Life of Witsuwit’en leader subject of new book

April 8, 2019
Dr. Ross Hoffman and Gisdewe Alfred Joseph in 2009.
UNBC First Nations Studies professor Dr. Ross Hoffman and Alfred Joseph at UNBC when Joseph was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree in May 2009.

The life of Gisdewe Alfred Joseph, lead plaintiff for the Witsuwit’en people of northwest BC in the landmark Delgamuukw-Gisday Wa v. BC court case, is the subject of a new book written by UNBC First Nations Studies professor Dr. Ross Hoffman.

Written in collaboration with Joseph, Song of the Earth: The Life of Alfred Joseph brings us inside the heart and mind of a man who grew up in the heart of Witsuwit’en culture and lived to see it transformed. But he was no passive observer; he initiated and participated in legal battles that have reshaped how Canada addresses its colonial past and struggles to find ways to reconcile with Indigenous nations.

In the face of current Witsuwit’en attempts to block pipeline construction across their territories in northwestern B.C., this book provides insight into the people standing up for the rights that Canadian courts have affirmed.

Born in 1927 at Hagwilget, Joseph spent his early years living with relatives on the Witsuwit’en territories south of Houston and soaking up as much as he could learn from the elders. After a four-year stint (1939 to 1943) at the Lejac Residential School near Fraser Lake, he spent the next 16 years working at various jobs from Prince Rupert to Edmonton, from the Yukon to the Okanagan.

Then he came home to Hagwilget and started the work that would lead him to the centre of two critical court cases. One, the Delgamuukw-Gisday Wa case, would move Indigenous claims to land a giant step forward. The second case, Joseph v. Canada, would see the federal government agree to make financial reparation for the destruction of the Indigenous fishery in Hagwilget Canyon.

Gitxsan historian Neil Sterritt, author of Mapping My Way Home: A Gitxsan History, refers to Joseph as a “natural story teller and a powerful advocate for the rights and titles of the Witsuwit’en Nation.” According to Peter Grant, lawyer for the Witsuwit’en during the Delgamuukw-Gisday Wa case, Joseph “played a central role in obtaining recognition of Witsuwit’en oral history and the feast system as a foundation for Witsuwit’en Aboriginal land title.”

In Song of the Earth: The Life of Alfred Joseph, Hoffman opens the feast hall doors, throwing light on what the Witsuwit’en have lost and what they have preserved since settlers came to their lands.

Books can be ordered through independent book stores or online via Chapters/Indigo.