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Eric Pelkey. I’m the community engagement coordinator of the W̱SÁNEĆ Leadership Council. My traditional name and title is WEC’KINEM. I’m the hereditary chief of the Tsawout of the W̱SÁNEĆ Nation.

What does to hunt and fish as formerly mean to you?

To hunt and fish as formerly really means our way of life. The economy that we had at the time of the signing of the treaty in 1852, that to hunt and fish as formerly really meant that we were able to hunt where we needed to and fish as we did. We were a very vibrant trade economy that traded up and down the coast and inland as far as Yakima, Washington. So we were very active in our trade, and it supported our people very well. We had a wealth within our territory that we were able to utilize to trade for the other things that we needed that were not within our territory. So, it was a pretty vibrant economy and our people really learned how to share what they had, and really helped with the basis of our culture, which is helping one another.

Do you think that historical activities included management and trade?

I’ve heard stories from my grandfather and from my grand uncles and from my father of how they traded and how they traveled great distances to trade and to get things that weren’t available within our territory. I think that because we were shown to be so wealthy with resources, that’s when they started to exclude our people from the economy, from trade, and really pulled the rug out from under our economy as far as I’m concerned, that quickly turned from a rich, vibrant people to a poor people that were persecuted for practicing their rights. We were excluded from the economy as a result of the government’s actions. Our treaty was to hunt and fish as formerly, which meant that we were allowed to carry on our way of life and to trade with the colonizers and with other nations.

I think we need to be brought back into the economy. We need to be able to sell what we have. We need to be able to trade what we have now that the settlers have just about destroyed the resources in our territories. That is another matter that we have to address. But if everyone else was included, then we were the only ones allowed to benefit from the resources in our territory, I think there would be enough for us to have a living by.

Do you feel like you should be compensated for the losses our people have endured, for the loss of protection of our inherent rights?

Well, I guess that we definitely should be compensated for the loss of use of the resources of our territory, the loss of the benefits within our territory because it has been a huge factor in how our people have been criminalized and how our people have been driven into poverty as a result of not being able to utilize the resources within our territory and not to be able to share with each other.

Historically, when a fisherman came in from a good catch, they would hit the beach and all the people would come down to the shores and it would be distributed out amongst them. Then they determined what was available for trade. That’s how we kept our people fed, and how those people were able to utilize the resources and share the resources. So it wasn’t only the ones that owned the reef nets that benefited, but also the families that within the communities shared. And the same thing with hunting. The hunters would go out and when they returned, whatever they were able to catch, they would share those within the community. And, firstly with the elders and those who were not able to hunt themselves. So that there was the assurance that no one would be left in need. It was not only our way of life, but it was also our law. So that was a real touching scene that I’ve seen a few times with young people coming in with their first deer. Especially my children and my grandchildren to have them bring that first deer to an elder and how thankful they were.

And even when they go out fishing, they come in with their first fish, first salmon, then they go and pass it out. And, you know, our elders would all say, “Thank you for that fish or that deer. Now you’ve assured yourself that you will always have those things coming to you to share. And it’s something that our people have always done and always known that this must happen. 

Who would you expect to be the communal/collective voice in representing your inherent Douglas Treaty rights?

The family heads have to be the ones that are speaking for the family. I remember talking to my dad about how my great-grandfather chief Louis Pelkey used to run things to govern the community. And he said that the decisions were always community decisions, that he was only the voice for the families. So when they had an important decision to make amongst the community, he would call all the family heads together in our longhouse and let them know what the issue was. And all the family heads would have their turn speaking to the issue. And then from there, he would bring that message forward to wherever it needed to go. So that’s our laws and that’s how it was governed. Our people were collectively just a group of families. And my great-grandfather, Chief Louis Pelkey was a spokesman for those people. And when they had a meeting amongst the W̱SÁNEĆ Nation and they had to make a decision as a nation, he would call the families together and then get their direction on what to bring to the nation. Then he would attend those nation meetings. So that’s how things were governed. They had a grand chief that spoke for everybody. The last one I heard of was Chief Sammy Sam. He was the one that was there when I was given the responsibility of becoming the hereditary chief of Tsawout after my father passed away. So, you know, I accepted that, but he said, it’s not so much an honor as a responsibility. Now you have to fight for your people, and you have to speak for your people, and you have to educate the public about who we are. And you have to pass on our history and our rights to the W̱ENITEM, we call them. W̱ENITEM means they’ve just arrived and that’s everybody that’s not our people.