One woman, one newspaper: The Native Voice is a story with relevance far beyond any existing borders, as well as a work of importance for local historians in what is now called British Columbia, Canada.
Eric Jamieson’s book is of fundamental interest to any reader concerned with the interplay between aboriginal cultures and the powers-that-be, to any reader seeking to be informed about historical events and patterns and their relationship to present-day concerns.
Subtitled The Story of How Maisie Hurley and Canada’s First Aboriginal Newspaper Changed a Nation, The Native Voice makes an excellent companion to Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian (2012), which covers hundreds of years and summarizes policies and trends succinctly.
Eric Jamieson’s prose style is designed to invite readers with little or no experience with the issues at hand to get acquainted, not only with the issues but with the people whose lives spiralled around them. Although it contains more than 600 footnotes, the reader’s progress is not slowed until one chooses to check the source information.
He begins with Maisie’s family background, reaching back into Welsh history and considering her position of privilege, which afforded her the opportunity to employ the advantages she enjoyed in order to serve the disadvantaged. Her mother provided a key example in terms of being driven by noblesse oblige, and was particularly concerned with matters related to suffrage. Some members of the family were otherwise engaged (for instance, one Scotsman’s absorption by a hunt for lost treasure), but Maisie was committed to justice.
“The Native Voice” newspaper represents this struggle for justice throughout its publication. A key figure in this effort was Alfred Adams, who straddled the white and aboriginal worlds, a Haida man educated at Metlakatla, an Anglican residential school. He led the efforts to organize the natives into The Native Brotherhood in order to address universal concerns in the community, including the needs for better schooling, increased rights for land required to practice traditional work and activiites (e.g. hunting, fishing, timber, and trapping), expansion of reserve territories, and effective means of relaying concerns to government officials.
Historically, it has been an elaborate dance for native leaders to authentically represent the needs of the communities without alienating the government representatives, who were quick to view natives who had objections to the status quo as agitators and trouble-makers. Furthermore, it was difficult to address grievances without addressing the core issue of Aboriginal Title, and government officials were not prepared to discuss this.
The early days of The Native Brotherhood reveal these tendencies clearly and the quotes from publications and presentations offer historical details while still affording readers the opportunity to observe that these same issues are still being addressed today, these concerns still of vital importance for native communities (still unresolved by government officials).
Another of Maisie’s key friendships was with August Jack Khatsahlano (Xats’alanexw), the hereditary chief of the Squamish people, a medicine man and spirit dancer. He, too, played a significant role in the efforts to integrate/assimilate/differentiate, and participated in debates within the community surrounding enfranchisement/sovereignty.
He respected Maisie Hurley’s efforts to unite the native groups and educate those who were removed from the front-lines (both within and outside of the community). In 1946, the struggle was already well under way, and the need for a united response ever greater. “Through our Native Voice we will continue to the best of our ability to bind closer together the many tribes whom we represent into that solid Native Voice, a voice that will work for the advancement of our own common native welfare.”
The Native Brotherhood gained substantial influence as time passed, and goals and posibilities shifted as government policies were amended. Even major matters like enfranchisement which were once resisted as efforts towards assimilation were later viewed as a privilege sought after and desired: opinions and stances altered dramatically.
Even within the group there were dramatic fractures, including the protest by the Native Sisterhood who argued that they were being discriminated against within their own community, the female members not being accorded the same voting rights as the male members of the Native Brotherhood.
The broader debate of whether the discrimation experienced by Native Americans differed from that experienced by First Nations natives also caused some conflict. And not all communities were members of the Brotherhood (some were unable to contribute the fees and others were further removed geographically or more committed to relationships with white comunities) and opinions of members were sometimes at odds, the issues being of considerable complexity.
Nonetheless, the Native Brotherhood was a prominent organized body and when it was excluded from talks with government officials in 1955, “The Native Voice” played a key role in questioning this decision. Having clearly established itself as “the voice of the Native Brotherhood of BC in action which in turn is the voice for all the natives in B.C.”, when that voice was ignored or dismissed by government officials, this indicated a matter of grave concern.
Throughout, Eric Jamieson manages to sketch Maisie’s character in simple human terms, her relationships with key native figures but also her relationships with her sons and other men who were significant in her life, romantically and professionally and, eventually, her struggles with ill-health. Ultimately, however, in The Native Voice she is remembered for her work for justice, in service of a simple belief:
“All the Indians want is what is theirs. They don’t want to assimilate. They are wonderful people with magnificent traditions of their own.”
Although of course the many native leaders and community members are at the heart of this story, Eric Jamieson records the contributions of Maisie Hurley in such a way that she is a strong and valued supporter, respectful and determined to work to correct injustices, advantaged but not overpowering.