Lives Lived: Remembering Nelson Keitlah, Ahousaht

On May 1, 2016, Nelson Keitlah passed into the world of the ancestors at the age of 83. Nelson was a member of the Ahousaht First Nation, whose territory includes Flores island off Tofino on the West Coast of Vancouver Island where the Ahousaht now live.

Nelson’s death is a huge loss to his own Ahousaht First Nation, the larger Nuu-chah-nulth Nation and to the First Nations in BC and Canada. He played a major role in First Nations politics for most of his life until his retirement. He will be missed.

Nelson played a major role in advancing the Nuu-chah-nulth political governance structure. He was one of a group of Nuu-chah-nulth men who help organize the 14 Nuu-chah-nulth Nations into the West Coast Allied Tribes in 1958 and on August 14, 1973 incorporated a non-profit society called the West Coast District Society of Indian Chiefs. Six years later in 1979, the name was changed to the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council (NTC). These groups were the main political body for the Tribal Council and the NTC and its predecessor bodies were forces to be reckoned with and fought for fishing rights, having our own child welfare program called USMA, and negotiated many funding agreements with the government. On October 18th, 1980 the Nuu-chah-nulth issued their Declaration of Title and Claim to the Federal government. It was the start of bringing the federal government to account for their role in overlooking aboriginal title. The NTC played a major role in establishing the BC Treaty process and in 2000 got the Federal Government to make a statement of regret on the residential schools to the Nuu-chah-nulth. Nelson devoted his life, his time and expertise to his people.  He was the first elected Chief Councillor for Ahousaht.  He was a Co-Chair of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council for many years and a Negotiator for the Nuu-chah-nulth in the BC Treaty Process.

He was fluent in the central dialect of the Nuu-chah-nulth language.  He could translate when needed.  He knew the protocols and history of the Nuu-chah-nulth people and shared his knowledge with the tables he sat at.  He often led the cultural component of the Nuu-chah-nulth at the First Nation Summit and AFN meetings. He was a familiar figure provincially and federally. Every meeting Nuu-chah-nulth had was opened by singing the Nuu-chah-nulth song that was led by Nelson. He had a strong voice and I can still hear him singing it in my mind as no one sings it like he did.  It was his song and he gave it to the Nuu-chah-nulth to use. He was generous with his songs and  shared a few with the children of the Haa-huu-payuk school and they loved singing and dancing to the Nelson Keitlah song. Hupacasath invited him into our language group after we had lost several of our fluent speakers. Hupacasath is part of the Barkley dialect, different than the central, but his working with the group helped so much to help the speakers remember. He was a welcome addition to the group.

I remember once in our Nuu-chah-nulth treaty negotiations that he was part of the Big 6. The governments had been complaining that our negotiations table was too big.  There were over 100 people around the table.  Each First Nation had their team at the table and the number of people was daunting to the governments.  Eventually we agreed that there would only be six negotiators.  There was Nelson Keitlah, the late George Watts, Richard Watts, Larry Baird, Frances Frank and myself.  We all brought different strengths to the table but it was a great team with Nelson playing a major role in our negotiations against the provincial and federal governments. We were dubbed the Big 6.  It didn’t last too long as there was many who wanted to be in the room and see what was discussed and negotiate for themselves.  

Nelson was an amazing orator.  When he decided to take the government to task, or sought to strengthen our negotiators or leaders, he was eloquent and powerful in communicating his messages to us. You could see the governments shrink a little into their chairs as he put them in their place, or shared cultural teachings of respect and understanding.

I know that over the next few days the family will be gathering and sharing their grief.  They will tell many stories of Nelson, his life, his family, and his legacy.  He as that kind of man, someone many people knew and respected.  The walls in his home are decorated with the thanks of many people and groups for his years of service and his accomplishments. His was a life well lived.

 There are times in your life when you are lucky enough to meet someone like Nelson Keitlah.  Someone who makes an impression on you, influences how you think, and shows you how to be a better leader. I worked with Nelson for 14 years and these are my recollections.

We as Nuu-chah-nulth people have been lucky enough to have been part of his life, his wisdom and his dedication to our aboriginal rights and title. Nelson, you  have been a warrior for your people, now you can rest knowing that others will carry on the fight.  Nelson, you will be remembered

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