Alert Bay road trip day three: people, food and territory
It’s really impossible to overstate the worry I heard in people’s voices today. In our meeting an Elder named Billy Bird spoke briefly before lunch and reminded the group just what had been lost – the salmon runs, the crab and prawns, the seaweed beds, the clam gardens. The Namgis people and their relatives on Gilford Island, Kingcombe Inlet and Oweekeno are ocean people. Their life is on the ocean and without access to the ocean the fear is that they are no longer a people at all.
For thousands of years these people have lived in the Kwak’wak’wakw Sea, tending the resources, enhancing them where they could. In the past 150 years the Namgis people have been herded onto a reserve, had every single one of their food sources regulated by a foreign government that denied them citizenship for the first 100 of contact, even as it was busy distributing the ocean’s resources to others. Now the fishing industry is concentrated in very few hands, fish farms are wreacking havoc with the local wild seafood and there are less than half a dozen working boats in the community. Those that are left fish for the community, but simply eating salmon does not make you a salmon people. Without the experience of spending most of your waking hours on the water, handling the products of the ocean garden and tending to it, knowing in the heave and fall of the swell where your next meal is coming from, you are not an ocean people.
I heard another heartbreaking story today. Boats are so scare that an aunt who wanted to give her nephews a chance to get out on the water had to charter a whale watching boat from nearby Telegraph Cove at huge expense to herself simply to give the youth in her family a taste of an experience that is their birthright. And when the big day arrived, she was sick and couldn’t go and the trip was off, and the timing hasn’t worked for them to go since then. It must be akin to living indoors for months at a time, even as the weather outside is beautiful and everyone else is enjoying it. To say that some feel imprisoned is not overstating it.
Alert Bay is not a big community, and the Namgis people are not a people who are used to spending years at a time on land. Without being on the water working and gathering food there is a tremendous amount of stress built up here. When that stress combines with despondent feelings of failing one’s ancestors and the self-judgment that was taught so well at residential school, the combination sometimes leads to suicide. And without access to traditional food and traditional ways of harvesting food, an epidemic of diabetes has arisen. A large number of the community members are currently on a diet, similar to the low carbohydrate Atkins diet, but more built around traditional foods to see if it makes a difference in the diabetes rates. The early research is proving that it does, and so conversely it is proving that restricting the access of these people to their traditional food sources is akin to infecting them with diabetes.
If it sounds bad it is because the truth here is deep and painful and it rises close to the surface. But as with the upwellings in the channels of the Broughton what comes up is often nutrient rich as well. With the same passion that they tell stories about life now, they argue for solutions that are very much in line with what we know about the way the world is going. With the concentration of wealth in a few places, a global economy dependant on oil and the conversion of local places to branch plants for multinational corporations, the foundations of capitalist economies in the west are vulnerable to large scale and abrupt changes. As climate change accelerates, and the price of oil climbs as the resource becomes more and more scarce, the centralized economic systems of the western world risk collapse to more local, more self-sufficient regions. First Nations people, who have long been canaries in the coal mine with respect to control over resources, are now at the leading edge of this emergent future, calling for restoration of local control and responsibility to local communities. Over the past two days I heard passionate calls for broad decision making powers to be returned to the local communities, even if they are exercised in collaboration with government. I heard people describing the vast amounts of volunteer labour that local people put into sustaining ocean resources despite the fact that the exploitation of these resources are largely concentrated in the hands of a few distant owners. Despite that, Namgis and Oweekeno and Gilford Island peoples continue to look after their oceans and their resources, and to propose ways in which others might join them to sustain what is left for the benefit of those who need it most.
It has been a good road trip. The conversations in the gathering, framed and anticipated as hostile and angry, have instead been powerful and constructive. Through the simple act of listening, of hearing people’s concerns and voices and truly understanding where they are coming from, we created a small crack of daylight here. One staunch table-pounding advocate told me at the end of today that “I might be naive but I sense a little bit of hope.” That is exactly what we were trying to do, and now it is the responsibility of both the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the local communities to make good on the nuggets of possibility now emerging in public voices which, on bad days, are laced with toxic vitriol and bitter rhetoric.
I can’t let this trip go by without commenting on the food. As we were gathered to talk about the natural food resources of the Kwa’kwak’wakw Sea, we were fed from these same resources. Yesterday it was clam chowder and smoked salmon salad sandwiches on homemade molasses bread. Today an incredible halibut soup topped with seaweed and flavoured with oolichan oil, one of the healthiest food products in the world. Oolichan smells incredibly bad and tastes like you would expect rotten fish to taste like. This because it IS rotten fish – a small oily smelt that is left to ferment and then processed into almost pure grease. It is brutal to eat raw, and is the definitive “acquired taste.” But it is also treated like gold here on the coast. Traditionally trails between First Nations that live on opposite sides of a watershed are called “grease trails.” Oolichan grease was and still is traded for west coast resources on Vancouver Island, or over the mountains on the mainland into the dry interior. Oolichan is the basis of intertribal relationships and protocols and in remembering these trails, and this little stinky fish, the relationships are also remembered. I once sat in the bighouse in Fort Rupert and listened to Kwagiulth and Ahousaht singers from opposite ends of the grease trail give their renditions of the songs that accompanied the trade. They were amazed that songs that hadn’t been sung in years were almost identical, leading to a great spontaneous celebration of unity and friendship during which we sang and danced and kept each other company around the fire that burned at the centre of the huge building. This food is more than just what is for supper. It is everything, the be all and end all. Without traditional food there are no traditional people and no traditional practices. If we are to retain our traditions we must retain our indigenous ways of relating to the land and using those relations to relate to one another, and then we can rediscover the hope that comes from stewarding our own lives.
[tags]namgis, alert bay, oolichan[/tags]
So Say We All
I’ve really enjoyed your little series about this trip, and especially this post – sad yet rich and inspiring!
Thanks marja-leena…I thought of you as I looked up at the Sointula sign.
Great post, Chris. Gave me goosebumps.
I really enjoyed reading about your trip to Alert Bay. You truly see the beauty of land and sea. At first it made me home sick and then I thought of my girls and how lucky I am to have two daughters that are growing up with their culture all around and learning the songs and dances that have been passed down for hundreds of year. I am truly blessed.
It was great to see you up here in Alert Bay!! I have heard nothing but good things about you and your skills. Let’s keep in touch this time.
Hi Pam and Vanessa…
Pam…it’s just a treat to be working with you again actually, and with all the folks that are connected to those islands and villages and the deep wisdom and beauty there.
Vanessa…ditto you too, and I hope you are able to make it to one of our capacity trainings this spring.
This is exactly what I expected to find out after reading the title Alert Bay road trip day three: people, food and territory. Thanks for informative article
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