Some of today’s Tsilhqot’in youth claim they are warriors, just like historical warrior chiefs Klatsassin and Ahan.
But they do not understand what it is to be a warrior, says Joe Alphonse, a Tsilhqot’in First Nations chief.
At Tuesday’s Klatsassin Memorial Day, held at New Westminster secondary school, Alphonse concluded the celebration by speaking about troubled Tsilhqot’in youth, the warriors executed in Quesnel and New Westminster in 1865 and lessons learned from their sacrifices.
Alphonse, the chair of the Tsilhqot’in National Government in Williams Lake, says too many youth in his community are involved in crime and end up in jail.
In his community of Anaham, the town of 1,500 once supported three rival youth gangs. Williams Lake is also a hotspot for gang activity.
He meets these youth regularly and listens to their claims of being modern day Tsilhqot’in warriors.
“They say, ‘I’m a warrior. I’m not scared of anyone. I’ll take anyone on.’ That’s not a warrior. That’s a slave to alcohol,” says Alphonse.
He then tells them the warriors who fought in the Chilcotin War of 1864 were disciplined.
They killed 19 white road builders only to defend their people, explains Alphonse.
The settlers were trying to build a road to the Cariboo gold fields through Tsilhqot’in lands because it was considered the fastest route from Victoria. Chief Klatsassin, who led the warriors, feared the invaders would bring smallpox, which started killing large populations of coastal first nations people two years earlier.
“They were willing to pay the ultimate price,” says Alphonse of the six chiefs found guilty of murder and hanged. “They had to be very spiritual people.”
Still, there is a place for Tsilhqot’in warriors today. The modern warrior must be disciplined like their forefathers so they can stay out of trouble and get an education, he says.
“The battlefield has changed but we still need to protect ourselves. The battlefield is a courtroom and the negotiating room,” the chief explains, referring the Tsilhqot’in legal battles with the provincial government and mining companies over rights to traditional lands.
“If you want to beat the system stay in school.”
For the last three years the Tsilhqot’in have confronted the problems of youth crime with some success. Youth gangs and memberships have declined in the communities of Anaham and Williams Lake.
Problem youth are confronted directly by other Tsilhqot’in members and asked, “Why are you in a crime?” he says. If they are motivated by poverty, jobs are found for them.
When a crime is committed, justice is more likely to be handed down from the elders then the law courts.
“You as a community have to say this is an issue. We have to say we’re not going to tolerate this anymore,” says Alphonse.
“We want to live in a safe community, be proud of our community. If you’re going to cause problems we’re going to sit you down in front of the whole community and work things out. And if you’re not going to talk to me and land in jail, then I’m going to come and talk to you and see what can be done.”