Corbett George: the Man, the Life, the Eldest Son
Corbett George, also known as "Mukpah", his traditional title, currently resides in Port Alberni, BC and hails from the Ahousaht First Nation. Translated “Ahousaht” means, “people (aht) of Ahous.” In his 64 plus years, Corbett, or "Corby" to those who know him has lived through and seen a great many remarkable changes throughout his life and his people.
Corbett was born on April 21, 1945. He grew up amid the pristine beauty of his Flores Island home off of Vancouver Island's west coast. He was born the eldest son of Chief Earl Maquinna George, hereditary Chief of the Ahousaht First Nation in the Clayoquot Sound.
His father, Chief Earl Maquinna George was a highly accomplished man. Upon leaving the Ahousaht Indian Residential School after 8th grade, he received traditional training from the elders at Maaqtusiis, as well as learning the skills of fishing and a sea-going life from his father, McPherson George. Corbett proudly tells of his father's service in the Canadian Armed Forces, nearly being sent into combat during World War II, being trained and stationed in Halifax..."He was getting ready to get shipped over, but the war ended...and he got an honourable discharge.”
In addition to his duties as Chief, Earl Maquinna George also worked as a logger and with the Canadian Coast Guard, eventually earning his skipper's papers. He lost his first wife to illness, and later remarried, taking responsibility for two large families. While taking on a major role in Nuu-Chah-Nulth treaty negotiations with the provincial and federal governments, and as an elder, began a university education, receiving a B.A. in history and an M.A. in geography from the University of Victoria.
His mother and widow to Earl Maquinna George, Mrs. Josephine George, a revered Ehattesaht and Ahousaht elder, is still involved with family functions. Most recently on March 6, 2010 she hosted a feast at the Hupacasath House of Gathering in Port Alberni honouring the more-than-fifty grandchildren of her family in a traditional naming ceremony. The ceremony is a show of love and respect in both those giving the names and the ones wearing the names, that it strengthens the connections with their house, as a vital part of keeping and maintaining the close family ties.
The current Tyee Ha’wiih, Maquinna (Lewis George) who acquired the seat from his late father only after first passing the seat to, Uu-qua-qruum - or Corbett, as is his English name, when Corbett encountered some difficulty in his life. Earl George took the seat back and just prior to his passing, he named his son Lewis as his successor at Hupacasath, and Corbett officially changed his name to "Mukpah". Corbett explains the name change because his previous title no-longer belonged to him. In November 2007, Lewis Maquinna George held a major potlatch to declare his seat; bringing together the “House of Hush-ee-ahrk-miss”.
Corbett goes on to explain he's better than okay with the hierarchy change, “There's a lot of work and expectations in being Chief of 1800 plus members. So it's better for them to have Lewis."
Corbett and his four brothers and three sisters were enrolled in the Port Alberni Indian Residential School where he was a student from the age of 10 yo until he was 15. George brings up the subject of his time at the residential school candidly talking about the physical, mental and sexual abuses that occurred to him, his siblings and his fellow students, and there is no malice in his voice...but rather a passive resignation.
“I would not like to forget...but forgive...it's unhealthy...it keeps many people angry a long time...it wasn't the church really that wanted to deny us our culture...it was the government (at that time) that got the church to deal with us.”
After the residential school, he spent time in the public school system in, Victoria, Tahsis and Port Alberni. Then fate would intervene; just before entering the 12th grade, he met his future wife Rose. "She changed my direction." he says fondly. When I asked what he meant, he got a glimmer in his eye and said, “I went to work instead of going to Vancouver to finish my final year...I think we had marriage on our minds, but it was un-spoken...I was underage and she wasn't.” Corbett informs me this union was a point of contention for his mother and father, “When signing for consent to marry, my father was willing to sign, but my mother wouldn't. He was in the Coast Guard at that time. So I went to see him.”
George was happily married to his high school sweetheart Rose for 13 years and they had six children together. But in 1978, a fire broke out in their home in the early hours of the morning on January 14th while they slept; killing his beloved wife, an uncle and 5 of their children. He has one daughter that survived the blaze named Eliza, who has made him the proud grandfather twice over. Eighteen-year-old Vanessa and sixteen-year-old Dylan, all who live in Port Alberni. He gets a sad look in his eyes discussing the devastating tragedy and it's apparent that it still effects him deeply.
So far over the years, Corbett has had a remarkable life. His work experinces have lead him down his life-path. He has been a logger; at 17 he lied about his age so he could go work, he spent many years being a professional fisherman in the local waters around Vancouver Island and most recently before his early retirement, served for several years as Ahousaht's Drug and Alcohol councillor.
Bringing up the subject of social politics, I asked Corbett how he feels about today's First Nations people in the eyes of his fellow Canadians, and the wind returns to his sails and his Olympic pride beaming.
“How proud I am about what happened in the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. We had someone from Ahousaht in the ceremony...The welcoming of the Four Host Nations and our participation and being recognized by the Olympic Committee and the City of Vancouver...and the medals were designed by a First Nations and non-First Nations artists together."
When asked, “What is the one thing you want to let our readers know about you as a First Nations Person?” he thinks a moment before speaking...
"I don't want to lose my culture...”Assimilation” is not a good word for me, but it will take time for us to understand each other. Ethnicity is everywhere...we've taken in a lot of cultures...we see it everywhere, through computers and tv...we wanna hold on to our dances, our songs...the language..." of which he is completely fluent in his native tongue-an astounding oral history that can be traced back through 18 generations. Corbett doesn't dance a lot anymore “legs aren't as good. I just dances enough to show I'm still a dancer....but I can still sing and drum."
As is his nature, Corbett informs me our interview is, for now, at an end, “I think I want to end it like this. Through teachings from my dad, who taught me how to be a proud Canadian, but not to forget my culture, traditions of my First Nations. I am very proud Canadian...especially since the Olympics. I think the Olympic Games are going to help us...not just the artists but all the First Nations...it put us on the map...so Canada and the world will know that we are not all drunks."
I have had the pleasure of calling Corby George my friend for almost 2 1/2 years, and I can say without hesitation that he is one of the most intelligent, heart-felt people I have ever met. He has always made me feel welcome and like we've been friends for many, many years. He is a very good father and grandfather to his family, and they are a tightly-knit group of people who have strong morals and values; looking out for and take care of each other un-flinchingly.
It was my honour when I approached him about doing an article about him. He is a shy guy, but when I told him why I wanted to write a column on First Nations Issues and Culture to find a commonality between people, he agreed to it immediately. I am thankful to him for sharing his story with me and allowing me to share it here. He has also graciously agreed to be a contributor to my column, occassionally giving his POV on the feature "Question of the Week".
We discussed a great many more detailed questions than I did not included here in his profile. We discussed his views on politics, fishing rights, education, youth and The 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games. Over the next weeks to come I will be sharing in my future articles the topics and answers we discussed. So in the traditional Ahousaht language I leave you for now by saying, "Chuu".