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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.
Magella “Max” Gros-Louis (or Oné Onti in the Huron-Wendat language, meaning “paddler”), politician, businessman (born on 6 August 1931 in Wendake, QC; died on 14 November 2020 in Quebec City, QC). As chief of the Huron-Wendat for 33 years, Gros-Louis championed several Indigenous causes including the fight for recognition of Indigenous territory and overall equality for Indigenous peoples in Canada.
Inuksuk (also spelled inukshuk, plural inuksuit) is a figure made of piled stones or boulders constructed to communicate with humans throughout the Arctic. Traditionally constructed by the Inuit, inuksuit are integral to Inuit culture and are often intertwined with representations of Canada and the North. A red inuksuk is found on the flag of Nunavut. In Inuktitut, the term inuksuk means "to act in the capacity of a human." It is an extension of the word inuk meaning "a human being." Inuksuit have been found close to archaeological sites dating from 2400 to 1800 BCE in the Mingo Lake region of southwest Baffin Island. (See also Prehistory.) While stone figures resembling human forms are often referred to as inuksuk, such figures are actually known as inunnguaq.
Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation
Qalipu (pronounced: ha-lee-boo) is a Mi’kmaq First Nation based in Newfoundland and Labrador. The nation was established in 2011 under the Indian Act. According to the federal government, Qalipu has 23,435 registered members, making it the second-largest First Nation by population in Canada. The nation’s members hail from 67 different communities across Newfoundland. As of 2020, roughly 95 per cent of Qalipu members live in Newfoundland and Labrador; the other 5 per cent live throughout Canada. The Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation currently controls no reserve land. (See also Reserves in Newfoundland and Labrador.)
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.
Mi’k ai’stoowa (Red Crow)
Mi’k ai’stoowa, also known as Red Crow, warrior, peacemaker, Kainai (Blood) leader (born ca. 1830 near the junction of St. Mary’s and Oldman rivers, AB; died 28 August 1900 near the Belly River on the Kainai reserve, AB). Head chief of the Kainai, Mi’k ai’stoowa was a skilled negotiator and passionate advocate for his people. Mi’k ai’stoowa sought improved conditions for the Kainai in the wake of monumental changes amid the decline of the bison in traditional territories in the 1860s and 1870s, the encroachment of European settlers and the disastrous effects of smallpox epidemics.
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.
Sahtu Got'ine (Bearlake)
Sahtu Got'ine (also referred to as Sahtúot’ine, Sahtugotine and Great Bear Lake Dene) are Dene people who live around Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories. They settled in Déline, which has been self-governing since 2016. (See also Indigenous Peoples in Canada.)
Piapot (also spelled Payipwat, meaning “One Who Knows the Secrets of the Sioux,” originally named Kisikawasan, meaning “Flash in the Sky”), Cree chief (born in 1816 on the southern prairies; died in 1908 on the Piapot Reserve, SK). During Piapot’s 92 years, he witnessed great changes on the Canadian prairies, including the disappearance of the bison and the settlement of non-Indigenous peoples on Indigenous lands. As chief, Piapot resisted assimilation and strove to uphold Cree customs and traditions.
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.
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 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.
Donna Theo Strickland, CC, physicist (born 27 May 1959 in Guelph, ON). Donna Strickland is a pioneering physicist, known for her work on ultrafast lasers. She is currently a professor of physics at the University of Waterloo. She has authored more than 90 publications and has made seminal contributions to the field of laser technology. In 2018, Strickland was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for her work on the development of laser technology.