Henry Alfred, who died on Sept. 23 at the age of 84, was the last living plaintiff from the landmark Delgamuukw-Gisday’wa court case, which articulated the doctrine of aboriginal title and recognized the legal merit of Indigenous oral histories. A hereditary chief of the Wet’suwet’en, a First Nations people who live in British Columbia’s northwestern Central Interior, he held the title Wah Tah K’eght, and was part of a generation of leaders who redefined Indigenous rights in the province, the country, and around the world.
Born on March 31, 1934, Henry Alfred descended from a lineage of distinguished Wet’suwet’en leaders. His father, Peter Alfred, held the hereditary title Kanoots. His mother, Madeline Alfred, held the hereditary title Dz’eeh, a title that her mother had held before her.
Like all Wet’suwet’en, he belonged to the house and clan of his mother and grandmother. Thus, elders in Tsee K’al K’e yex (House on Top of the Flat Rock) of the Laksilyu (Small Frog Clan) instructed Henry in the traditions of his people. His father’s house in Gitdumden (Bear Clan) also provided support to him in key times of need.
Henry was raised by his grandmother, Lucy Pius. When he was young, his grandmother would take him trapping on their house territory in the area around Witset. In the late fall, they would catch mink, weasel and squirrels. After his father gave him his first rifle at age 10, Henry got his first kill, a coyote, on the trapline with his grandmother.
He fell in love with a girl from his village, Sue Williams, and they married in November, 1955. They would remain together for 63 years. He built their family home. His wife and five children, Dolores, Rick, Lester, Anthony and Marjorie, survive him, along with his grandchildren, Rob Alfred, Jeremy Dumont, Alexandria Dumont, Christopher Duncan, Candice Duncan and Caitlyn Duncan, as well as great-grandchildren Darius Alfred, Briley Alfred, Dayin Alfred, Hadley Alfred and Mayah Alfred. He was predeceased by his sons Frederick and George, daughter Jacqueline and grandson Gabriel Dumont.
After Henry got married, he always worked hard to support his family. He got a job on the CN Railway, working 13 years as a section foreman. After that, he took a position with the Department of Highways, working his way up from a labourer, to a truck driver, to a grader operator over 15 years. Finally, he became an independent truck driver, hauling logs until he retired.
Working for wages never stopped Henry from maintaining a connection to the land. He hunted and fished to feed his family. He also maintained a trapline, catching beaver, martin, lynx and squirrels. After he collected the furs, his parents-in-law, Margaret and Alex Williams, would prepare the skins. Henry used the skins to make a cradle to hold his family close to tradition.
He was committed to taking care of the elders in his community. Living with his grandmother, he had supported her when she went blind. He also helped care for Peter Bazil, the son of his grandmother’s sister, who held the name Wah Tah K’eght. Henry would take him water and cut his firewood, and eventually brought him to live in the family home during the winters.
In 1963, Peter was quite old and decided that he wanted to teach Henry the territorial boundaries that Wah Tah K’eght was responsible for protecting. They went out on his trapline behind Whuus C’oowenii.
It was a story that Henry later told in detail in court.
"We went up the hill on his line,” the court transcript reads. "Took us about four or five hours walking … he was pretty old. We went up […]
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