With the help of the University of Victoria, Grandson of Ma’amtagila Hereditary Chief Basil Ambers, Xa’nalas Dakota Smith, has been working alongside a team of Ma’amtagila descendants to rebuild a homestead in their unceded territory. Occupying their traditional territory in the face of logging and other threats is part of the community’s work to reclaim their traditional lands and reconnect to the natural world.
Smith describes the beauty of the homestead, Hiladi village – a place to make things right. Located in Johnstone Strait, Hiladi is the home base of a Matriarch-led housing facility, holding the “Little Big House.” In September 2022, an extension will be completed at the village to provide space for more members to return.
The Ma’amtagila are engaged in formal process to gain recognition of their rights and title to their traditional territories, after discovering in February 2021 that 100% of their traditional territory was included in a treaty being negotiated between the Tlowitsis First Nation and the governments of Canada and British Columbia. (Learn about the history that has led to this at www.maamtagila.ca/news.) The Ma’amtagila, who have never ceded their land to anyone, explain on their website: “Should this treaty be signed, our entire traditional territory would be up for grabs for BC Timber Sales auction, including large areas of old growth cedars and culturally modified trees.”
Smith’s mother, Tsastilqualus Ambers Umbas, lives in Hiladi village full-time. Smith says reviving the village has been generations in the making: “We’re not doing this alone. We’re doing this with the support of our elders and ancestors who’ve already put in the groundwork.”
“It’s our lands and we want to live there,” says Smith. “We want to have access to our resources. We want to bring our youth and elders out there and have access to our territories so we can pick berries, forage for medicines, hunt and bring stuff to our people who need them.”
Stealing vs. Healing
Smith contrasts a self-sustaining homestead, “living on the land, practicing culture, and maintaining territories,” to the destruction taking place within the territory. He points out that the village revived to honour the land is situated across from an active log sort and plots of land sold to people outside their nation. He describes it as “jarring” to gaze at the eagles nestled on the beach, with the haunting sounds of industry in the background. Smith details disrupted streams and berry bushes, forests consumed without consultation across Ma’amtagila territory.
“You can really see the impacts of logging today – it’s devastating,” says Smith, acknowledging that the Ma’amtagila territory continues to be “pillaged.” He tells the story of revisiting a watershed that once held lush bear habitat to discover nothing was left – “It’s all gone, you know?”
In an interview with Watershed Sentinel, independent environmental researcher Mark Worthing states: “Industrial logging is the single largest destructive force on Ma’amtagila ecosystems, cultural sites, water, and food security systems.” He lists the devastation he’s seen during his time working in Ma’amtagila territory in the Great Bear Rainforest and Vancouver Island watersheds: “We’ve seen Grizzly bears increasingly go hungry on the Great Bear side – and [they] have begun traveling further and further to find secure food sources, including even swimming across Johnstone Strait to Vancouver Island in search of fish.” Worthing says that sacred caves, karst ecology, and the integrity of the remaining salmon-bearing watersheds have been compromised by “reckless road building practices, short rotation second growth logging, and extensive old-growth logging of red and yellow cedar groves in places like the Adams Watershed, Eve Watershed, Naka Creek and adjacent areas.” He attests that several corporations are “targeting the last tracks of old growth all over the territory and are exploiting some of the overlapping territorial regions with neighbouring nations.”
We need to help protect the animal kingdom and their resources. They need berries; they need fish. They are our brothers and sisters – our ancestors – and we need to take care of them, too.
Worthing describes the Ma’amtagila territory as “an excellent space for restoration of both natural systems and human relations. It should be a place of healing where we learn to listen to the land.” But, as he sees it, “The BC Government and industry seem to be racing to exploit as much as they can before Ma’amtagila are able to reassert their rights in a way that the crown will recognize.”
Once the Ma’amtagila are reinstated as the rightful protectors of their territories, a primary focus will be assessing the state of their rivers, plants, and trees, says Smith. “We need to help protect the animal kingdom [and] their resources. They need berries; they need fish. They are our brothers and sisters – our ancestors – and we need to take care of them, too.”
Let me sing, let me dance
Smith explains that the Ma’amtagila are part of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation, run by a community-based legal system. Within this system, families throw potlaches and feasts in the Big House with neighbouring communities to make announcements, conduct business, and later share their sacred songs and dances. In Kwakwaka’wakw culture, community and familial matters are resolved in the Big House – nothing is official until a gathering is held for the community that includes the hosting family opening their “treasure box” of songs and dances.
For millennia, this practice has been the communal governing style of the Kwakwaka’wakw People. Several hereditary chiefs of the Ma’amtagila Nation have held feasts and potlatches in the Big House to assert their existence. “We’re recognized in the Big House. Our Chiefs recognize that we have sovereignty over this [land],” says Smith. In an interview with Watershed Sentinel, Mantlidas Maxine Matilpi remembers the demonstrations her father, Ma’amtagila Hereditary Chief Maxwagalis (Chabane) Matilpi, put in to protect their title and rights. She believes that no progress can be made until the Ma’amtagila are recognized by the Government of Canada – in the same capacity and to the same degree as they are recognized by Kwakwaka’wakw customs.
“It’s nice to see the hope trickle into the older people that maybe thought they’d die before anything changed,” says Smith. He expressed that it’s “emotional getting on the land,” and many members shed happy tears witnessing progress made. He shares that this is an exciting time for his people and confirms that they will continue to reestablish their presence across their territories. “We are alive.”
Pa̱x̱a̱la, Desiree Mannila is a proud member of the Da’naxda’xw Nation, and staff reporter for the Watershed Sentinel.