Keith Hunter, respected First Nations leader. (SUBMITTED PHOTO)

Keith Hunter, respected First Nations leader. (SUBMITTED PHOTO)

COLUMN: Remembering a man who lived his beliefs

Keith Hunter had a rare ability to ensure traditional knowledge had its valid place

There is someone’s voice I am missing a lot these days, as our country navigates around the subject of systemic racism on so many different fronts.

Keith Hunter was a member of Port Alberni’s Tseshaht First Nation community, married for 20 years to Ann Robinson. Although he lived here on Vancouver Island he was from the Choctaw Nation in what is now southeastern Oklahoma. He and Ann came to Vancouver Island from Neah Bay in Washington State, where Keith worked with the Makah Nation in the late 1980s to protect their whaling practices.

Keith passed away on Dec. 14, 2019; since then, Ann has heard numerous stories like mine, from people who valued Keith and the quiet way he lived true to his beliefs.

He was a humble man, and I learned more about him after his passing than I ever knew about him previously.

Keith Johnson, president of the Makah Whaling Commission, told Ann that her Keith was always a champion and protector of the people, even when he was infiltrating whaling protesters and feeding information on their activities to law enforcement.

Greg Arnold, a former Makah Tribal Council member, talked about the depth of Keith’s cultural beliefs—his teachings were Lakota—and how he was educated on a broad range of subjects. “Greg called him magic, and how he could work with the outside people,” Ann said.

Keith spent most of his life outdoors, once working for the U.S. Forest Service. He and Ann met online, and once they met in person they created a life of mutual love, learning and respect.

When Keith and Ann moved back to Ann’s Tseshaht territory they created First Nations Wildcrafters, and successfully lobbied governments to create a legal definition of wildcrafters. Connie Kehler, executive director of Herb, Spice and Specialty Agriculture Association (HSSA) remembers Keith taking a good agriculture and collection practices class with them, then creating a training program to bring back with him to B.C.

“She said he brought a culture of risk management into the class and lives of each student,” Ann said.

Keith Atkinson, former chief executive of the First Nations Forestry Council, worked and was friends with Keith Hunter for 16 years. Atkinson admired the groundbreaking work Hunter did with oil extraction and creating the relevancy and space for non-timber forest products.

He wrote to Robinson about the depth of knowledge her Keith brought to the table, his strong advocacy in dealings with the provincial government, his passion, strong principles and humility.

A statement Atkinson made about Keith Hunter resonates with me. He talked about Keith’s ability to ensure traditional knowledge had its valid place in their discussions. Keith would call or message me on occasion to discuss his take on a current event.

Often the conversations were not for print, but for perspective. Mine, usually.

One time he called me and took me to task for something. I listened, and learned. We spoke for an hour. At the end of the conversation, he thanked me for giving him so much of my time, and for being willing to listen.

I felt like it was me who should be thanking him for sharing his worldview. I hope I told him so.

“If he was going to speak about something he would make sure he knew everything about it,” Ann said. “He was respectful, he was thorough, he was tireless. That’s just who he was. Things that were important to him were things that affected the earth.”

Keith was not afraid to speak up on political matters, but he was never a politician. In the Alberni Valley he spoke out against the Raven Coal proposal, and again a few years later when Cantimber tried to open an activated-charcoal creating facility on the waterfront—coincidentally, in the same area where Raven Coal had hoped to set up.

He knew someone who attended meetings in Europe on the United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). She would ask his opinion on some of the items that were brought up, so by the time UNDRIP was adopted, Keith was passionate and knowledgeable about the document.

He lived his beliefs, his drive was fueled by those beliefs. When his tank was empty, his grandchildren would fill him up again. He called them his “heart-stealers.”

“I just loved him as a grandpa,” Ann says. “He was totally, 100 percent Papa of those little girls.”

No matter what was happening in the world, or how much his heart hurt for it, Keith saw the good—the so-called silver lining. In his last couple of weeks, Keith could no longer speak, so Ann gave him a notebook to write his thoughts and requests.

The final message that he wrote before his passing was “life can be so good.”

Susie Quinn is the Alberni Valley News editor.

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