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Chief is a word used to denote status or leadership upon an individual in a group, clan or family. The origin of the word is European; colonists used it to refer to the leaders of Indigenous nations during the era of contact. While different Indigenous nations have their own terms for chief, the English version of the word is still used widely to describe leaders tasked with promoting cultural and political autonomy. The term is also used by institutions and organizations that are not exclusively Indigenous to refer to heads of staff (e.g., chief of police, commander-in-chief, chief executive officer). This article explores the historical and contemporary uses of the term in the Indigenous context.
Heiltsuk (Bella Bella)
The Heiltsuk are Indigenous people who have occupied a part of the central coast of British Columbia in the vicinity of Milbanke Sound and Fisher Channel. Historically, Europeans referred to the Heiltsuk as the Bella Bella, a term anglicized from the name of a site located near the present-day community of the same name. In the 2016 census, 1,835 people identified as having Heiltsuk ancestry.
Tahltan are Dene, an Indigenous people in Canada. Tahltan have traditionally occupied an area of northwestern British Columbia centered on the Stikine River. Although the Tahltan use several terms to refer to themselves, the designation "Tahltan" comes from the language of their neighbours, the Tlingit. Today, the Tahltan Central Government represents the interests of the Tahltan members, both on and off reserve.
Isapo-muxika (Crowfoot), Siksika chief (born circa 1830 near Belly River, AB; died 25 April 1890, near Blackfoot Crossing, AB). Known more commonly as Crowfoot, Isapo-Muxika was a Siksika chief and diplomat who negotiated with the federal government on behalf of the Blackfoot Confederacy. He was a key link between Indigenous peoples on the western Plains and colonial forces by way of the North-West Mounted Police, and was key negotiator and supporter of Treaty 7.
Hurons-Wendat of Wendake
In 1697, several Huron-Wendat settled in what became known as Wendake. One of the Seven Nations, the Huron-Wendat were allies of the French until 1760, then of the British. Today, the Huron-Wendat of Wendake are among the most urbanised and most prosperous Indigenous communities in Quebec.
Charlie Panigoniak, ONu, singer, songwriter, guitarist (born 7 March 1946 in Eskimo Point, NWT [now Arviat, NU]; died 6 March 2019 in Rankin Inlet, NU). Charlie Panigoniak was one of the first people to write, record and perform music in Inuktitut. Often referred to as the “Johnny Cash of the North,” he is considered by many to be the father of Inuktitut music. (See also Music of Indigenous Peoples in Canada.) He was a Member of the Order of Nunavut and a recipient of the Nunavut Commissioner’s Performing Arts Award.
Sandra Lovelace Nicholas
Mary Sandra Lovelace Nicholas, CM, Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet), Tobique Nation, Liberal Senator for New Brunswick, Indigenous rights advocate (born 15 April 1948 on Tobique reserve near
Perth-Andover, NB). Sandra Lovelace Nicholas is the first woman of Indigenous background appointed to the Senate from Atlantic Canada.
She championed changes to the Indian Act that seek to restore the legal rights of many Status Indian women and children.
Pitikwahanapiwiyin (Poundmaker), Cree chief (born circa 1842 in central SK; died 4 July 1886 in Blackfoot Crossing, AB). Remembered as a great leader, Pitikwahanapiwiyin strove to protect the interests of his people during the negotiation of Treaty 6. Considered a peacemaker, he did not take up arms in the North-West Rebellion (also known as the North-West Resistance). However, a young and militant faction of his band did participate in the conflict, resulting in Pitikwahanapiwiyin’s arrest and imprisonment for treason. His legacy as a peacemaker lives on among many Cree peoples, including the Poundmaker Cree Nation in Saskatchewan.
The Cree language (also called Cree-Montagnais-Naskapi) is spoken in many parts of Canada, from the Rocky Mountains in the west to Labrador in the east. Cree is also spoken in northern Montana in the United States. Often written in syllabics (i.e., symbols representing a combination of consonant
and vowel, or just a consonant or vowel), Cree is one of the most widely spoken Indigenous languages in Canada. In the 2016 census, 96,575 people reported speaking Cree.
The McIvor v. Canada case was about gender discrimination in section 6 of the 1985 Indian Act, which deals with Indian status. Sharon McIvor — a woman who regained status rights after the passing of Bill C-31 in 1985 — was not able to pass on those rights to her descendants in the same way that a man with status could. In her case against the federal government, the British Columbia Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that section 6 did, in fact, deny McIvor’s equality rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In response to this case, the federal government introduced new legislation (Bill C-3) in 2011 to counter gender discrimination in the Indian Act.
The Tsetsaut (also known as the Wetaɬ) were a Dene people who lived inland from the Tlingit (Łingít) along the western coast of British Columbia and Southeastern Alaska. Apart from Nisga’a oral tradition and the linguistic research of anthropologist Franz Boas, who lived among the Tsetsaut in the 1890s, little is known about them. The Tsetsaut were decimated by war and disease in the 1800s, their numbers reduced to just 12 by the end of the century. It was once believed that the last of the Tsetsaut people died in 1927 and that their ancient language was no longer spoken. However, as of 2019, there are approximately 30 people from the Tsetsaut/Skii km Lax Ha Nation identifying as Tsetsaut in British Columbia.
Odawa (or Ottawa) are an Algonquian-speaking people (see Indigenous Languages in Canada) living north of the Huron-Wendat at the time of French penetration to the Upper Great Lakes. A tradition of the Odawa, shared by the Ojibwa and Potawatomi, states that these three groups were once one people. The division of the Upper Great Lake Algonquians apparently took place at Michilimackinac, the meeting point of lakes Huron and Michigan. The Odawa, or "traders," remained near Michilimackinac, while the Potawatomi, "Those-who-make-or-keep-a-fire," moved south, up Lake Michigan. The Ojibwa (Ojibwe), or "To-roast-till-puckered-up," went northwest to Sault Ste Marie.
Bertha Clark-Jones (née Houle), OC, Cree (Nehiyawak)-Métis advocate for the rights of Indigenous women and children (born 6 November 1922 in Clear Hills, AB; died 21 October 2014 in Bonnyville, AB). A veteran of the Second World War, Clark-Jones joined the Aboriginal Veterans Society and advocated for the fair treatment of Indigenous ex-service people. She was co-founder and first president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada. Clark-Jones devoted her life to seeking equality and greater power for women in Canada.
The Tlingit (sometimes also known as the Łingít) are Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast of North America who share a common cultural heritage. Tlingit means “people of the tides.” In the 2016 Census, 2,110 people identified as having Tlingit ancestry.
Inuktitut is an Indigenous language in North America spoken in the Canadian Arctic. The 2016 census reported 39,770 speakers, of which 65 per cent lived in Nunavut and 30.8 per cent in Quebec. Inuktitut is part of a larger Inuit language continuum (a series of dialects) stretching from Alaska to Greenland. Inuktitut uses a writing system called syllabics, created originally for the Cree language, which represent combinations of consonants and vowels. The language is also written in the Roman alphabet, and this is the exclusive writing system used in Labrador and parts of Western Nunavut. Inuktitut is a polysynthetic language, meaning that words tend to be longer and structurally more complex than their English or French counterparts.
The Cayuga (also known as Guyohkohnyo and Gayogohó:no', meaning “People of the Pipe” or “People of the Great Swamp”) are Indigenous peoples who have traditionally occupied territories along the northern shore of the St. Lawrence River and south into the Finger Lakes district of New York State. The Cayuga are one of six First Nations that make up the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.
Central Coast Salish
Central Coast Salish peoples historically occupied and continue to reside in territories around the Lower Fraser Valley and on southeast Vancouver Island in Canada. They include the Squamish, Klallum, Halkomelem and Northern Straits peoples.
Sandra Birdsell (née Sandra Bartlette), CM, Mennonite-Métis, short-story writer, novelist (born 22 April 1942 in Hamiota, MB). Birdsell’s fiction often investigates the lives of small-town characters, especially women. She has written novels, plays, radio dramas and scripts for television and film. Appointed a Member of the Order of Canada in 2010, Birdsell has been nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Award for English Language Fiction three times, and for the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2001.
The Siksika, also known as the Blackfoot (or Blackfeet in the United States), are one of the three nations that make up the Blackfoot Confederacy (the other two are the Piikani and Kainai). In the Blackfoot language, Siksika means “Blackfoot.” As of 2018, the Siksika registered population is 7,497, with 4,095 living on reserve in Alberta.