On May 5, 2022-after more than 100 years of forced separation from their territory- the Mamalilikulla First Nation gathered to observe the dedication of the the Gwaxdlala / Nalaxdlala Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area (IPCA) in Hoeya Sound/Lull Bay, located in Knight Inlet on the south-central coast, and to celebrate a long-awaited reunion with a culturally significant piece of the territory to which they belong.
Photos by Brodie Guy Photography
In November 2021, at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, the Mamalilikulla First Nation publicly declared the IPCA status for Gwaxdlala/Nalaxdlala (follow this link to read more about the Declaration, the IPCA and Gwaxdlala/Nalaxdlala -pronounced “Gwach-dlalah / Nah-lachdlalah”. In the making the Declaration, Chief Councillor Winidi(John Powell) emphasized: “We feel it necessary to uphold our ancient law of Aweenek’ola in a respectful and wholesome way, to protect all the precious creatures in Gwaxdlala/Nalaxdlala, the environment in which they exist, and our people. That is our purpose in taking this step.”
The pandemic had made it impossible for most citizens of the First Nation to witness the Declaration in person, so on May 5, 2022, an “on the ground” Dedication Day was held at Gwaxdlala/Nalaxdlala. It was an important opportunity for Mamalilikulla citizens to gather and dedicate Gwaxdlala/Nalaxdlala collectively and formally as an IPCA. It was also an occasion to acknowledge and thank those who have supported Mamalilikulla’s IPCA journey to date, including neighboring Kwakwaka’wakw First Nations, representatives of partner organizations, and provincial government officials, all of whom attended the event as invited guests of the Nation.
A beautiful day, despite the weather
The crowd was happy and enthusiastic, their spirits undampened in the slightest by the persistent pouring rain. Gwawaenuk hereditary leader Kwankwanxwalege Wakas (Robert Joseph), who hosted the event, opened the proceedings by telling the gathering: “I was just speaking with Chief Powell, and he reminded me that it has been at least 100 years since this part of the territory had any dancers on it, or songs sung in this space. By being here,” he continued emphatically, “we are breathing life back, not only with the people who belong to this time and place, but to the place itself.”
That place, says Chief Powell, was once an area of pristine ocean and forest ecosystems. When it was taken from the Mamalilikulla in the early twentieth century by the government, they were prevented from upholding their ancient responsibility to take care of the area. “As a result, not only has Gwaxdlala/Nalaxdlala suffered overwhelming industrial devastation during that time, but four generations of Mamalilikulla have never been able to be here or be connected to it,” says Chief Powell. “The Dedication Day was immensely important in that respect- to bring our people back here, to share food and celebrate together, and to reconnect with and reclaim Mamalilikulla territory, taking it back into our care again.”
We belong to this place
The importance of that reconnection to the territory cannot be overstated, for many reasons. Not least among them is Mamalilikulla’s experience of land displacement, not only from Gwaxdlala/Nalaxdlala but from almost their entire territory. Not one citizen lives in the area in 2022, or even on any of their small number of reserves. “That is why it is really important that we reconnect our people with their ancestral places and ancient laws like Aweenak’ola,” repeats Chief Powell. “We belong to these places. We want our people practising our laws and our responsibilities in our territory, and upholding Aweenak’ola.”
Aweenak’ola: an ancient responsibility
On Dedication Day, Chief Powell told the assembly: “It is our responsibility to house, nurture, defend and protect all the creatures on the land, in the sea, and in the sky, and to perpetuate the stories that bind us to that responsibility. After all,” he asked, “if we don’t uphold our responsibilities, how will our future generations know what to do, and their place in the world?”
Those responsibilities, he notes, have been usurped for too long by other governments. “That’s another important aspect of the Dedication Day, he points out. “It was a wonderful on the ground opportunity to show governments what we mean by belonging to that place, and to educate them on our intention to take care of it through IPCA. Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) know we want to protect the sea life. The BC Ministry of Forests and Ministry of Land, Water, and Resource Stewardship have seen and understood what we want to achieve here, and we are now seeing serious commitment on their part to real action, which is consistent with the intent of the 2019 provincial Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act.”
Guardians of the lands and waters
Chief Powell would like to see Gwaxdlala/Nalaxdlala restored eventually to its former pristine state, in part through careful regulation by the Nation and hands-on management by their land and water Guardians, who belong to the Ha-ma-yas Stewardship Network. Indigenous Guardians are environmental stewards, and often referred to as “the eyes and ears of the Nation out on the land and water.” Rigorously trained in everything from environmental monitoring to boat safety, and well-versed in cultural law as well as current non-Indigenous environmental law and regulation, the Guardians, says Chief Powell, are ideally suited to implementing the Nation’s environmental responsibilities in Gwaxdlala/Nalaxdlala.
“We have a really inviting opportunity to do this work through our Guardian program,” he says. “In fact, we must use the Guardians to achieve our goals. Both the federal and the provincial governments are challenged by capacity. This is an isolated area, they have limited staff, and it’s difficult for them to do a good job, frankly. But our Guardians know this territory inside out, they are highly trained, and they are out there every day that time and money allow them to do so. They are completely invested in protecting the territory because they belong to it. Who could possibly be better placed to do it?”
The work achieved, the work ahead
Progress, says Chief Powell, has been good. The provincial government has committed to a joint work plan with us for the ICPA, which includes developing a watershed and marine plan as well as a strategy for shared monitoring and enforcement, but there remains a great deal of work to do.” The need for more Guardians to help with that work is pressing, for example: “We are embarked on eelgrass and salt marsh restoration, the restoration of wild salmon habitat through the Broughton Aquaculture Transition Initiative, and archeological assessments of Hoeya Sound are needed to balance conservation of both our heritage features as well as our marine environment. All of this is time-consuming, and expensive, so resourcing the efforts as well and enabling us to train and equip more Guardians to do the work are both vital to this effort.”
A better future for everyone
The work, he adds, is also multigenerational in nature: “It took 100 years to get to the poor state the territory is in today, reflective of excessive commercial resource extraction on the land and in the water. It will likely take 100 years to restore it to its pristine nature but we are determined to get there.”
That’s in everyone’s interests, he emphasizes- not only the Mamalilikulla, but for governments, industry, and other citizens of British Columbia who will benefit from the restoration of the environment, and healthy fisheries and forests. “Supporting our efforts is an investment that governments can make that means all our children, our ḵ̕wa̱la’yu- that’s a Kwak̓wala expression that literally means my reason for living, used as a term of endearment for children- will be able to enjoy this place in the future.”
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