Indigenous Law in Language: Simalgyax with Simogyet Watakhayetsxw

Simogyet Watakhayetsxw (Deborah Good) speaking at the August 28, 2023 Meziadin Indigenous Protected Area 2nd Year Anniversary Celebration (Photo: Jessica Clogg)

For our Indigenous Law in Language blog series, we spoke with Simogyet Watakhayetsxw, Gitanyow Hereditary Chief Deborah Good.

In 2021, Gitanyow launched the Gitanyow Wilp Sustainability Assessment Process, an innovative Indigenous legal instrument setting out requirements for fully Indigenous-led assessments of projects in Gitanyow territory based on Gitanyow’s own laws. In this interview, Watakhayetsxw sheds light on how concepts related to biodiversity and ecosystem health may be expressed in Simalgyax.

Please introduce yourself and tell us a little about the work you do.

My name in Simalgyax is Watakhayetsxw, and my English name is Deborah Good. I am one of the hereditary chiefs in Gitanyow and I belong to the Lax Ganeda, or the Raven Frog clan. When we speak about our culture, it’s important for people to understand that our governance structure is alive and well. And it’s being practiced. What I mean by this is our business is done in the language, which is Simalgyax, or the true language, and all our Wilp [house groups of the clans] are involved in everything that goes on, whether it be feasts or the protection of our Lax’yip, which is our land.

The importance of the Lax’yip comes from generations and generations back, a thousand or more years of our chiefs being the caretakers of our territories. This is what I do on a daily basis. I work with many organizations that focus around our Daxgyet, which is our authority over lands. I’m keenly involved in the teaching of our language.

What are words in Simalgyax that express the idea of ecosystem relationships and the collectivity of all beings, which we might refer to in English as biodiversity and ecosystem health?

When you think about names, they will represent many different things. Some are derived from encounters with supernatural beings. Some are connected to the lands and the history of our people, and how far back it goes.

There are two clans here that govern the territory, the Lax Gibuu or Wolf Clan, and Gwass Hlaam holds the highest-ranking seat in our structure in our society. Gamlaxyeltxw, who is the highest chief of the Ganeda clan, is our chief. Operations are based on whether these two agree or not.

We are known as the Huwilp because there are eight Wilp. Within those eight, people have to understand there are other chiefs. There are matriarchs. We follow our mother. We follow our grandmother. Our lineage is such that these are kept in the forefront of our minds in everything we do.  I can use my own Wilp as an example. I am the highest chief within the Wilp. I have wing chiefs that assist with the governing and the protection, and everything that has to do with the Wilp. My daughter Kelly is a wing chief to Watakhayetsxw.

There are many different areas that encompass the work that the Wilp has to do. You’ll see our Daxgyet, or our authority. Daxgyet can mean many different things. And I sometimes joke about this because if you see a man that is able to lift very heavy things or a child can lift something, it’s Daxgyet; it’s why he’s strong. Daxgyet also means authority. We have to be conscious of everything that takes place within the Wilp on the land. What happens with the resources protecting those, and the Daxgyet tells you that you have to protect for future generations.

Di’dii’mxw’m Lax’yip     
Di’dii’mxw’m Lax’yip is the protection of the land. As the chief of a Wilp, we always have to be aware of what the government is doing. What their intention is. You know, industry comes in, an example is the Northwest Transmission Line, and decisions have to be made. But those decisions have to involve things like environmental monitoring, protecting biodiversity, protecting ecosystem networks, wildlife management areas, all those things.

Gwelx ye’enst    
As a chief, I have to ensure that our Gwelx ye’enst – what is sent forward to the next generations – that is what Gwelx ye’enst is; it’s remembering that there are generations coming behind. The protection of the Lax’yip, or the land, is always at the forefront of our minds.

So basically, what government doesn't understand is that this governing structure has been in place for thousands of years. And they can't diminish it by making offers that are going to destroy anything that is within our Gwelx ye’enst. The giving forward of what we have is lands and resources. So, based on that, now you have to look at it from a different perspective.

Ha’nii tokxw     
Most people will talk about their food table, and that food table means where most people go to get their food is at a grocery store. But within our system, our Ha’nii tokxw is the land; it’s the rivers, it’s the mountains, it’s everything that is within the territory that should be providing our food, or anything else for that matter that we would need. If I were to have a headdress made, for example, I would go to the territory, and I would trap for weasel, an ermine or two, to decorate the headdress. When you talk about Ha’nii tokxw, which is our food table, it again goes back to being conscious of who is involved first and who are we doing it for.

Hla' Am Wil    
It goes further to what they call Hla' Am Wil. Hla’ Am Wil is everything that is within the territory. Like I said, if you wanted ermine skins, you would go to the territory, or if you needed fruit or berries, it’s where you gather them. I cannot trespass onto another Wilp territory or another clan territory. That is a strict law within the whole Huwilp, within Gitinyow. Everything that I rely on has to come from my own territory or with permission.

Hla’ Am Wil are things that were used basically for anywhere, from bedding to gifts, in a feast. The richness of our Wilp is based on what we are able to harvest and gather from the territory. This shows that we rely on our territories to get what we need.

Can you talk a bit more about how Di’dii’mxw’m Lax’yip connects to and expresses ecological integrity?

This actually is the most important aspect to who we are and the responsibilities that are attached to the protection of the Lax’yip – which is exactly what this means. I cannot go out and sell land. It’s not owned by me, the chief. It’s owned by the Wilp. A lot of industries don’t understand the concept of Di’dii’mxw’m Lax’yip because they’ve never ever experienced it. Maybe unless you know you own a ranch or farm, or something like that, where you have to consider how the water is kept clean.

The most important thing to life is water. And when we look at ecosystem networks, that’s what we mean by Di’dii’mxw’m Lax’yip, the protection of water. Our riparian zones are protected mainly because if you go and you log off, you know, on the side of a mountain, on the side of the hill, pretty soon sediments seep into rivers. The fish begin to die. They seep into the lakes, and whatever’s in those lakes will begin to die because the temperatures rise.

Di’dii’mxw’m Lax’yip means that we have to protect wildlife areas. Where did the moose and deer and whatever bed down for winter? Where are their crossings, for that matter? When you talk about the Di’dii’mxw’m – the Di’dii’mxw’m, which is looking after. That is what each chief has to do. Di’dii’mxw’m Lax’yip is the most important aspect. To ensure the survival of the Gitanyow.

We practice that, you know, we don't abuse what we have. And we work towards having a very healthy ecological system.

When you think about the English term biodiversity as a collectivity of all beings or the collectivity of ecosystems or species, are there other words in your language that speak to that?

You can use our language in many different ways. When you talk about Ha’nii tokxw, if somebody were talking about that, they would think that’s just your dining room table, but when you start to converse on what the actual meaning is, we’re talking about our land, we’re talking about the trees, we’re talking about the air, we’re talking about water, we’re talking about mountains. Everything that is on the land is being addressed in Ha’nii tokxw.

When we talk about animals and those things on our land are called Ye’gisxw. If you include all types of animals, then it’s Ye’gisxw, but if you’re talking about a specific animal, if we were working with our wildlife guardians, for example, then the animal would be referred to using whatever name they hold.

And when you talk about ecosystem networks, you’re talking about anything that runs from down the mountain – Ksga’nist, basically – looking at aks, meaning water, if you’re talking about an ecosystem.

What an ecosystem network is, according to my uncle, was win’sa’gal’guulhl aks. win’sa’gal’guulhl aks; if you were defining it, an ecosystem network is anything which runs from mountains. It’s there to keep water levels at a certain temperature. So that fish and reptiles, etcetera, can survive. That’s what that means in our language. Those are the places where you can gather your medicines. So again, it becomes a very important part of what the system looks like.

Do animals and other more-than-human beings have rights and responsibilities too?

That is an absolute.

We would harvest things like trees, like cedar, birch, all the pine, spruce, all those. Our people always enabled wildlife to still thrive in those areas, by leaving things where they could live, what they could eat. You know, moose rely a lot on willow to survive; they did everything possible to ensure that happened. They selected areas where they harvested huckleberries and blueberries. So, they did burns to enable that, but that's not the only purpose for having a burn. It was to give the animals and the birds the food that they need to eat to survive. If you cut one of those out, then humans won't survive either. 

So those types of priorities, and like I said, you know, this isn't a new thing for us. It's a lifetime. It's generations. It's a lot of different laws that are stated to protect not just us, but the animals, the birds, like even reptiles, you know, we don't eat reptile or some nations do, but we don't. But they still have a role to play in protecting the ecosystem.

Simogyet Watakhayetsxw, Deborah Good, in conversation with Jessica Clogg and Whitney Lafreniere Vicente, West Coast Environmental Law. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Top photo: Simogyet Watakhayetsxw (Deborah Good) speaking at the August 28, 2023 Meziadin Indigenous Protected Area 2nd Year Anniversary Celebration. (Photo credit: Jessica Clogg)

Indigenous Law in Language Series

Simogyet Watakhayetsxw, Deborah Good
Whitney Lafreniere-Vicente, Staff Lawyer
Jessica Clogg, Executive Director & Sr Counsel