Over 25 Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw Giǥa̱me (Hereditary Chiefs) attended a feast held by Giǥa̱me Walas Namugwis (David Knox) on April 1, 2023, at the Tsakis Gukdzi (Fort Rupert Bighouse). Giǥa̱me that held Tłaḵwa (inherited Coppers representing one’s history and wealth) placed them around the fire as a sign of unity, pushing for their values of stewardship to be recognized by elected representatives.
‘Wi’wa̱lsǥa̱’makw- All Tribes Together
Feasts and potlaches are the root of the once-illegal governance system that has been followed by the Kwakwaka’wakw for time immemorial. In an interview with Watershed Sentinel, Kwagu’ł Giǥa̱me Walas Namugwis explained the significance of the feast, triggered by ongoing forestry within his territory. “All communities within coastal regions are suffering resource extraction at its worst,” he says, “It was important to gather our people together, to lift us up, to sing, to celebrate, and to remember who we are as people of the land.”
Giǥa̱me Walas Namugwis heads the Kwakwaka’wakw Hereditary Chiefs Confederation, which aims to uphold traditional rights, title, responsibilities, and governance systems, and heal from the impacts of colonization and industrial exploitation on their Nations’ land and culture.
Waves of emotion passed through the Gukwdzi, as witnesses raised their hands in agreement with the messages brought forward by their Leaders, who spoke to the environmental and cultural concerns among their Nations. “The elected Chiefs don’t think seven generations ahead, they weren’t raised like our Giǥa̱me – to think about the future, to think what they will have left,” declared Gwa’sala-’Nakwaxda’xw Giǥa̱me Sonny Wallace. “All they think about is greed, and it’s sad to say that’s what it always comes down to.”
Deep-rooted ties to the natural world were entwined into the entire ceremony – locally foraged and traditionally prepared food, cedar for cleansing, burning, and regalia, and salves used for customary giveaways. Following the speeches, witnesses flooded the floor, smiles lighting their faces as they joined together for a final dance to signify the unity and resilience of all Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw Nations.
“We will make this movement with one voice – Let’s not give the government the satisfaction of individualism. It’s not about individualism, it’s about connecting together as one.” —Giǥa̱me Walas Namugwis
Stewardship, not greed
“I was right there on the front line,” says Giǥa̱me Walas Namugwis in an interview with Watershed Sentinel, detailing the negative impacts he’s witnessed through a lifetime of working with the land and water. He describes effects on the seasons, watersheds, forests, and animals through elevated temperatures, loss of habitat, and changes in water conditions and aquatic life due to extractive industries. “Industry needs to learn stewardship; the Ministry needs to learn stewardship. That’s my main objective right now – educating about stewardship at all levels.”
In a letter posted to the We Wai Kai Treaty Society’s Facebook page on March 21, 2023, We Wai Kai elected chief Ronnie Chickite stated, “We want to advise the membership that we have issued a challenge in court to the decision of the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans to not re-issue aquaculture licenses for 7 salmon farms in Discovery Islands.” . Elected Chief Chris Roberts of the Wei Wai Kum Nation, who joins Chickite in the challenge, shared to the Campbell River Mirror his view that “On one hand, [DFO] say they support First Nations right to make their own decisions…. But, what they have done is something that aligns with their political platforms and ideologies.”
Chickite and Roberts are part of a small group of First Nation representatives who recently formed the Coalition of First Nations for Finfish Stewardship (FNFFS) to campaign against the removal of fish farms in their territories. On their website, FNFFS states they have “united over a shared concern that their rights to make economic decisions for their territories are being ignored.”
They observe on their site that “some [Nations] are in favour of industry and others have decided not to have salmon farms in their territories,” but stop short of recognizing that agreements negotiated by elected leadership can be divisive, and do not always reflect the values and wishes of community members. For example, on April 25, We Wai Kai elder and sister of Hereditary Chief Arnold Chickite, Barbara McCoy Chickite, posted a video of herself presenting a petition signed by over 100 We Wai Kai community members, that states, “We the undersigned declare our opposition to the actions of the elected leadership of the We Wai Kai and […] Dallas Smith from the Coalition of First Nations for Finfish Stewardship, in challenging the decision to close the fifteen fish farm licenses in the Discovery Island[s] region. We do not want the fish farms in our territory.”
Roberts added to in his interview with the Campbell River Mirror, “It’s never really been scientifically proven why our territory is such a critical one for Fraser sockeye, but that’s the excuse we’re getting. That’s concerning for us.” However, as noted in dozens of publications, juvenile salmon emerge from the Fraser River to continue their journey North to Alaska – passing numerous open net-pen fish farms in the Discovery Islands and other points in the Salish Sea before returning South to freshwater to complete their life cycles. There has been a slew of peer-reviewed scientific studies published over the past decade linking exposure to open net-pen fish farms to increases in harmful pathogens and parasites in wild salmon; including a recent study in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, that showed Fraser River Sockeye had exposure levels 12 times higher to a genus of a bacterium linked to skin diseases, than in other regions.
Heavily criticized industries such as hydroelectricity, forestry, mining, and aquaculture have reached great success in BC through partnerships with Indigenous Nations – and the use of their resources.
“As advocates of First Nations on northern Vancouver Island and the neighbouring southern Central Coast region, [Nanwakolas is] an emerging government,” says Dallas Smith, president of Nanwakolas Council, in an interview with TruckLoggerBC. Nanwakolas provides member First Nations in the Northern Vancouver Island region with land and marine resource management and economic development services. Smith’s resume includes FNFFS, Coast Funds, Island Coastal Economic Trust, Coast Sustainability Trust, GeoScience BC, the Great Bear Rainforest agreement, and the Marine Plan Partnership (MaPP). His responsibilities range from financial distribution, marine and land research and planning, to determining protected areas and Indigenous-led environmental protocols with industry.
Nanwakolas’ Ha-Ma-Yas Guardians “help protect … cultural and socio-economic values” across 3.2 million hectares of Northern Vancouver Island. Nanwakolas has received millions in private, provincial, and federal funding and donations from but not limited to: the Marine Plan Partnership (MaPP), the federal Oceans Protection Plan, Great Bear Rainforest (GBR) agreement, multinational national aquaculture companies MOWI and Grieg Seafood, Canadian lumber company Western Forest Projects (WFP), and charities Nature United and Coast Funds.
“I can say everything’s in upbringing,” begins Giǥa̱me Walas Namugwis, when asked about Nanwakolas’ funded guardian program. “I feel most of the Guardians have lots to learn about stewardship.” He continues, “That’s what makes a true Guardian – a guardian that knows the weather, seasons, harvesting… you know, they’re the jack of all trades in the woods.”
“It’s time for us, as Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw people, to stand up as one. To take back our land, to have our resources. To take back our right to say, ‘no more logging old growth, no more fish farms, no more of anything that is destructing our territories and destructing our ways of life.’” —Giǥa̱me Sonny Wallace.
Money grows on trees
Giǥa̱me Walas Namugwis explains how old growth is connected to everything, “It’s a mother tree of life for us.” Members of his community are working to keep forestry equipment encroaching on their watersheds from annihilating the last of their once-abundant forests.
In 2022, Nanwakolas received praise for their agreement with Western Forest Products (WFP) to defer the logging of 2500 hectares of old growth. Nanwakolas Council members share four companies specializing in resource extraction with one of BC’s largest forestry contractors, ROGA Group, which has projects with WFP and Coastal Gaslink. ROGA’s partner companies provide services to “fall and process both old growth and second growth timber” within Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw territory.
Requests for interviews were made to Roberts and Chickite, Dallas Smith, Nanwakolas Council, ROGA group and FNFFS, however, no representatives were made available for comment.
All generations – past, present, future.
“It’s our responsibility to take the culture we have, protect it, embrace it, and make sure it’s there for our children and grandchildren,” expressed Giǥa̱me Rob Everson at the feast. Responsibility was a common theme from the Giǥa̱me – responsibility to their members, ancestors, and environment from which they come. Although invited, no elected representatives attended the feast to speak in favor of industry.
“It was teamwork, always teamwork,” Kwaguł Matriarch and longtime environmental protector, Wata (Christine Twance) shares. Nations worked together, moving between territories to preserve resources – “They’d gather all the branches and bushes to start the fire, and then they’d all start singing. Same songs – over and over again. I’ll never hear that again, hun. In my mind, I can hear it. It’s amazing – how they used to enjoy themselves,” she smiles, recalling her childhood, travelling to Knight Inlet to make t̕łi’na–ooligan grease. “They had songs for everything.”
The natural world is a pillar of Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw culture, each territory holding irreplaceable memories, lives and teachings. Kwagu’ł Matriarch Mabel Knox reflects on her upbringing on the land and sea, “What I’d like to see for the future is to leave the trees alone for our grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and those who aren’t born yet to enjoy, like we have, in a short time.” She continues, “We’re not around forever, but I would like them to see it, so they can look at how beautiful it is – how hard we are trying to fight for it.”
Pa̱x̱a̱la, Desiree Mannila is a proud member of the Da’naxda’xw Nation, and staff reporter for the Watershed Sentinel.