Visiting Researcher at VIU Explores the Role of the Expert Witness in First Nations Communities
Dr. Daniel Boxberger, a Professor of Anthropology from Western Washington University, is VIU’s second Fulbright Canada Jarislowsky Visiting Research Chair in Aboriginal Studies
The Island is not only familiar ground for Dr. Daniel Boxberger, Vancouver Island University’s (VIU’s) second Fulbright Canada Jarislowsky Visiting Research Chair in Aboriginal Studies. It is right in the middle of the research the Anthropology Professor from Western Washington University has been conducting for years.
The research chair position is supported by $250,000 USD in funding over five years, which was provided by the Fulbright Canada Foundation and the Montreal-based Jarislowsky Foundation.
Boxberger’s area of research is the Indigenous peoples of North America and Aboriginal and treaty rights to natural and cultural resources. He has conducted research in First Nations communities throughout British Columbia, Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California and Sonora. He has also provided expert witness testimony for First Nations communities in BC, Washington and Oregon in more than 40 court cases.
At VIU, he plans to continue research he’s started into the role of the anthropological expert witness in southwestern BC First Nations communities, how outside experts are perceived and how they engage the community in preparing research for litigation.
“I have spent a lot of time here working with First Nations communities and at this stage in my career, I’m interested in the academic side of expert witness work,” says Boxberger. “Quite often there’s a disconnect between expert witnesses and First Nations communities. In communities, the Elders are the experts, but in a court of law they call in people like me to present information. Anthropologists are often perceived as working with the Crown and there’s an inherent suspicion about what you’re doing with the information you collect from community members.”
On the Island and Sunshine Coast, Boxberger has worked with the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council (West Coast of Vancouver Island) on what turned out to be a landmark fishing rights case; the Songhees First Nation (Victoria) on treaty rights to an Aboriginal village site; and with shíshálh Nation (Sechelt) on comprehensive land claims. Boxberger only works where he is invited.
“My goal has always been to try and counter the colonial legacy by engaging in research that furthers the agendas of the communities themselves,” he explains.
Before he started working with First Nations communities as an expert witness, Boxberger initially wanted to become a teacher. By the time he finished his education degree, he decided not to pursue that career and enrolled in VISTA instead, a domestic version of the Peace Corps.
VISTA sent him to Lummi Nation near Bellingham, Washington, to help the community develop adult education programs. At the time, the Nation was also engaged in litigation against the State of Washington over fishing rights – his first introduction to what he would focus most of his career on. Lummi Nation encouraged him to pursue this field of work, and he went to the University of BC, where his doctoral dissertation focused on the ethnohistory of Lummi fishing – a topic he would later write his first book on.
Boxberger lived on the Lummi Nation reservation for 15 years.He says developing the trust needed to be an expert witness for First Nations communities is a long, involved process.
“The only way you can do it is to engage in the community, participate in activities, meet people and explain what you’re doing,” he adds.
Boxberger says in recent years, the courts have made an effort to incorporate testimony from Elders, but the system is structured in a way that makes this difficult to do in a meaningful way.
“There is work to do to educate the courts on the fact that there are other histories that we need to present in court that are just as valid as the European history,” he says.
Boxberger’s four-month term at VIU begins in September. Over that time, he’ll be conducting research, delivering guest lectures and attending seminars.
“We’re excited to host Dr. Boxberger as our second Fulbright Canada Jarislowsky Visiting Research Chair in Aboriginal Studies,” says Dr. Ralph Nilson, VIU President and Vice-Chancellor. “VIU is committed to supporting Indigenous education initiatives and research, and this important position helps support our efforts. I am looking forward to hearing more about his important research.”
Jenn McGarrigle, Communications Officer, Vancouver Island University
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