In September 1884 the chiefs and people of Kit-au-max, a Gitksan village
at the Forks of the Skeena River, wrote to the provincial government hundreds
of miles to the south to explain their law of homicide. There was some urgency
involved, because the police had recently arrested one of their number and taken
him to Victoria to be tried for murdering a white man. The head chief, Geddum-Cal-Doe,
said that he and his people wanted peace between the whites and the
Indians, and asked that the prisoner be shown clemency. A number of white miners
also wrote to the government about the case, but they were of a different view.
They blamed much of the growing discontent and danger in the region upon the
'wretched and disloyal teachings' of the missionaries, and dropped hints about
taking the law into their own hands. But they decided to wait until the government
acted 'on the side of civilization in its warfare against barbarism and fanaticism,'
adding that it would be a good idea to set an example by hanging the murderer
locally, at the Forks of the Skeena, instead of in far-off Victoria.
Only a few facts about the case are contained in the record compiled for the
provincial legislature. The deceased, one Amos Card Youmans, had been in
charge of a canoe brigade on the river, and a young Kit-au-max man named
Billy Owen had drowned. When Haatq (or Ha-at), Billy's father, learned of his
son's death, he sought out Youmans and killed him. It seems that the drowning
was an accident, so in his letter to Provincial Secretary John Robson Geddum-
cal-doe explained Gitksan law regarding accidental deaths 'that occur in
company with others':
It is expected that the survivors shall immediately, or as soon as possible,
make known to the friends of the ... deceased, what has taken place. If
this is not done, it is taken as evidence that there has been foul play ...
The general custom ... is that if anyone calls another to hunt with him,
to go canoeing, &c., and death occurs, the survivor always makes a
present corresponding with his ability, to show his sympathy and good
will to the friends of the deceased, and to show that there was no ill-feeling
in the matter.
According to Geddum-cal-doe, Youmans had not done this. When he
arrived at Kit-au-max he stayed two days and three nights without
mentioning the incident. Asked if those with him were all well, he
said they were, except for one with sore feet. Because Youmans had
neither spoken of the matter nor given a present, he came under suspicion.
Geddum-cal-doe added that his people did not know that Haatq -- a
'quiet, inoffensive man' -- was going to kill Youmans, and said that they
had offered no opposition to his arrest because they believed that the
government would take all these circumstances into consideration.
There was, of course, more to the story than this. Transporting heavy
loads up and down the Skeena was a dangerous business, and relations
between the Gitksan and the local miners and traders were uneven.
Moreover, both Haatq and Youmans had experienced death and compensation
before. The different sources are not entirely consistent, but it appears that a
few years earlier Haatq had lost a nephew in a similar incident, but on that
occasion the trader involved had not only immediately informed Haatq but
had also paid for the search for the body, the burial, and the dead young man's
wages up to the time that the canoes reached the Forks without him.
There is also some evidence -- albeit inadmissible at Haatq's trial -- that Youmans had
himself paid compensation for a man killed in his employ, and there is no doubt
that he was familiar with this aspect of Gitksan law. He was in fact married to
a Gitksan woman, and would have known that this 'would make the Indians ...
more readily think that he was subject to their law, and notwithstanding in case
of his death his children would have to be taken over by the tribe as their own
under a well known tribal law, he would not be spared if he did not act rightly in
the matter.' (pp.41-42)
It is risky in the extreme to generalize about law, much less about the laws of a
group of human beings as diverse as the Indian peoples of North America.
However, the following attempt by Professor Reid is a succinct and useful one.
There was a principle, he states, 'widely held among the Indian nations, of a
duty -- sometimes privileged, possessed by certain members of the nation, often
kin folk of a specific lineage or of a defined degree -- to retaliate in kind for the
killing of a member of the nation or kin group. Often that principle was coupled
with the doctrine of an individual liability upon the person who was the "cause"
of the homicide, and a collective responsibility upon all members of his or her kin
group, whether a household, and extended family, or a clan.' (p.53)