Neil J. Sterritt Legacy Fellowship

The Neil J. Sterritt Legacy Fellowship at the University of Victoria was established in 2023 by Neil’s longtime colleague and good friend Peter R. Grant – an enduring friendship that began when Peter arrived in Gitxsan territories as a young lawyer in 1977 and continued until Neil’s death in 2020.

Neil J. Sterritt (1941-2020) was a renowned Gitxsan leader and author. As president of the Gitxsan-Wet’suwet’en Tribal Council from 1981-1987 and director of land claims and self-government with the Assembly of First Nations in Ottawa from 1988-1991, Sterritt played an instrumental role in mounting the landmark Indigenous rights and title case Delgamuukw v. B.C. He worked with more than 100 elders in identifying and mapping the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en territories and spent 33 days on the stand as an expert witness defending the knowledge of Gitxsan Elders and leaders that had been shared with him.  This was one of, if not the, longest cross-examination of a witness in Canadian Courts

Neil wrote extensively on aboriginal rights and governance and served as a consultant to many aboriginal organizations around the world. He co-authored Tribal Boundaries in the Nass Watershed and wrote Mapping My Way Home: A Gitxsan History. In this book, he chronicles the history and laws of the Gitxsan people from the time of contact with the first packers, traders, explorers, miners and surveyors, who entered the territory 150 years ago.

Neil was a consummate researcher on Indigenous laws, oral histories and Indigenous geography; always carrying a series of notebooks and recording everything when he was with elders and chiefs. He would speak with the elders about the names being passed, the laws of the feast being acted on, the meaning of crests and place names on territories. Neil also studied Gitxsan means of living on their territories, from the foods which were relied upon to the uniquely Gitxsan made snowshoes and Gitxsan means of travel on their territories in all seasons.  Neil learned from elders in the feast hall, as he travelled with them on the land or as he would be driving with them.  For Neil, it was critical to make the knowledge passed onto him by elders accessible and understandable to the younger generations, so that it could be integrated into decisions that support self-reliance, while grounded in traditional values and culture.  In recognition of his achievements and impact, Neil was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Victoria in 2017.

In 2021, Neil gifted a collection of his life’s work to UVic Law; documents from the mid 1970s to the mid 2010s. It is a significant collection of personal writings, research, oral histories and maps that represent over 50 years of work across British Columbia and Canada, including extensive work with the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en communities. Neil’s purpose in transferring his archive to UVic was to advance the understanding, resurgence, wellness and the recultivation of Indigenous Legal orders. It is important that these materials are preserved, taught, and shared for generations in a way that respects Indigenous peoples’ laws and ways of knowing, therefore access to the collection is governed by Gitxsan law.  In his work, Neil always understood from what he was taught that the Gitxsan Ayookw (laws), adaawk (histories) and Ayuuk (crests) are all rooted in the territories of the Gitxsan. 

This fund is intended to nourish the next generations of thoughtful leaders; those willing to look beyond the rules of western law, to ask the critical questions of law and be willing to be surprised by what they may learn. This fund will support leaders who feel a deep obligation to others and who have a fundamental respect for all human beings. This fund honours Indigenous Laws and the rooting of those laws in the lands of Indigenous peoples and respects the importance of symmetrical relationships across legal traditions.

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