Old Neighbors, New Battles

Rekindling Indigenous relations against colonial violence

On Unist’ot’en territory in what some—for now—call British Columbia, a community has formed against police and industry incursions. The Unist’ot’en are the people of the headwaters, a house group within the Gilseyhu (big frog) clan of the Wet’suwet’en nation. Their land was never ceded or surrendered to colonial government—they made no treaties with the British Crown. For nearly 10 years, Unist’ot’en people have been reoccupying one of their traditional territories along the Wedzin Kwah (Morice River). Now, Coastal GasLink (CGL) is doing preconstruction work for their fracked-gas pipeline on the territory despite having received no consent from the Dinï ze’ and Ts’akë ze’ (highest hereditary chiefs) of the Wet’suwet’en people. The Unist’ot’en are facing a legal injunction against “occupying, obstructing, blocking, physically impeding or delaying access” to Coastal GasLink’s surveying and preconstruction work. Earlier this year, an access route controlled by the neighboring Gidimt’en clan was violently raided by militarized police enforcing the same injunction.

The Unist’ot’en Healing Center—built in the path of the threatened pipeline—is a place where the inherent rights of Indigenous people are valued over resource extraction, industry profits, and colonial laws. Despite continuous police surveillance and industry harassment, the work of the Healing Center continues. Indigenous people gather to support our relatives—we return to the land for hunting, trapping, ceremony, and healing. We find ways to thrive in the shadow of extractive industry and police attacks.

This is not a pipeline protest. Wet’suwet’en people have been taking care of this land for thousands of years, including through 200 years of attempted colonial theft. One of the ways industry and the state have tried to steal land is to delegitimize Indigenous governance and criminalize the way we live. To them, the exercise and enforcement of Wet’suwet’en law is criminal. The media coverage has died down. The public eye wants violence and destruction, but turns away from our quiet resistance. People are less interested in our governance systems operating as they should.

In 1997, the Delgamuukw/Gisday’wa v. The Queen ruling recognized, in part, what Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en people have always known according to their laws: that hereditary chiefs have jurisdiction and title over their territories. Over 20 years after this decision, Wet’suwet’en are still fighting to live autonomously on their traditional territories. The court recognized that British colonization had not extinguished Aboriginal title, but colonizers continue to ignore the decision and break their own laws to gain access to Indigenous lands.

We do not consent to the destruction of our land, and we refuse the “benefits” of projects that require the destruction of our neighbors’ land. We turn toward our Indigenous relatives and neighbors to reweave the connections between our nations and each other. In the past months, we have gathered here with our neighbors from across Turtle IslanD.— We’ve stood on the front lines with Tahltan, Haida, Kwakwaka’wakw, Mohawk, Mi’kmaq, Anishinaabe, Cree, Dené, Tsimshian, Dakelh-Carrier, Kwantlen, Secwepemc, Nahuatl, Aztec, Inuit, Métis, Lakota, Musqueam, Squamish, and many more. Our grassroots networks build connections just underneath the soil; we tangle with each other and our ancestors and make each other harder to extract from our lands. We build new relations and new-old relations. This is more than resistance. Gathering here, we strengthen alternatives to a system meant to destroy us. We strengthen each other’s ability to live off the land, to be on our territories in meaningful ways. We stand together against the invasion of our lands and bodies, for Indigenous autonomy and freedom. Join us.

The following is an edited conversation between Anne Spice and Denzel Sutherland-Wilson

Anne Spice.— Many of us who are from neighboring nations have felt pulled to this place, to this struggle. What (or who) guided you to Unist’ot’en yintah (“territory”)?

Denzel Sutherland-Wilson.— I was guided here by many things. The main reason I am here is that I’m Gitxsan and we have been coming to stand alongside Wet’suwet’en warriors for thousands of years. Wet’suwet’en have always stood beside us as well, in times of peace and in times of war. Our governance systems are fundamentally intertwined. We have been feasting together since time immemorial, we have been trading love and berries and oolichan grease since the inception of our nations. This connection is also what brought our nations together in our legal case to have the Crown recognize our distinctive rights and title.

But as it stands, their law makes our nations’ laws criminal, and we face the choice between upholding Wet’suwet’en law or being taken to their jails. In the past, Chiefs died while in jail for potlatching. (Author’s note: The potlatch is an Indigenous institution throughout the northwest coastal region in which houses, clans, and nations gather to govern their territories, redistribute the goods stemming from them, sing, drum, and dance, hold ceremonies, honor the dead, and feast; the potlatch and associated ceremonies were banned by the Canadian government from 1884 to 1951.) Chiefs today are also faced with incredibly tough decisions. It could be a great source of shame to have people hurt or imprisoned in their name. But we are willing to take these risks nonetheless. So I’m here because it’s my responsibility to our neighbours, and because what the state and industry attempt to do here, they will try to do to my territory as well.

I have learned about our relationship with Wet’suwet’en as a young Gitxsan from Kispiox. After hearing how Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en stood together for thousands of years, now I feel as though I am living one of these stories. These are responsibilities and relationships that have been passed down generations. These stories are what brought me to Wet’suwet’en yintah to stand beside our oldest allies.

A.— I first came to Unist’ot’en yintah in 2015. I had all but given up on the possibility of connecting to my own territory, my own people. Generations of shame and trauma in my family manifested in my own identity. I was afraid of taking up space as a white-passing Indigenous woman. I was unsure of my own family history. I didn’t grow up with our stories. I felt like an outsider. Being here on Wet’suwet’en territory has changed me. I am learning to embody my responsibilities as a Tlingit relative, as a representative of a neighboring nation with longstanding ties of trade and friendship with Wet’suwet’en people. I have built and regained ties with other Indigenous people here. I fell in love with the land. I fell in love with Indigenous people. I’ve hunted and trapped, picked berries and medicines, told stories and sung. I talk to my raven kin every morning, and I ask the ancestors of this land for guidance. A part of my spirit is here, and my own ancestors are here with me also. I stay to protect this territory from further industrial encroachment, but also to reweave the connections between our nations. I’m here because I fiercely believe that protecting this place makes freedom more possible for all Indigenous peoples trapped in and occupied by Canada, especially those of us from neighboring nations. We have a long history together, and regaining our strength means learning and telling that story, while we breathe life back into our connections and move forward in better relation with the land. What does it look like, feel like, for you to be in better relation with the land and other Indigenous people? How do we practice and strengthen those relations?

D.— Coming here has definitely strengthened my relationship to spirit. I feel as though I have been here before, I know this place. But I still have a blissful feeling of rediscovery and recognition when I find trees that were tied in knots hundreds of years ago to mark the way. I think that being here in a time like this has shown the ancestors of this yintah that I will stand behind my prayers. That if they (the ancestors) give us the tools to fight this battle, we will not back down. We strengthen relations by being present. By maintaining continuity. We are in a tough time, and young ones like me have lost certain skills, knowledge, and relationships. I feel as though I am rekindling a connection between our nations, at least within my family. I don’t mean to overstate my contribution to the battle here. I don’t feel as though I have much to give.

But having those like me here, who don’t feel like they have much to give, is a sign of the strong connection between our nations. It is an indicator that what is being done here is the right thing. I would not have been guided here otherwise. When I take this guidance, it strengthens my relationship with the spirits of the yintah as well as those of my own nation. We practice these relations by upholding the law that was created in communication and connection with the land, based in the responsibility to take care of it.

A.— “We strengthen relations by being present”—I love this. And our presence is active, we work for each other and help care for each other’s territories. We hunt to feed Wet’suwet’en elders, check traplines where the chief of this territory trapped as a teenager. We feast together, learn pieces of each other’s languages. To me, this is much deeper than the notion of “solidarity.” We aren’t just saying “we stand with you.” We are showing up for each other in the fight for our lives, cultures, and futures.

We’re up against this whole ugly industrial beast, intent on invading our territories for profit. Everything they do is extractive—they turn our land and water and animals and relations and cultures into resources and extract their profits. We counter the colonizers by refusing to focus on “what’s in it for me” and instead ask what we can do for each other, for the territories that sustain us, for the ancestors who fought for our existence, for ancestors yet to be born. We build those connections by being present and also by honoring our deep history and future here. In Tlingit, we call this haa shagoon—the connection between our ancestors and us and the future.

Also, the ancestors are us and are still to come. Here, being present means living fully in the past and future as well—the temporality of Indigenous resistance is not linear. When we are living on the land, we are feeding the ancestors and telling stories about the connections between our peoples and making an autonomous future possible for our children. We have always been time travelers. This is because the relations we are strengthening exist in the past, present, and future. We are present and we are also beyond the present. We are attentive to presence. When we say our ancestors are here, we are not being metaphorical. They are fighting alongside us, within us.

D.— The stakes feel incredibly high, for nations fighting this beast you are talking about. Once we overcome it, the stories of resistance here will be passed down generations. I love the idea of Indigenous resistance as a break from linear time. I feel a return to the cyclical nature of time when I am out on the territory, when colonization is not the driving force of our lives. When we can simply exist. It's funny that I am thinking these thoughts at Unist’ot’en, at a time when colonization is so in your face. I still feel, nonetheless, that we are existing outside of it. These are the same battles, these are the same strengths, these are the same tools we are using. Reincarnation is foundational to Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en life.

A.— And Tlingit life.

D.— But for a long time, reincarnation was just stories to me. Now, I remember places and feelings and people. Now, I feel this cyclical time, and it feels normal, as it always was. When I am confronted with the violence of colonialism, I gain strength from thinking of how my ancestors persevered through far worse. When I say ancestors, I mean everyone before me. I mean my dad, and I mean the first Gitxsan born from the sky.

Thinking about time, it’s interesting how CGL and these pipeline companies seem so hell-bent on timelines and timeliness, while I feel that their actions are a prompt to break from linear time. We are also concerned with timelines, but ones that last thousands of years into the future and past. Their shortsighted vision of progress does not coincide with Indigenous futures. I’m not sure they realize the gravity of what they are doing. They are the ones bringing ancestors into this battle. If they hadn’t started tearing up the forest floor, and cutting down trees, and stealing ancient artifacts from the land, it could’ve been a court battle. Now they brought in the ancestors, bad move.

A.— Yeah, they’re fucked. The ancestors are not happy with these extractive outsiders trampling all over their territory. We know we have the strength to beat them, and that we’ll win, in the end. But in the meantime, both us and the land are under constant threat of further harm. How does this threat manifest?

D.— While the threats feels familiar, the violence feels intense and immediate. It is not comforting knowing that the Canadian government and the industries they nurture have done this to the generations before. It is actually heartbreaking, because for most of my life I had a secret hope that Canada was getting better. That they had started caring about us, that the way Indigenous people interacted with the state and industry was changing. It’s hard to say it’s getting better when you witness Indigenous people removed for their land with AR-15 assault rifles, to facilitate a multibillion-dollar pipeline that will harm this land immensely.

A.— So how do we respond to this harm, in a place that is supposed to be a refuge from colonial violence? The Unist’ot’en have built a Healing Center here, to help people recover from addiction and trauma. How is the land supposed to heal, how are we supposed to heal in the face of all of this violence?

D.— It’s not the land that is healing itself, but the beings that dwell within this space and our relationship to them. Maybe this idea of “the land” should never be separated from the beings that have always dwelled within the spaces we are referring to. It’s knowing that we have been here before, knowing that the spirits and people here have always been standing beside us. Then, what we are doing is not a pipeline protest that has sprung up in response to an evil corporation, but rather a strong nation and its neighbours doing what we have always done.

A.— I also think we need to be clear about the concept of “healing.” Canada wants us to buy into reconciliation, into a recognition paradigm that has us turning to the state to heal us from wounds they inflicted. But colonial violence runs deep, and there will be no point at which we say “this relationship is healed.” Healing on our own terms doesn’t mean closing wounds. It doesn’t mean we move on. We are living with colonial violence. On Unist’ot’en territory, the Healing Center allows people to return to the land to build strength. To help our minds and hearts and bodies remember a different way of living, one that we know deeply and have practiced.

We can’t fully “heal” from colonial wounds, because industry and police are constantly inflicting more. When they bulldoze our traplines. When they steal ancient stone tools from the territory. When they surround the sweat lodge while we are in ceremony. When they threaten arrest while we are gathering wood. Right now healing is difficult, because we are facing constant harassment and intimidation. We’re being blocked from the traplines. Constantly monitored.

The injunction is an invasion by “legal” means—RCMP and industry forced their way onto unceded territory. They turn our ceremonial spaces into “work sites.” These are moves toward white possession—they normalize their presence by criminalizing ours. These attempts at white possession are a continuation of colonial invasion. Of conquest. The companies and regulatory bodies will make it sound like we’re able to continue normal programming at the Healing Center and practice our cultures while they continue to push a pipeline through. But we don’t accept their “normal,” because it is a tragically destructive, violent, toxic, capitalist clusterfuck. They aim to destroy and replace us.

D.— Right, healing as a cultural imperative has actually been largely instilled by colonial institutions, as a means to make amends for the wounds they have inflicted and continue to inflict. Maybe we should make this clear in the language we use. Funny how even a word like “healing” can be co-opted. What we usually translate as “healing” is better translated as “purification” or “cleansing.” A removal of the things that are ailing us, rather than correcting a damaged existence. In the context of Unist’ot’en, I know the healing going on would benefit greatly from removing both industry and the RCMP. I like what you are saying about invasion, because that’s literally what it is. Not only is that territory under Wet’suwet’en jurisdiction, but until this January there were almost no visitors on the yintah, besides loggers and tree planters and supporters of the Unist’ot’en. This is not a territory that Canada has any business claiming.

I like this idea of returning, and how that might actually be necessary to fight these sorts of projects; the best way is to continue what we’ve always done. How do they interrupt our returning, or fail to interrupt it? (Also: breaking from linear time by going back?)

A.— Being out on the land here brings me closer to someone I have been before. In that way, we return to practices that we’ve been pulled away from, and there is a form of intergenerational memory that is bound up in that return. When we process a moose or skin a marten or even just spend time with our neighbors, we are remembering, rebuilding. Putting ourselves back together by reaching back to older ways of knowing and being and pulling them into the present and future. These extractive projects interrupt that memory. We’ll be on our way to the trapline, and suddenly these jerks in high-visibility vests and hard hats are blocking the road and calling the police. This isn’t how I remember it . . . I think part of the reason these industrial activities make me so angry is because they scar and damage the land in ways that make the ancestors in me struggle to find their bearings. Where are we? Who are these invaders? At the same time, my people have faced worse, have gone to war, have brought back colonizers’ heads on spikes. So . . . their interruptions will be short-lived. Their systems are not sustainable, and they are killing themselves with capitalism. And there will be no pipeline built on this territory, so all their work will be for nothing. We’ve got this.

For more information / to support Unist’ot’en camp: https://unistoten.camp/
For more information / to support Gidimt’en access point: http://www.yintahaccess.com