On September 26, Russell Tiljoe, who held the title Dini’ze Likhdïlye, passed away at the age of 86. A respected Gidimt’en hereditary chief, he was a pillar of the Witsuwit’en community. He was an oral historian and storyteller, a fount of knowledge about Witsuwit’en traditions and the Witsuwit’en-settler relations.
We met Likhdïlye as researchers working with the Witsuwit’en and were fortunate to spend many hours with him, listening and learning. In our encounters with Likhdïlye, he spoke with the weight of his connection to past generations.
Likhdïlye was a strong voice defending Witsuwit’en territories. In 2012, when the federal government was considering an Enbridge proposal to build the Northern Gateway Project, his voice was among those firmly opposing the tar sands pipelines project.
At the January hearings of the federal Joint Review Panel assessing the project, Likhdïlye spoke to the assembled crowd in Witsuwit’en. Victor Jim translated his words.
“It is the words of our ancestors that I speak to you today,” Likhdïlye declared. “It is our tribal law that we look after our territories.”
“We did not give up our territories to anyone and our ancestors as well did not sign the Wet’suwet’en territories away,” he explained. “That is why we say no to Enbridge, absolutely no. They will not touch our territories.”
Indigenous and public opposition to Northern Gateway would prove insurmountable and the Canadian government officially rejected plans for the pipeline in 2016.
By that time, Likhdïlye was deeply involved in our research collaboration on the history of Witsuwit’en-settler relations. During the course of the project, we interviewed Likhdïlye on three separate occasions and he generously consulted with us throughout the writing process that would eventually culminate in the 2018 publication of the book Shared Histories.
The study sought to link understanding of the complex relationships between evolving relationship in town, enduring Witsuwit’en governance and land use practices, and broader developments occurring in the Bulkley Valley.
The research particularly focused on the community of Indiantown, which existed at the edge of Smithers for the first half century of the town’s existence. Recalling the Indiantown community in the 1940s, Likhdïlye shared his fond memories. “It was a bustling little village … lots of kids out in front of the houses. You were always welcome there.”
“It was a very important part of our First Nations history. The people that lived there were very important. They were chiefs and leaders of our hereditary system, very well respected. I would like to remember it as the home of very many people, as part of the community,” he said. “It was their home and they were proud of it.”
He also told us about his experiences on the territories: maintaining trap lines, fishing for salmon, harvesting berries and medicinal plants. He had been fortunate to spent part of his childhood living on the territories with his family.
Despite tensions between Witsuwit’en community members and those descending from settlers, Likhdïlye stressed the possibility of building better relationships. And he always modeled the potential for better relationships in the way he interacted with us.
Through our years working with Likhdïlye, he left a powerful impression on us: that of warmth, an impressive memory, and an air of quiet dignity. We will miss talking with him. He was a special person.
Tyler McCreary and Eric Holdijk