Indigenous Leaders Call for Public Inquiry After the Death of Respected West Coast Elder

By Michelle Oleman

Labeled as simply “First Nations Activist” in mainstream publications, Elder and Matriarch, Harriet Nahanee (71) of the Squamish Nation, has passed on following a 14-day jail sentence.

Nahanee was a long time respected elder here on the west coast, her actions inspired young and old alike to take a stand for what she referred to as a sacred cause that needs an “aboriginal Malcolm X” to restore their pride. Also a great-grandmother and leader for the cause Betty Krawczyk had expressed her concern for Mrs. Nahanee to Justice Brown in written form. “Mrs. Nahanee is not well…”, citing asthma, and a recent bout with influenza had already weakened the elder’s immunity.
Ignoring these warnings from friend and ally to Mrs. Nahanee, Justice Brown ordered that she be held at Surrey Women’s Pre-Trial Center in January. One short week after her release, Mrs. Nahanee died of “pneumonia and complications”.

Hundreds gathered for her memorial in late February, among them First Nations Leaders Bernice Williams (neice to the late Harriet Nahanee), Kat Norris of the Indigenous Action Group, David Dennis of the United Native Nations, and Chief Stewart Philip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, who are organizing a call to police forces for an inquiry into Mrs. Nahanee’s death. Asked when would be an appropriate time to begin organizing this movement one of the family members replied “as long as you wait for 4 days after we’ve (held her final services), you can (go ahead).”

Harriet Nahanee was a beautiful woman who sacrificed herself for a cause that many of us feel more than worthy, and her passing has brought to National attention need for us as peoples in solidarity and for the sovereignty of Canada to recognize indigenous rights to land ownership, development, and use. Her family has expressed concern that media representation of this story will misinterpret Harriet’s life work in expressing indigenous sovereignty in a positive way.

First Nations Drum has learned that Mrs. Nahanee had been involved in several community projects concerning helping young women and in memorial of those who have gone missing or have been found murdered. A more recent endeavor is with the Spirits Rising Memorial Society who quotes on their website:
“One of the most tragic and horrendous crimes against women has happened in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside with the murder of over 60 women during the last two decades. Spirits Rising Memorial Society was formed to assist the community in its journey towards healing through the creation of a memorial totem pole honoring these women. Haida carver Skundaal (Bernice Williams) will apprentice women and youth at risk as carvers for this project; providing them with opportunities for cross cultural education and empowerment through skills training. “

Mrs. Nahanee had chosen the tree to be used for this project and named the tree “Eve”, the first cut ceremony will be held at the end of this month, projected date for raising this pole is in the fall of 2007, at Wendy Poole Park in Vancouver, B.C.

Her life and death have inspired many to take notice, and take action. Shortly after her demise young men of the Native Warriors Society had “stolen” the Olympic flag from the display at Vancouver’s City Hall. In an act of ultimate protest these warriors have claimed the heart of the story behind why Mrs. Nahanee had so passionately stood up for the cause “No Olympics on Stolen Land”. One of the group stating that “Our elder was given a death sentence by the B.C. courts for her courageous stand in defence of Mother Earth.”

An ironic twist of fate, in her own words, Mrs. Harriet Nahanee had already brought a similar and all to familiar truth light; as quoted of a former Residential School survivor’s plight with a priest she had said:
“He kicked the little girl and she fell down the stairs and died. That’s Murder. There were other kids in the infirmary who had their appendix burst. That’s Murder. Other children were beaten so badly they died. That’s Murder. No one bothered to take them to the hospital.”.

Justice Brown had received written concern on Mrs. Nahanee’s health status, albeit not from a doctor but from someone very close to the protestor. Had she failed to heed this warning?- Or had she simply chose to ignore it? Let’s pray that a proper inquiry be held into this matter and that Justice will prevail in this land.