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Ǥa̱lǥa̱poła: Standing Together

Lands News Waters

In formally declaring the Gwaxdlala/Nalaxdlala area of their traditional territory to be an Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area (IPCA), the Mamalilikulla First Nation has taken a significant step towards realizing its vision of reclaiming and restoring not only the wellbeing of the territory, but of its people.

“We feel it necessary to uphold our ancient law of Aweenak’ola in a respectful and wholesome way, to protect all of the precious creatures in Gwaxdlala/Nalaxdlala, the environment in which they exist, and our people,” says Mamalilikulla First Nation Chief Councillor Winidi (John Powell). “That is, essentially, our rationale for declaring IPCA status for Gwaxdlala/Nalaxdlala. The IPCA and our plans for protection of the watershed and marine areas in Gwaxdlala/Nalaxdlala are all based on Aweenak’ola.”


Gwaxdlala/Nalaxdlala, which is also known as Hoeya Sound/Lull Bay, is in Knight Inlet on the south-central coast, and lies more or less due east of Port McNeill on Vancouver Island.

What is an IPCA?

IPCAs, which come in a variety of forms – sometimes called Indigenous Protected Areas, Tribal Parks, or Indigenous and Community Conserved Areas – are areas that Indigenous Nations have declared, pursuant to their constitutionally-protected Indigenous rights and title and their original Indigenous laws, to be protected for significant cultural and ecological values and from harmful activities, including large-scale commercial resource extraction.

Why an IPCA?

In declaring IPCAs, First Nations like the Mamalilikulla are re-establishing their original stewardship authority in their territories, and engaging with the provincial and federal governments to make decisions together that will ensure the wellbeing of the lands, waters, air and all creatures within those territories – including human beings – is restored and maintained in the future.

It is a step, says Chief Powell, that is urgently needed: “The federal and provincial authorities have shut First Nations out from our ancestral role in taking care of our territory for more than one hundred years. They put their own regulations in place, which have gravely failed, as is evident from the devastation in our territory, which has been subjected to logging and commercial fishing on a massive scale for decades.”

The damage is obvious in the IPCA, he says: “There are at least twenty landslides currently visible on the river systems in Gwaxdlala/Nalaxdlala. The two biggest are easily visible in Hoeya Sound. They are immense. The large cedars that bears rely on to den in the winter are almost gone.” He adds that the Knight Inlet eulachon runs have been significantly affected by industrial impacts on their spawning rivers, as have the salmon runs: “Our people used to harvest hundreds of thousands of fish in the watershed. Last year, twenty-six fish came back to all three rivers in the system. One bear can eat more than that number of fish in one day. No wonder the bears we do see are so emaciated.”

There is no moratorium on commercial fishing activities in the area, says Chief Powell: “In fact, one of the incentives to declare the IPCA when we did is that seasonal openings for prawn and crab fisheries were approaching, and those fisheries can be very detrimental to the ocean floor-dwelling creatures like coral. We have coral and sponge species in the shallow waters of Hoeya Sound that are very rare. All of these reasons, and more,” he says firmly, “are why we are taking back our stewardship responsibilities in Gwaxdlala/Nalaxdlala.”

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An interconnected approach to protection

Basing the IPCA on Aweenak’ola is fundamental, says Chief Powell. Aweenak’ola represents the oneness of humans with the land, the sea, the sky, and supernatural creatures: “That ancient law makes it our responsibility to take care of the marine, terrestrial and aerial environment, and of all of the creatures that exist within it.” In this sense, he says, Aweenak’ola embraces far more than a narrow western concept of conservation; protection and stewardship is defined by an Indigenous world view in which all things are interconnected. If one form of life is affected by an action, all others will likewise be affected in some way.

“We know, for example, that fish need clean rivers to swim and to spawn in,” says Chief Powell. “If there are no fish, there will be no more bears. The bears are critical to forest health – they bring fish carcases into the forest to eat, and the nutrients left behind fertilize the trees. Those same trees provide them with shelter in the winter. We have rare coral and sponges in our waters, as I have mentioned. We have kelp that many marine species depend upon. Of course, as human beings, we are part of that ecosystem as well. The wellbeing of each species unquestionably affects our wellbeing as well, and vice versa.”


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Photo Credit: Grant Callegari/Hakai Institute

Ǥa̱lǥa̱poła, maya’xa̱la, ḵ̕wa̱la’yu

That world view means that the declaration of the IPCA is based as much on the restoration of human wellbeing as it is about protecting the environment, says Chief Powell. “This area is one in which there is incontrovertible evidence of our occupation and environmental activities since time immemorial. There are middens, ancient villages, other archaeological sites, and in one bay, a huge rock fish trap that would easily have captured hundreds, if not thousands of fish on the outgoing tide. That tells us this was once a thriving, abundant place that our ancestors lived in, gathering resources sustainably, and protecting the environment and the other creatures within it.”

The Mamalilikulla experienced massive land displacement as a result of colonization and industrial activity, and now, not one citizen lives in the area, or even on any of their small number of reserves. “It is really important that we reconnect our people with their ancestral places and ancient laws like Aweenak’ola,” says Chief Powell, “and that is one of the objectives of our IPCA. In our Kwak’wala language, we talk about ǥa̱lǥa̱poła, standing together or lifting each other up, maya’xa̱la, respect for all living things including yourself, and ḵ̕wa̱la’yu, an expression that literally means my reason for living, used as a term of endearment for children. These are our laws and our responsibilities, to take care of each other and ensure that we provide a good, healthy future for our children.”

Reconnecting people who are suffering from the impacts of colonization to their ancestral lands, sea and sky, and the supernatural beings within them, is a far more sustainable way to heal them than a few weeks in a treatment centre or psychotherapy, says Chief Powell. “That is far more effective as a permanent way to keep our people well. We want our people practising our laws and our responsibilities in our territory, upholding Aweenak’ola, our ancient law, and understanding what we mean by ǥa̱lǥa̱poła, maya’xa̱la, and ḵ̕wa̱la’yu.”

The path forward

The Mamalilikulla First Nation’s declaration of the IPCA on November 29, 2021, was a history-making step in manifesting Aweenak’ola: not merely in visionary terms, but in real and pragmatic ones that Chief Powell considers uphold the intent of the 2019 provincial Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act (Declaration Act) and the 2021 federal United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act.

The Mamalilikulla Declaration has laid down a constructive challenge to the provincial and federal governments to come to the table and work collaboratively with the Mamalilikulla on this integrated, sustainable and holistic way of protecting and conserving Gwaxdlala/Nalaxdlala, as well as assisting the federal government in achieving its national conservation targets: “We have done so much work on this already,” points out Chief Powell. “We’ve identified legislation that we can use now to achieve what we need to do, for example. We’ve suggested to the government how to accomplish the kind of protection needed in our territory. This,” he adds, “is an excellent opportunity for the government. There are going to be more IPCAs declared in Canada. Working together, we can take our IPCA right from the beginning as a model to showcase success and lessons learned, so that everyone knows what works when the next IPCAs come into effect.”

Chief Powell notes that it is important to understand that in declaring the Gwaxdlala/Nalaxdlala IPCA, the Mamalilikulla Nation is not suggesting that all human activity stop in the area. That is why the word conservation is used along with protection. “For example, we’re not saying there should be no commercial fishing at all in Knight Inlet. We’re just saying that we expect to be partners with government in making decisions together on when, where, and how those fisheries can occur. We expect to be at the table where these decisions are being made. That’s why the declaration calls on both Canada and the provincial government to accelerate co-governance.”

A better future for everyone

That can only be good for everyone, he points out – not only the Mamalilikulla, but for governments, industry, and other citizens of British Columbia who will benefit from the restoration of the environment, healthy fisheries and forests, and not least of all, healthy people actively working to help protect these special places and the creatures within them.

“Our laws,” concludes Chief Powell, “are all about doing the right thing. That, in essence, is why we are implementing this IPCA in Gwaxdlala/Nalaxdlala, and doing it under our ancient law of Aweenak’ola. It is time for all of us to understand what that means, and for the right thing to be done to protect the land, the sea, the sky, and the supernatural ones, for our people, and for our children, our reason for living.”


To learn more, see https://nanwakolas.com/news/mamalilikulla-first-nation-declares-indigenous-protected-and-conserved-area-ipca/ and https://www.timescolonist.com/local-news/first-nation-declares-land-in-knight-inlet-an-indigenous-protected-area-4811885