Chief Kw'eh (ca. 1755-1840)
Chief Kw’eh (ca. 1755-1840) emerged as an important Indigenous leader during a time of devastating inter-tribal warfare in the interior plateau of what is now British Columbia. It was a time of dramatic disruptions that came with the entry of new trade goods and diseases from foreign ships off the Pacific Coast in the late 18th century. In the Dakelh communities around Fort St. James, Kw’eh is remembered much like a founding father because of the way he looked after and provided for people, and how he led them through a time of profound change.
While still a very young man, Kw’eh arose from obscurity through a terrible event – the loss of his parents and most of his family in a bloody enemy raid. In a carefully-planned counter-attack, he avenged those deaths, demonstrating not only his determination and abilities as a warrior, but also his spirit power. Moreover, he took on the name, or hereditary title (and thus position and responsibilities), of his father’s killer and, in so doing, helped to defuse the long-standing hostilities. He married the first of several wives and moved to his father-in-law’s village of Nak’azdli (at present-day Fort St. James) where he continued to gain respect and acquired additional territories and people to look after.
Later, in the early 1800s, his responses to the entry of Euro-Canadian fur traders into his traditional territories helped shape how the North American fur trade developed on the Pacific slope. Strategically, the newcomers offered Kw’eh a new name, that of “fur trade chief”, adding to his other titles of respect, leadership and, of course, responsibility. Before long, Chief Kw’eh was channelling both furs and salmon to the post and, in turn, distributing a wealth in trade goods at potlatches that helped to increase his own status in the region. It was a tenuous co-existence. At times, only Chief Kw’eh’s discernment and restraint kept it from descending into violence and turmoil.
Chief Kw’eh is remembered for how he was “great enough” not to resort to violence in a climactic confrontation at Fort St. James in 1828 with James Douglas, a young Hudson’s Bay Company clerk. Douglas later became the first governor of the colony of British Columbia. By the time Chief Kw’eh died in 1840, he was considered the most important Indigenous leader in this region, from the perspectives of surrounding First Nations and of the foreign traders. Chief Kw’eh, “dreamer of the salmon”, has acquired legendary qualities, partly for his promise to provide for his people as long as he is remembered. Some 175 years after his death, his descendants still carefully tend his grave site, which Kw’eh chose for himself at the mouth of the Stuart River, and from where people report hearing the sound of his rattle at the beginning of the salmon runs, alerting people to the happy news.
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