Mel Bevan’s Treaty Making Blues

Making a treaty is hard, Sisyphean. Playing guitar brings sweet solace.

Mel Bevan is a man at the very heart of the transformation taking place in Northwestern British Columbia. From an office tucked away in the corner of a building in Terrace overlooking the Skeena River, the 76-year-old member of the Kitselas Nation works his way through the emails on his computer screen.

After 50 years in the “Indian business,” Bevan is a true believer in treaties, yes, but he also recognizes — and constantly reminds his colleagues — that aboriginals are going to have to embrace a cataclysmic shift if they are to join the economic mainstream in the 21st Century.

They can no longer afford to wait for the white man, to go on bended knee to Indian Affairs bureaucrats. A new generation of aboriginals needs jobs and skills beyond bookkeeping and band administration. They need to work in the resource industries right on their doorstep. And Bevan has spent his working life trying to make that happen.

He goes to a map on the wall, a colour-coded depiction of Kitselas lands under the agreement in principle (pre-cursor to a final treaty). Fee simple. Private lands. No longer owned nor managed by officials in Ottawa or Vancouver.

Bevan grew up staring at maps and spent his adult life trying to protect and be tested by the dramatic rivers and valleys of his beloved country. Under the treaty — the culmination of his life’s work — he is no longer in exile. But, curiously a melancholy note persists as he explains the terms of the deal to a visitor. He won’t say it, of course, but his body language betrays him: 20 years of treaty-making was inhuman, far too long. He has seen his children grow up and move away as he has seen scores of aboriginal leaders come and go.

For Bevan and many aboriginal leaders of his generation, treaty making became a holy grail and they were willing to sacrifice themselves — and their families — to bring home a deal. The negotiating sessions themselves were often complex, tedious and exhausting. Day after day, year after year, they pored over documents written by, and for, lawyers who had little interest in translating them into plain language. It’s the law, has to be this way, the lawyers said.

For Bevan, negotiations have become a way of life, a quest, one he simply has to endure. And despite endless pleadings and sharply written rebukes to governments in Ottawa and Victoria, there seems no way to speed up a process few politicians seem eager to embrace.

The glacial pace of the talks is the direct result of policies dictated by Victoria and Ottawa where politicians have become ambivalent, frightened or hostile when treaty-briefing papers cross their desks. Powerful teams of federal and provincial negotiators are assembled, and because of an enormous talent base, more resources and unlimited funding, Ottawa and Victoria can rotate key players and bring new talent, just like professional sports teams.

As the years drag on — work is now underway for a final treaty — Bevan and the mostly male team of negotiators (there is but one woman on the team, the “documents manager”) live in a kind of a bubble. The very process itself is extraordinarily controlled, unnatural and somehow devoid of human feeling.

Bevan has endured one interminable set of deliberations after another. Teams break into smaller groups — lands, finance, fisheries, forest resources, economic development, self-government to name just a few — and these groups then subdivide into five or six subgroups and the process commences again. The logistics of this means adherence, at all costs, to a kind of quasi-military discipline, meted out by the negotiators themselves. *** Life, of course, has intervened. Bevan’s children grew up. Son Stan became one of the most important aboriginal carvers in the province. After enrolling in the Gitanmaax School of Northwest Coast Indian Art in 1979, he underwent an extensive apprenticeship with his uncle Dempsey Bob who was also an early influence in his decision to become an artist.

Besides his family, one thing brings Bevan a kind of solace: music. He is a skilled guitarist and serious collector of guitars. Over the years he researched, tracked and eventually purchased Gibsons, Martins and Rickenbackers. In his youth, Bevan teamed up with other Terrace musicians to play concerts and pick-up gigs at parties, weddings and other events. Even today, he can turn up his amp and tear the roof off his home near Copper River canyon. Infrequent guests — he prefers those who play music — can be heard running through basic chord changes while Bevan takes an extended solo or two.

Early one evening Bevan invites me to his suburban home with its backyard a stone’s throw from the Copper River. He wants to show off his guitars.

A bachelor — he proudly mentions grandchildren but not a wife — whose five electric guitars are set strategically about a large living room that looked out towards the river; each instrument plugged into its own amp, each set to a particular sound. A shrine.

There are two Gibsons (a black Roy Orbison 335 and a gleaming older 345); two Gretschs (including a cherry Chet Atkins Tennessee Rose with twang bar) and a sunburst Les Paul. (He recently sold a 1964 Gibson J-45 acoustic for $3,000.) He offers a Bavarian lager while he sips a non-alcoholic. I can tell he wants to play and I ask for a tune.

And play he does, strapping on the 345 for a marvelous set of Hank Snow, Roy Orbison, Scotty Moore, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. Ballads with love-crazed cowboys, long-haul truckers and big hurting love. Bevan would have been good in his day: the melodies ring out clear and strong and out into the night. He isn’t faking it, his guitar pick a laser-guided missile.

“Did you sing too?” I ask.

“Never did,” Bevan replies. “But I had them up and dancing for hours.”

I try to strum along as he calls out the keys, but it isn’t helping much. Many of the songs are in basic keys, but they have interesting and unexpected chord changes. I try to add inversions and a few lead lines but the result is a messy mélange, mere tinkering. What Bevan really needs is a strong rhythm player with all the changes down. Maybe that’s why he stops playing and puts down his instrument.

He looks tired; time for me to go.

“Just one more tune,” he says, handing me the Tennessee Rose. “Play some blues — or whatever it is you do.”

And so it is. And as I play he keeps cranking the volume, loud, louder, deafening. Tweaking the amp, he gleefully adds more distortion, then even more. One is a setting for Hey Joe attempting Hendrix. Followed by a ragged blues in A, a string of D minor arpeggios, and fumbled, fake Bach.

Driving back to the motel, I try to make sense of such a complicated man. Are Bevan’s guitars a bulwark against the Sisyphean travails of treaty making? Or simple six-string solace for a solitary man who lives beside a northern river?

Alex Rose visited and interviewed Mel Bevan for the book, First Dollars: Pipelines, Ports, Prisons and Private Property

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