Replenishing front-line activists

A gathering for Indigenous climate, water, and land defenders

Sleydo' and Jennifer Wickham singing and drumming

Sleydo' and Jennifer Wickham share songs of gratitude.

Indigenous climate, water, and land defenders are fighting for our collective futures. How are protectors taking care, finding healing – and holding hope? 

Kim Haxton set out to support Indigenous resurgence by creating a retreat for participants to focus on personal and community care, centring sovereignty with the goal of replenishing front-line activists and supporting relationship-building. Gathering in toq qaymɩxʷ (Klahoose), and ɬəʔamɛn qaymɩxʷ (Tla’amin) territories, participants came from all over turtle island, from Gidimt’en yintah to Nunavut, to Akwesasne Kanien’keha:ka/Mohawk Territory. 

Under Haxton’s guidance, the circle shared conversations on their struggles, finding strength, relief from lateral violence, protection from burnout, and healing practices. When asked how they strengthen themselves, the most common theme was through ceremony and teachings to guide their work. Some activists present at the Replenish retreat are defending interrupted land use from corporate interests. Others are working with family and community issues.

Slowing the river

Sleydo’ (Molly Wickham, Wet’suwet’en) says one of the hardest moments in defending her peoples’ lands was when Coastal GasLink was destroying an archeological site. “We were never properly consulted, and they were able to get a ‘leave of condition’ – which means they applied to just toss out the permit condition that they couldn’t destroy any of our archeological sites without our consent.”

Sleydo’, went almost every day with Gidimt’en Elders and youth to try to talk to them, she explains. “We served them a cease and desist order, but were met with aggressive private security and the threat of police each time, and they would just ignore my questions.”

“Not only did I stand there feeling like I didn’t matter, but I felt as though my ancestors didn’t matter and that collectively we were being ignored, although we were standing right in front of them and they were using heavy machinery to dig up our artifacts.” It reminded Sleydo’ of when her relatives went to court during the Delgamuukw/Gisday’wa court case and one of them said to the judge, “‘why do I have to prove to you that I exist? I’m standing right in front of you.’ That’s how I felt.”

“It is overwhelming, and there are not a lot of slow quiet moments,” explains Haxton. Her facilitation involves “slowing the canoe, so we can read the river and navigate it. There are tools that are universal for helping us navigate the river.”

Remember your teachings

Land and water protector Tia Kennedy (Haudenosaunee, Anishinaabe) is quietly beading in the circle. Last year she spoke at many conferences, including COP27, the UN, and Assembly of First Nation’s national climate gathering. 

“Sometimes things can feel stagnant or hopeless but you have to look at the bigger picture, the ones that have yet to come,” says Kennedy. “Remember your teachings and stories. Our ancestors have lived through many trials and tribulations but they have been able to overcome it. Even on the darkest nights of the year the moon still shines. All my hope comes from nature because she is our one true teacher.” 

Red Hummingbird Woman, Chief Judy Wilson Manuel (Secwépemc) adds, “The natural laws and systems are the true governance of all we do as Indigenous Peoples. These teachings and laws of the land have sustained us throughout the ages.” This looks like living according to seasonal cycles and honoring each cycle through ceremony with prayers and offerings. “When everything is acknowledged, a harmony emerges,” she says. 

The navigation tools are shared, Haxton explains. “We all have singing, dancing, storytelling, ceremonies/meditation, connecting to land, food and laughter. These help make meaning, reset and guide our work.” 

Tia Kennedy busy with beadwork.

Land and water protector Tia Kennedy (Haudenosaunee, Anishinaabe) draws hope from nature.

Replenishing front-line activists

Joshua Akavak came to Replenish with suitcases of wild foods from his homelands.  An Inuk from Nunavut, Akavak works as the counsellor manager for Ilisaqsivik Society in Kangitugaapik (Clyde River, East Baffin Island). “Eating together is such a blessing for everybody. Not only for myself, but for everyone. Mother Earth provided everything right for us, and we are to respect that,” says Akavak. 

As the group took a session break, Akavak shared what he’d brought as gifts: smoked arctic char, seal, and caribou. The room was filled with happy chatter, until a hush fell as all eyes turned to Jennifer Wickham, (Wet’suwet’en). She’s the media coordinator for Gidimt’en Checkpoint, as well as co-director/producer for YINTAH, a feature-length documentary film set for release this year. 

“I just want to share how grateful I am,” she said, tears falling freely. “We’re salmon and caribou people – and we don’t have caribou anymore in our territory. I’d like to share a poem I’ve written about that.”

My soft heart herds

My ancestors ate caribou
and yet there is no-one in my family to tell
me what they taste like
alcan drowned what was left after the CN
railway cut them off

I mourn them often
full chest heaving painful sobs like I’m
being crushed by the loss
but when I talk about them my words just

Maybe it’s too painful
like admitting that we have lost something
so sacred makes it real
and we all turn to elk and moose to fill our
plate, in silence

I feel it all
and it’s a joke that I cry about everything
but I can’t hold it anymore
the pain of the land and the water is too
loud to ignore

They’re in my bones
and the strength in my DNA fed from
millennia of these beautiful beasts
and the land that sustained them fuels my

I wear their memory as a shield
protecting whatever it is we have left and
shaking the rest of you awake
I’ll show you every day even when you
hate me

—Jennifer Wickham

The caribou have been lost to industry in her territory, and government programs are trying to repopulate the caribou. Wickham explains how Alcan, the aluminum smelter company, set out to build the Skins dam, related to the Kenney-Kemano dams in her grandfather’s territory in the early 1950s. “They gave the people five days warning to gather all their belongings and leave, and then they burnt the village to the ground and flooded the area.”

There are stories of hunters that were out on the trap lines and they came home and their entire village was underwater. 

“There’s stories of our people going out on boats trying to save the caribou that were trying to swim across. They were getting their legs tangled up in the tops of the trees, and our people were trying to pull them loose– and the caribou were drowning and the people were crying.”

“There’s nobody alive in my family anymore that can tell me what it was like to eat caribou or to hunt caribou. I have no caribou artifacts or anything left of them, except for the grief.”

Akavak agrees, “The animals make us who we are. It’s been a cycle for thousands of years, to sustain ourselves, to survive.” He showed how the food from his homelands are eaten, such as uncooked caribou half frozen in small pieces to chew. Helpers took turns chopping vegetables for Akavak’s stew, while sisters Sleydo’ and Jennifer Wickham sang.

Joshua Akavak stands in a coastal forest.

Replenishing front-line activists, Joshua Akavak brought the wisdom of shared foods from his home lands, Kangitugaapik (Clyde River, East Baffin Island),

Sleydo’ (Molly Wickham) is a supporting Chief, defending Lhudis Bin, Gidimt’en. She is living on the land, while parenting three children. She holds a Master’s degree in Indigenous Governance, and draws strength from a long line of strong Wet’suwet’en matriarchs.

“To hear him saying he brought caribou meat and especially, caribou organs, was more than I could ever say thank you for,” Wickham says. “I was overwhelmed with gratitude and – a kind of relief in the reciprocity and the generosity. I really felt like it lifted part of that grief for me.”

Wickham shared the words, Wanulth git gin which simply translated means “don’t be afraid.” The full meaning of it is you can walk forward and do what you need to do because you come with all of your teachings. For her, these words are to “always remember the history of my people and how much we’ve already lost – so that I have the courage to keep fighting for what we have left.”

Sleydo’ gifted Akavak her own drum as a thank you and parting gift, and he shared in the sense of gratitude. ”Thank you everybody for giving me the opportunity to share what I still have,” he said. “I’m hoping that we can keep that going so that my grandchildren, and their grandchildren and their grandchildren keep that going.”

Odette Auger (Sagamok Anishnawbek) is an award winning Independent journalist and storyteller, living in the Salish Sea. Follow her work on

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