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"United we stand, divided we perish": Negotiating Pan-Tribal Unity in the Union of BC Indian Chiefs

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Thesis type
(Dissertation) Ph.D.
Date created
In 1969, First Nations chiefs in British Columbia united to create the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs (hereafter the Union), a pan-tribal political organization designed to combat late 1960s Canadian Indian Policy and secure recognition of Indigenous rights and title. The drive for pan-tribal unity began as early as the 1870s, and continued into the twentieth century with an explosion of pan-tribal organizations in the 1950s and 1960s. There was continuity in the political goals of these organizations, as well as in the discourse they espoused and the Union would later draw upon these. The creation of the Union signified the first time the approximately 200 First Nations across the province were represented by one organization, and the Union quickly emerged as a leading voice for Indigenous rights. Despite the organization’s dominance and longevity, this dissertation suggests that Indigenous organizations and pan-tribal political unity remain poorly understood. In part, this stems from the tendency to consider Indigenous organizations within a success/failure paradigm that emphasizes success in terms of practical political gains, and failure in terms of factionalism and disagreement. These assumptions fail to capture the nuances of Indigenous political experience whereby cooperation and conflict, as well as complex political ideas are commonplace. This study seeks to correct these assumptions using a community-engaged approach that privileges Indigenous voices using new ethnohistorical and critical oral history methods. Examining the history of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs between 1969 and 1981, this study makes four main arguments. First, I argue that pan-tribal unity was a leading and widespread political goal for BC Indigenous peoples, but that various interest groups conceived of unity differently. Union member nations, grassroots members, and Indigenous women pushed to have their political goals achieved, and through competing and conflicting agendas unity remained a central goal. Second, I insist the flexibility and multiplicity of pan-tribal politics is best understood within concept I have termed “multi-politics.” I suggest the term multi-politics encapsulates this range of political dialogue within the Union, the co-existence of multiple political models amongst local and provincial Indigenous communities, and between Indigenous people and the state. Third, I suggest that to maintain unity, the Union and its constituents deployed resistance, recognition, and refusal in highly strategic ways incorporating these frameworks into its flexible multi-political modalities. Examining the ways in which the Union facilitated internal and external discussions about political authority, representation, and political strategies, this study reveals that recognition and refusal were negotiated amongst BC Indigenous peoples and settler state actors under the discourse of unity. Finally, I argue that pan-tribal politics, unity, and the politics of recognition and refusal are deeply gendered. Focusing on a male-dominated political organization, I highlight a core tension within BC Indigenous politics—the privileging of male political ideas and bodies. By centring women’s political participation, I demonstrate how Indigenous women also shaped the political movement in significant ways.
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Supervisor or Senior Supervisor
Thesis advisor: Kelm, Mary-Ellen
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