Throughout our history, the Tseshaht Nation was led by the Tyee ḥaw̓ił and ḥaw̓iiḥ (Hereditary Chiefs), who occupied the top rank of the social system.
The chief of Tseshaht Nation, incidentally, was a king Tyee ḥaw̓ił, not a chief as with the late Tseshaht King Adam Shewish. This comes down throughout the ages and back to creation of the spiritual common ancestors of Nasayutu and Nasayilthim. Chiefs owned all property, both territorial and ceremonial. Others may have had some rights of usage, but these were always determined by the closeness of kinship to hereditary chiefs. The tyee ḥawił of a local group owned the land and sea within his territory. He might, and often did, grant user rights to lesser chiefs for specific portions of resource locations such as berry or root gathering areas and fish trap sites or, on occasion, to commoners. However, the overriding principle remained – while lesser chiefs or high ranking individuals could hold harvesting rights to various limited locations, it was the tyee ḥawił who owned the territory as a whole.
According to Philip Drucker, author of the most comprehensive study of Nuu-chah-nulth culture, the Northern and Central Nootkan Tribes, two concepts dominated our social system: hereditary rank and kinship. Nuu-chah-nulth society was highly layered, ranging from:
- Tyee ḥaw̓ił and ḥaw̓iiḥ (Hereditary Chiefs), on top
- The masčim (common person; people), in the middle
- The Slaves, at the bottom
Drucker emphasizes that the rank into which one is born determines the course of his life—occupational choice, marriage partner, role in social and ceremonial life. One’s power and position stemmed from the rights of inherited property, both real and nonmaterial. Real property might include such diverse rights as fishing privileges in a certain area, the waters offshore for a specific distance, the right to a definite section of a beached whale, houses, and land. Should a person without these rights wish to exercise them, for example, to hunt duck on a lake owned by another, then the owner’s permission had to be sought and a possible tax tribute on the item paid to the owner.
More difficult for the outsider to understand is the concept of ownership of non-tangible items, for example, unique personal names, the right to marry in a certain way or to participate in a particular part of a ceremony, hereditary songs and dances, or the names belonging to the house posts of one’s family house. From time to time the high-class person would affirm his/her right to privileges by laying claim to them through display in a potlatch, the large prestigious ceremonial, to which other persons of rank in his and neighboring societies would be invited.
Indeed, another important privilege was the ownership of a potlatch seat, the ranked order of which indicated the social status of the chief who held it. Gifts to the invited chiefs were distributed on the basis of the seating order, as well as respect shown. As mentioned above, kinship relationship was paramount. Each house consisted of closely related family members, local groups were composed of one or more houses, local groups united to form tribes, Thus, the Tseshaht, the people upon whom we are focusing, stem actually from several local groups which in historical times merged and took the name of a main village to be the name of the collective larger group.
With a local group there might be several family lines, all tracing connection…to the original founding ancestor. The native term is simply “group.” Commonly translated as family, family line or lineage (Golla 1987:86). The Tseshaht term is Ushtakimilh.
Chief Adam Shewish
He will never be replaced in our Parliament. He was the voice of reason, the voice of vision, the voice of calm, the voice of compassion, and, forever, the voice of praise.” – George Watts, 1990
Adam was a traditionally trained ḥaw̓ił. He lived a life dedicated to serving and caring for his community.
Adam was born in Dutch Harbour, next to , on April 18, 1920. He was the oldest son to Jacob Shewish of Tseshaht and Eva Hayes of Ditidaht.
Jacob’s older brother was Watty Shewish, naawahat, “waited for”. At the time of Adam’s birth, Watty was ḥaw̓ił, the Tseshaht hereditary chief. Watty had no children and passed his chieftainship on to his younger brother Jacob. Jacob, in turn, passed this title on to his oldest son, Adam.
When Adam was young he was surrounded by the Tseshaht dialect, teachings, and territory. Everything he heard, every song that was sung, every prayer, and all his teachings were in the Tseshaht dialect. People cared about each other and shared what they had in good times and bad. His family followed the seasonal rounds in their traditional territories in what today is known as the Broken Group Islands. The Shewish family taught young Adam about the role of a ḥaw̓ił; they taught him how important serving his people was. He learned about Tseshaht traditional territories, values, beliefs, and lifestyle. He learned the history of Tseshaht including the Tseshaht creation story which took place at Tseshaa, now Benson Island. All his life Adam loved the Broken Group Islands and his biggest dream was that the Tseshaht would regain control of their birthplace.
Adam married Margaret, originally Margaret Jackson of Neah Bay, on May 21, 1945. Margaret was 18 years his senior having been born on February 14, 1902. Adam and Margaret had one child, Edward. Margaret had 4 children, Gerry, Doreen, Barbara, and Clive, from a previous marriage to Alfred Fred. Margaret and Adam also cared for numerous foster children.
Adam’s house was open to visitors of all races and walks of life. He was always willing to share a smile, joke, story, and a cup of tea. He invariably answered the phone with “Boy you’re looking good today!” accompanied by a chuckle. In the early 1970s he befriended a young archaeology student doing an excavation in Tseshaht traditional territory. Denis St. Claire worked in Tseshaht territory and interviewed local elders to collect the early history of both Port Alberni and the Broken Group Islands. Today, Denis returns that early friendship by sharing the knowledge he gained from elders with the Tseshaht people.
Adam was a big supporter of education and of the Haahuupayak Elementary School located on the Tseshaht reserve. He generously gave the school permission to use his songs and dances. He asked Ron Hamilton to design the logo for the school, a child with big ears. This logo symbolized both the need to listen and the school as a place to listen, to learn. Adam visited the school almost daily and never missed a meeting, concert, or sports day involving the school.
Although Adam worked at Alberni Plywood Division since he was 16 years old, he was only 12 when he worked to help with its construction. He took early retirement after 44 years of work, when his wife had a stroke and was partially paralyzed. For the next 5 years Adam sat with her and comforted and fed her. He spent the year after her death preparing for and hosting a memorial potlatch, for his wife, Margaret, his Aunt, Mabel Taylor, and his Grandson, Norman Smith Jr.
Adam passed from a heart attack on December 30, 1990. A newly constructed band building, which housed Haahuupayak School, was named the Shewish House of Learning in his honor.