Russell Myers Ross talks about his thesis work and how stories from his community have shaped him and his understanding of Tŝilhqot'in governance. He also shares about the challenges of building a nation from scratch.
Sechanalyagh, Russ, for inviting us to your community and for sharing your reflections and wonderful thesis with us.
Filmed on June 10, 2019 on unceded Tŝilhqot'in territory.
Cinematographer – Kaayla Whachell
Series Editor – Madison Thomas
Colour – Martin Gaumond + Outpost MTL
Sound mix – SeratoneStudios
Illustrations – Russell Myers Ross
Motion Graphics – Graeme Mathieson
Portrait – Natasha Donovan
Russ’s Thesis: So, the story begins in darkness where we learn to shed light on truth. Then we reveal our story within a story. The first story sparks and wakes in light. Raven stretches the sun above the mountains and passes fire to the forest. At water's edge, seedlings absorb the flames. The forest grows, the roots remember everything before us. Mark upon bark. Mother of all creation. We are born.
My thesis work was really trying to combine three different stories. One was my own personal story because I think every person has a story of colonization.The second was to map out one of our Tŝilhqot'ins tories - one of our legends. So, I used salmon boy. And then, the third is just the overall context of colonization that's happened to displace almost everyone .I tried to fit myself within those stories but trying to be hopeful about how we look at our own stories and how they're relevant to us still.
My name is Russell Myers Ross and I'm from Yunesit'in. I'm currently the Chief of Yunesit'in.I became chief in 2012, after eight years of harassment from my uncle who pushed me into the position. I was quite reluctant .I was coming out of an Indigenous governance program. I had really no intent on becoming a Chief ever. I think it was when I saw my uncle struggling in his final year and just thinking about what I wanted to be able to do with the community and my nation. I ended up putting my name forward.
I didn't grow up in the community per se. I spent a lot of time visiting,but I never spent more than, you know, two weeks. I was a bit of an outsider, but I think a lot of people just saw me as a confident person.And saw that what I was doing and some of the work against one of the mining companies, Tasekomines, in our area.
I was always ashamed of my origin. It is time. Learn the stories -- the ones that came before you, those you're attracted to, the ones you live by. So, where do I begin?
1862 was sort of the timeline of when smallpox came into the Tŝilhqot'in area. So, it's…it's a bit of our history. And I always describe it assort of the origins of the Tŝilhqot'in in some ways because it was such a devastating event. And it came in two different waves.One from the West and one from the East. In one account at Benzy, or Puntzi Lake, there was a loss of about five hundred people. And only too small, young children that survived that. It's hard talking about it because it was genocide.And I think it' shard for people to understand the level of impact just on grief and loss of...loss of everything from stories to how people practice things on the land. Just an immense loss.And I don't know how best to describe what we've lost in a way because we've never seen what we've lost.
The British Colony and the Hudson’s Bay Company were plotting routes to the West Coast. However, the Tŝilhqot’in occupied the region. The colony was too broke to negotiate treaties, which was the British policy to acquiring access to land.
In 1864, when there was a roadbuilding crew, the Tŝilhqot’in were threatened by smallpox again. And that was sort of the moment where one of the war leaders, Lhats'asʔin, decided it was time to stop it before it came. Of a camp of over a dozen, only three people were left to survive. And the three left back to Victoria and told the colony at the time. Thentwo militias were assembled. They moved through the Tŝilhqot’in throughout the summer, trying to track down the war party. This was first time that they ever got to meet the Tŝilhqot’in. It was a contingent of militias at the fort and the war party, and also a couple of the Tŝilhqot’in that were leaders that were more neutral. At night, they were shackled and the next day they were brought by horse, in chains, to Quesnel. And then from there, it was a long period of a trial. It was sort of pre-determined that it was going to be a hanging. On October 26, 1864, five people lost their lives.For the Tŝilhqot’in today, it marks our celebration – that we’re still alive. Having gone through, not only the smallpox, but the fight to protect our territory and people. It was a big shift, I think. And not only from the population loss of the smallpox to the sort of shift in like legal structure and how the colony was going to deal with Indigenous people.
When the reserve was created, there were probably only 24 people,I believe, registered to my community. Today,it'salmost 450 people,but you could just imaginethe devastation of what was left afterwards. And sort of a community, a nation trying to rekindle itself after smallpox. I think afterwards, there was a huge influence from the church and the state in developing the Indian Act.
I think the Indian Act impacted our community, for the most part - I think the idea was meant to have everyone in one location so that the rest of the land could be used by the Crown. But our community and nation would continue to use the land and resist some of those laws. But, you know, over time there was an impact and there was punishment for people that decided to move off the reserve, or to just sort of continue their lifestyle. And there were rewards for those that stayed and had more of a confined life, I guess, on the reserve. Ensuring that they get their social assistance and stuff like that. And creating that dependency of staying on the reserve. The effect was that you'd lose your skills as an Indigenous person to be on the land and to have the land provide for you.
We're working with, essentially, how to get ourselves out of the Indian Act.But in someways, we don't have the structure like the coastal groups do with their potlatch ceremonies or their winter ceremonies. We’re developing from scratch. We're sort of trying to find ways to sort of dismantle the Indian Act and tribal council concept.And try to figure out ways that we can still hold our core values, but that we're trying new things to sort of like get outside of what we're used to.
The Tsilhqot'in are unique in different ways, but one is, you know, you know, I think when we talk about governance the thing that comes up most is our laws of the land, which we call DechenTs'edilhtan. Those are our relationships with the animals and the stories that are... that are part of it.
So, it consumes me, it tries to drown me, our mind, and imprison us. Displaced: our bodies were shaped with the transformation in the land. Quiet and toxic: I wonder if fish and I will return to poisoned rivers. The salmon struggle from birth, but year after year they return.
So, fora number of years the Tŝilhqot'in nation has had sort of a relationship with Department of Fisheries and Oceans. And it's created sort of a monitoring programata few sites along the Tŝilhqot'in River. And that's just monitoring the catch of salmon and other species. So, it's only been in this past two years where we've actually received a bit more financial support to develop like a greater fisheries vision for the Tŝilhqot'in. For us, it's a positive direction because we're trying to take the lead on everything we can.Because we always describe the importance of the fish in our diets and everyday life.We prepare the fish and salmon for winters. And it's also critical just for us to keep teaching the young people.This last year was actually one of the first years we caught enough fish for our school. It seems quite minor, but it's a big thing to have our own fish and our own foods.
To dig myself out, I kept being immersed into a world that I could never identify with. In the eyes of authorities there is no room to be Tŝilhqot’in or Indigenous. If only I had the strength to sing. Then maybe I could speak my truth.
I think the intent was to just really inspire other youth that were going through a similar process, or trying to figure out who they were, or trying to figure out how they can deal with that contradiction of living in this kind of colonial society. When many of their stories, in my opinion, are quite valued and relevant for today.
You realize that governance is an internal thing. But it’s also something that's shared. You have to think about it, you have to understand it for yourself. And how to apply it to the land or the things that you relate to. The way I'd try to define governance is at one end,I'm having to deal with the Indian Act and being a Chief and you sort of look at governance as you're sort of the final decision-maker, but you're working with tribe processes. You try to be fair and try to be inclusive and make sure that everyone is able to participate. But relating it back to the way Indigenous people see governance is just about the relationship often with the land and with people. So, it's based on respect.And even the story of salmon boy is a story of how a boy becomes respectful to the fish and to the salmon because he ends up becoming a salmon and seeing the salmon's perspective.I think it's sort of a lifelong process in trying to develop an understanding of governance. And it's something that's a little bit more difficult than just trying to read a textbook or trying to look at a legal framework. That's the biggest piece of the nation-building thing is just reflectively moving along, trying new things and then trying to keep your core values as you move along. It's a challenge because you don't exactly know until you actually do it and try something new.
Led by stories that came before me, the ones I follow, the ones I inherit, betray, and search to understand. For too long I've been confused by colonialism, while searching for the words I belong to, the places that shape me, the person I want to become. Let me unravel my story.