People and Language

The Dakelh or Carrier are indigenous peoples to a large portion of the central interior of British Columbia. They consist of 22 bands who speak six Athapascan (Dene) dialects.

Dakehl girl

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The name Carrier is supposed to derive from an indigenous custom where a widow carries the ashes of her deceased husband for three years. However, there are at least three problems with this hypothesis. First, there is no evidence this custom exists. Second, the story comes from a missionary, Adrien-Gabriel Morice (d. 1938). According to the father of Lizette Hall (1992), who was Morice’s houseboy, Morice so importuned the Dakelh as to why they called them ‘Carrier’ that he was told a story about widows carrying their dead husbands’ ashes in order to satisfy him. The name may alternatively refer to the fact the Dakelh traded at the coast and carried goods over the Grease Trails.

Legal Organization

Dakelh law is organized around a Clan with a

    • Head Chief (Diniizee or Dzakiizee),
    • subsidiary Wing Chiefs and
    • House members.

Matrilineal descent determines membership to a House. A group of Houses constitutes a Clan. Dakelh legal traditions contain principles of societal organization that ensure proper distribution of decision-making power.

Territory

The Dakelh live in north-central British Columbia. Their territory includes the area along the Fraser River from north of Prince George to south of Quesnel and including the Barkerville-Wells area, the Nechako Country, the areas around Stuart Lake, Trembleur Lake, Takla Lake, Fraser Lake, and Babine Lake, the Bulkley Valley, and the region along the West Road River, west to the Hazelton Mountains and the Kitimat Ranges of the Coast Mountains, including the Kluskus Lakes, Ootsa Lake, the Quanchus and Fawnie Ranges, and Cheslatta Lake.

Dakelh territory

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The Dakelh region is for the most part sub-boreal forest, dotted with numerous lakes. There are numerous rivers, all ultimately draining into the Pacific Ocean, mostly via the Fraser River. The climate is continental, with cold winters during which the rivers and lakes freeze over and a short growing season. The area is hilly, with mountains of modest size. The Rocky Mountains form the eastern boundary of Dakelh territory, but the Dakelh are not very familiar with the foothills because that area in recent times has been occupied by the Cree. Part of the Coast Mountains and Hazelton Mountains fall within Wit’suwit’en territory. Farther south, ‘Ulkatcho Dakelh people share the Coast Range with the Nuxalk and the northern Chilcotin Plateau with the Tsilhqot’in.

History and Philosophy

Traditional Lifestyle

The traditional Dakelh way of life is based on a seasonal round, with the greatest activity in the summer when berries are gathered and fish caught and preserved. The mainstay of the economy is harvest in each family territory (keyoh). Fish are smoked and stored for the winter. Large game is hunted for meat, fur and bone, for food, clothing and tools, respectively. Until the advent of the fur trade, trapping was a minor activity. Except for berries and the sap and cambium of the lodgepole pine, plants play a relatively minor role as food. The Dakelh do, however, appreciate the sanctity of plants and make extensive use of them for medicine. Winter activity is more limited, with some hunting, trapping and fishing under the ice. Although many Dakelh now participate in the modern economy, fish, game and berries still constitute a major portion of their diet.

The Dakelh engaged in extensive trade with the coast along trails known as “Grease Trails.” They primarily exported hides, dried meat and mats of dried berries. They also imported various marine products, most importantly “grease,” the oil extracted from eulachons (aka candlefish) by allowing them to rot, adding boiling water and skimming off the oil. This oil is very nutritious and, unlike many other fats, contains healthy fatty acids. Other important imports are smoked eulachons and dried red laver seaweed. “Grease” and smoked eulachons are still considered by many to be delicacies and are prized gifts from visitors from the west.

Candlefish

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The last great eulachon fishery near the mouth of Nass River, BC

Oral Tradition (Kungax)

The Kungax is integral to Dakelh heritage. It tells of

    • the land’s creation
    • the people’s earliest history
    • territorial boundaries
    • major battles
    • origins of House crests, titles, names and significant past events

Kungax use song and dance to communicate major themes and specific principles. For instance, to show respect for fish, the Dakelh hold a ceremony each year to honour the salmon’s return.

Kungax also teach specific principles to regulate behaviour and outline remedies for breaches of social order. Several fundamental principles intended to govern individual conduct have been identified within Dakelh law. These are:

    • respect
    • responsibility
    • obligation
    • compassion
    • balance
    • wisdom
    • caring
    • sharing
    • love

Each principle should be followed concurrently and has equal weight.

Spirituality

The Dakelh believe everything has a spirit. For instance, when a fish dies, its body wiggles as its spirit struggles out of it.

Divine Retribution

Kungax teach of divine retribution. For instance, anthropologist Diamond Jenness documents a Kungax of a boy called Mek who used to play with the fish the Dakelh harvested one season. An old man told him not to do that or he’ll starve. A year later, the people couldn’t harvest fish at the same location. They began to starve. Mek was the first to die. No sooner than Mek died, the river began to teem with fish again.

Metamorphosis

Kungax also teach proper rules of respect, love and obligation towards others. If people are not treated properly, they can turn into their true form. For instance, anthropologist Diamond Jenness documents another Kungax concerning the origin of the beaver. A couple left their village to hunt in a mountain by a stream. The woman grew lonely and built a dam by the stream. This made it harder for her husband to cross the stream, so he broke the dam. His wife then built a bigger dam. The husband broke this dam, also, for the same reason. She finally built a large dam and a house of sticks, like a beaver’s, at the centre of the stream. Her husband tried to catch her, but she fled into the house and then emerged as a beaver, her breechcloth having turned into the beaver’s tail.

Beaver Spirit (print)

 

The Law of the Feast or 'Potlatch' (Bah'lats)

The Dakelh regulate their society by the Law of the Feast (dinii biits wa aden) or potlatch (bah’lats) which is the legal basis for:

    • succession and inheritance,
    • territorial laws and resource management,
    • family law (including marriage, divorce and mourning),
    • dispute settlement,
    • village governance,
    • special rules of conduct for women and
    • principles of justice taught to children

The Witsuwit’en say the Feast has forged their law.

The Feast takes place in the Feast Hall according to the Law of the Feast. People must be properly seated according to their Houses. Three important legal procedures are

    • administration of the Feast,
    • the calling of witnesses and
    • the distribution of eagle down.

The following subsections briefly explain these procedures.

1. Administration of the Feast

Clan chiefs, who receive their authority from matrilineal clan assignments, administer the Feast. These chiefs

    • determine questions of Dakelh law (e.g., whether a breach has occurred),
    • adjudicate disputes and
    • determine an appropriate remedy in consultation with Wing Chiefs.

A “Whip Man,” who is a member of the Father Clan (which is responsible for the care of the culpable person), administers the remedy.

Chiefs can resolve disputes or enforce laws in formal and informal ways. Their judicial role facilitates peace and order whenever conflict needs to be resolved. Anthropologist Antonia Mills writes that chiefs are decision-makers and mediators. For instance, the chiefs of the Witsuwit’en clan can intervene with regard to marital relations and territorial disputes because they know the nature of the parties involved, which gives them an advantage over outside adjudicators.

2. The Calling of Witnesses

The calling of witnesses is another important mechanism of the Feast to endorse or confirm legal transactions. Clan members act as witnesses and memorize the transactions agreed between the parties. Witnesses are important, as they may be called upon at a future feast to verify past actions. The witnessing of the Feast proceedings ensures that the witnesses are ready to testify in the event of a potential conflict over what has transpired.

The Dakelh’s legal structure is similar to other north-west coast nations, such as the Gitxsan, Tsimshian, Haida, Kwakwaka’wakw, Coast Salish and Nisga’a in this respect.

3. The Distribution of Eagle Down (Chus)

Decisions, plans and transactions are sanctioned by a process called Chus: the distribution of eagle down. Eagle down, which symbolizes peace between the participants and all creation, is distributed to participants when actions or decisions are agreed upon. Upon the distribution of eagle down, “The peace is binding and retaliation is stopped.” Mills writes that clan chiefs are responsible to see that the balance between all creatures is maintained. The power of chiefs rests on their recognition of, and participation in, the spirit world. Spirits are contacted in Feasts through the use of ceremony and chant.

References

“Dakelh” in Wikipedia (10 March 2019), online: <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dakelh>.

John Borrows, Indigenous Legal Traditions in Canada: Report for the Law Commission of Canada (Law Commission of Canada, 2006).