a lush green forest
Tongass Rainforest in Emerald Edge The Conservancy’s Emerald Edge program seeks to protect a vast swath of the coastal-rainforest system from northern Washington to the Tongass, which includes most of Southeast Alaska. © Chris Crisman

Investing in People

Exchanging Ideas and History in Bella Coola

Dzawada’enuxw and the Nuxalk First Nations met in Bella Coola to share knowledge on traditional governance-rebuilding strategies.

By Lindsey Willie, Traditional Land and Governance Coordinator for the Dzawada’enuxw First Nation

Lindsey Mae Willie is a member of the Musgamagw Dzawada'enuxw people, living and working in the remote village of Kingcome Inlet, BC. As a filmmaker, activist, and researcher, Willie has helped develop a governance engagement strategy to enhance the capacity of the Dzawada'enuxw First Nation to assert authority over its territory. In Fall 2016, she participated in a community exchange with the Nuxalk First Nation.

Nature United supports exchanges like this across the Emerald Edge so that people can learn from each other, share new ideas, and compare results: These connections are accelerating change and strengthening local decision-making authority.

As our airplane flew through the mountains to Bella Coola, I had the strangest feeling: This landscape of mountains and river valley was so familiar it felt like I might be flying back into my own territory. 

As a Land and Governance Coordinator for the Dzawada’enuxw First Nation, I was flying up the West Coast from Ukwa’nalis to take part in a governance exchange with our Nuxalk counterparts. Along with the other researchers and traditional leaders joining me, our goal was to share knowledge and ideas on traditional governance rebuilding strategies.

We began our day with a short tour through Nuxalk territory. It was like seeing our territory with the same snowy mountains, river and estuary but with more people, buildings and paved roads. It was like a parallel universe. The familiarity followed us into the Nuxalk band office where we began our governance exchange. Our communities are in a similar, unique position: Both still remain under the Indian Act governance structure, and both still live in our traditional territories. It was clear, we would have a lot to learn from each other.

Exchanging knowledge showed us that we need to re-establish our traditional practices and relationship with our environment and animals in it.

Land and Governance Coordinator for the Dzawada’enuxw First Nation

We Can Rebuild Our Communities

As the first to present, I shared my research on how our historical governance structure came to be replaced by the Indian Act—a structure meant to transition First Nations into Canadian society first passed in 1876 and still in place today—and what that means for us now as a community. The Indian Act has not been updated to reflect how our rights have changed over time.

For example, a map of our traditional territories spans across all of our harvesting, fishing, hunting areas that we have always used since time immemorial. This contrasts greatly with the tiny reserves provided by the Canadian government.

I was joined by Arthur Manuel. A well-known activist and author, Arthur recently passed away, but his contributions to the Indigenous rights movement will continue to resonate for generations to come. On the day we presented together, Arthur and I shared how we can use this knowledge to steer how we rebuild our own structures again.

We Must Reconnect to the Land

In the next presentation, Marianne Nicolson, a Dzawada’enuxw, shared in detail how our governance structure reflects our land occupation over time and how our traditional tribes are connected to land bases. She said: We are inseparable from our land and this structure has existed since the beginning of time. When we were colonized, these systems slowly were forgotten over time. In order to decolonize, she advised, we need to connect back to the land.

She suggested re-occupying our lands and marking our territory so that outsiders start to know that these are our lands. All of these actions will help us rebuild our social structures. She explained that as “we re-occupy the land and the land re-occupies us—in our hearts and minds—we will start to live as we once did.”

woman hanging fish to dry
Drying Oolichan Audry Duncan setting up oolichan in the smokehouse © Sam Beebe, Flickr, CC 2.0

We Need to Re-Establish Our Traditional Practices

The Nuxalk shared the story of how their oolichan or “sputc” population dramatically diminished 15 years ago and is still too low to harvest today. For years, they have monitored their sputc, worked to re-establish their stocks. 

Hearing this story felt like a wake-up call. In Kingcome, oolichan still run up our river every spring but it too is showing signs of decline. Exchanging this knowledge with the Nuxalk showed me and my fellow Dzawada’enuxw representatives that we need to re-establish our traditional practices and relationship with our environment and animals in it.

We Can Learn from Working Examples

When Clyde from the Nuxalk presented he shared Nuxalk traditional governance structure—and again, we found similarities to the Dzawada’enuxw. Like us, they have a set amount of clans with family groups in each clan; a head Chief in each clan and heads of families. Their system allows for consultation with family members and the heads of families bring decisions to them and report them back to the other heads of families. 

These systems are being rebuilt in both of our communities, but the Nuxalk have more details about the functions and roles of chiefs than we do. It was inspiring to see how our structure might take shape.

A lot of knowledge was exchanged outside of our official meeting after hours as well. The Nuxalk have stories and songs and dances that are beyond coincidently similar to the Dzawada’enuxw. They are connected. The details of their stories and ours align so closely that we left Bella Coola believing there must be a deeper historical relationship than we first realized.

At the end of our exchange, we left wanting grow our relationship and continue these exchanges. Clearly, we have so much to gain from each other. We flew home to Kingcome feeling a little lighter and a little less overwhelmed with the journey ahead of us.