‘A place worth fighting for’

Lha Yudit’ih We Always Find a Way: Bringing the Tsilhqot’in Title Case Home
by Lorraine Weir, with Chief Roger William

Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2023
$35  /  9781772013825

Reviewed by Sage Birchwater


There’s not a more beautiful spot on the planet than the caretaker lands of the Xeni Gwet’in – one of six communities of the Tsilhqot’in Nation that occupy the Chilcotin Plateau west of the Fraser River in Central British Columbia.

Xeni (Nemiah Valley), Tsilhqox Biny (Chilko Lake), the lordly and sacred Ts’ylos Mountain (Mount Tatlow), the spectacular Coast Mountain Ranges, the glacial melt hue of Dasiqox Biny (Taseko Lake) and Dasiqox (Taseko) River melding with the azure blue Tsilhqox (Chilko) River to form the Tsilhqot’in (Chilcotin) River as it winds its way eastward to the Fraser River.

It’s a place worth fighting for.

That’s exactly what Chief Roger William figured more than thirty years ago when he took up the gavel of leadership.

That’s what his predecessors and fellow leaders have done too since the time of colonization in the 1860s. That’s when the Cariboo Gold Rush pressed an urgency to plunder, and where the decency and best interests of the Indigenous owners of that land were unscrupulously set aside. The Tsilhqot’ins stood up to this incursion.

Chief Roger is the great-great-grandson of Warrior Qaq’ez, older brother of Warrior Chief Lhats’ass?in, who led the resistance in 1864 that gained notoriety as the Chilcotin War. And though Chief Lhats’ass?in and five other Tsilhqot’in leaders were martyred by hanging in Quesnel and New Westminster after giving themselves up on the pretense of peace talks, their sacrifice has served to steel the resolve of the Tsilhqotin and Xeni Gwet’in citizens for more than a century and a half – to hold fast to what is theirs.

That’s what Lha Yudit’ih: We Always Find A Way is all about.

It’s the story of resistance and the string of remarkable victories against all odds that the Xeni Gwet’in and Tsilhqot’in people have been able to celebrate time after time. It contains stories of mythology and spiritual belief.

One of these victories was backing off the encroachment the lumber industry that had a permit to start clearcutting Xeni Gwet’in Caretaker territory and reduce it to a tattered piecemeal of stripped off logging shows found in 90 per cent of Tsilhqotin territory. A road block in 1991 prevented Carrier Lumber’s industrial logging equipment from crossing the Tsilhqox (Chilko) River at Henry’s Crossing and push into Brittany Triangle.

Chief Roger William. Photo Laureen Carruthers

In the process the Xeni Gwet’in drafted their powerful land use Declaration that outlawed industrial logging and mining and set standards of conduct in their backcountry – a statement that insisted on respect from outsiders. Then they posted it publicly on the roads leading into their caretaker territory.

This laid the groundwork for Chief Roger to launch his court case to gain Title to more than 1,700 square kilometers of Xeni Gwet’in caretaker land. This was far short of their goal, but it was a precedent not realized anywhere else in Canada.

Then there was the attempt by Taseko Mines Ltd to impress its will on the Xeni Gwet’in community by installing a mega copper mine at Fish Lake, known locally as Teztan Biny, against the wishes of the Xeni Gwet’in and Tsilhqot’in people.

Two federal environmental appeal board hearings were conducted, and both tribunals ruled against the mine.

Lha Yudit’ih is a collaboration between Chief Roger William and UBC Emeritus Professor Lorraine Weir. Lorraine is the writer and Chief Roger is the principal informant, spokesperson and storyteller. He invited Weir into the territory to document the story of the Title case, and with his encouragement she interviewed and recorded the stories of more than forty other speakers.

One of the criticisms of the book is that it’s repetitive. Several people tell the same story from different perspectives. But this is hardly a flaw.

Some readers might find the size of the book daunting. More than 500 pages if you count the 14-page colour photo insert.

But the book is reader friendly. Like Emmental Swiss cheese, there are many entrance points you can start into the core of the matter.

As a former Chilcotin resident of some two dozen years, I found the narratives told by the speakers intriguing.

Chief Roger describes the book like sitting around a campfire sharing oral history. “Some stories are long; some are short.”

Weir says in the Introduction that all of the stories in Lha Yudit’ih have the power to change the world. But she cautions that non-Indigenous Canadians need to acknowledge that genocide underpins the foundation of our country.

Lorraine Weir, UBC Emeritus Professor, Indigenous Studies

“This remains an ongoing reality in the lives of Indigenous people,” she says. “Without this acknowledgement, reconciliation will remain mere words.”

Weir says the book traces the wounds of colonialism and the powerful words and actions of Xeni Gwet’ins and Tŝilhqot’ins who repeatedly fought for their freedom and won Title.

“So one aspect of the legacy of Lha Yudit’ih is the record of the stories of Xeni Gwet’in Elders and community members who didn’t give up and whose strength is at the core of the modern Tŝilhqot’in Nation.”

She says another aspect of the book’s legacy is the contribution she hopes it will make to new understanding between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada. “Stories are medicine and healing is urgently needed.”

Weir says she was first drawn to Xeni Gwet’in after reading the trial transcript of the Title Case. Marilyn Baptiste was chief when Weir visited the community for the first time in 2012.

“I met Roger quite by accident. Pam Quilt introduced me to Chief Marilyn in Lee’s Corner café, and Marilyn said Roger should write a book about the title case.”

The book launch, November 2023 in Xeni. Chief Roger William signs a book for his mother Eileen with Lorraine Weir standing by. Photo Sage Birchwater

Three days later, Weir met Roger at Xeni and they talked about writing a book. Ten months later, in June 2013, they did their first five-hour interview during the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) hearings for the proposed New Prosperity Mine.

Weir says she and Roger developed a good working relationship. “Roger and I clearly have different roles. He was the primary storyteller and I was the writer.”

Weir insists the book belongs to the whole community. “The book is really traditional. A lot in the book is in the Tsilhqot’in language. I believe in the future of Indigenous languages.”

She says Roger was a Xeni Gwet’in councilor when they met in 2012. “Then he was chief, then not in leadership, then chief again. There were lots of three o’clock in the morning conversations with Roger. One thing we have in common, we’re both night owls.”

Weir says her first intention was to write a book on the Title Case. But she says it ended up being much more than that. “It became a philosophical/legal statement about the land. I hope it reaches out to Indigenous and non-Indigenous audiences and will inform people going forward with reconciliation.”

She says the book reflects what she was taught by Xeni Gwet’in people. “They were my teachers. It’s about the voices of the people; how they agree and disagree. It’s totally magical how voices harmonize.”

After recording 16 interviews with Roger, some several hours in duration, Roger insisted Weir go out and start interviewing other people in the community. She says these interviews with community members largely determined the shape of the book. “People talked about smallpox, residential school and the Tsilhqot’in War.”

She says one of the book’s key informants, the late Yunesit’in Chief Ivor Myers, was leaving a legacy with his interviews. “I interviewed him over the last year of his life. His advice was to tell those old stories that some people had been trying to protect from circulation in the outside community.”

The book is dedicated to late Chief Ivor Deneway Myers.

Weir acknowledges former Yunesit’in Chief Russell Myers Ross for coming forward with the translation for the book’s title: “We Always Find A Way.”

So much can be gained or lost in translation. It could have been put: “We Never Give Up”, or “We Are Resilient”, but Chief Russell’s “We Always Find a Way” won the day.

Toward the end of the book in a short section called Nation to Nation 2017, Chief Roger shares the words of Tsilhqot’in Tribal Chair and Tl’etinqox Chief Joe Alphonse: “This (Tsilhqot’in Title) case is not about separating from Canada. The case was about being recognized in a meaningful way within the society of Canada. We want to be part of that society.”

Chief Roger goes on to define it more. “Anything that happens in (our territory) needs our consent…we want to be part of Canada on our terms.”

Lorraine Weir
According to reviewer and long-time resident of the Cariboo-Chilcotin Sage Birchwater: “There’s not a more beautiful spot on the planet than the caretaker lands of the Xeni Gwet’in – one of six communities of the Tsilhqot’in Nation that occupy the Chilcotin Plateau west of the Fraser River in Central British Columbia.”

He uses an interesting analogy of a hotel room to express the complex issue of Title Land in the context of provincial and federal authority.

“We want to be in Canada. We’re not in Canada yet. You guys took our hats, you wrecked our beds and you destroyed our bathrooms, and you told us to stay right here and go under Canadian rules.”

“So we still have to figure out how it’s gonna be Canada in here. So far you guys have been doing stuff to that bed without our consent. We said we want to be in Canada, but you need our consent. We want to rebuild that relationship. It’s not gonna be the way it used to be.”

Lha Yudit’ih might be best seen as a text book. A scholarly undertaking. A reference book. A record of opinion. A perspective of history.

It’s not perfect, and not without flaws. A work of this magnitude is bound to contain divergences of opinion and fact that not everyone will agree to.

But Weir promises that errors will be corrected in future printings. “If you see a mistake, get back to me. We can change it. The book’s not written in stone.”

Tŝilhqox Biny, Chilko Lake. Photo Chief Roger William


Sage Birchwater

Sage Birchwater, a long-time resident of the Cariboo-Chilcotin, has written several books about the area including Chiwid (New Star, 1995). Born in Victoria in 1948, Birchwater was involved with Cool Aid in Victoria, travelled throughout North America, and worked as a trapper, photographer, environmental educator, and oral history researcher. Sage served as the Chilcotin rural correspondent for two local papers for 24 years while raising his family south of Tatla Lake. He has also lived in Tatlayoko, where he was a freelance writer and editor, and Williams Lake, where he was a staff writer for the Williams Lake Tribune until his retirement in 2009. His other books include Williams Lake: Gateway to the Cariboo Chilcotin (2004, with Stan Navratil); Gumption & Grit: Extraordinary Women of the Cariboo Chilcotin, (2009); Double or Nothing: The Flying Fur Buyer of Anahim Lake (2010); The Legendary Betty Frank (2011); Flyover: British Columbia’s Cariboo Chilcotin Coast (2012, with Chris Harris); Corky Williams: Cowboy Poet of the Cariboo Chilcotin (2013); Chilcotin Chronicles (2017), reviewed here by Lorraine Weir; and Talking to the Story Keepers: Stories from the Chilcotin Plateau (Caitlin Press, 2022), reviewed here by Richard T. Wright. Editor’s note: Sage Birchwater has recently reviewed books by Trevor Marc Hughes, Hamilton Mack Laing, Mykhailo Ivanychuk, Adrian Raeside, Matti Halminen, and Erskine Burnett  for The British Columbia Review.


The British Columbia Review

Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an online book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

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