Traditional Tenure among the Gitksan and Wet'suwet'en: its Relationship to Common Property, and Resource Allocation

Submitted to Crossing Boundaries, the Seventh Conference of the International Association for the Study of Common Property, Vancouver, British Columbia. June 9-14, 1998.

Leslie Main Johnson
Department of Anthropology, University of Alberta, Edmonton, AB

Traditional tenure among the Gitksan and Wet'suwet'en peoples of northwest British Columbia connects people and land, with its subsistence resources, in a way which is neither a village commons nor individual private property. Gitksan and Wet'suwet'en society is divided into a series of corporate House groups (Wilp for the Gitksan and Yikh for the Wet'suwet'en) which own and care for a series of Territories and other resource sites. These Territories cannot be alienated or sold, but could be ceded in the feasthall (potlatch) as compensation for murder of the member of a different House. The House is headed by a Chief; the members of the House are matrilineally related, offspring of the women of the line. Each traditional village is composed of several Houses in two or more Clans, also called Phratries in anthropological literature.

In traditional times the Chief exercized control over the allocation of all of the resources of the territory; members of different Houses could only use the territory or its resources with his [/her] permission. The husbands of House members could use the territory of their spouse's House; they were providing for the children, who belonged to the House. Similarly, children of a man, who were not of his House because of Clan exogamy, could use his territory until they died. Intruders were warned, and if trespass persisted after warning, the trespasser would be killed. Strangers trespassing on and Gitksan or Wet'suwet'en territory could be killed with no warning.

Under this system, a relatively large number of people had rights to the resources of hunting/trapping territories, berry grounds, and fishing sites belonging to each House group. If the territories of a House group lacked certain resources, members would ask permission to harvest those resources on another territory. After the needs of the House members and their families had been satisfied, other people were granted permission to use the resources of the territory. This ensured that harvest levels and resources were monitored, and surplus from each territory could be made available to those who lacked sufficient on their own sites. The territory system functioned to allocate people to resources, monitor and conserve resources, and manage resources such as berry patches, which required periodic burning to maintain productivity.

In more recent decades, with the settlement of the Gitksan and Wet'suwet'en in year-round reserve villages or in towns, and with the encroachment of both private property and forest tenure systems, effective control and use of much of the traditional landbase has been compromised. The development of a logging economy and commercial fishing, along with various other types of wage employment and transfer payments have changed the direct economic relationship of Gitksan and Wet'suwet'en with their traditional territories.

House groups have made different responses to the threat to their territories posed by provincially-sanctioned logging plans and mineral development. Asserting effective control in the face of State and Provincial jurisdiction has been difficult, and has been pursued through various legal means, including the famous land-claims court case Delgam Uukxw vs. the Queen, and various logging injunctions and blockades. The ownership of fishing sites is still very strong, and many sites are intensively fished every summer. Allocation of catch at traditional fishing sites is first to House members and their families. The traditional pattern continues; once the needs of the owners of the site have been satisfied, other people can then fish the site with permission of the Chief. Relationships with other downstream users and with the Federal Government have been factors outside the local system which have influenced the health and viability of the Gitksan and Wet'suwet'en fisheries. In the past few years there has been a commercial inland fishery, including beach seining run by traditional chiefs in their own fishing sites. Although fisheries are largely still within the traditional system (if we ignore downstream users for the moment), spatial patterns of hunting and berry picking are more altered by roading, ecological change, and changes in settlement pattern and economic base of the people. The changes in the land base and its resources are at the heart of the extremely complex issue of unextinguished aboriginal rights on Provincial Crown Lands. In the wake of the Delgam Uukxw appeal, the province of British Columbia has been attempting to figure out how to overlay aboriginal land rights on its existing management and governmental structures. As it stands, issues of tenure and who has access to what resources are very much in flux. The Wet'suwet'en have been attempting to arrive at some notion of cumulative impact of development and land alienation on the traditional resources of their Territories with an eye to modifying development plans to conserve significant aboriginal resources (Marvin George pers. comm. 1997); with no resource base, aboriginal rights cannot be excersized.

The new economic importance of timber on the territories has the potential to generate an economic base in the future if the Gitksan and Wet'suwet'en people can obtain any real control of the resource. The present efforts of the Gitksan Lax Sk'iik clan also suggest the potential of House management to shape timber harvest on territories if cooperation between the Forest Service and timber license holders and the House group can be achieved. However, the site specific and limited interpretation that the Forest Service has given to aboriginal rights makes effective House participation in management difficult without Court Actions or civil disobedience to force serious consideration of aboriginal interest.

Where does House territory, which might be described as "traditional corporate property", fit in common property models? Is traditional Gitksan and Wet'suwet'en tenure best seen as a form of "common property", or some form of "private" ownership? In common with many of the common property regimes which have been described in the literature, it is a system of regulating access to bounded resources among a group of defined users. It is small scale, local, and traditional. It cannot be transferred or turned into some other sort of property or rights, and it is highly embedded in the social system.