Author Tags: Aboriginal Authors
Daughter of James Sewid, Daisy Sewid-Smith is an expert on the history of her Kwakwaka’wakw people. As a linguist teaching for the University of Victoria in Campbell River, she translated the memoirs of her grandmother Agnes Alfred (c.1890-1992), a non-literate storyteller and historian, for Paddling to Where I Stand: Agnes Alfred, Qwiqwasutinuxw Noblewoman (2004), the first biographical portrayal of a Kwakwaka’wakw matriarch.
She also wrote Prosecution or Persecution (1979) to document the enforcement of the law forbidding the potlatch as of 1884. In particular she records the actions of Indian agent William Halliday who confiscated Kwakiutl property and charged offenders from 1913 to 1932. Halliday has been maligned in retrospect for describing the potlatch as ‘evil’ but others view him as a civil servant who was merely accepting the responsibilities assigned to him.
Halliday once wrote, “The law against the potlatch has been passed because it has been seen that where the potlatch exists there has been no progress and the Government wants to see the Indians advance so that they are on the same footing as the white men, and this can not be as long as the potlatch continues.”
Asked to do a booklet pertaining to the imprisonments and the confiscation of masks and coppers, in conjuction with the opening of the Cape Mudge Museum on Quadra Island, Sewid-Smith realized the need to produce Prosecution or Persecution.
“For many years I have had in my possession tape recordings of the imprisonments and other historical data,” she wrote. “It was with this information and other information acquired through research that the booklet was started. We soon realized that a booklet would not be sufficient to tell our history and it had to be told in order to show why our Ba-sah (potlatch) was outlawed. This book therefore, is just a memorial to those who gave so much of themselves in preserving our history before the coming of the white man and what happened after their arrival.”
Daisy Sewid-Smith lives in Campbell River.
Sewid-Smith, Daisy. Prosecution or Persecution (Cape Mudge, British Columbia, Nu-yum-balees Society, 1979).
Sewid-Smith, Daisy. Paddling to Where I Stand: Agnes Alfred, Qwiqwasutinuxw Noblewoman (UBC Press, 2004).
Paddling To Where I Stand (UBC Press $85)
No birth records exist for First Nations children born in the 1800s, but it’s known that Agnes Alfred, the subject of Paddling To Where I Stand (UBC Press $85), was born early in the last decade of the nineteenth century and she lived for more than 100 years.
Alfred’s age and her position as a Qwiqwasutinuxw noblewoman meant she had access to a vast store of traditional knowledge. She did not speak English and she had no Western education, so she developed extraordinary skills in remembering and story-telling, as well as in memorizing myths, chants, and historical accounts.
Thus Agnes Alfred, who was forced by her family to convert to Christianity as a child, later took upon herself the task of passing her traditional knowledge to younger generations.
In a chapter entitled “Myth Time,” she tells stories such as that of the girl who is dragged into the underworld to live among the Halibut people. This girl is retrieved years later by reaching for one of her father’s halibut hooks, and so returns to her parents.
Women such as Agnes Alfred also functioned as mediators between the natural-human-profane realm and the supernatural-sacred realm.
Agnes Alfred’s transmission of her knowledge might have remained in the realm of the oral, and possibly been lost eventually, had it not been for a remarkable collaboration that occurred between Alfred, the French-born anthropologist Martine J. Reid, and the matriarch’s granddaughter, Daisy Sewid-Smith, a Kwakwaka’wakw language instructor at the University of Victoria.
After Reid came to UBC as a French Ph.D student in 1975, she began to participate in a program to preserve the heritage of aboriginal peoples—and that led her to “Mrs. Alfred.”
When Reid met Agnes Alfred, she was a widow of about eighty, but still independent and living alone in the big house built by her husband for her and their thirteen children in Alert Bay.
It was her habit during the fall and winter to make a cycle of pilgrimages to visit her many relatives and descendants in Campbell River and elsewhere. As the friendship grew, Reid would accompany her on those annual visits, and thus she met Daisy Sewid-Smith, who had long been fascinated by her Native culture.
These three women eventually formed a trusting partnership—Mrs Alfred dictating her memoirs, Daisy Sewid-Smith acting as translator, and Martine Reid transcribing and editing.
The end result is a volume that defies easy categorization. It is an academic work, but the scholarly apparatus never overwhelms or drains the vitality of the subject.
Agnes Alfred’s voice—by turns authoritative, humourous, poetic, and gnomic—rings out clearly throughout. “Poor me; I was married at such a young age.... They sailed away with me right away, and they brought me to this logging camp.... I had not even menstruated yet. I was perhaps only twelve or thirteen. I was really young. I was married for quite some time before I menstruated.”
A chapter entitled “Becoming a Woman,” describes the onset of men-
struation and an elaborate ritual that marked her passage into womanhood. She was secluded from the rest of her household for twelve days, concealed by a curtain in a corner of a room.
During this time, she sat (wearing the hat reserved for nobility), and was cared for by her mother and the tribal elders.
Besides the formal chapters, the editor has included a lively section of “Fragments of Recollections.” These include such varied topics as “My First Baby Buggy,” “My Washing Machine,” and “I Dye My Hair.”
The baby buggy was never used because “it looked so dreadful;” the washing machine was so overloaded that it toppled over and sent the wringer rollers scattering all over the floor; the hair dye, mistakenly applied like hair oil, dyed her hands black.
Paddling To Where I Stand reveals that noblewomen played a significant role in their society beyond the perpetuation of lineages through child-bearing.
Their dowries supplied men with very valuable privileges, both in tangible goods and in prestige, and the power and standing of the men were often derived from their wives.
Besides a preface, introduction, epilogue and footnotes, Paddling To Where I Stand has five appendices. These provide such information as a linguistic key to the alphabet, spelling, and pronunciation of the many words in the text written in the original language of the Kwakiutl people; an account of the Potlatch ceremony and the events surrounding its prohibition; and diagrams showing genealogy and kinship. 0-7748-0912-4
Joan Givner is a freelance writer who lives on Vancouver Island.
[BCBW 2004] "Native Studies"