2011 Ecotrust Indigenous Leadership Award
Honoree: Clan Chief Adam Dick
Clan Chief Adam Dick, Kwaxsistalla, (Kawadillikall Clan of Dzawatainuk Tribe of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation in British Columbia, Canada) is honored as a 2011 Ecotrust Indigenous Leadership Award finalist for his lifelong work as a traditionally trained hereditary leader of his nation, as a knowledge holder and speaker, and as a unique and highly valued teacher/interpreter/preserver of his culture. Adam was chosen by members of his chiefly family at the age of four to be taught a complex, multi-faceted education. This was accomplished in brilliant, lasting defiance of the anti-potlatch laws and forced secular education imposed on Indian peoples in Canada from 1924 until 1951. Clan Chief Kwaxsistalla has worked tirelessly to teach and re-interpret his vast storehouse of traditional ecological, managerial, cultural and spiritual knowledge to his people, as well as to university scholars and students alike. His work has ensured the continuance of this knowledge for future generations.
In 1929 Adam Dick was born into a powerful family of hereditary chiefs at Tlamataxw (Campbell River), B.C. and was then raised from the age of four at Kingcome Inlet on the British Columbia mainland and around the Broughton Archipelago (remote areas of the B.C. coast). Adam never attended western school and never learned to read or write. Instead, when the police came to take tribal children to residential school, during the peak of the Canadian crackdown on indigenous cultural and economic practices, his elders kept him sequestered and thus safe and away, where he was given rigorous and intensive instruction in all aspects of traditional leadership as a Clan Chief and Potlatch speaker. Because of this unique background and his spiritual and intellectual capacities, he is a veritable storehouse of knowledge about his culture. This extends from making bentwood boxes, to potlatch protocols around ownership of traditional names and dances in the Big House, to hundreds of sacred stories and songs that encode a time-honored wisdom, to detailed knowledge of social and economic systems and important ceremonial aspects of life, as well as to the intricacies of Kwak’wala language, geography, ecology, resource sustainability, and history.
In adulthood Adam has worked as a widely sought-after authority among his people and other peoples along the B.C. coast. Since the demise of the residential schools system and the of repeal the potlatch ban in 1951, Adam has been able to openly act as teacher, mentor, and potlatch leader, helping to carry forward the social, economic, agricultural and ceremonial practices of the Kwakwaka’wakw people. As a commercial fisherman in his adult years and until retirement, he assumed a leadership role for his people in economic matters, helping young people learn commercial fishing skills. He has taken on tribal cultural apprentices as well, teaching the detailed skills of traditional leadership in the customary way.
For decades now, and particularly since retiring, Adam has overcome an initial reluctance to share his knowledge with outsiders, so that the wisdom entrusted to him by his Elders can now be documented and preserved. In this capacity he has served as consultant to a succession of graduate student theses and dissertations, and his knowledge has been the foundation for literally a long list of publications, books, and movies. His influence on the sciences has been profound, and his knowledge and experiences have been the basis for two movies, Singing through the Seasons and Smoke from His Fire, with a third movie in progress.
Now in his 80s, Clan Chief Adam Dick, Kwaxsistalla, may be the last man of our time who has been so steeped in the ancient leadership traditions of the Kwakwaka’wakw people. To this day he continues as a prominent ceremonial leader serving the vital role as his peoples’ main authority on social, cultural, and economic matters. He is an irreplaceable advisor and teacher to a large group of graduate students and to their mentors as well. He has been a thoughtful, humble caretaker of the chiefly ‘seat’ he occupies. With an utterly delightful sense of humor as well as deep sense of the purpose bestowed on him by his ancestors to carry the people forward culturally intact, Clan Chief Adam Dick, Kwaxsistalla, gracefully embodies the best qualities of a modern and traditional leader. He lives on Qualicum Indian Reserve, Vancouver Island, British Columbia.