Meet Native America: Lyndale George, Council Member, Skidegate, British Columbia
In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of indigenous communities, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native people today.
Established in 1989 through an Act of Congress, the National Museum of the American Indian is an institution of living cultures dedicated to advancing knowledge and understanding of the life, languages, literature, history, and arts of the Native peoples of the Western Hemisphere. This is the first interview in the series to feature a leader from one of the First Nations of Canada. —Dennis Zotigh, NMAI
Please introduce yourself with your name and title.
My name is Lyndale George, and I am currently serving as a council member for my community of Skidegate, British Columbia.
Can you give us your Native name and its English translation?
My Haida name is Jaadkuungits, which translates to “woman in front" or "woman on the point.” It is always difficult to get a direct translation as these names have been passed down for generations.
Where is your community located?
The community of Skidegate is on the islands of Haida Gwaii, approximately 90 miles off the northwest coast of British Columbia. Prior to contact, there were approximately one hundred Haida villages located throughout the islands. Once smallpox was introduced to the islands, it decimated the population, and the survivors settled in the two main communities of Skidegate and Old Masset, which remain today.
After European contact the islands were named the Queen Charlotte Islands. In the summer of 2010, the provincial government recognized the name Haida Gwaii. Haida Gwaii is now the official name.
Where were your people originally from?
Scientists can establish that the Haida have lived on the islands of Haida Gwaii for more that ten thousand years. There are also Haida communities located in southern Alaska.
What is a significant point in history from your nation that you would like to share?
In 2002 the Haida won a case which basically stated that when the crown infringes on Haida lands and resources, then proper and meaningful consultation must take place with the Haida. The decision was upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada in 2004. The relationship between the Haida and Canada is government to government, and that is reflected in the agreements we currently have. One example is the shared responsibility and jurisdiction for the national park Gwaii Haanas, which covers a vast area on the southern island of Haida Gwaii and includes many of the historical and traditional village sites.
What responsibilities do you have as a First Nations community leader?
The role of the Skidegate Band Council is to set the strategic direction of the community through the development of sound programs and policies. We are also responsible for the general well being of the membership and oversee capital, education, social development, health, and economic development programs in the community.
We also work collaboratively with the senior level of government—the Council of the Haida Nation—as well as with all local municipal governments on Haida Gwaii for the betterment of all communities.
How did your life experience prepare you to lead your community?
I left my community when I was eight years old to attend school on the mainland, and after high school I attended and graduated from Brigham Young University in Utah. When I returned to Canada, I worked with a number of First Nations communities, Tribal Councils, and the provincial and federal government in the field of social work. In 2002 I completed a Masters of Social Work degree from the University of Victoria.
After 50 years away from my community and 35 years' experience in social work, I returned to accept a job as the executive director of Haida Child and Family Services, a position I currently hold. I have always felt the need to give back to my community and to provide support and leadership using my experience in the social, education, and health fields, as well as in working within government systems.
Over the years I noted that women seldom sat on the council, despite the fact that the Haida people are a matrilineal society. I felt that it was important for women to have a voice, to represent the children, women, and elderly in the community, as we traditionally have been the caretakers of the nation.
Are you a descendant of a historical leader? If so, who?
I am a descendant of strong Haida women and men who survived the onslaught of foreign cultures, foreign diseases, and government efforts to destroy our culture and existence. We are still here and still have control over our land and way of life.
Who inspired you as a mentor?
Two people have inspired me in my life. The first was my grandmother (naanay), who raised me until the age of eight. She taught me about my culture, history, family connections, and who I am as a Haida person. I learned to be proud of who I am and to treat others in a respectful manner.
The other mentor would be my husband, who has spent many years giving to his community as well as other First Nations communities across the country and even into the United States. He has been a strong proponent of strong and fiscally responsible First Nations governance and leadership. He also has a strong belief in our own traditional system of government and has instilled in me the importance of ensuring that I deal with governance in a positive, honest, and open manner.
How is your government set up?
There are two levels of government. The village councils—the Skidegate Band Council and Old Massett Village Council—deal with the day-to-day operations of their communities through federal legislation and have no jurisdiction or power beyond the Indian Act of Canada. The Council of the Haida Nation is a political entity with the mandate to “protect the land and waters of Haida Gwaii."
Is there a functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?
The Hereditary Chiefs Council sits as an advisory board of the Council of the Haida Nation, provides guidance and advice about Haida cultural matters, and sits on negotiation and litigation teams.
How often are elected leaders chosen?
Elections in Skidegate Village take place every two years. Elections to the Council of the Haida Nation are held every three years.
How often does your tribal/band/Native community council meet?
The Skidegate Band Council meets a minimum of once a week.
Approximately how many members are in your community?
There are 1,594 registered members of the Skidegate Band; 738 currently reside on the reserve.
What are the criteria to become a member of your community?
Membership of a band, or Indian status, is determined by the Indian Act of Canada. However membership of the Haida Nation is based on ancestry, and persons do not need to have status to be recognized by the Council of the Haida Nation.
Is the Haida language still spoken on your homelands? If so, what percentage of your people would you estimate are fluent speakers?
In the community of Skidegate, there has been a resurgence of language, culture, and traditions over a number of years. Language, culture, traditions, and stories are being documented and recorded through the Skidegate Haida Immersion Program (SHIP). We have been very fortunate in our community to have a number of elders, and they have been a part of SHIP for many years. They attend “school” with the same hours as the local schools, and they have taken on the task of preserving our language. There are approximately twenty fluent Haida speakers. However, the language is now being taught in all the schools, including the daycare and nursery school.
Also attending SHIP are youth who have completed high school and have taken on the task of recording the language and developing computer-based programs for learning by being totally immersed in the language. It is an exciting time for many to relearn their language. The cultural revival in history, language, traditions, and relationship to the land has instilled a new confidence in the younger generation.
What economic enterprises does your community own?
The Skidegate Band owns a few small businesses on the reserve, including a gas station, utility pole plant, and office space renting to a variety of organizations and businesses. The band also owns a Heritage Centre at Kaay ′Llnagaay, which is a repository of our history, our language, and our art. Further development of the Heritage Centre will include a hotel and restaurant.
The Haida Heritage Centre at Kaay ′Llnagaay, Haida Gwaii.
As for the nation, and as a result of the new relationship with the crown, consultation is a key factor. Haidas control many of the economic opportunities on the island, including fishing lodges, restaurants, Taan Forest products, and ecotourism companies.
What annual events does your community sponsor?
During Skidegate Days, we sponsor the Totem to Totem Marathon, which is a qualifier for the Boston Marathon. In the past we have had participants from as far as Vietnam, Australia, and England, as well as many local participants.
We also sponsor summer Rediscovery Cultural Camps for children and youth, and we especially encourage Haida youth living off island to attend.
What attractions are available for visitors on your land?
Tourists come for a variety of outdoor activities, including fishing, hiking, kayaking, canoeing, whale watching, tours to old village sites in the Gwaii Haanas National Park, viewings of totem poles, the museum at the Heritage Centre, and to meet local artists. Haida Gwaii is pristine, one of the few places that still exist where people can witness the beauty of nature at its best.
How do the Haida deal with Canada as a sovereign nation?
Our nation has fought hard for recognition of who we are as Haida, as well as for the land and rights that go with recognition. Having achieved some rights, Haidas are in the continual process of reconciliation with Canada based on our pre-existing sovereignty, the assumed sovereignty of the crown, and our nation-to-nation and government-to-government relationship.
Haida Gwaii belongs to the Haida, and we will determine what happens with the land, ocean, and resources. The Canadian government must consult.
What message would you like to share with the youth of your community?
We have amazing youth in our community who value their culture, language, and traditions. and are proud to share those values with others. I continue to encourage our young people to be strong, healthy, and proud of their heritage.
The photographs above are used courtesy of the George family and the community of Skidegate.
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From left to right: Representative Ponka-We Victors (Tohono O’odham/Southern Ponca) taking the oath of office in the Kansas House of Representatives; photo courtesy of Kansas Rep. Scott Schwab. Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache) at the Sundance Film Festival; photo courtesy of WireImage. Sergeant Debra Mooney (Choctaw) at the powwow in Al Taqaddum Air Force Base, Iraq, 2004; photo courtesy of Sgt. Debra Mooney. Councilman Jonathan Perry (Wampanoag) in traditional clothing; photo courtesy of Jonathan Perry. Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne/Hodulgee Muscogee) at Blackhorse et al. v. Pro Football, Inc., press conference, U.S. Patent and Trade Office, February 7, 2013; photo courtesy of Mary Phillips. All images used with permission.