. He also helped take care of Peter Bazil, the son of his grandmother’s sister, who went by the name of Wah Tah K’eght. Henry would bring her water and cut her firewood, and eventually bring her to live in the family home during the winters.
By 1963 Peter was old enough and decided he wanted to teach Henry about the territorial boundaries that Wah Tah K’eght was responsible for protecting. They came out on his trapline behind Whuus C’oowenii.
It was a story that Henry later told in detail in court.
“We climbed the hill on his line,” the court transcript reads. “It took us about four or five hours to walk… he was quite old. We climbed quite high. We sat down and had lunch. We made tea and drank tea. For about an hour, we sat there, and he pointed out to me… dividing lines in every corner.
Sitting together, Peter taught Henry the names of the landmarks. He also stressed the importance of protecting the land and not overexploiting it. The management of the territory required a rotation of traplines to ensure the conservation of animal populations.
After Peter’s death, Henry took the name Wah Tah K’eght, in 1967. Taking responsibility for the name in the village hall, Henry vowed to protect the territories for future generations.
At that time, indigenous rights were little respected. The Canadian government circulated a policy document in 1969 suggesting that the government remove Indian status and all recognition of Indigenous peoples as a distinct people.
Henry Alfred was part of a generation of leaders who demanded respect for the rights of the Indigenous peoples of Canada. In 1975, he and other Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs began to organize a land claim. In October 1984, Hereditary Chiefs Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan filed the most important Indigenous rights claim in Canadian history. The Delgamuukw-Gisday’wa case, as we have come to know, was to set a historic precedent.
Hereditary Chiefs Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan claimed indigenous ownership and jurisdiction over their traditional territories. The case prompted the government to admit that Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan title had never been surrendered.
In addition, the hereditary chiefs based their claim on indigenous legal traditions. Rather than focusing on expert testimony from scholars trained in the West, hereditary chiefs asserted their own expertise on their traditions. Community leaders spoke and explained the traditions that gave them the authority and responsibility to manage the land. Speaking, the hereditary chiefs demonstrated the depth and complexity of their culture and history.
Henry Alfred was therefore not only a plaintiff in Delgamuukw-Gisday’wa but an expert who testified in this case. In January and February 1988, he spent weeks in court testifying about how his house managed the land, the responsibilities of a leader, and the need to always think of future generations.
He also recited the limits of his territory to the court. It had been 25 years since the day Peter Bazil took him to the land, but he remembered all the names of the boundary markers. At the bar, he recalled the words of the former Wah Tah K’eght.
The case would become one of the longest in Canadian history, taking 374 trial days before the judge handed down his decision in 1991, ruling against the Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan claims.
However, the case was appealed and was taken in 1997 to the Supreme Court of Canada, where judges overturned the trial decision. They said the trial judge had mishandled the evidence presented to him by the hereditary chiefs. Setting a new precedent in Canada and elsewhere, Supreme Court justices have recognized the validity of Indigenous traditional knowledge as a form of evidence in court.
The case also established a doctrine of aboriginal title in Canadian law. Although the Supreme Court was unable to rule on the hereditary chiefs’ claim due to mismanagement of evidence, the Delgamuukw-Gisday’wa case laid the groundwork for judicial recognition of Aboriginal title in the case. of the Tsilhqot’in Nation of 2014.
The Delgamuukw-Gisday’wa case dramatically changed Indigenous politics in Canada. The decision helped shape a contemporary treaty negotiation process in British Columbia. But it has also contributed to a wider recognition of the need to integrate Indigenous peoples and their knowledge systems into Canadian governance processes. Wah Tah K’eght has continued to participate in local reconciliation efforts over the years.
A few weeks ago, on his last trip out of the hospital before his death, Wah Tah K’eght returned to his home community of Witset to throw a party to celebrate the launch of my book. Shared stories, the product of a research collaboration between the City of Smithers, British Columbia, and the Office of the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs.
Wah Tah K’eght was also a key part of the processes that continue to unfold. On Thursday, the governments of Canada and British Columbia will join the Office of the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs and representatives from the villages of Witset and Hagwilget in signing a landmark agreement recognizing the jurisdiction of the Wet’suwet’en authorities over the children and families.
Henry Alfred was always a humble man who spoke in a calm voice. But he was a man rooted in his traditions and there was power behind his words. His calm words, on the witness stand in Delgamuukw-Gisday’wa, as well as in thousands of meetings, had the strength to push back the long history of colonialism and to change the path of his community, his region, his province, his country and the world. . His death is a time of mourning but also of celebration of the legacy of a humble man who helped create the possibility of a different and better future.
Tyler McCreary, assistant professor of geography at Florida State University, is the author of Shared stories, a book that documents the history of the relations between the Wet’suwet’en and the settlers in the Bulkley Valley and seeks to open a wider conversation about the relations between the newcomers and the original inhabitants of the area.