A Tale of Two Metlakatlas: Rematriating my Ts’msyen family history

Ideas53:58A Tale of Two Metlakatlas: My Matriarchs, the Missionaries and Me

As a longtime journalist, I have spent years covering Indigenous issues. I knew about the erasure of Indigenous women from my reporting on the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, Two Spirit and Transgender people’s epidemic and from the many Indigenous women who had generously shared their stories with me. 

But the erasure of my own matriarchs brought it home.

I’m Ts’msyen on my dad’s side and German-Canadian on my mum’s side. I inherited my nordic German mother’s fair colouring, but my round native family’s da’eel (cheeks) and my Ts’msyen dad’s spiritual nature — his love of story and song.

The Ts’msyen are an ancient Indigenous people from northwest B.C. and southeast Alaska: the people of the potlatch, monumental totem poles, masterful Chilkat weaving and the heart-centred language of Sm’algyax.

Ts’msyen means inside the Skeena River.

My dad was more the age of a grandfather to me, and his generation came up in a time of great silencing of Indigenous people. Elders didn’t pass on the language, for fear of their children being punished or shunned. Things were held down, not discussed. 

John Post as a teen
My dad, John Post as a teenager. He told me: ‘I remember throwing a totem pole into the Skeena River with some other kids because this old missionary, an evangelical, told us to because the devil made them. We were drowning the devil’s picture.’ (Submitted by Pamela Post)

He lived to almost 92 and I was able to formally interview him near the end of his life about all the things that had been too painful to talk about. I also used my reporter skills to mine archives; the diary my aunt Barbara Post wrote from her bed in a tuberculosis sanatorium and old audio of — and about — my matriarchs who had lived through such historic, turbulent events.

A great exodus

My great-grandmother Jane Smith was a member of the Gispudwada clan from Kitsumkalum, but she was born in Fort Simpson. Many tribes of the Ts’msyen had relocated to Fort Simpson, today called Lax Kw’alaams, a Sm’algyax name meaning ‘the place of wild roses.’ 

In the 1850s, it was the site of a major Hudson’s Bay Company trading post.

Fort Simpson, B.C. in 1857.
A painting of the Hudson Bay fort at Fort Simpson, B.C. in 1857 — Ts’msyen people are in canoes in the harbour. (Wikimedia)

The same year my great-grandmother was born, a 24-year-old English missionary named William Duncan was sent by the Church Missionary Society to convert the so-called heathen Ts’msyen Indians.

Duncan had learned some of the Ts’msyen language and was keen to get the small number of his converts away from the liquor, guns and temptations of the Hudson’s Bay Fort, and with about 50 Ts’msyen people, moved to a spot near Prince Rupert, B.C. that was a traditional wintering ground. It was called Maaxłakxaała, meaning ‘saltwater pass.’ K’amsiwah — white people — called it Metlakatla. 

By the spring of 1887, over 800 Ts’msyen people, including my great-grandfather Aaron Bolton and his young son Mark became part of a history-changing migration. They left Metlakatla B.C. for Alaska in flotillas of canoes to form “New” Metlakatla under the American flag.

An event that changed everything for the women in my family.

 Metlakahtla, Alaska in 1889
‘New’ Metlakahtla, Alaska in 1889. With the historic exodus, the Ts’msyen people became locked between two colonial borders, and everything changed for the women in my family. (Wikimedia)

 A displaced Indigenous woman

Jane either stayed — or was left behind — in B.C. when her husband Aaron Bolton decided to take their son Mark to Alaska with the others. She was only 42 and the young mother of seven children when she died.

This was a time of great devastation for all Indigenous peoples along the Pacific northwest. Thousands had died in smallpox epidemics to which they had no immunity.

The missionaries and the colonial governments of B.C. and Canada banned the potlatch and other Ts’msyen cultural practices. The trade in liquor, guns, furs and prostitution was booming. 

The options for displaced Indian women like my great-grandmother were few. 

Jane was married — or possibly married-off — to a white man twice her age, and had three more daughters with him. I have her marriage certificate to the man known as ‘Old Dave Stuart’ where she signs her name with an ‘X’. By marrying a white man — she signed away her right to be an Indian under Canada’s Indian Act; to own property or to be buried with her people. 

Her small headstone is almost lost under tall grasses in a little family graveyard where the Copper and the Skeena Rivers meet, where many of my matriarchs are buried. Women who came from Ts’msyen clans and houses with noble lineage, erased in death as white society tried to make them in life.

Surviving a dark trauma

Several of Jane’s daughters went on to marry white men, including her daughter Mary, my grandmother.

From the time I was little, my dad would say that his first memories as a child were of combing the buckshot out of his mother’s long black hair after one of his father’s violent attacks on her. She was only 4’11” tall, a devout Anglican who had never smoked a cigarette or taken a drink in her life, he said. She and her sister Jemima spoke their Sm’algyax language fluently, but surreptitiously, only when there were no k’amsiwah (white people) around.

This is a photo of Mary and Jemima (Mary on the left, Jemima on the right). Shown here on the Skeena River circa 1910.
Mary (left) and Jemima on the Skeena River, circa 1910. (Submitted by Pamela Post)

In 1910, my grandmother Mary married a white man named Paul Post, an American from a prominent Michigan family of judges, senators and lawyers. They had five children together including my dad, John.

What Mary didn’t know is that Paul was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. His psychotic delusions were like an amplification of the ubiquitous racism of the day. He believed there was an Indian conspiracy to kill him and that his tiny native wife was in on it.

Mary lived an eight-year nightmare of violent attacks by her mentally-ill husband, and my dad, as a little boy, saved his mother’s life at least once by biting down on his father’s thumb which “seemed to break the spell” as my grandmother wrote in a deposition to the mental asylum where Paul was finally committed.

My Ts’msyen grandmother had to raise her five young children on a form of widow’s pension in the village of Usk on the Skeena River.

John Post and his little brother, Barney
My dad, John Post and his little brother, Barney. Despite terrible trauma, my father held onto a child’s hope that his father would get better. (Submitted by Pamela Post)

Still legally married to Paul and denied Indian status, she lost her youngest son Peter to polio at the age of 10. Her oldest child Barbara entered a tuberculosis sanatorium at the age of 28 where she spent most of the rest of her short life.

My grandmother died at age 55 after what my aunt and my dad described as “a hard life.” 

But to me, it was a warrior’s life.

Healing through honouring and ceremony

I’ve immersed myself deeply in my Ts’msyen family, language and culture since I returned my dad’s ashes to the Skeena river in a powerful traditional ceremony in 2018.

Walking into the water with Dad's ashes
I returned my dad’s ashes to the Skeena River near his family’s village of Kitsumkalum. My Ts’msyen family members and those from my dad’s Gispudwada Killer Whale clan joined me to honour his life. (Submitted by Pamela Post)

With the help of two Ts’msyen women, we held a healing ceremony in Ketchikan, Alaska, near the site of a terrible episode of violence my grandmother Mary and my dad, as a little boy, survived.

Telling the stories of my matriarchs in radio and film, learning Sm’algyax and our adaawx (oral stories), singing traditional songs and celebrating the ancient Ts’msyen culture that my matriarchs upheld, with love, has been the best medicine.

*This episode was produced by Pamela Post, with help from Matthew Lazin-Ryder.

Support for Pamela’s documentary reporting was provided by the International Women’s Media Foundation and its Fund for Indigenous Journalists Reporting on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, Two Spirit and Transgender People.

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