Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Ralph (Tiger) Michell, Friend And Fighter, Is Dead

Anyone familiar with the struggles of aboriginal people for land rights in North America will be aware of the Supreme Court of Canada decision Delgamuukw Vs. The Queen, the leading case on aboriginal title in Canada. And anyone familiar with the logging-road and rail-line blockades and all the lower-court skirmishing that led to the Delgamuukw decision will be familiar with the name, Ralph "Tiger" Michell.

Tiger died this afternoon of a massive heart attack. That's all I know at the moment.

Tiger was an old friend. He was the best man at my wedding and my son Eamonn's godfather. He was more formally known as Wii Seeks, the Gitksan fireweed-clan hereditary chief from the Kispiox Valley.

Tiger was persistently cheerful no matter the adversity. He was brave, compassionate, funny, stubborn, and always ready to see the good side in people. He got the nickname Tiger when he was a teenager in Gitanmaax, owing to his refusal to back away from any fight he found himself in. He showed his mettle for leadership in the villages along the Skeena River as the vice-president of the sawmill workers' local union of the International Woodworkers of America. He went on to become a leader in the Gitksan land-rights battles.

Tiger, who was as fluent and literate in English as he was in his native Gitxsanimaax, was raised by Waigyet (Elsie Morrison) and David Gun-an-noot, son of the famous Simon Gun-an-noot, who eluded provincial police and American Pinkertons for 13 years in the heavily-forested Gitksan country after being charged with the murder of a white man and a "half-breed" near Hagwilget in 1906 (Simon turned himself in in 1919, stood trial in Vancouver, and was acquitted of the charges).

During the land battles of the 1980s and 1990s, Tiger did a lot more than just stare down Mounties at roadblocks. He served his people as vice-president of the Gitksan-Wet'suwet'en Tribal Council, as president of the local legal services society, and as an intepreter for the legal team in the Delgamuukw case.

After the victory, Tiger headed back to work in the bush. And that's how I'll remember him the best, from those days. You'd find him way back in the hills, roaring down the Kuldo Main in a battered old Ford F-150 company truck, when he was working for Skeena Cellulose helping loggers figure out where the new cutblock lines were and how to deal with the new Forest Practices Code rules.

And it would be raining on South Town and New Town, on Gitsegukla and Gitwangak, raining on Indians and Umshewa and everyone in between, and Tiger would be out there in the rain and the slash, working hard, for decent wages. And he was happy.


Updated Wednesday morning: An old friend, Doug Donaldson, reports that there will be a smoke feast in Kispiox this afternoon, a celebration of life/memorial service tomorrow and a funeral and feast on Saturday.


Blogger Stephen said...

My condolences.

12:43 AM  
Blogger keefer said...

Mine too. Although I never met the man himself, your words brought him closer while I was living just downriver from Kitselas, reading 'Death Feast...' for the first time in a little home a stone's throw the river.
I'll be sure to pay respects next time I'm up in Old Town or Kispiox, or anywhere in Gitksan country which hopefully I will be later this year.

4:11 PM  
Blogger tglavin said...

Keef: If you do go up to the Skeena this year, be sure to post.

11:15 AM  

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