When I was working on my graduate law degree at the University of Victoria we were required to lead a seminar and encouraged to be creative and try out different pedagogies. Because the seminar topic was Indigenous Legal Systems, I knew that I wanted to teach with Kwakwaka’wakw protocols: to acknowledge the importance of relationships, Indigenous territories and practices. I hit on the idea of doing this teaching assignment on the third floor of the Royal BC Museum and Archives, in the guxxi-bidu (little Bighouse) of my late great-grandfather Jonathan Hunt, a.k.a. Grampa Odi, Chief Kwakwabalasami “People Come From Everywhere To Sit And Feast With Him”.
My great-grandfather was a Kwakwaka‘wakw chief who was born and lived his life in our community of T’saxis (Fort Rupert) on the northeast coast of Vancouver Island. His father was George Hunt, the same George Hunt who worked with Franz Boas. Grampa Odi’s ‘house’ on the third floor of the museum is a replica of his ceremonial house and is nothing like the two-story frame-construction house I remember in Fort Rupert where he lived with our Great-Granny Abusa. That house had interior walls with separate rooms, windows looking onto Beaver Harbour, a TV and a couch. The house in the museum was designed and constructed by my grandfather’s brother and nephews, Tony and Richard Hunt. It has adzed walls and a smoke hole, a pebble floor and a pretty good fake fire in the middle of the room. The museum house would turn out to be a very different place to have a seminar. For one thing, it has no table or chairs and, for another, a sound track plays the sounds of a crackling fire and Kwak’wala ceremonial speeches and songs.
As a graduate student, the stakes for me were high and I was nervous about leading this seminar. Even so, I felt remarkably relaxed and at home because of my direct connection to Odi. Our mother, Odi’s eldest grandchild, had made sure my sisters and I knew how we were connected to our Kwakwaka’wakw family and community, and from an early age we could trace our ancestors back five or six generations. I’m the first-born child of a first-born child of a first-born son born of Odi and Abusa.
At the start of the seminar I acknowledged that the Royal BC Museum and Archives is on Songhees territory, and reminded my classmates there was once a village here where the museum sits. Also, nearby, where the Inner Harbour is now, was said to be one of the best clam beds on the coast. I told them I was happy to be living and working in Songhees territory and that my great-grandmother Abusa used to refer to this area as “Mit-uu-lia”, and she was excited when she had the opportunity to come here. She’d even made the long journey down the coast in a large cedar canoe.
In my view this venue was profoundly important because our houses and what goes on in them are important components of Indigenous Legal Systems and theories. These systems and theories cannot be separated from day-to-day living and are best integrated into life. Inside our homes, from our mothers and grandmothers, and in our everyday relationships is where we learn about values, perspectives and our obligations towards one another—in other words, laws.
I reminded my class that while we no longer live in houses that look like this, up and down the coast there are many houses very much like this except with real fires and smoke holes—and most of them would be bigger, and built and used for specific ceremonial purposes.
When I was a child I used to think of these houses like churches and I thought that what went on in them was something religious. Later I came to see them as being more about law and governance because they’re used to formalize the transfer of property, names, rights to songs, and ceremonies. They’re about marriages, memorials, eating, dancing, laughing, telling stories, reconnecting with families and learning your lineage. Our houses and what we learn in them are important components of Kwakwaka’wakw legal institutions.
These houses are where our law is formally enacted, but I reminded the students that Kwakwaka’wakw laws are also enacted informally and in everyday places—not just inside a Bighouse.
I was here in Odi’s house in 1977 on the night it was opened with a ceremony and I was one of the dancers whose feet blessed this floor. In the seminar, when I’d gotten through the academic stuff and was relaxed enough to let my mind wander, I let it wander to thoughts that these surroundings, this guxxi-bidu, is alive. These carvings are memory devices, like sign posts reminding us that law is everywhere. Law is beautiful. Law is home.