How one Bri­tish Columbia First Na­tion is build­ing its vi­sion of the guardian con­ser­va­tion model be­ing adopted by In­dige­nous Peo­ples across Canada

Canadian Geographic - - CONTENTS - By Ju­lian Brave Noise­cat

How one Bri­tish Columbia First Na­tion is build­ing its vi­sion of the guardian con­ser­va­tion model be­ing adopted by In­dige­nous Peo­ples across Canada

O N A MAY MORN­ING in Bri­tish Columbia’s Bella Coola Val­ley, Clyde Tal­lio, a longlimbed 31-year-old Nuxalk in­tel­lec­tual, and I walk a dirt road that gives way to a for­est path up a bank from Thorsen Creek, swollen with spring melt. As we slip be­neath the for­est canopy, we move be­tween worlds: from ru­ral Western Canada to sa­cred Nuxalk ter­ri­tory. These are the lands of Tal­lio’s peo­ple, who are emerg­ing as pro­tag­o­nists in an In­dige­nous epic un­fold­ing on this un­con­quered ex­panse of Pa­cific coast. Tal­lio calls out in his Nuxalk tongue, an en­dan­gered lan­guage with fewer than 10 flu­ent speak­ers that he spent years study­ing in­stead of at­tend­ing uni­ver­sity. He an­nounces our pres­ence to the an­i­mals, ances­tors and spir­its, clear­ing our path and ask­ing for pro­tec­tion. We turn our bod­ies in a clock­wise cir­cle, the same way dancers spin be­fore en­ter­ing the dance floors of the big houses that are the spir­i­tual hearts of In­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties along the coast. Thorsen Creek, or Squmalh in Nuxalk, a trib­u­tary of the lower Bella Coola River cut into the val­ley by re­treat­ing Pleis­tocene glaciers, con­nects us to Nuxalk creation. Ahead, watch­ing us from the rain­for­est’s soggy ver­dant floor, are dozens of an­cient pet­ro­glyphs etched into rocks lin­ing the stepped trail. The glyphs, carved in stone thou­sands of years ago (es­ti­mates range from 5,000 to 10,000 years), date roughly to the MidHolocene, a pe­riod of sig­nif­i­cant eco­log­i­cal change that made re­sources like western red cedar — an es­sen­tial ma­te­rial for build­ing struc­tures, wares and art­works — more abun­dant and ac­ces­si­ble to coastal peo­ples. Tal­lio dates the glyphs to “the time of the fix­ing of the Earth.” In po­etic, if not arche­o­log­i­cal terms, he might be right. Tal­lio de­scribes each im­age as we as­cend the hill: the guardian care­taker of this place; the frog, a trans­former who takes many forms in life; raven, the med­dle­some trick­ster whose fol­lies and trans­gres­sions an­i­mate many Nuxalk sto­ries; the four ances­tors rep­re­sent­ing the four gen­er­a­tions who sur­vived the four catas­tro­phes (the fall­ing of the sky, the burn­ing of the world, the flood­ing of the land and the famine of the peo­ple). Like bi­b­li­cal plagues, these calami­ties led to the creation of Nuxalk laws, or, as Tal­lio puts it: “the way of be­ing, be­ing at the place.” The Nuxalk fol­lowed and en­forced these an­cient de­crees in ev­ery as­pect of their so­cial life, from sum­mer fish­eries to win­ter cer­e­monies. The ex­plorer Alexan­der Macken­zie learned just how se­ri­ous the Nuxalk were about their laws when he trav­elled the Bella Coola River in 1793. Ad­mir­ing a large fish­ing weir, Macken­zie asked for a closer look but was re­fused as a vis­i­tor un­prac­tised in the Nuxalk way. The vil­lage edict ap­pears stern, but across the gen­er­a­tions, laws like these, which con­trolled ac­cess and man­dated fair dis­tri­bu­tion, fos­tered, in the sum­ma­tion of his­to­rian Lissa K. Wade­witz, “a world ne­go­ti­ated for the ben­e­fit of both salmon and peo­ple.” Tal­lio and oth­ers are work­ing to bring Nuxalk rights back to this place and many more through­out Nuxalk ter­ri­tory. In the com­ing years, many places in the Nuxalk home­land, roughly from Dean Chan­nel in the north to South Bentinck Arm in the south and King Is­land in the west to the Bella Coola Val­ley in the east, may come un­der Nuxalk ju­ris­dic­tion for the first time in more than a cen­tury. “As a much older na­tion,” Tal­lio tells me in his pro­fes­so­rial tone, “we have to show Canada how to man­age these re­sources.”

AT THE NUXALK BAND, I meet Wally Web­ber, Chief Coun­cil­lor of the Nuxalk, whose grey shoul­der-length hair and plain black-rimmed spec­ta­cles make him look like an ag­ing hip­ster. Web­ber heads the Nuxalk elected gov­ern­ment re­spon­si­ble for pol­icy and wel­fare on the re­serve. He also holds the hered­i­tary ti­tle Snx­ilu­ulhla, a name that hails from “Sunny Vil­lage,” the land the band of­fice stands on to­day. We are joined by Ernie Tal­lio, the stout and soft-spo­ken man­ager of the Guardian Watch­men, a Nuxalk en­vi­ron­men­tal stew­ard­ship pro­gram. The three of us pile into his white GMC pickup and ride down to the wharf. At the docks, Blair Hans, 21, and Keith Wind­sor, 37, dressed in khaki Watch­men uni­forms, are pre­par­ing their ves­sel. Clyde Tal­lio is here too.

As you learn to con­nect and dance with these be­ings, you’re able to learn more about your­self and what it means to be hu­man’

From April to Oc­to­ber, Ernie Tal­lio, Hans, Wind­sor and three other mem­bers of the Watch­men pa­trol the labyrinthine in­lets, is­lands and fiords of their Nuxalk home­land. The Guardian Watch­men pro­gram pro­vides se­cure jobs to First Na­tions peo­ple in a re­gion with few. In the 1990s, log­ging cor­po­ra­tions pulled out of Bella Coola. Com­bined with the steady de­cline of the fish­eries, the de­par­ture of the forestry in­dus­try left many in the com­mu­nity un­em­ployed. Ac­cord­ing to Sta­tis­tics Canada, more than one in four work­ers and more than 40 per cent of men are un­em­ployed. More than half of the pop­u­la­tion can’t work be­cause there aren’t enough jobs. But the Guardian Watch­men pro­gram pro­vides more than just em­ploy­ment. As eyes and ears watch­ing over wa­ter and land, the Watch­men are en­act­ing a sim­ple but po­ten­tially revo­lu­tion­ary prin­ci­ple: the re­turn of ter­ri­to­ries and re­sources to In­dige­nous pro­tec­tion. “This is how gov­er­nance and sovereignty, if you will, are be­ing ex­er­cised by the na­tions,” says Paul Kariya, a Coastal First Na­tions se­nior pol­icy ad­vi­sor, in his 16th-floor of­fice in down­town Van­cou­ver later that week. “They’re say­ing we have to co­ex­ist. They’re say­ing we have to pro­tect the en­vi­ron­ment in a way that cre­ates longevity and op­por­tu­nity for us.” The Nuxalk es­tab­lished their Guardian Watch­men pro­gram in 2009 as part of the broader Great Bear Ini­tia­tive ne­go­ti­ated by First Na­tions and the gov­ern­ment of Bri­tish Columbia. Through the Coastal First Na­tions al­liance, the Nuxalk co­op­er­ate with eight other com­mu­ni­ties to pro­tect, mon­i­tor and re­store nat­u­ral and cul­tural re­sources. The Coastal First Na­tions Guardian Watch­men pro­gram is funded by the $58-mil­lion Coast Funds en­dow­ment. They also ben­e­fit from $6 mil­lion in an­nual rev­enue from car­bon cred­its cre­ated through the preser­va­tion of the tem­per­ate old-growth Great Bear Rain­for­est, which acts as a vast repos­i­tory for cli­mate-change­caus­ing car­bon diox­ide emis­sions. The Nuxalk pro­gram was in­spired by the path-break­ing Haida Watch­men ini­tia­tive for­mal­ized in 1981. To­day, Guardian pro­grams draw on the Haida model, the In­dige­nous Rangers pro­gram pi­loted in Aus­tralia in 2007 and a grow­ing net­work of sim­i­lar ini­tia­tives in Canada. The In­dige­nous Guardians Tool­kit, de­vel­oped by The Na­ture Con­ser­vancy of Canada in con­junc­tion with In­dige­nous part­ners, counts more than 45 com­mu­ni­ties con­duct­ing Guardian ac­tiv­i­ties across Canada. The 2017 fed­eral bud­get in­cludes $25 mil­lion over five years to fund more pi­lots. Un­der the wispy morn­ing f og, the Guardian Watch­men, Web­ber, Clyde Tal­lio and I set out onto the choppy wa­ters of North Bentinck Arm. As we travel, Clyde Tal­lio nar­rates the Nuxalk his­tory and place names of his ter­ri­tory. Be­low us, on the seafloor of the ocean-flooded val­ley of North Bentinck, lies the house of the chief of the un­der­sea world, Q’umakwa, whose name we do not say out on the wa­ter. While Clyde tracks our pa­trol through lin­guis­tic his­tory, Ernie uses an app on his stan­dard is­sue Guardian Watch­men tablet to col­lect data. Last year, the Nuxalk Guardian Watch­men tra­versed 14,723 kilo­me­tres of ter­ri­tory on 139 pa­trols. They are well on their way to ex­ceed­ing those num­bers this year. The data they col­lect is up­loaded to the cloud where First Na­tions pol­icy-mak­ers com­bine it with science, an­a­lyt­ics and tra­di­tional In­dige­nous gov­er­nance sys­tems. In­dige­nous gov­er­nance and en­vi­ron­men­tal science of­ten ad­vance in tan­dem. The Nuxalk Guardian Watch­men re­cently helped to wrap up a bear study that ad­vanced knowl­edge about bear be­hav­iours and pop­u­la­tions in their ter­ri­tory. The Watch­men are of­ten the only author­i­ties out on the land. They rarely en­counter BC Parks or Fish­eries and Oceans Canada rangers be­cause those un­der­staffed agen­cies can’t af­ford reg­u­lar pa­trols. As a more con­stant and re­li­able pres­ence, the Watch­men are

As you learn to con­nect and dance with these be­ings, you’re able to learn more about your­self and what it means to be hu­man’

in­creas­ingly called upon to uphold not just In­dige­nous and en­vi­ron­men­tal laws, but also pub­lic safety. Just three days ear­lier, the Nuxalk Watch­men res­cued three teens who cap­sized their kayaks near the mouth of the Bella Coola River. And last No­vem­ber, they re­cov­ered the body of a man whose house­boat was ripped to pieces by a fe­ro­cious wind­storm. Later in the sea­son, the Watch­men en­counter sport fish­ers, wildlife view­ers, com­mer­cial trawlers and pro­fes­sional prawn­ers. They give the vis­i­tors they meet a friendly re­minder that this is Nuxalk ter­ri­tory and ask that all re­spect the Nuxalk way. Be­fore the Bri­tish Columbia gov­ern­ment banned the tro­phy griz­zly hunt in 2017, the Watch­men would run into bear hun­ters on oc­ca­sion. When they did, they did not shy away from ex­press­ing their op­po­si­tion. Now that res­i­dent griz­zlies are mostly safe from peo­ple, lo­cal res­i­dents need to be pro­tected from the bears who wan­der into town. A month after I depart Bella Coola, a griz­zly sow mauls a man in his back­yard. The Watch­men some­times as­sist with bear pa­trols, aim­ing to min­i­mize hu­man-griz­zly run-ins. Through their ac­tions, the Guardian Watch­men are steadily build­ing a case for In­dige­nous gov­er­nance of this coast. And among the pub­lic, the Guardian Watch­men are gain­ing favour with fish­er­men, tourists and the lo­cals they en­counter on pa­trol ev­ery day. As we near the end of Ats’aaxlh, or South Bentinck Arm, where the Ta­le­omy and Noe­ick rivers con­verge into the in­let at Ta­le­omy Nar­rows, we ap­proach the an­cient vil­lage of Ta­lyu, the home of Clyde and Ernie’s Tal­lio ances­tors, the Ta­lyu­umc “De­scen­dants of the Queen of the Un­der­sea,” a Nuxalk bor­ough that in­cluded the homes of not only the Tal­lio Clyde Tal­lio ( top), one of fewer than 10 flu­ent speak­ers of Nuxalk, joins Nuxalk Coastal Guardian Watch­men mem­ber Keith Wind­sor ( mid­dle) and Chief Coun­cil of the Nuxalk Wally Web­ber ( bot­tom) on a pa­trol.

but also the Hans and Snow lin­eages. An In­dian agent evicted the last of the Snow fam­ily, who main­tain the hered­i­tary ti­tle of Snuxyaltwa, “The Light of the Uni­verse,” in the 1930s. He threat­ened to take the chil­dren and pros­e­cute the par­ents if the fam­ily did not re­lo­cate to Bella Coola. Log­gers burned what re­mained of the vil­lage not long after. In­ter­for, a log­ging cor­po­ra­tion, clear-cut this part of South Bentinck Arm in the 2000s. We board a dinghy to make our way to shore. In a clear­ing at the edge of the for­est, a mas­sive totem pole rises amid the trees. As the Nuxalk re­assert rights to their home­lands, they have erected poles like this one — tra­di­tion­ally used as grave and bound­ary mark­ers — through­out their ter­ri­tory. In 2009, the Snow fam­ily hosted a pot­latch to raise this pole, carved by Harry Schooner and his as­sis­tants, to re­assert rights to this place. The pole tells the Snuxyaltwa Smayusta, or ori­gin story, de­pict­ing the loon, the whale, griz­zly, thun­der­bird, sun and an­gel Yulm, the el­dest of the four mythic Nuxalk car­pen­ters who helped Cre­ator make the world. We gather around the pole, peer­ing up at its in­tri­cate carved and painted black, blue and red de­signs. Wind­sor runs his hand over a fresh gash on Yulm’s belly, where a griz­zly has marked its own claims. We linger awhile. Clyde takes a seat at the base of the Snuxyaltwa pole and lights a cig­a­rette. He bows his head, look­ing down be­tween his feet at the muddy turf of his an­ces­tor’s home and ex­hales.

AS CLYDE TAL­LIO and I crest Thorsen Creek trail on that May morn­ing, we ap­proach the last of the rock carv­ings. Tal­lio points to his favourite: a dancer with wide eyes and cir­cu­lar orbs flut­ter­ing above his bul­bous cra­nium. Tal­lio tells us that these cir­cles sym­bol­ize the dancer’s striv­ings and achieve­ments. “The Nuxalk word for hu­man be­ing is Tl’msta,” he says. “Tl’ms means to awaken, to as­pire, to achieve, to ac­com­plish, to be aware, and then ta means real thing: a real hu­man be­ing awak­en­ing, be­com­ing aware, as­pir­ing to achieve and ac­com­plish.” Be­yond the tl’msta fig­ure stand carv­ings rep­re­sent­ing the spir­its of the next world, or si’ukws. Si’ukws are like a cross be­tween pa­tron saints and pla­tonic forms. They care for par­tic­u­lar parts of the world — the moun­tain, the for­est, the trees, the rocks — but they also epit­o­mize emo­tions and ideals like anger, laugh­ter, medicine and the hunt. Nuxalk spir­i­tual lead­ers came to this place to learn their dances. “As you go through their story and un­der­stand them and learn to con­nect and dance with these be­ings, you’re able to learn more about your­self and what it means to be hu­man,” Tal­lio ex­plains. These rocks in­scribed with epis­te­molo­gies that have en­dured across mil­len­nia ges­ture at some­thing more per­ma­nent than pa­per edicts, dig­i­tal cur­ren­cies and na­tional gov­ern­ments, con­nect­ing Tal­lio and me to the hands and truths of the First Peo­ples of this place: an­other way of be­ing, an­other po­ten­tial. Tal­lio and the Nuxalk are set on car­ry­ing this, the im­per­a­tive of their his­tory, their roots and their peo­ple for­ward. There will be ten­sion, un­doubt­edly, as res­i­dents of the Bella Coola Val­ley and law­mak­ers in Vic­to­ria and Ot­tawa reckon with these resur­gent Nuxalk, their re­newed author­ity, their hered­i­tary lead­er­ship and their Guardian Watch­men. But there will be co­op­er­a­tion, too. Three weeks after I depart Nuxalk ter­ri­tory, Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau trav­els to Prince Ru­pert, B.C., a port town north of Bella Coola, to sign a rec­on­cil­i­a­tion agree­ment with 14 coastal First Na­tions, in­clud­ing the Nuxalk, pro­mot­ing col­lab­o­ra­tion in the man­age­ment and pro­tec­tion of the coastal ecosys­tem. “The First Na­tions of the Pa­cific North and Cen­tral Coast have been pro­tect­ing Canada’s wa­ters for mil­len­nia,” Prime Min­is­ter Trudeau says in a state­ment. “Work­ing to­gether, we will pro­tect and pre­serve the Pa­cific North Coast, and we will ad­vance rec­on­cil­i­a­tion along the way.” Cli­mate change, ig­nit­ing bo­real forests, melt­ing moun­tain­top glaciers, warm­ing North Pa­cific wa­ters and shift­ing po­lit­i­cal cur­rents will un­doubt­edly com­pli­cate this un­fold­ing story. But whether this new ge­o­log­i­cal age marks a catas­tro­phe, a be­gin­ning or both is not yet writ­ten in stone. At the crest of the trail, the thresh­old where we greet carv­ings de­pict­ing spir­its of t he next world, there is a bowl worn into the rocks and marked with the four direc­tions, where vis­i­tors can pray and ask for bless­ings. One by one, Tal­lio and I touch the wa­ter in the bowl, ask­ing for bless­ings as we step out into the un­cer­tainty of the next world that lies be­yond. Some­day, maybe the Nuxalk will dance the sto­ries of these ances­tors, the ones who sur­vived the catas­tro­phe of col­o­niza­tion and nav­i­gated the tur­bu­lent wa­ters of self-de­ter­mi­na­tion and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion to re­store their way of be­ing to this world and this place.

Read more about the Nuxalk Na­tion’s self­de­ter­mi­na­tion at can­

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