Dolly Watts: Woman Warrior

R. Stewart

Dolly WattsPer Ardua Ad Astra is the motto for the warriors of Britain’s Royal Air Force. The language is Latin, the dead tongue of the old Romans; it means ‘Through hardship to the stars.’ Such a sentiment makes an appropriate motif for the life of Dolly Watts, who regards herself as a woman warrior and whose son is a flight captain for United Air Lines.

Dolly’s entrepreneurial savvy and determination have brought her to the point where she owns her own restaurant. Dolly has been nominated for the Canadian Women Entrepreneur of the Year Award, in the start-up division.

“I gave lots of thought to how one becomes a warrior. The myriad accounts of male warriors are etched on our totems and in the stories told at feasts. The tales that I heard when I was a child said that warriors rose while it was still dark and bathed in the river. They prayed. They used cedar branches to pummel their bodies for spiritual cleansing. They paid heed to the teachings of their parents, grandparents and ancestors. Even the spirits.”

I met Dolly Watts amid the cedar columns and pebbled floor of the Liliget Feast House; the 52-seat restaurant designed some twenty years ago by Arthur Erickson. She is a woman of much presence. Softly spoken and looking a good 15 years less than her age of 63, she radiates centeredness and serenity.

“The family into which I was born was strong. I am Git’ksan from the house of Ghu’sen, at Gitsegukela, B.C., the 10th of 14 children. My mother, Chief Mel’hus, late Martha Morgan, married Chief Axtl-hix Gibu, late Wallace Morgan, from Gitwangk (also know as Kitwanga) village. His parents, who lived in Gitsegukela, were Chief Wi’get, late Stephen Morgan and Chief Ten’im’get, late Sarah Morgan. They lived during the time change. The government had set boundaries around their village and made laws that forbade the celebration of their culture. They and others from the village fought to keep our culture alive. They continued to hold feasts despite the threats of imprisonment. I saw the great dances, reenactment’s of stories and heard chiefs speak.”

The Git’ksan live on Gitwangak Reserve in northern B.C., along the banks of the mighty Skeena River. “It was our food basket,” said Dolly. “The animals and birds, berries and vegetables offered us a variety of food. Tem’lax’amt or ‘Sitting on something nice’ was really paradise.”

Dolly was barely walking when her mother spoke to her about the future. They were alone in a field where Mother was planting seed potatoes. It was lunchtime and she spread some food on the grass. As they ate, she said: “When you grow up like your sisters and brothers, you will go to school. You will go to school for a long time. When you finish, you have to leave home to work. There is no work in the village.”

As she grew up, her mother’s advice remained with Dolly. “Every time I wanted to quit school, I remembered her words. When I became rebellious in my teens, my older brothers helped mother by forcing me to return to the boarding school. During the summer, she kept reminding me “school” was important and I must keep on until I graduated.”

Yet circumstances seemed to conspire to block her mother’s plan for Dolly. When she was seven years old, she contracted tuberculosis and landed in hospital for over two years, where she saw many of her people die. When she was 10, she made the long trip to the Alberni Indian Residential School in Port Alberni. Upon arrival, she was stricken with rheumatic fever and spent the next year in the infirmary. It was then that Dolly displayed the innate initiative and spunk that would serve her so well in life.

“Not wanting to waste precious time, I learned to knit and crochet. I sold hats for 25 cents and diamond-patterned socks for 75 cents. The following summer, I felt better. I went to a cannery close to home and worked all summer. I wanted to earn money so that I would not be a burden on my family. I was 11 years old. I was tall. At the conclusion of the summer, I brought mom a beautiful coat and paid my boat fare back to school.”

The next term Dolly went to school for the first time since she was seven. Classes were from 1 to 3 p.m. and the courses included English and math. The morning was spent teaching the children how to mend, sew and clean. “Teaching” meant that they darned piles of socks, mended clothes on the sewing and scrubbed floors. “My attitude was that this confinement will come to an end one day,” said Dolly. “Do whatever I am told and I won’t get in trouble.”

“There were some horror stories, however none of the incidents killed me. Some of the boys and girls were molested by supervisors. Somehow, I was spared. I was lonely but I could live with loneliness. I kept busy reading and knitting.”

It is obvious that Dolly acquired her entrepreneurial spirit early in life. She also displayed an inherent generosity.

“I credit some of that spirit to an older brother who ordered drink crystals and tiny bottles of French perfume from The Winnipeg Daily Free Press. He would give me a box of the products and I sold them to the people in the village. I collected the money and gave it all to him. Mother carved small wooden items and we sold them to tourists during their walkabout. Again, I gave all the money to her. So when I knitted and crocheted at school, selling was easy, only this time, I kept the money. When sales dried up, I ironed shirts (10 cents each) or painted posters ($10 each).”

“I learned that it took constant physical and mental training right from childhood to become fearless. I learned that warriors made snap decisions took risks based, of course, on their training. I also learned that various people trained the warriors. Warriors are focused.”

Dolly remained in Port Alberni for high school and married Thomas Watts from the nearby Tse-shaht village. She had three children and worked in the Woodwards store as a part-time sales clerk. She also attended night school. When the children were grown, she decided to leave the marriage and pursue her lifelong interest in education and native culture. She went to college and then, at the age of 49, she entered the University of B.C.

Dr. Michael Kew, now retired associate professor of anthropology, recalled how Dolly, along with some other women, persuaded the department to create a special course for them, saying: “Here we are, First Nations people and we don’t find anything of meaning to us, so why don’t you do something?”

A course was set up for the women on how colonial oppression constructed and manipulated the image of Native peoples.

“She succeeded in passing that and doggedly went on from there,” said Kew. “It was not easy for her to complete a Bachelor’s degree.” But complete it Dolly did, graduating with a degree in Anthropology. “Practically all my life has been devoted to learning. Some of it willingly and some most unwillingly. My parents were my role models for parenthood and keepers of our culture. Teachers, regardless of where I was, taught me coping skills in my new world.”

After graduation in 1989, Dolly returned to Kitwanga to be band manager. She noticed a minimum of a half dozen tour buses in the village everyday during the summer and saw the potential for a small restaurant beside the gas station. She also saw the opportunity to sell native crafts. “I did a study for the village on tourism but my people couldn’t follow up on it. They just don’t have the initiative. It’s been whipped out of them. They want to do something but they don’t know how.”

Discouraged, Dolly moved back to Vancouver, took post-grad courses and worked part-time at the Museum of Anthropology. She interrupted her studies to take a year of creative writing and is now just one year away from a Masters’ degree in anthropology.

In an effort to raise money for a native youth education program, shed set up a stand to sell Indian bannock bread in front of the museum. The bread smelled so good that everything just sold. People kept saying: “It’s just like Grandma’s.” In 1992, Dolly formed her first company, Just Like Grandma’s Bannock and began catering for profit. She never looked back and in 1995 opened the Liliget restaurant, deep in Vancouver’s West End, using the Git’ksan word for ‘place where people feast.’

“I knew it was going to be okay because the previous owners had been there for ten years each. If they could last for 10 years then surely I could be there for another 10 years,” Dolly said. “I had wanted to be a writer but the bannock got in the way.”

With no support from there, Dolly had obstacles to face. Once again, her courage and determination took over. She turned to one of the brothers for a partnership. Her son Wallace, the flight captain, kicked in start-up money.

Dolly learned to be strict and self-disciplined, paying bills in ash, re-investing in the business, contributing to savings, and rewarding herself for her own creativity.

Today she serves an array of First Nations’ foods, such as wild Arctic caribou, venison stew with seaweed dumplings, rabbit with rosemary compote, hazelnut rainbow trout and duck breast with cranberry chutney.

“In Git’ksan culture, parents or those who assumed t hat role were the fist to train the child. Children learned life skills. As they grew older, extended family members (aunt or uncle) were chosen to bring the training to the next level. So if the young person showed signs of being a warrior, he was assigned to someone knowledgeable in warfare. Elders empowered young people by sharing their experience.”

In the beginning, many nights saw the Liliget nearly empty and Dolly worried about the years of lease payments she had committed herself to. “I had no-one to fall back on. My rent depended on how well I did.”

But she kept going with dogged persistence, doing her own kitchen prep work, all cleanup and her own catering deliveries. She worked 14 hours a day, seven days a week. With word spreading that the native restaurant was open once again, revenues rose to $400,000 a year ago – break even costs.

With financial success achieved, Dolly has shown that the difficult transition from reserve to urban enterprises is indeed possible.

“Today, we have our parents, extended families and elders. We (male or female) also have teachers in our schools; colleges and universities who have specialized in areas that can bring us closer to our goals. We have many resources, such as the Native Investment and Trade Association, where we can turn for help along the way to become warriors.”

“The best thing is that I have been able to employ our Native people.” Her three kids and a granddaughter work in the restaurant, as do six other natives and two non-native people.

A woman of deep compassion and liberality is Dolly Watts. “I’m community-minded. I have a soft for teens and people with AIDS.” Many folk in the West End do suffer from this debilitating disease. Dolly donates dinner and coupons for dinners; she holds draws for coupons. “I try to do as much as I can, I donate here and there.”

“Have aboriginal women responded in a way that warrants the name warrior? Do aboriginal women want to become warriors? Of course. Not for war, but as trail blazers for self and others. They’re proving to be courageous, willing to take risks, empowered through improved self esteem in the face of competitive forces all around. Armed with knowledge and skills, standing beside our helpers (resources) and our spirit helpers. I can say that many of use have become warriors, not for militancy, but for personal challenges.”

In 1996, Dolly received the Native Investment and Trade Association Entrepreneur of the Year Ward. This year she completes with three other outstanding businesswomen for the national honours, to be presented in Toronto on November 6.

Yet she is still full of dreams and ambition. Her next project is to build a longhouse beside Vancouver’s Trade and Convention Centre. She has applied to the City for permission for a 300-seat structure that would include a restaurant, performance stage and art gallery. “I want to host a conference there but the city is trying to discourage me. It seems they only want to give permission for 150 seats.

Dolly invited Arthur Erickson back to the restaurant he designed to tell him of the concept. “He seems interested. And he ate everything on his plate.”

Ever the visionary, Dolly looks beyond her hoped-for conference centre to a restaurant at Ottawa’s Canadian Museum of Civilization.

Dolly watts continues the tradition of her strong and independent family. When “government officials” tried to pressure them into calling their children by the more conventional name of Dorothy, her parents stood their ground and named their daughter Dolly because she had been born so small she fit in a little doll box.

“I am a warrior. I became a fighter in order to keep afloat in the competitive world. I became fearless when faced with a real threat of losing my business. I remind myself to remain focused. I get up early to bathe and pummel my body with Dove on my sponge. I leave my home armed with years of training.”