This is the sixteenth in a continuing series of articles that began with the January, 2014 issue of Whatcom Watch. The series addresses the impediments to democracy and well-being in American society – as well as ways like the one presented here to improve the situation.
In July, I was honored to be able to support the Unist’ot’en of Northern British Columbia in their resistance to pipelines crossing their land.
The Unist’ot’en are a house of the Big Frog Clan of the Witsuwit’en First Nation1 with territories on the eastern slopes of the coastal range. A few years ago, they discovered that at least three pipeline companies wanted to cross Unist’ot’en land to bring fossil fuels to the British Columbia coast for export: Enbridge wishes to ship bitumen and condensate from the tar sands. Coastal Gas Link (a part of Trans Canada, which also wants to build the XL pipeline from Canada to Louisiana) and Pacific Trails Pipeline (Chevron Canada) want to bring through natural gas obtained by fracking, which is taking place mostly in northern Alberta.
The certain ecological harm from these projects is potentially boundless, whether you consider the initial extraction (fracking, tar sands), the transmission by pipeline through the mountains, the carriage to Asia by tanker, or the eventual burning of the fuel in Asia. Nothing in the capitalist “legal” regime requires the companies concerned to pay for these inherent and potentially measureless harms.
The Unist’ot’en stand against all these threats and especially the legal and ecological threats to their traditional lands. They want to live simply, within the capacity of their traditional lands, so that they (and we) can simply live. For the last several years, people representing government, the pipeline companies and the media have not been allowed to enter.
All who do wish to enter must pass through a checkpoint, where they must answer questions about their intentions based on a traditional protocol that aboriginal peoples used when visiting one another’s lands. There are a couple of other access points on the western side of the territory, so the camp leaders have set up satellite observation camps at those locations.
The overall size of the territory is about 1000 square kilometers, and getting to the satellite camps requires a drive of a couple of hours, leaving the main camp, going out to the main road, and circling around to the West. Because of the continuing threat from government and industry, camp members are assigned to keep watch in shifts at the bridge and at the satellite camps 24 hours a day.
At the Camp
To visit the camp, I applied a couple of months in advance, explaining why I wanted to be there. I was there for four days.
I came to the camp with my dear friend Lyn Pinkerton, a professor of resource management (trained as an anthropologist) at Simon Fraser University who has been working on fisheries and forestry problems of aboriginal peoples and other local communities for several decades. In Prince George we were joined by Antonia Mills, who taught First Nation Studies at the University of Northern British Columbia, is now Professor Emerita, and has been involved in aboriginal matters for as long as Lyn has.
To get to the camp, we drove to Houston, British Columbia and then about 60 kilometers on a well-graded gravel logging road. Incidentally, the Unist’ot’en have consented to the logging and replanting as long as it’s done in a sustainable fashion. Just before you get to the camp, you cross the Morice River, which at that point is about 50 yards wide and both deep and briskly flowing. You would be hard-pressed to cross the river if you couldn’t use the bridge. As we approached the bridge, a sign blocked the road and instructed us to stop, honk, and then wait until we were met. Beyond the sign was a parked pickup truck, which effectively blocked the one-lane bridge. A team of three walked across to meet us and they followed their formal protocol of questions, finally allowing us to pass. A couple of the questions were “What benefit will you bring to the territory?” and “Do you work for government or industry?” They had known that we were coming, and we had answered many of these questions in the course of applying to come, but there was symbolic importance in asserting the protocol at the actual border to the territory. These are the questions that the oil companies can’t answer satisfactorily.
The camp itself was a bustle of activity. About 30 people of all ages, genders, ethnicities and gender orientations were present. They were both aboriginal and non-aboriginal, having come from all parts of Canada and various places in the US and Europe. Two large whiteboards kept track of all the tasks that people had signed up for, ranging from cooking and dish-washing to building a healing lodge and staffing the satellite camps and bridge. Earlier in the year, the camp had set up a vegetable and fruit garden; the year before, they had built a pit house perhaps 50 feet in diameter.
Shortly after we arrived, there was a chorused cry of “CIRCLE!” the signal for all at the camp to assemble for announcements, group decisions and blessing. Afterwards, we repaired to the kitchen to fill our plates with a delicious evening meal. Camp circles were summoned twice daily.
Another form of summoning was the siren. While we were there, the siren went off twice, both times as an exercise and not because of any real threat. The idea was that those at the Camp would all gather if someone who would not be allowed to cross the bridge was becoming insistent. Then it would be possible to show there were more people at the Camp than the two-person bridge team. During my time there, I put in one six-hour stretch of bridge watch. During my stint, only friends approached from the other side.
At a certain point, a helicopter circled over the camp. Everyone was asked to get inside, pronto, so as not to be visible or photographed. Some of the people at the camp were afraid of being identified for their own sakes. There was also fear for whether the camp was going to be able to continue in the face of the threatening corporate and governmental forces.
One point that was very touching for me was that after each circle, those invited first to fill their plates were “dish-washers and elders.” I had signed up to be a dish-washer almost immediately, and then it occurred to me that Lyn, Tonia and I were also elders!
While we were there, representatives of Chevron showed up at the bridge asking for access for a surveying team. They brought gifts which caused the camp residents great hilarity: a case of water in plastic bottles and tobacco in a plastic pouch. This was not an occasion for the siren, but it was one where as usual the oil boys were firmly but politely refused access. The conversation was recorded and can be seen on the Unist’ot’en Facebook page. We wondered if it had never occurred to the corporate team that we were drinking perfectly good water (after minimal treatment) from the Morice River, and that tobacco is not part of the northwest aboriginal culture.
Many at the camp supposed that Chevron’s visit was an attempt to lay the groundwork for court proceedings and an injunction. Nothing of this type has happened yet, though we received worrying reports of the RCMP gathering nearby continue.
What’s at Stake
Freda Huson, the designated spokesperson for the Unist’ot’en and a member of the house, was the one who spoke to the Chevron delegation. Except for a camera operator and one or two others, the rest of us stayed out of sight in the main camp. She told me later that the basic issue was whether someone had gone through the house’s protocol and had permission for their overall project. The oil companies have not done that. The camp and the three proposed pipeline routes are all on land not ceded by the Unist’ot’en. Freda lives at the camp and from what the land produces. It is her home. She expresses calm, strength and steadfastness – both in words, and in demeanor.
Mel Bazil was staying at the camp when we were there. He is from the Gitxsan First Nation, and wants to help the Unist’ot’en in their aim of protecting their lands for future generations. He said that what impels the Unist’ot’en on their path is not entitlement, but a sense of responsibility to the land and the living creatures that have been entrusted to their care. That responsibility explicitly excludes disrupting either the land or the creatures with gigantic construction projects, not to speak of opening them to the further threat (and ultimate certainty) of poisonous and explosive pipeline spills. It also does not mean exposing them or any other lands or creatures to the accelerated global warming that would result from burning any fossil fuels that might pass through the pipelines. Nor does it mean that the devastation elsewhere from fracking and tar sands mining should proceed.
I want to honor the people of the Unist’ot’en. They are standing up for all of us. May the rest of us join with and support them.
Let me conclude with a story and a song. The story is one that Mel Bazil told. Passionate, articulate and committed, Mel uses the story as a basis for participatory workshops that he gives to children and adults all over western Canada. You can see the story in the sidebar. Mel developed the concept for the workshop on an actual canoe journey that he took, in which he and the others paddled for 18 hours a day. On that journey, he noticed that the paddlers were almost as uncoordinated as the ones in the story. So he asked the person most learned in the local language how to say “Let’s all work together!” She told him it was “Niwhtuk!” (pronounced “nee-u-tuk”). At Mel’s urging, the paddlers would chant “Niwhtuk!” as they thrust forward together with their paddles. Then they really got going.
The song is one that the group wrote while sitting around the nightly fire circle. You’ll see it in the second sidebar. Knedebeas is the house chief of the Unist’ot’en.
So, folks, NIWHTUK! And let’s throw over the exploitative neo-liberal paradigm.
If readers of this article would like to assist with the work of the camp, look up the Unist’ot’en on Facebook or the web. There you can send them money or apply to visit the camp and participate in its daily life. You can reflect on the significance of what they are doing and ask yourself how you can support their work in your own life. You can also talk about what they are doing and why with friends and neighbors. Without more or less universal action like theirs, there won’t be a place on earth for our children to live.
1. In the U.S., we speak of Native American “tribes.” In Canada, aboriginal people speak of the equivalent as a “nation,” while the colonial government’s official designation of such a group is “band.” Some aboriginal people, including the Witsuwit’en, speak of a sub-grouping of a “nation” as a “clan,” further divided into “houses.”
Who “Owns” the Land?
What Are the Responsibilities of “Owning”?
Here’s the legal setup:
The companies’ claims — like Euro-settler claims all over the world — are ultimately based on unilateral, racist proclamations of the Pope, made in 1452 and known collectively as the “Doctrine of Discovery.” These papal Bulls declared that “Christian” European explorers could conquer the lands they found, exploit the resources, subjugate any peoples and, if necessary, enslave them. The Pope’s Bulls started with the west coast of Africa, and then focussed on the Caribbean and South America — the territories that Christopher Columbus happened to have come upon. Not to be outdone by the Pope, in 1496 King Henry VII of England granted a “patent” to John Cabot to do the same thing in North America. Cabot’s “patent” was the origin of British claims in what is now Canada and the United States. The only restriction on these “discoverers” was that they couldn’t assert their claims over territories that were already occupied by a “Christian” power. In none of this were the people already living there considered — except as commodities.
Thus did the European religious and secular hierarchies join in converting a program of land theft and enslavement into “law.” U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall incorporated the Doctrine of Discovery into the law of the United States in his Johnson v. M’Intosh opinion of 1823. The Court continues to cite it as a basis of decision, most recently in the City of Sherrill v. Oneida case of 2005. The distinguished Justice Marshall’s opinion has been cited with approval in much of the rest of the world, including Canada.
In what is now the United States, the British Crown and then later the U.S. government made over 400 treaties with aboriginal people — all forced on those people, and all of which the United States has breached. The adoption of forced treaties happened in most of Canada, except for British Columbia where, with not even the pretense of consent, the colonial power simply moved in and occupied the territory. In the eyes of certain Canadian authorities, the Unist’ot’en territory, for example, is now considered “Crown land.” In 1992, the British Columbia Treaty Process was set up, under which the federal and provincial governments are negotiating treaties with British Columbia First Nations one by one. Typically, the “deal” that the government proposes involves a small payment in money and a large reduction in the territory that the band concerned can call home. The result is that the “process” is largely stalled. Unlike the federal and provincial government agencies, the Canadian courts have consistently held that aboriginal people have rights — in their traditional lands, and to traditional practices and law.
A Canoe Story for the Colonized
There are three canoes paddling through a turbulent sea. Fog encloses them. In each canoe, at least one paddler has a broken paddle. Some have broken paddles that have been repaired. Others have unbroken paddles and are paddling strongly, but there is no unity, even among the strong paddlers. Some paddlers want to go east. Some want to go west. The person at the stern is actually paddling in the opposite direction. It’s hard to keep the canoes on course, or for the canoes to overcome the danger of the turbulent seas.
The canoe is our community. The paddlers with broken paddles are those suffering from drug or alcohol abuse or mental illness, or who have suffered from violence. They need to be cured of their illnesses and protected. The paddlers with repaired paddles have recovered, at least for now, and need continuing support and maintenance.
One of the canoes has a crew composed of aboriginal people. One is paddled by immigrants. (In Canada, 80,000 immigrants are being held in detention these days without charges.) The third is propelled by colonized settlers of European origin.
As the fog begins to lift, the paddlers see that they don’t even have the limited control that they thought they had. Their canoes are all being towed by a giant, gilded yacht flying the flag of Canada (United States? Wall Street?) from its stern. The yacht’s wake is what is producing the turbulence. The crews aren’t the ones choosing their course at all, as it turns out. Instead it is the masters of the yacht. Some paddlers want to catch up to the yacht, or even crawl along the tow ropes to reach it.
The paddler at the bow of each canoe actually has a knife. What should he do with that knife? What should the paddlers do about choosing their course, and removing themselves from the yacht’s life-threatening turbulence? Has the paddler trying to go in reverse been the only one who understood what the canoe and its crew needed — to free themselves from subjugation from the indifferent few in the gilded yacht?
There is Power in Unist’ot’en
(to the tune of The Battle Cry of Freedom)
There is power in Unist’ot’en, power in the land,
Power in the hands of our supporters.
And it all amounts to something, when together we do stand.
There is power in Unist’ot’en.
Unist’ot’en forever, defending the land.
Down with the pipelines, together we stand
With our allies and our friends from many distant lands.
There is power in Unist’ot’en.
Oh, invading oil barons would wreck the land and water,
Pushing the planet to disaster.
With the banksters down on Wall Street, and their pals in government,
They only want their profits faster.
Oh, they call us agitators, but we really do defend
The river and the land of Knedebeas.
Where there’s fish, deer, moose and berries, and medicines to heal,
We won’t allow the oily beast.