We swear on the lives of those not yet born,
That we are creating a world for them that is better than this one.
A little bit of this world exists in all of us,
and that is how I know it is possible.
—Aya Clappis, excerpt, “what I know to be true is this”
Nii Lax Aks, Denzel Sutherland-Wilson (Gitxsan) is one of a group of west coast Indigenous youth who travelled to the COP15 meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity. They went to speak about their land reoccupation work, and how Indigenous sovereignty protects biodiversity. He prepared for the trip in the forest, gathering cedar to make smudge sticks.
Aya Clappis (Somali, Huu-ay-aht) is another panellist in their group – “I am here because the lands and waters I come from are under attack by industry and government.”
The final agreement includes a target of protecting 30 per cent of the world’s land, water, and marine areas by 2030. It is the amount scientists have been campaigning for as a minimum to curb global biodiversity loss, and protect Earth’s ability to support complex life.
“When governments speak of conserving 30 per cent of the land, Nii Lax Aks says, “they are really giving themselves permission to keep taking all the rest for themselves.”
Listening to these young land defenders, it’s important to understand how they are using the word “land.” Nii Lax Aks is Gitxsan, so he is more likely to use the word Lax’yip. Lax’yip is not something that can be owned by an individual. He explains, “it’s something that is shared among all of us, including other species, people from the past, as well as people in the future.” That’s quite different from the capitalist view that requires the land to be an inanimate object, for humans to control.
Similarly, biodiversity is seen as something impossible to distinguish from “life itself – and us,” explains Willo Prince (Nak’azdli Whut’en) “We cannot speak about this as if we are separate from it because that separateness and distinction is where all of these problems live – colonization lives in that separateness, capitalism finds itself in that distinction.”
The notion that our rights come from an international forum, “instead of our responsibilities, ancestors, connection, and intuition – that’s potentially harmful, or paralyzing.” —Nii Lax Aks
Through the process of assimilation and “the erasure of our own governance and philosophies,” Nii Lax Aks says, “there are a lot of Indigenous leaders who also view the land as something to be controlled and exploited.” A continuation of that idea is that resources must be extracted, for our presence or relationship with the land to be valid. That notion was a major part of Delgamuukw Gisday’wa vs. Crown. On the 25th anniversary of the decision, Nii Lax Aks explains, “that decision halfway recognized our belonging to our Lax’yip,” he says, “But not how industry operates on the land.”
Nii Lax Aks thinks of his grandfather, selectively harvesting trees with the help of horses. Walking through those forests today, the mossy stumps remain, within a beautiful, healthy, biodiverse forest where ancestors had been harvesting for thousands of years.
The land defenders are invited into these spaces of international negotiations – how far does that inclusion extend?
“Our inclusion is limited,” explains Nii Lax Aks. He describes rooms having a capacity of 25 to 30. “We’re given half the time and half the space of anyone else. Meanwhile they’re all saying that we need Indigenous leadership, Indigenous knowledge, and Indigenous solutions to these issues.”
“That is true,” Prince says, yet “it’s not the full truth. We cannot just have our worldviews and teachings extracted from us, without it being actively paired with an end to the colonial violence on our lands. It’s just another form of extraction. It’s another form of whitewash. It’s another form of erasure.”
It’s essential to talk of “the colonial violence and Indigenous world views in climate response in the same breath,” says Prince, otherwise “these governments in this federal state are able to avoid accountability.”
Consider for a moment how the forests would look today, if reciprocal relations were guiding the harvest. The capability of Indigenous nations to manage their forests in a good way was prevented by Canada actively trying to destroy Indigenous thought and spirituality, says Nii Lax Aks.
It’s in that truth telling that we find greater awareness, explains Prince, and through that we are able to find acceptance. “It’s an acceptance of all that has happened, but it’s also an acceptance of what could be. And it’s only in that state of awareness that we’re able to dream, hope and envision.”
UNDRIP has been seen as a hope of being ‘on the path toward’ reconciliation, reparations, justice. Nii Lax Aks cautions against any tool of false hope used to keep people complacent.
The notion that our rights come from an international forum, “instead of our responsibilities, ancestors, connection, and intuition – that’s potentially harmful, or paralyzing.”
Clappis is clear about not needing Canada to grant them rights “to live with, and on my ancestral lands and waters.” My birthrights are the inheritance of thousands of years of caretaking and upholding our responsibilities to everything within our haouthli.” Haouthli translates to the lands and waters that we belong to, as quuas (Indigenous peoples), another example of something deeper than “territory.”
“How long have they been giving us a little bit of hope?” asks Nii Lax Aks. “I feel like when they feel the land slipping out of their hands, they give us a little bit of ‘hope.’”
It’s understandable that people are looking to UNDRIP for protection, he says, “because of all the violence and criminalization we’ve faced. But I don’t see it on the ground. We are on the front lines, where UNDRIP should be, creating change.”
He’s been in situations where the RCMP disregard it. “I’ve had cops shout at me, ‘UNDRIP is not the law.’ And then proceed to arrest and remove Indigenous people from their lands.”
“We cannot just have our worldviews and teachings extracted from us, without it being actively paired with an end to the colonial violence on our lands.” —Willo Prince
Witnessing nations and corporations conferencing at COP15, the land defenders are also there to disrupt the status quo. When Trudeau began speaking of “our beautiful lands,” the land defenders met his voice with drumming. They were allowed to walk out freely, and Nii Lax Aks notes, UN security restrained themselves from reacting with force, “they wouldn’t do it in front of the world.” Once they were out of the venue, they were chased by security. They responded with drums, and found a way out. Right after Trudeau spoke of Canada’s freedom of speech, they were surrounded by RCMP, describes Nii Lax Aks. Not under arrest, just “detained for inquiry.”
An officer reached for their gun, demanding, “What’s in your hand? What’s in your hand!”
‘This is cedar,” he explained, holding out his smudge.
The youth continued drumming, while slowly inching their way to where they were staying. When they were in front of their accommodation, friends opened the door, and they quickly slipped in, away from the RCMP, says Nii Lax Aks.
The way forward
Nii Lax Aks does take comfort in the Lax’yip – vast, plentiful and capable of healing. “Our ancestors developed all sorts of knowledge in relation to the animals, plants, minerals, and other natural forces that provided for them. This knowledge is required to live in balance with the land, and can increase abundance – and could be a catalyst for transformative change.”
“The way forward is not about displacing responsibility to the future, it is about taking accountability in the present,” says Clappis, “and understanding we are first and foremost accountable to Indigenous law – which is natural law.”
When the land defenders speak of reoccupying and taking up our ancestors’ roles, and stewarding the land, they mean managing in ways that increase abundance of food for humans and other animals through balanced relationships. “In order to have good connections with the rest of the world, you need to have a good connection and be a healthy part of the land,” says Nii Lax Aks.
Returning to the concept of Lax’yip, a place where different worlds of different orders of species and peoples coexist, and feed each other, Nii Lax Aks shares, “Our ancient knowledge holds animals as having their own societies, laws, and consciousness… We were taught those laws at some point. There are a lot of people in our community that still believe, hold, and use that knowledge when they’re out on the territory.”
“Now we’re at the point where I’m hearing from all the world – we need this. The question is, will this be respected?” asks Nii Lax Aks. “How real is the call to action on this?”
Reporting for this story was supported by the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources.