Unist'ot'en - People of the Headwaters
January 22nd, 2015
Five months ago, shortly before leaving Turtle Island for India, I visited Unist'ot'en: a place that began as a resistance camp to proposed oil and gas pipelines and has since become a thriving community in which primarily Indigenous people--many youth--are rebuilding: language, traditional building, hunting, fishing, value-based community and more. This is my journal of the time I spent in Unist'ot'en.
ONE: The Road to Unist'ot'en August 4th, 2014
While staying with Cleo, a good friend from Western Canada's Vancouver Island, I scope out the logistics of going to Unist'ot'en: an autonomous Indigenous nation in inland British Columbia and the central resistance camp to some eighteen proposed pipelines including Northern Gateway, PTP and Coastal Gas. While I had wanted to visit this camp since hearing about it in Mi'kma'qi/Nova Scotia months ago, I had diddle daddled all spring and summer while in BC. It was my last weeks in Canada before moving to India and confronted by the price of getting there and back—more than 1,000km north of Vancouver—I wavered once more. Cleo happily reminded me to get myself together and do it. Later that day, I met with Zoe Blunt for coffee in downtown Victoria. She is one of the camp's core volunteers, gathering people, funds and resources for the camp and visiting when she can. Zoe gave me the low-down, warning me not to be another yogi hippy with post-modern ideals about gender and a privileged sense of entitlement. Well, at least the latter I can do my best to avoid, I thought sheepishly. The conversation carried the same revolutionary overtones as those carried out between Salvadoran friends I had spent time with in El Salvador some years ago: a country still sharply divided between extreme right and left, death-squad and guerrilla. Zoe explained to me that crossing the bridge into the camp and Unist'ot'en territory meant leaving Canada and entering another nation, and with it, another set of laws, leaders and customs. Be careful, be respectful, be prepared to work. I can do that, I thought. The meeting was over. Zoe smiled as we parted ways.
The next day I took the ferry out of Swartz Bay, Vancouver Island, where I'd spent the spring and summer in the Sooke Hills. I passed through Tsawassen to Vancouver, and soon enough made my way to Main Street, where I met up with Salia Joseph, an old friend from working at Camp Thunderbird in Sooke, and a woman native, on her father's side, to the Coast Salish land that the city of Vancouver sits on. It has been a few year since we were leading canoe and kayak trips out of Sooke, and while I have grown involved in my own small way in the activism against big oil in Eastern Turtle Island, Salia has become a leader in her community, running programs through UBC's Indigenous Studies programs for Indigenous youth. From across the country, the snippets of her work that I have heard have kept me motivated. I am late meeting her, but lucky enough to run into a Guelphite on the way there whose phone I borrowed to let Sales know, I'll be there soon enough.
As I write, a beautiful butterfly alights on my laptop, then my finger, visiting one and then another. It folds its wings together, as a sailor trims her sails in a strong wind. Careful not to move my finger that has become the perch of choice, I use my other hand to block the wind, easing the soft creature's struggle to remain afloat.
Salia and I catch up over a peanut butter cookie from one of Main Street's hip cafes: a wonderfully sun-drenched thing of windows that is one of many manifestations of a quickly gentrifying city; the Downtown East Side morphing into a hip locale, safe injection sites being switched out for art studios; food banks for high rise apartments.
Soon enough, Salia has to dash, and I am left to enjoy the street traffic. Enough babes on bikes to give Montreal a run for its money and more tattooed hipsters than you could shake a stick at. After a ponderous burrito, I make my way to a place where many adventures have begun and ended, since my first arrival to this city on my way to Pearson College, eight years ago: the Main Street Terminal.
Here, I hop a Greyhound that takes me on an overnight, over-air conditioned drive North to Prince George. Strangers become friends over shared tobacco. I keep to myself mostly. Twelve and a half hours later, we arrive: 08.35, just as predicted.
The newly formed community quickly disbands as folks head to their respective homes, jobs, or continue on further North. In the middle of a parking lot, knowing I have twenty four hours to pass before catching a train North to Houston, BC, I scan the Greyhound stragglers for someone to beseech for some local knowledge. I see a young woman whom I presumed to be Native. I had spotted her early on the bus ride, as a potential friend to share a seat with, should we fill up in the whee hours of the night with less savory passengers. I ask her if she is familiar with the town and she replies in a thick accent, that she is. I switch to Spanish. She is Peruvian; a master's student at the University of Northern BC. She offers me her apartment to rest in. We spend the entire day together.
We nap for some three hours, then catch a bus into the booming metropolis of downtown Prince George. My mission to find work boots on the cheap is accomplished outrageously quickly. The first store we step into, Claudia accompanying my on my gallivant, has what I need. Steel toed. Five dollars. Ten points to Prince George. Next mission: chocolate. We end up in Nancy O's. The place turns out to be a gem, despite its cunning facade of being another P.G. dive. Feeling like I'm in Moncton's hip gastro-pub, The Tide and Boar, we sit back into the seats of a wooden stall and order locally brewed, craft ales and a burger to share: brie cheese, happy beef, and micro-greens from a place nearby called HydroOrganic, or BioPonic, or something to that effect. All in all, an unexpected treat to say the least!
The evening passes with Claudia and her Nigerian friend, Femi, and soon enough its bed time. I wake up to call the train station and rush out the door not ten minutes later, realizing my train, scheduled the day before to arrive an hour late at least, is right on time, and I am the one at risk of being late. I wish Claudia a quick good morning, goodbye and many thank yous, and am gone.
The train ride feels like a step back into the upper class. Europeans abound and few people are travelling for reasons other than to take in the beauty of the Great White North. It is a beautiful ride, passing through sparse forest, across patches of farm land and shooting alongside the mighty Fraser River.
In Houston, I meet up with a two-car caravan of young, alternative parents, their two children and the folk-gipsy-rock band that is The Tower of Dudes—or their alter-ego children's band, Oh! Ogopogo: all headed to the same place. Sitting tight in a black suburban, we lead the way off the main road and onto gravel logging roads, finally, on the road to Unis'tot'en.
The 1982 Honda bringing up the rear falls behind, and eventually gives out: the tubing that serves the car's cooling system is cracked wide open. Our car goes ahead, planning to double back to pick the rest up directly.
Wedzin-kwah - Morice River: tributary to the Skeena
Talbits-kwah - Gosnel Creek
Witsuwet'en - People of the Lower River
Unist'ot'en - People of the Headwaters
After 65km of logging road, we take a right hand turn and before long come to the bridge that crosses the Wedzin-kwah. Before us is the blockade that for five years has stood as the sole obstacle to some of the world's largest oil and gas companies. A tall, muscular man with long braided hair and fierce eyes instructs us to honk the horn and wait on our side of the bridge. We would have little other choice, as, behind the signs that block the road, is a thick metal chain, securely fastened across the bridge, barring entrance entirely.
|The roadblock itself leaves little room for interpretation and is guarded 24/7.|
|The only road crossing this river, this bridge provides exclusive access to the land beyond.|
As we approach the chain, so too do two others from the far side: a man and a woman. The woman I have seen in videos online. Freda and Toghestiy. Freda is the spokesperson for the Unist'ot'en camp, and Toghestiy, her partner--among other things I will come to learn.
One by one, starting with myself, we are taken through a protocol that, rekindled after a century of cultural oppression, has been practiced by the Unist'ot'en people since time immemorial. We are told to keep our answers concise and truthful:
Who are you? Where are you from?
Have you ever worked for any industries that destroy the land?
How will your visit benefit our people?
What skills do you bring?
The band, the Tower of Dudes, say they wish to play a show tonight. I say I am a hard worker.
When we have all answered, the two tell us to wait where we are, and confer with one another. They quickly turn back, stern faces melting into smiles as they say that we have come at a good time. News has come through that the Apache Corporation have pulled out of the Pacific Trails Pipeline (PTP), of which they had 50% of shares, leaving Chevron with 100% of the shares. A celebration is due at the Unist'ot'en camp. The chain is unlocked, the signs moved aside, and the truck that is parked diagonally across the bridge, reversed, clearing our way in.
I stop, half way across the bridge and look side to side, taking in the beauty of the river, flowing fast and strong, some sixty feet wide and crystalline blue-green. Later I will learn that its origins are high up in the mountains, where it is shot out of the mountainside with such force that it is said to not touch a single rock as it hurtles down to a pooling place: the headwaters of the Wedzin-kwah. I quickly stoop, and, kissing my hand, touch it to the wood of the bridge, grateful.
I wander into the camp, unsure of quite what to do next, shy of coming across too eager to please, but wanting to be helpful nonetheless. No, I am not another useless settler hippy, I say to people with my eyes, here to kick around white guilt. I am actually relatively competent. Please put me to work.
An elder walks past, to whom I say a quiet “hello”. She replies in a native language: her language, with one quick word, followed by a few more and keeps walking. I am lost as to a reply and feel foolish and disrespectful, suddenly painfully aware of my ignorance.
Our first night at the camp is a celebration indeed. We've arrived just in time for our first dinner in the bush. And 66km down a dirt road—most maps show the road ending at km 66, the site of the road block—we truly are in the bush. Southern style, deep fried chicken, salad greens from the garden, massaged kale salad with roasted sesame seeds, a half dozen other sides and for desert (and breakfast the following day), fresh made cinnamon buns, the likes of which would give the Guelph Farmer's Market sticky-buns a run for their money.
Then came the music. Only days later did I realize that this was the first night of calm after a week of tension, as rumours flew of a potential raid on the camp by the police, RCMP, hired strongmen of Chevron, or a combination of all three. The crowd slowly loosened up, the sky grew dark and the musicians found their groove. Eager for the music to finish so I could head to bed, I was pleased to accept the offer of another settler to borrow her tent and save myself from my wall-less tarp and the inevitable visits from biting flies.
The days quickly blur together, as I get to know the goings ons of the camp, the day to day chores and tasks, and learn the ropes of doing bridge shifts. Each day is hyphenated by amazing meals, and quick dips into the icy cold of the Wedzin-kwah, to cool off from labouring under the 30* C heat.
The camp, in full bear country (both black and grizzly), as well as mountain lion, has three fierce defenders: Tayz, Deetnik and Kunye. Tayz, named after her charcoal black coat, is the young pup of the bunch, foolishly learning how to be a dog; Deetnik, the boarder collie matriarch who can lope up a hill at 45km/h, earning her the name for lightning; and Kunye, the mystic sage of the camp, who is seldom seen, doing her daily rounds, keeping the borders of the camp patrolled as she limps along, artritis in her hips. She is the named after a medicine, brown and black like her fur. They are all sucks, and provided the emotional attention everyone at camp needs, but is too shy to ask from such a bunch of militant land-defenders (who are also all sucks at heart, of course).
Good news from Mel. August 4th, 2014.
Moricetown Band did not sign with Chevron, declining the offer of a limited partnership. The band representatives said they couldn't bear the idea of taking such an offer back to their elders. That leaves Chevron completely alone.
As we talk, I hear several Whooo-eys! through the trees, followed by three honks from the bridge truck. Three honks means cops. I look at Mel, a formidable leader who lately has been travelling from blockade camp to camp, across Northern BC, a spokesman for the sovereignty of Indigenous peoples and a member of the Wetsuwetin Nation himself: he is also the head honcho in Freda and Toghestiy's absence.
You better go, I say.
Without a word he heads for the bridge, not back up the well trod path through camp, but into the woods. I quickly pack up my writing and follow along a small path I didn't know existed. Though I am only seconds behind, all that's left of Mel are tracks of freshly kicked up earth. I reach the bridge to see Mel jog up the gravel slope to Duskin, who is on bridge duty. No cops. Nor any cars other than the usual bridge truck. I hear Duskin say “little brother”, as he points into the woods and they both look upstream. The Whooo-eys continue through camp, as folks warn the bear not to come too close: humans are here. But its nearly time for the salmon run, and already we are pulling back tents from the river, moving deeper into the trees. A fortnight from now, the river will run pink with the salmon run, and the bears are moving in in anticipation.
|A member of the camp, and Unist'ot'en Nation evicting a helicopter, sent by an oil and gas company. #autonomy|
THREE. A process of (un)learning.
If leaving the public school system was the beginning of a process of “unlearning”, being here has been a process of learning.
Learning the history of this land from the perspective of a nation that never signed a treaty.
Learning to chop wood with a Wet'suwet'en man old enough to have never gone through Residential schools.
Learning why a woman from Georgia, USA, wears a patch on her sweater that says,
“You can't rape a .32”.
Learning of the violence that has been dealt out to women and indigenous peoples, and especially indigenous women, by the police, RCMP and the government of Canada since the nation-state got its name.
Learning to take up less room in a place where I have been allowed to come and be, despite my history of privilege and power.
Learning where I stand in relation to nations within a nation reclaiming their land, language and right to reassert their sovereignty and take up not-quite forgotten ways.
Learning how to can chicken meat and cook the stuff that didn't quite work out.
Learning that every Wet'suwet'en person at this camp, has had their home burnt down by settlers, and expect it to happen again.
Learning the bravery of a young couple and their three year old son, who have left the city to move back onto their ancestral lands, and block a road to McBride Lake: the site of a would-be tailings pond, managed by Imperial Metals, the same company responsible for the tailings pond that spilled last monday, August 4th, 2014, into the Quesnel Lake, and is currently making its way into the Fraser River. They say its the best decision they've ever made.
the sad truth of the Canadian extractive industries, and the building of our nation-state. As the proceeds head south, the contaminates are concentrated in the rural north and so the stranglehold on Indigenous communities continues.
Lerning that it is not without hope. That the Unist'ot'en camp has successfully blocked all pipeline traffic for five years, while providing a space for indigenous (and non-indigenous) peoples to come and learn a different way of being: of sustaining, thinking, learning, building, resisting.
FOUR: The Road Back.
After many, many months of trying to find a way of being meaningfully involved in the struggle that is happening across Canada—and beyond—right now, of grassroots, often indigenous communities facing up to Big Oil, Big Gas and the Harper Government, my time at the Unist'ot'en blockade gave me an example of how to do just that. It is a place where everyone can go and ask how to help. It is a place that needs support, so those individuals who have been holding down the front line can go home to their families. And it is a place where one can realize one's own potential role in the tragic comedy that is currently playing out across the land and waters we live on.
Preparing to leave, a long-time resident of the camp joked to me, You know we do protocol on your way out too, right? Confused, I answered with a curious smile. How will you leaving benefit the Wet'suwet'en people? We both laughed. His way of saying thanks.
Another settler explained to me what Freda had explained to her. When you are welcomed into the territory, it means upping the anti of a relationship between you and the nation, and the people defending the land and water. Like any relationship, once you take that step, there are certain expectations. If you are needed, a week, a month, a year or three down the line; if the RCMP warns of a raid or Chevron tries to bring in machinery, you will be called upon. While Freda wasn't at camp to give me the same talk, its teaching is apparent.
Once you cross the bridge, there's no crossing back.
|The pithouse, now finished: and the future home of Freda and Toghestiy, built directly and intentionally on the site of a proposed pipeline.|
Postscript: January 22nd, 2015
Five months and thousands of kilometers later, settling into a life in India where I am completely disconnected with this struggle back home, I find myself questioning what I am doing now. Have I abandoned this community, this cause and the fight to save what's left of the land and water back home, on Turtle Island? Or am I building a skill set that I will bring back, soon enough? While I do not have answers to these questions that circle in my head and heart, I know that this is only the beginning, and that since spending time at Unist'ot'en and Elsipogtog in Mi'kmak'i (New Brunswick), little else that I have done in life feels as real, as directly meaningful. And in that sense, it is only a matter of time before I return home and set down roots in the land I grew up in, which means also to set down roots in this struggle. Until then I will carry with me the gaze of a community that gently, but firmly says: I hope whatever you're doing out there is worth it.