Category Archives: Indigenous

Sitting on Water

Earlier this year, I blogged about the new Salmon Stewardship Program at the non-profit organization where I work as communications director. This fall, we wrapped up an exciting pilot year for the program, which included the construction and operation of a traditional-style fish weir that we used for sockeye enumeration.

This project has the potential to enable powerful, local stewardship of an important resource to the Heiltsuk Nation, and the data generated by our fieldwork will support resource management and decision-making for our Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department. It is also an inspiring example of scientific research and monitoring that is guided by cultural values and indigenous knowledge, developed by Heiltsuk managers and carried out by Heiltsuk field technicians.


Since we’re so excited by the story of this project, we wanted to find a way to share it with you! So we partnered with filmmaker Ilja Herb to develop a short film called Sitting on Water: A Season on the Koeye River. The film is close to being completed, and we’re looking for your help to generate interest and the last bit of funding we need to finish the editing. We’re offering some neat incentives for donors, and you can find out more by visiting our crowdfunding page on IndieGoGo.

I’d like to thank Ilja Herb, our filmmaker, and Andrew Naysmith, our editor; Will Atlas, our Salmon Program Coordinator, and all our colleagues at Qqs (Eyes) Projects Society; Grant Callegari for his invaluable work in designing and building the weir, and for helping with donor incentives; Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department; Hakai Beach Institute; and all of our philanthropic partners who support the operation of the Salmon Stewardship Program.


One of my slow goals in life is to make myself a new set of regalia. This is an exercise in new self-sufficiency, since I’ve never learned to sew. But for something that is so central to my identity – ceremony, and potlatching – it makes sense to find power in new capability.

A couple of weeks ago, when a friend returned from a successful deer hunt, he offered me the hooves as a gift. I’d told him months before that I wanted to make noisemakers for a new apron, and this was the first hunt to happen in the periphery of my life since setting that goal. I traveled home with thawing hooves in my purse, and yesterday, I took initial steps to process them.

To offer a disclaimer, I’ve never done this before. I proceeded with advice from my father and grandfather, learned by feel, and will probably do successively better jobs as I get more practice!

1. I partially thawed and separated the hooves, which my friend had cut just above the dewclaw.


2. I simmered the hooves in clean water for three and a half hours, changing the water completely every hour or so.


3. Once they softened, I gently prised the hoof from the bone, flesh and connective tissue inside. The first hoof I tested (at three hours of simmering) was still hard to work with, but after an extra half hour in the water they popped out easily.


4. Once all the hooves were loose, I set to the initial finishing work. I kept the hooves in fresh, hot water until I was ready to work with each one, then set to trimming and scraping.


5. I trimmed the edges of the hooves to be flat and even, and scraped the soft, inner surface of the hoof clean. I mostly used a small knife with a thin, sharp blade, but I’d like to experiment with better tools.


There are still some rough edges I’d like to smooth, and I need to drill holes so I can fasten the noisemakers to my apron someday. I suspect this is easier to do while the hoof is still pliable, but I lacked the tools at the time so I’ll struggle through it later!

This process was a lesson in patience, and I still have plenty of work to do to refine my technique! If you have any feedback or ideas, please feel free to share them. I’d be really happy to learn from you, or learn together. Someday when I finally hear my apron rattling, I know I’ll be proud of all the hard work and grateful for the nimble deer that lend me their grace during ceremony!


At the JRP final hearings

This week, I traveled with a Heiltsuk delegation to Terrace, BC for a portion of the Joint Review Panel’s final hearings around the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway project.

Today, I spoke on behalf of community youth during our closing remarks. This is what I shared with the Panel, and I’d like to share it with you.

For generations to come.


As stated by my chief, my name is Jessie Housty. My traditional name is Ciuagilauxv. I come from the House of Naci and the House of Tsumclaqs. It is important to root my introduction to you in this family history; my name and my houses link me to the stories that are the basis of my identity as a Heiltsuk woman.

I am 26 years old. I grew up on the lands and waters with my family, living the intergenerational teachings that have supported transmission of our Heiltsuk values and laws since time before memory.

I am also an elected member of our Heiltsuk Tribal Council. I sit on this council with my colleagues you see here today, and our council represents three generations of community leadership. There are sixty years between myself and the eldest councilor. Six decades. This is how governance and leadership happen according to our customs. With intergenerational succession.

Even in my short life, I’ve seen huge transformations in my community. What we have fostered in our young people is boldness and hope. We have fostered a strong sense of place-based identity, rooted in our cultural values, that links our youngest generation into a powerful chain that stretches back to time before memory.

Our young people are empowered, socially and spiritually, by access to the lands and waters where they can learn and grow surrounded by their peers, their family, and their community.

From the deep sea to the intertidal zone and into the meadows and forests, our young people walk where our ancestors walked. And the duty they inherit is the same one I have inherited; our duty is to ensure our children and our children’s children can walk where our ancestors walked too.

You cannot assign a dollar value to the potential for transformation. When you take away hope, there is no adequate compensation. Our culture is based on stories. Those stories are written on the lands and waters. If the lands and waters are destroyed, our stories will be destroyed, our way of life will be lost, and our culture will be gone.

Enbridge cannot put a price on my identity as a young Heiltsuk woman. I come from the land. I come from the waters. I cannot be separated from the landscape where my stories come from.

From the first generation of our Heiltsuk people, someone has always held the Heiltsuk name that I hold now. It was passed down, along with our stories, values and laws, from generation to generation.

I hope to pass my name to a daughter someday. I hope she will pass it to my granddaughter.

When my children are born, I want them to be born into a world where hope and transformation are possible. I want them to be born into a world where stories still have power. I want them to grow up able to be Heiltsuk in every sense of the word. To practice the customs and understand the identity that has made our people strong for hundreds of generations.

That cannot happen if we do not sustain the integrity of our territory, the lands and waters, and the stewardship practices that link our people to the landscape. On behalf of the young people in my community, I respectfully disagree with the notion that there is any compensation to be made for the loss of our identity, for the loss of our right to be Heiltsuk.


Consilience in Action: Salmon Stewardship in the Koeye River Watershed

At my non-profit job, we’ve been launching into a new initiative based at our field site in the Koeye River Watershed. Recognizing the interconnectedness of the relationships between our people, our territory, and the key species we rely on, we’ve launched a strong Salmon Stewardship Program under our Coastwatch Heiltsuk Monitoring Initiative to ensure we’re managing this important resource with the best tools and information at our disposal.


An exciting element of this Salmon Stewardship work is our fish weir project. Supervised by Salmon Program Coordinator Will Atlas with assistance from some amazing folks at Hakai Beach Institute, this involves the construction of a cedar- and alder-wood weir across the whole width of the Koeye River above tidewater, which allows our team of Heiltsuk technicians to count every individual sockeye heading upstream. As far as our ongoing theme of “consilience” goes, this represents an incredible overlap between IK (indigenous knowledge) and western science. We’re combining the soundest elements of both in order to achieve better stewardship outcomes in our territory, and it’s exciting to be a part of it!

I’d like to invite you to check out an amazing little video from our friend and colleague Ilja Herb, who joined us during the construction stages of the weir project and is currently on his way back up the coast to film its operation. This video will give you a beautiful, visual introduction to the project, and there’s more to come as the summer progresses!

If you feel compelled to make a donation, your support has a huge impact at this scale. You can donate online, or contact my office for more information.

Global Tribes

I was privileged recently to join a delegation of First Nations leaders from across Canada in a trip through Northern Australia. This article from a Sydney newspaper shares a little of what we were doing.

Meet one of my heroes, Jeffrey Lee:


Ancient wisdom sends message across the world

They are on their way to meet the stone country people on the remote Western Arnhem Plateau, but first the delegation of Canada’s First Nations stops in Kakadu National Park to visit the man who said no to millions of dollars.

Senior custodian Jeffrey Lee takes them to Koongarra, his bush site that might have become a uranium mine worth as much as $5 billion. If only Lee had said yes.

”Money don’t mean nothing to me,” he says. ”Money come, money go. Once you take my land away, you can’t put it back together again.”

His 11 guests from nine First Nations find nothing strange in this.

”Heartwarming, but not surprising,” says Steve Nitah of the Lutsel K’e Dene Nation. Nitah says native Canadians derive 70 to 90 per cent of their diet from the land but are fighting their own battles with resource developers, from foresters to gas pipeline builders and tar sands miners. They only wish they had the power of veto that Lee enjoys under the Northern Territory land rights act.

Lee’s father and grandfather had wanted the mine but, after a decades-long battle, he has succeeded in his own determination that Koongarra be folded into the world-heritage park that surrounds it.

When Lee divulges his cut from the mine might have been $7.5 million, a 26-year-old member of the Heiltsuk First Nation’s tribal parliament, Jess Housty, shrugs: ”The money is the least interesting thing. If we want to calculate the value of a proposal, the question is, ‘What’s at stake?’ My identity is based on the stories my people have written in the landscape. If you kill the land, you kill our stories. If you kill our stories, you kill the people. It’s as simple as that.”

They are sweltering in temperatures of 30 degrees-plus. Some of them are more comfortable in -30 degrees. But they find they have much in common with indigenous Australians like Lee.

It is why the Pew Charitable Trusts has brought them here. The US-founded global philanthropic giant, which built its perpetual fund on the Pew family’s old oil fortune, is focusing its environmental work on the world’s remaining ”big scale” treasures – the kind of intact ecosystems over vast landscapes that can still be found in Canada and Australia.

So early on Saturday, we board single-engine planes bound for Warddeken, an indigenous rangers’ camp in the stone country of the Mok clan. This tiny outpost is protecting what Pew’s Australian director, ecologist Barry Traill, calls a ”global gem of biodiversity”.

The Warddeken Indigenous Protected Area is half the size of Switzerland, almost 1.4 million hectares that contain species found nowhere else on the planet: the black wallaroo; the Oenpelli python, rock rats, birds, many plants. It boasts thousands of rock art sites.

But wildfires that can burn for months and grow to ”the size of Sydney” would threaten it all if not for the pioneering indigenous fire management at Warddeken, says Traill. This work earns Warddeken and neighbouring indigenous groups a break-even $1.2 million a year for the abatement of 100,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases.

Warddeken is one of 58 Indigenous Protected Areas that cover more than 51 million hectares of Australia and employ almost 700 indigenous rangers. Launched by the Howard government and expanded under Labor, IPAs are not forms of land tenure. They are agreements between the federal government and traditional owners under which the locals are supported to care for land that is otherwise neglected.

Pew supports several IPAs and believes they can be a model for the Canadians and their own treasures such as the boreal forest, the largest intact forest in the world. The visitors agree. ”I’ve been fighting for something like this for six years,” says Douglas Neasloss of the Kitasoo-Xaixais Nation.

But Warddeken may never have happened if not for ”the old man”, Lofty Bardayal Nadjamerrek, AO. Locals had left the area for bigger settlements around World War II and earlier. Nadjamerrek was among pioneers who led a homeland movement back into Arnhem Land in the 1970s and ’80s and, finally, a return to his own country in the late 1990s. He lived until 2009, just long enough to witness its declaration as an IPA.

Much damage was done in those lost years by wildfire, invasive weeds and feral animals.

Trail says: ”We usually think of conservation and say people are the problem. But one of the biggest problems in outback Australia is the lack of people. In more than 50 per cent of Australia there are fewer people managing the environment today than there have been for the past 50,000 years.”

The IPAs, he says, allow the people who know best to work ”on country”.

The on-site operations manager at Warddeken, Jake Weigl, says their controlled mosaic burning ”absolutely replicates” ancient fire practice but exploits modern tools. In the early dry season, they drop incendiary devices from helicopters. He describes how a helicopter will drop a team of just six to nine rangers – armed with only rake hoes, chainsaws and leaf-blowers – to resist fire fronts as big as 50 kilometres.

”For a fire that size in Victoria they’d bring in hundreds of firefighters, but that’s fire suppression – not management. If they managed it, they wouldn’t need so many resources.”

The chairman of Warddeken Land Management Limited, Dean Yibarbuk, points to the return of emu to the area as evidence of the rangers’ success and the recovery of species.

The Nature Conservancy also supports the operation. Pew has backed IPAs elsewhere, including the Kimberley. It is supporting the Ngadju people to protect the Great Western Woodlands in the south-east of Western Australia.

It worked with graziers and indigenous groups to secure the exclusion of mining leases from the Queensland Channel Country rivers and floodplains that feed Lake Eyre, but now they are battling the Newman government’s declaration that it will allow mining after all.

Pew has some enemies, notably elements among recreational and commercial fishers who believe it has supported research that overstates the threat to global fish stocks. Pew stands by the research. Traill derides a conspiracy theory that Pew is backing marine parks in Australia to exclude oil exploration – to benefit American oil producers.

Pew no longer has any money in oil, he says. When established in 1948, founder J. Howard Pew wanted to ”acquaint the American people with the evils of bureaucracy and the values of a free market”. His heirs have a less conservative focus but the group claims to be non-partisan.

Little of this concerns the daughters of Lofty Bardayal Nadjamerrek, Lois and Hagar. They welcome the First Nations people to their country by inviting them to enter a spring, where they pour water over their heads. In their dreaming, it is the nectar of the sugar bee.

”We are really proud to have that mob coming from Canada,” Hagar says. It was their father’s vision to share their knowledge with the world, she says.

Lois adds: ”I believe we are following his vision.”

The Pew Charitable Trusts assisted Fairfax Media’s travel from Kakadu to Arnhem Land.

Read it here:

Exploring consilience in the GBR

This May, I was privileged to co-instruct a field course with a dear friend and colleague, Dr. Chris Darimont, through UVic’s Department of Geography. Along with 15 bright and amazing students, we explored the theme of consilience – in particular, how western science and indigenous knowledge can run parallel or even overlap to achieve stronger stewardship objectives.

It was my first experience teaching. And it was magical. Together, we explored many of the landscapes that are dearest to my heart: Koeye, Hakai, and Goose Island. Students brought diverse backgrounds to bear on the values, ideas and solutions common to biology, ecology, environmental studies, geography, First Nations studies, resource management, political science, and even my background in literature.


What I want to share is this: Meaningful and authentic collaboration is possible. It has a language and a grammar that root our conversations in respect. It has basic principles that guide our interactions and teach us to navigate a route together. It is multidisciplinary, it is exciting, and it is a process that is never completed. That’s where the sweetness lies.

The other thing I want to share is this: The fifteen students who participated in our class are already leaders in their field, and they are growing to be experts on collaboration and engagement, authenticity and respect, and yes, on consilience. It was a pleasure dear to my heart to share this time with Chris, and I’m deeply grateful for everyone who was so gentle with me as I walked this path with them.


Courage, and a feather.

It was with a great deal of heaviness in my heart that I read about Elijah Harper’s passing yesterday.

It is a difficult thing to be called to leadership in life before you feel ready. It doesn’t matter what the scale of your leadership is; when your values make you passionate about catalyzing positive change in your life and the lives of others, the weight of what’s before you often feels heavy. You want to be prepared. You want to do justice to the trust people put in your ability to come through.

One of the things that gives you courage is the transition between different generations. You know that you’re walking the traplines laid down by your predecessors. You know the brushtrails have been cleared for you, and that it’s your turn to take to those trails and seek sustenance for yourself and your people. It’s your time to walk through the landscape of power that the heads, hearts and hands of your ancestors and your teachers created for you.

You want guidance. And you want the opportunity to give gratitude to those who provide it.


The man in this image is Elijah Harper. He went on ahead to walk with the ancestors yesterday, and though my heart is heavier for it, I know they’re celebrating to have him in their midst. I did not know him personally. But he is someone who has guided me, and I’d hoped to someday have the opportunity to give him my gratitude for it.

I’m not going to tell his story here. I’m not going to eulogize him. His life and leadership deserve more eloquence than I can provide. He is and always will be, for me, a symbol of the power you can wield and the change you can make with courage and an eagle feather in your hand.

He is, in a very large way, one of those incredible people who gave this gift to my generation: Reclamation of our sovereignty as indigenous people is not a dream, but a possibility. And with courage, and an eagle feather in our hands, we can help to realize the things he fought for his whole life.

May he continue to guide us and feel our gratitude carried up on the sacred smoke.