It begins with the land

By Simon Nattrass, November 2013

Warriors are essential given competing visions for indigenous peoples’ traditional territories.

For many of us, the landscape is a neutral backdrop to our daily lives—the place in which we play out our activities and the source of resources with which we meet our needs. For cultures that have existed here since time immemorial, the land has been as much a character in life’s drama as any friend or family member. Prior to the arrival of settler culture, the land was in turns a teacher, a provider, and many things besides as part of a complex relationship between indigenous peoples and the places with which they lived—a relationship which the process of colonization has endeavoured to suppress for a century and a half. 

In the July edition of Focus, WSÁ,NEC writer and historian Kevin Paul described the process of decolonization for indigenous peoples as “redeveloping an understanding, a belief in, a trust in, and seeing the beauty in the old ways.” Indeed for Paul, as well as many other indigenous activists, reviving traditional ways of life—ways distinct from the culture imported by settler societies—is the key to overcoming many of the difficulties facing indigenous communities today.

Ahousaht activist and artist Gwaaiina Crow Rampanen is keenly aware of the value of traditional life ways, and of the methods by which his and other communities have lost parts of themselves to colonization. “To me what’s been done, be it under the Indian Act, through colonization, capitalization, industrialization, it hasn’t worked. It hasn’t worked for my people, it hasn’t worked for the planet, and if we truly want to be a part of something that’s better it starts from indigenous people reinstating our relationship to the land.”

Rampanen is a member of Ancestral Pride, a land-based activist group that seeks to assert “who we are as Ahousaht, as indigenous peoples, and our roles and responsibility to the land and to the people.” Both within their territory near Clayoquot Sound and throughout the province, the group promotes traditional culture, health, and community independence with projects ranging from a village garden to fighting against the proposed Fandora Gold Mine and Chitapi (Catface) Mountain open pit copper mine. 

For Rampanen, solutions to the long-term environmental, food security, and housing security issues faced by his community are woven into the fabric of traditional culture, which in turn weaves itself around the land base. “I truly believe that our ancestors are in the land; they’re all around us, and they’ve always been speaking to us, and it’s only the people that don’t care to listen.” 

Within the complex web of relationships that is Ahousaht culture, opposing mining exploration is intrinsically linked to traditional food systems. “All of these projects are infringing upon our connection to the land and contaminating our food; our table is being polluted by these industries.”

UVic Indigenous Governance Advisor Nick Claxton learned about the complexity of traditional relationships to the land from his uncle Earl Claxton Sr while fishing as a young man. “He showed me that it wasn’t just a fishing methodology; it was part of a complex system that included ownership to land, ownership to water based on a traditional governance system.” 

For Claxton, revitalizing these traditions starts with younger generations. To this end, he works with the local ÁU,WELNEW seeking ways to replace elements of the provincial curriculum—currently supplemented with a few traditional skills courses—with traditional skills, language, and culture. “What I’m concerned with is how we can make that knowledge a living knowledge system again.”

Responsibility to the land also forms the foundation of Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en activist Mel Bazil’s efforts to revive and protect traditional ways of life. For Bazil, responsibility goes beyond the right to fish or hunt to include a commitment to the land base and the continuation of cultural practices. “We must transcend rights,” says Bazil. “We don’t have a right to clean water; we have a responsibility to protect the relationship to clean water that’s already there.”

A former social worker, Bazil has been involved in the Unist’ot’en action camp, which began as a way to keep out the host of mining and pipeline companies now nervously waiting at the border of Wet’suwet’en territory. In addition to hunting, fishing, and honouring relationships with elders in the community, the Unist’ot’en camp has kept alive the tradition of conducting Free, Prior, and Informed Consent protocols with visitors to their territory. 

“Our people have always had protocols where people ask permission to come to the territories and share ideas,” says Bazil. While these protocols have often been ignored by settlers, today anyone seeking to enter the territory surrounding the Unist’ot’en camp must first engage in the traditional protocol. After stopping at the edge of the territory, visitors introduce themselves and their intentions, asking permission to enter. Pipeline surveyors, RCMP officers, loggers, and hunters have been among those turned away at the gates; however Bazil says the idea isn’t to police access but to recognize traditional responsibilities. “We’re not telling settler society that they have to adopt our laws; we’re asking them, ‘How will you share in our responsibilities on our territories if we let you in?’”

Upholding traditional relationships with the land doesn’t happen inside a vacuum. Living traditionally is difficult, if not impossible, for indigenous peoples whose territories are often unwilling hosts to gold mines, oil fields, commercial fishing, fish farms, and sprawling suburban developments. Even tourism, with its associated land, air, and water traffic or bush parties like Shambhala which bring thousands of people into remote wilderness areas, impact indigenous peoples’ ability to keep their cultures alive. 

With all of these competing visions for indigenous peoples’ traditional territories, asserting traditional responsibilities inevitably brings trouble. A recent tweet from the Unist’ot’en camp related the sometimes violent reactions from sport hunters whose government permits fail to exempt them from Free, Prior, and Informed Consent protocols. These reactions, according to Bazil and Rampanen, are why honouring protocol is the role of a culture’s warriors. “We are asserting our responsibilities as warriors,” says Bazil, “and that protocol would be empty if we were not warriors.”

Unfortunately, Rampanen says settler society is loath to recognize the role of warriors, and with them the ability of indigenous communities to fully uphold their relationship to the land. “It’s acceptable for us to be political; it’s acceptable for us to become academics; it’s acceptable for us to take care of our social needs in our community, to have our songs and our dances and our gatherings. [But] as soon as we say that we have a warrior aspect to who we are, we’re deemed as radicals, as terrorists, as militants—we’re not allowed to have that piece of who we are as a people.”

During a recent workshop, Rampanen said that as the Ahousaht watched the first settlers arrive from the sea, they remarked that these were a landless people. Having lived on the land since time immemorial, the Ahousaht had learned from it how to flourish without clear-cuts or strip mines or tailings ponds. 

The ways of white culture are those of a people whose purpose was never to live with the land, but to subdue it. As Rampanen says, those ways haven’t worked. The land which most non-indigenous people see as inert and which their culture seeks to subdue and destroy is the same land that activists like Bazil, Claxton, and Rampanen share a responsibility to maintain. With ecological catastrophe growing clearer on the horizon, perhaps it’s time settlers ask how they too can share in that responsibility. 

Writer Simon Nattrass’ focus is on radicalizing our everyday lives, from how we think to what we eat. Simon has written on poverty, colonialism, and police, as well as wild food and craft beer.