Standing at the Nexus

Reviewed by Andrew Cienski

Standing up with Ga’axsta’las is an exploration, or even an expression of a nexus, where conflicting cultures, belief systems, and perspectives cross. It is the story of colonial and Christian agendas not so gradually restricting First Nations rights, traditions, and access to resources. The book is unique in its portrayal of British Columbia’s colonial history from the perspective of a First Nations woman standing at that nexus.

Ga’axsta’las, Jane Constance Cook, was a bi-cultural woman in every way possible. Cook was born in 1870 of a noble Kwakwaka’wakw mother and a European father and raised by missionaries. She was a powerful figure, both within her community and on the provincial and national stages. She advocated for the rights and needs of her people with bishops, the Indian agents, and legal authorities, seeking justice in land claims, fishing and resource rights, adequate health care, and women’s and children’s rights. She was an organizer and member of the Allied Indian Tribes of BC and the Native Sisterhood of BC, a branch of Native Brotherhood, to name a few. She was a midwife and mother to a large family. Most notably, she was an official interpreter at the McKenna-McBride Royal Commission to negotiate reserve lands and access to resources.

However, Cook is mostly remembered for her stand against many aspects of traditional Kwakwaka’wakw culture, especially concerning marriage and the potlatch system. She wrote key colonial authorities, encouraging them to outlaw potlatches in British Columbia. Her opinions were so strong many felt her role in the commission was a conflict of interest. Her reasons were many, complex, and ultimately only personally known. What is clear is that aspects of traditional culture conflicted with her Christian upbringing. The potlatch system was experiencing transition around the turn of the century. In addition to loss of territory, freedoms, and livelihoods, West Coast nations had lost whole communities to smallpox and tuberculosis. Many struggled to gain or retain status through strategic marriages and extravagant potlatch gifting. Cook believed retaining the potlatch would keep her people economically poor and politically separate from the rest of the country. The potlatch is more than a religious ceremony: it is a means by which authority is expressed and established, a cornerstone of economic and political ties, and a venue for creative and spiritual expression. The anti-potlatch law (1885-1951), and other assimilationist legislation devastated core identities of the nations affected.

In the early 2000s, the Cook family hired Leslie Robertson, an anthropologist, to investigate the story of their ancestor in order to reconcile themselves and their community with her legacy. The process of collaboration with the family creates an interesting layer of intertextuality to the research. Weaving archival and historical information with contemporary oral interviews, the work takes on an immediate quality, concluding with a poignant discussion of reconciliation and cultural revival.

This review “Standing at the Nexus” originally appeared in Recursive Time. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 222 (Autumn 2014): 174-75.

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