Henry Alfred, who died on Sept. 23 at the age of 84, was the last living plaintiff from the landmark Delgamuukw-Gisday’wa court case, which articulated the doctrine of aboriginal title and recognized the legal merit of Indigenous oral histories. A hereditary chief of the Wet’suwet’en, a First Nations people who live in British Columbia’s northwestern Central Interior, he held the title Wah Tah K’eght, and was part of a generation of leaders who redefined Indigenous rights in the province, the country, and around the world.
Born on March 31, 1934, Henry Alfred descended from a lineage of distinguished Wet’suwet’en leaders. His father, Peter Alfred, held the hereditary title Kanoots. His mother, Madeline Alfred, held the hereditary title Dz’eeh, a title that her mother had held before her.
Like all Wet’suwet’en, he belonged to the house and clan of his mother and grandmother. Thus, elders in Tsee K’al K’e yex (House on Top of the Flat Rock) of the Laksilyu (Small Frog Clan) instructed Henry in the traditions of his people. His father’s house in Gitdumden (Bear Clan) also provided support to him in key times of need.
Henry was raised by his grandmother, Lucy Pius. When he was young, his grandmother would take him trapping on their house territory in the area around Witset. In the late fall, they would catch mink, weasel and squirrels. After his father gave him his first rifle at age 10, Henry got his first kill, a coyote, on the trapline with his grandmother.
He fell in love with a girl from his village, Sue Williams, and they married in November, 1955. They would remain together for 63 years. He built their family home. His wife and five children, Dolores, Rick, Lester, Anthony and Marjorie, survive him, along with his grandchildren, Rob Alfred, Jeremy Dumont, Alexandria Dumont, Christopher Duncan, Candice Duncan and Caitlyn Duncan, as well as great-grandchildren Darius Alfred, Briley Alfred, Dayin Alfred, Hadley Alfred and Mayah Alfred. He was predeceased by his sons Frederick and George, daughter Jacqueline and grandson Gabriel Dumont.
After Henry got married, he always worked hard to support his family. He got a job on the CN Railway, working 13 years as a section foreman. After that, he took a position with the Department of Highways, working his way up from a labourer, to a truck driver, to a grader operator over 15 years. Finally, he became an independent truck driver, hauling logs until he retired.
Working for wages never stopped Henry from maintaining a connection to the land. He hunted and fished to feed his family. He also maintained a trapline, catching beaver, martin, lynx and squirrels. After he collected the furs, his parents-in-law, Margaret and Alex Williams, would prepare the skins. Henry used the skins to make a cradle to hold his family close to tradition.
He was committed to taking care of the elders in his community. Living with his grandmother, he had supported her when she went blind. He also helped care for Peter Bazil, the son of his grandmother’s sister, who held the name Wah Tah K’eght. Henry would take him water and cut his firewood, and eventually brought him to live in the family home during the winters.
In 1963, Peter was quite old and decided that he wanted to teach Henry the territorial boundaries that Wah Tah K’eght was responsible for protecting. They went out on his trapline behind Whuus C’oowenii.
It was a story that Henry later told in detail in court.
"We went up the hill on his line,” the court transcript reads. "Took us about four or five hours walking … he was pretty old. We went up pretty high. We sat down and have lunch. We made some tea and drank tea. For about an hour we sat there, and he pointed out to me … boundary lines in each corner.”
Sitting together, Peter taught Henry the names of the boundary markers. He also stressed the importance of protecting the land and not over-harvesting. Managing the territory required rotating traplines to ensure the conservation of animal populations.
After Peter died, Henry took on the name Wah Tah K’eght, in 1967. Taking responsibility for the name in the feast hall, Henry committed to protect the territories for future generations.
During that era there was little respect for Indigenous rights. The Canadian government circulated a policy paper in 1969 suggesting that the government remove Indian status and all recognition of Indigenous peoples as distinct people.
Henry Alfred was part of a generation of leaders who demanded respect for the rights of Canada’s original peoples. In 1975, he and other Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs began organizing a land claim. In October, 1984, the Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan hereditary chiefs filed the statement of claim for the most important Indigenous-rights case in Canadian history. The Delgamuukw-Gisday’wa case, as it became known, would set a historic precedent.
The Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan hereditary chiefs claimed Indigenous ownership of and jurisdiction over their traditional territories. The case pushed the government to recognize that the Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan title had never been ceded.
Moreover, the hereditary chiefs grounded their claim in Indigenous legal traditions. Rather than focusing on expert evidence from Western-trained researchers, the hereditary chiefs asserted their own expertise over their traditions. Community leaders took to the stand and explained the traditions that gave them the authority and responsibility to steward the land. Taking the stand, the hereditary chiefs demonstrated the depth and complexity of their culture and history.
Henry Alfred was thus not only a plaintiff in Delgamuukw-Gisday’wa but an expert who testified in that case. In January and February, 1988, he spent weeks in court testifying about how his house managed the land, the responsibilities of a chief, and the need to always think of future generations.
He also recited to the court the boundaries of his territory. It had been 25 years since the day when Peter Bazil took him out on the territory, but he remembered all the names of the boundary markers. On the stand, he recalled the words of the former Wah Tah K’eght.
The case would become one of the longest in Canadian history, taking 374 trial days before the judge released his decision in 1991, ruling against the Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan claim.
However, the case was appealed, advancing in 1997 to the Supreme Court of Canada, where the justices overturned the trial decision. They declared that the trial judge had mishandled the evidence presented to him by the hereditary chiefs. Setting a new precedent in Canada and elsewhere, the Supreme Court Justices recognized the validity of Indigenous traditional knowledge as a form of evidence in the courts.
The case also established a doctrine of aboriginal title in Canadian law. Although the Supreme Court could not decide on the hereditary chiefs’ claim due to the mishandling of evidence, the Delgamuukw-Gisday’wa case created the foundation for court recognition of aboriginal title in the 2014 Tsilhqot’in Nation case.
The Delgamuukw-Gisday’wa case significantly altered Indigenous policy in Canada. The decision contributed to the development of a contemporary treaty-negotiations process in British Columbia. But it also contributed to a broader recognition of the need to integrate Indigenous peoples and their systems of knowledge into Canadian governance processes. Wah Tah K’eght continued to participate in local reconciliation efforts over the years.
A few weeks ago, in his final trip out of the hospital before he died, Wah Tah K’eght returned to his home community of Witset to host a feast to celebrate the launch of my book Shared Histories, the product of a research collaboration between the Town of Smithers, B.C., and the Office of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs.
Wah Tah K’eght was also a key part of processes that continue to unfold. On Thursday, the governments of Canada and British Columbia will join with the Office of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and representatives of the villages of Witset and Hagwilget to sign a historic agreement recognizing the jurisdiction of Wet’suwet’en authorities over children and families.
Henry Alfred was always a humble man who spoke with a quiet voice. But he was a man rooted in his traditions and there was power behind his words. His quiet words, on the witness stand in Delgamuukw-Gisday’wa, as well as in thousands of meetings, had the strength to push against the long history of colonialism and change the path of his community, region, province, country, and world. His death is a moment to grieve but also celebrate the legacy of a humble man who helped create the possibility of a different and better future.
Tyler McCreary, an assistant professor of geography at Florida State University, is the author of Shared Histories, a book that documents the history of Wet’suwet’en-settler relations in the Bulkley Valley and seeks to open a broader conversation about relationships between newcomers and the original inhabitants of the region.