Revitalizing sharing, gifting and trading
By Andrew Bak, Tsawwassen First Nation
Coast Salish people had always been wealthy.
From time out of mind, our ancestors lived in the big houses, which were strategically located within our territories; close to the waters which gave us sustenance, protection, and a means by which to travel. We hunted, fished and gathered. And when our immediate needs were met, we could devote our time to creating artworks, teaching our children, feasting with our neighbors and trading.
We find the evidence for this in the remains of our former villages; there are no volcanoes at Tsawwassen, yet we find obsidian. We also find evidence in our language, where we use terms such as qeˀwet, to say that we pay for services, which are provided to us by others.
Finally, we find evidence in our relationships; we reckon the connection we have to other communities through ceremonies like the potlatch. We traded with our neighbours in a way that reflected our worldview; offering them the things we had in abundance, in exchange for the things we needed. Gifting and sharing and trading brought us respect, and millennia passed thus.
At contact, our sharing economy was supplanted by colonialism. Early attempts at trade with Europe created new alliances, and a new language, the Chinook Jargon—but the furious demand for land and resources was overwhelming; protectionist laws, European military might and introduced disease would decimate our population. Many survivors would be imprisoned by the Reserve system, in residential schools or by the lethal grip of alcohol abuse. Our families became invisible on the land. Respectful trade relationships amongst peers would devolve into wage-labor arrangements, with our Indigenous men and women harvesting hop, and cleaning fish for canneries. For more than a century, we toiled to provide a foreign empire with the wealth of our territories. But we lost more than that. We let slip the teachings of our elders, our language and the knowledge of our relationships, in exchange for dollars. We gave up our values and our way of life for thirty pieces of silver.
But soon, things would begin to change for us. Chief Harry Joe from Tsawwassen and other leaders from across the province would travel to England, to seek an audience with the regent and voice the concerns of our people. They would testify at Royal Commissions.
They would challenge the honor of the Crown in courtrooms, and victories such as Calder, Gladstone and Guerin would compel the government to engage us in treaty-making. For decades, our community leaders would fight for our rightful place on the land, and in the economy. Nisga’a, Tsawwassen, Maa-Nulth and others would demonstrate that equitable solutions were possible, and that we could develop and manage wealth for our communities.
Still, something is missing amongst the charters, loans, agreements and business plans created for our newly-minted economic development corporations: the traditions of sharing, gifting and trading. We can prosper doing business and creating jobs, and these are necessary things, but they continue to reflect a foreign worldview. In adopting the Western business model, we have convinced ourselves that we must always operate at large scales, and create huge businesses that employ all of our community members. Joint venture partnerships, land leases and extraction projects can create significant revenues, but these transactions are years in the making, carry significant risk, and require huge amounts of capital to get off the ground. They can take over a community, and they can take us away from ourselves, and our unique way of life. We can embrace change, but to complete ourselves, we must reinvigorate not only our political ideologies, but our unique economic practices.
Our modern treaties secure for us rights to gather and to trade and barter Fish, Wildlife, Renewable Resources, Migratory Birds and Plants to other Indigenous communities, sometimes within British Columbia and sometimes across Canada. These activities are often overlooked, when measuring a community’s economic output, but they provide to us other important benefits—valuable, but perhaps not pecuniary. Sharing, gifting and trading reflect our desire for sustainability, they reinforce our relationships, and they employ our cultural teachings.
Each of our communities is uniquely blessed with knowledge of –and access to — certain resources, which we can share, gift and trade to our neighbours. Ducks and crab at Tsawwassen, salmon from Musqueam, woven goods from Cowichan, game from Lheidli T’enneh, sweetgrass from Alberta, carvings from Haida Gwaii, tobacco from Ontario—these are all things we want, but if we leave the extraction, processing and marketing of these items to large scale businesses, we run the risk of over exploiting these resources by allowing them to be commoditized.
We need to control the pace of their extraction and consumption, and it is possible to do these things by allowing these resources to be harvested, processed and traded by individuals or small groups. By going back to our traditions of sharing, gifting and trading amongst ourselves. This aspect of the Indigenous economy has few barriers to entry, can be done in a sustainable way, and carries little risk—if the participants act fairly and equitably.
Our communities will continue to create businesses that are familiar in structure to mainstream society, and provide them with goods, services and resources in a way that reflects the expectations of Canada’s modern economy—we will use our economic development corporations to develop the skill and capacity of our members, because those are very laudable goals. But we shouldn’t lose sight of who we are in the process. Any advanced economy is diverse—we can work to achieve that diversity by advancing and supporting individual effort, and those efforts can exist within a cultural context that is meaningful to our people. Sharing, gifting and trading can be an important part of the overall strategy to restore ourselves to our historic wealth.
Andrew Bak is a Tsawwassen First Nation member, a former legislator, Executive Council member, and treaty negotiator. He is currently employed by Transport Canada as a Senior Program Officer, working on the Oceans Protection Plan. He completed an MBA at Simon Fraser University in 2017.