AuthorGrenier, Nigel


Adaawk The oral history of a Wilp An luu to'os't Storage area or land Amhalyte Chief's headdress Ayook Positive law Ayook Niiye'e The law of grandfather; natural/sacred law Damelahamid Paradise, the original city of the Gitxsan people. It is no longer inhabited. Daxgyet Strength, authority Deelepzeb A prince from Damelahamid who mocked Gilouli, the oldest nephew of Haxbegwootku Dii bix The deer that fights Esdii wal Esdii wal The ancestor whose life-story this paper analyzes. He is the son of a supernatural being. Ensii Fat'ku The location where the two sisters met each other and cried in Esdii wal's story Ga'd A pole; refers to the supernatural pole wielded by Esdii wal Ganada The frog clan Gilhaast Fireweed pole, the totem pole of the House of Haxbegwootku that was gifted to the first Gitxsan ancestors in our origin story Gilouli Creator Gisgahaast The fireweed clan Gitsegukla People of the precipice, the village where the older sister lived in Esdii wal's story Gitsenimx The Gitxsan language Gitxsan People of the river of mists 'Goimk Gilouli's son, husband of Liggeyoan Damlaha Goldum Tsean The second born of the Gitxsan ancestors, the second grandchild that Gilouli places in Damelahamid in the origin story. His name describes the gambling box that Gilouli gives him in the origin story. Haxbegwootku The first born of the Gitxsan ancestors, the first grandchild that Gilouli places in Damelahamid in the origin story. His name describes the supernatural fog that he summons in the origin story. Ha'ni t'ookxw A table or land Huwilp Houses, the plural of Wilp Ka'its Taboo, forbidden Kit Ga'd The people of the pole; refers to the community of people that formed around Esdii wal. This village is no longer inhabited. Kitselas The village where the younger sister lived in Esdii wal's story. Located downriver of Gitsegukla. Ksan The river of mists, the Skeena River K'uba wilkxws's Noble children La 'Dax'giithl The authority/sovereignty held by the head chief of a Pdeek 'Sco'm Simoigit Laha The sky, space, heaven Lax Gibou The wolf clan Lax Skiik The eagle clan Liggeyoan The only one in the sky, the mother of the first Damlaha Gitxsan ancestors Limk tsim halyte Chief's headdress dance Mess ol A white bear Naxnonga Supernatural beings, plural Naxnox A supernatural being Pdeek A clan, a social grouping that encompasses Huwilp connected to a common origin 'Sco'm Simoigit The head chief of a Pdeek. Their title comes from the origin story of the Pdeek. Simgeeget Chiefs, plural Simoigit A real person, a chief Tahoe A small supernatural pole that Gilouli gives his grandchildren in the origin story Tsim Algyax An older version of Gitsenimx which is used in ceremonial contexts and is not spoken colloquially Tsim hamaemid The healer, the third grandchild that Gilouli places in Damelahamid in the origin story. She is the sister of Haxbegwootku and Goldum Tsean. Waux The Tsimshian name for Esdii wal Wii Halyt A shaman Wilp A house, the primary social unit in Gitxsan society Wilp Li'ligit The Feast Hall, the governing institution in the Gitxsan legal system II INTRODUCTION

Ni'i tuun Waydetai tsim wilps Haxbegwootku. Gildedowet noxii, Liggeyoan nagwootii, Lutresque najiitsii, ganhl Haxbegwootku nii ye'ii. Nii ye'e ginamhl wa Waydetai lo'ii.

My name is Waydetai, from the House of Haxbegwootku. I am Gitxsan from the community of Gitsegukla, which is located along the Ksan (Skeena River) in North-Western British Columbia. I am also Cree from Gillam, Manitoba. When I was a baby, my maternal grandfather carried me into wilp li'ligit (the Feast Hall) and adopted me into his wilp (house). As a child, I grew up immersed in Gitxsan law through the training that I received from my parents and grandparents. The practices of song, dance, and storytelling formed an integral part of my legal education.

In Gitxsan society, each person is a member of a wilp and a pdeek. The wilp is the fundamental unit of social organization. (1) It means 'house', referring to the longhouses that Gitxsan people historically lived in. (2) Pdeek is the broader social grouping which refers to an interconnected web of huwilp (houses) who are descended from a common origin story. In Gitxsan society, there are four pdeek; the gisgahaast, ganada, lax skiik, and lax gibou. (3) We are a matrilineal society, meaning that children are born into their mother's wilp and pdeek.

Each wilp has an adaawk, a formal narrative that tells significant events within its history from its origin to present times. (4) If you break down the word adaawk into its etymology, it means "from the time of ice". (5) The word likely references the last ice age which took place 12,000 years ago, revealing the time depth of adaawk. (6) Adaawk is a form of intangible wealth held by the house, and it is expressed in the form of crests, song, story, and dance. Adaawk is a living tradition, and through practice we develop a lifelong and intimate relationship with it.

This paper will focus on the life story of an ancestor called Esdii wal. His story is one segment of the adaawk of my grandfather Haxbegwootku's wilp. (7) Esdii wal serves as a reminder of our connection to Gilouli (Creator) and the natural world. His story remains relevant today, as it reveals implicit legal principles that inform the epistemology and legal theories of contemporary Gitxsan people. These theories provide a foundation from which we can orient an effective and strategic use of Gitxsan law.


Saulteau scholar Val Napoleon has developed a prominent method of legal analysis, which uses Indigenous stories as primary sources. The first stage of her analysis involves working with community members to develop a research question that is of practical value to them. (8) In the second stage, Napoleon compiles a large body of publicly available stories from the Indigenous group. (9) She then applies the case method to Indigenous stories to develop a series of case briefs. Napoleon discusses the issues and principles identified in the briefs with panels of community members to ensure the research remains accountable to the group. In the third stage of analysis, she synthesizes the legal principles and develops preliminary legal theories grounded in the distinct Indigenous legal order. (10)

Napoleon posits several foundational assumptions which inform her method. First, that all societies must address the universal issues of human violence and vulnerability to maintain peace, order, civility, and overall political governance. (11) Second, that Indigenous people are intelligent and rational actors who have developed effective legal systems. (12) Third, that "[n]o living tradition remains in some pristine state over centuries of inevitable internal and external changes." (13) Fourth, that colonialism has caused immense damage and loss in Indigenous legal systems. (14)

Napoleon developed her method at a time when Canadian courts were beginning to rethink the relationship between Indigenous stories and law. Delgamuukw v British Columbia is evidence of this shift. At the trial level, the judge accepted the adaawk forwarded by the Gitxsan as evidence for their claim of Aboriginal title, but gave it no independent weight because he did not think it accurately conveyed historical truth. (15) This ruling was based on the premise that oral histories are mythical and romanticized accounts. (16) The Supreme Court overruled this, stating that the laws of evidence must be adapted to accommodate Aboriginal oral history and place it on equal footing as written documents. (17) This ruling was based on the understanding that adaawk is an integral part of the Gitxsan law and culture. (18) This case was instrumental in the development of Napoleon's method. In her doctoral thesis, Napoleon used the transcripts from Delgamuukw and interviews with the plaintiffs as primary sources. (19) At its core, Napoleon's method is about taking oral history seriously, as a source of law. Today, it is the most common form of legal analysis employed when considering Indigenous law.

My methodology differs from Napoleon's in several notable ways. First, rather than working with a vast spectrum of publicly available sources, I work primarily with a single source that is held by my wilp. I place this story in conversation with other parts of our adaawk that my grandfather published in a book titled Visitors Who Never Left, as well as scholarship on Indigenous law. (20) I chose the story of Esdii wal because of my relationship to it as a member of the House of Haxbegwootku. I have a written copy of the story that was transcribed by my grandfather, Simoigit Haxbegwootku. This source is valuable because he belongs to the last generation in my family to speak Gitsenimx as a first language and to live off the land. In 1968, my grandfather made what was then a radical decision to share his adaawk publicly. Previously, the songs, dances, and stories were only shared within wilp li'ligit. He made this decision to strengthen the adaawk, proving new contexts in which it could be lived, practiced, and affirmed on a regular basis. I believe that engaging with Esdii wal's story in this paper continues to enact his vision.

The decisions my grandparents made when teaching their children shaped the state of Gitxsan practices in my family today. They worked arduously to bring back song and dance from the brink of being forgotten. Today, the practice of song and dance in my family is the strongest and most vibrant that it has been in over one hundred years thanks to the work that my grandparents did. My grandparents chose not to...

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