Chief Kw’eh (known as Kwah) is a lot more than a name on some local streets and a building.
The local historical figure has now been recognized for his national importance in history on recommendation from the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.
The historic chief’s importance to the history of Canada was among 13 recognized on March 22 of this year.
“Today’s designations will bring to life the spiritual, cultural and physical ties that First Nations have to this country, for both Canadians and visitors to Canada,” said The Honourable Peter Kent, minister of environment, in a release. “They will give future generations an understanding of moments in time that span the centuries.”
The recognition came after years of research and hard work by one of Chief Kw’eh’s descendants, his great-great granddaughter, Lillian Sam.
Curiosity about her family’s history came upon Sam slowly through her life; she did not grow up with stories about her family and spent time in Lejac Residential School. As a child she did spend time with her grandfather Louis Billy Prince on the Stuart River, but her grandfather was a quiet man who spoke Carrier (Dakelh) a lot but he did not share many stories with his young granddaughter.
“I knew he was an important man,” explained Sam, who helped him correspond with some important people over the years, as his hands shook too much to be able to write legibly at that time.
Her own father was a veteran of the Second World War, and he also did not say a lot, and neither did Sam’s mother. Her mother was from Yekooche, so her background was even more of a mystery to her daughter.
“That was the seed there that grew until I had time to look at it, examine it,” said Sam.
After getting married and having eight children, in the summer of 1982 she lost her husband. She then began looking for work, and naturally gravitated towards researching cultural tradition and history, because she spent a lot of time with the elders and they always told her stories about the old ways and times.
They told her a lot of “things I never knew when I was in residential school,” she said.
She began working for the Nak’azdli Band researching culture and history and she researched the genealogy of seven generations of her own family.
“But that was just genealogy, there was no information on who they were,” said Sam, who then began trying to find out more about these people.
Eventually, she began working on a project with Parks Canada and they interviewed 39 elders from the area.
Through these interviews, Sam began to learn a lot about the old ways and the culture and some of the stories were published in a book called. Nak’azdli Elders Speak and Sam’s curiosity about her background grew.
One other important book was by Mrs. Lizette Hall, The Carrier My People, it had information about Chief Kw’eh and Chief Louis Billy Prince.
A replica of Chief Kwah’s dagger was on display including a recording off the story of the last massacre at the Fort St. James National Historic Site and further research connected Sam to a James Monroe, who then returned some artifacts to Sam which were from her grandfather, including his rifle, and a beaded handbag which had a prayer book printed by Father Morice.
The Nak’azdli Elders Advisory group were approached by Site Manager Bob Grill and the question was who should be nominated as a significant historical person from the area.
“The stories go that (Chief Kwah) was a once a great warrior,” said Sam, and so they settled on Chief Kw’eh for the nomination.
After a lot more work and research, submissions and revisions, Chief Kw’eh was eventually chosen in 2009 as one of the historical people of national significance, but the official announcement was not made until March 22, 2012.
In the end, Chief Kw’eh will now take a place in the nation’s history and Sam has finally satisfied some of the curiosity about her family’s history.
“He was a dreamer, he was a warrior and a fur trade chief,” she said. “These days we don’t have leaders like that.”
A celebration will now be planned and a plaque will be placed to mark the designation, and Sam hopes they can have many of Chief Kw’eh’s numerous descendants back for the event.
The research and what she learned was a great experience for Sam, and she seemed very satisfied with the outcome of her hard work.
“For me, it’s been an honour to our people,” she said. “It uncovered a lot for me.”
She said she learned a lot about the loss of the Carrier (Dakelh) way of life and how the land was taken away from them, and she sees the need for change and growth.
“The most important thing for me is finding my identity.”
The designation means the area has four figures of National Historic Significance to celebrate: Father Morice, James Douglas, Simon Fraser and now Chief Kw’eh.
Chief Kw’eh (Parks Canada information)
Chief Kw’eh used kinship ties as well as personal qualities and gifts to gain traditional rights and leadership over a wide territory and numerous Carrier (Dakelh-ne) communities in the late 18th century, bringing new stability after decades of warfare between the Carrier and Chilcotin in north-central British Columbia. He oversaw the end of the era when traditional Aboriginal leadership in this region functioned without foreign interference.
He used his skills as a diplomat and leader to negotiate a mutually satisfactory relationship with Euro-Canadian traders who entered lands to which he had traditional rights, played a significant role in the development of the fur trade, and showed moral strength in resolving without violence a conflict with the young Hudson’s Bay Company clerk James Douglas.
A focus for Carrier identity, he has an ongoing legacy among the Central Carrier communities as “dreamer of the salmon.” It is said that as long as he is remembered, he will continue to provide for people by presiding over the salmon fishery from his burial place at the mouth of the Stuart River.
Chief Kw’eh was born into a noble Carrier family in a period of intense rivalry and warfare with the Chilcotin people as both struggled to control the exchange of coastal and interior trade. By slaying his father’s killer Kw’eh took over the latter’s prestige and hereditary hunting territories.
He increased and consolidated his authority through marriage, the traditional potlatch distribution of food and goods, and of salmon and beaver hunting rights. He exhibited fine decision making abilities, instances of apparently supernatural gifts and the diplomatic skills of negotiation and measured response. Within the Carrier community he emerged as a strong leader with impressive physical abilities, wide influence and spiritual powers.
Simon Fraser established the first fur trading post on Stuart Lake, in the midst of Chief Kw’eh’s territorial influence in 1806. With his control of the salmon fishery in the area, the post’s main source of sustenance, Kw’eh soon became his people’s representative with the newcomers who gave him, in addition to his Carrier honours, the title of fur trade chief.
Chief Kw’eh used the diplomatic skills that had brought him prominence among the Carrier community to develop a relationship of relative equality in the new commercial fur trade. With regional control of the salmon fishery and the beaver hunt Chief Kw’eh encouraged his people to supply the North West and Hudson’s Bay Company traders both food and furs, and oversaw an equitable distribution of European trade goods in return.
He used his influence and power to melt the disparate needs and abilities of two dissimilar cultures, establishing a mutually beneficial and substantially non-violent relationship.
Chief Kw’eh has acquired mythic qualities and deep symbolic meanings for the Carrier and has become a focus of the “golden age” of traditional Carrier life. His gravesite near the mouth of the Stuart River is maintained with reverence by the Carrier people.