I participated in an Emerald Edge community exchange to British Columbia along with community catalysts from Kasaan (Carrie Sykes), Kake (Loretta Gregory) and Sitka (Chandler O’Connell). Our friend Michael Reid of TNC Canada arranged the trip for us so that we could learn from folks in Vancouver, Bella Bella and Klemtu about their Supporting Early Aboriginal Stewards (SEAS) Community Initiative program, Coastal Guardian program, Qqs Projects Society and the Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department (HIRMD).
The four of us flew down on Sunday night. Michael suggested we stay at Skwachàys Lodge in downtown Vancouver. This is a “Social Enterprise” that I first heard about while taking the Community Economic Development course at SFU a couple years ago. The lodge is very nice and includes an excellent native arts gallery, as well as native art throughout the lodge, including unique installations in each room. Profits from the business are used to support an artist in residence program, many of whom have artwork in the gallery.
After we checked in at the lodge we had a very “Portlandia” experience while ordering a late night dinner at a local restaurant called the flying pig. It took the waiter about fifteen minutes to go over the beer menu, complete with descriptions of the aroma, foretaste, aftertaste, overtones, undertones, etc. that was fit for a stage. By the time the waiter got to Chandler she knew to head him off before he got started and just asked for an amber. Food was good (so was the beer of course).
We had nothing scheduled on Monday until dinner so we each had a free day to explore the city, visit with local friends or catch up on office work. We met for lunch at a Taqueria that was a favorite for the group that participated in the CED course in 2014 (especially Marjorie).
In the evening we met with Michael, Lara and Jana for dinner and had a nice meal while we learned about the Coastal Stewardship Network (CSN) and where things are at with data management systems. We identified many common interests and discussed opportunities for a community exchange between folks who work for CSN and communities in southeast Alaska.
On Tuesday we flew out to Bella Bella. We arrived at about noon at the ~ 1,200 person Heiltsuk village and immediately jumped on a Sea Taxi to head out to Koeye (pronounced “kway”) lodge. After running for about two hours we arrived at the camp where we were greeted by Larry (Qqs Executive Director) and Chris (Koeye caretaker). The kids were all out in the field so we immediately got a tour of the facilities from Larry, including a traditionally constructed longhouse.
After the tour and getting ourselves tucked into our cabins we sat down with Larry to learn more about the history of Koeye. It was an awe-inspiring story of vision, leadership and the right thing at the right time. We learned that Koeye’s origins, like the Kake Culture Camp, stemmed from Bella Bella’s interest in doing something about teen suicide in the village during the late 70s and early 80s. Larry was originally brought to the village to help combat this issue, which soon led to a program that dovetailed a “reoccupation” of traditional territory with a family oriented approach to reconnecting with traditional cultural values in several remote cabin settings. The Koeye lodge got its start by being next to one of the first 10 cabins that were built throughout the territory. After being acquired by the Qqs Projects Society and serving a number of years providing refuge and a place for families to heal and grow stronger together, the original Koeye lodge burned down. This tragedy served to further galvanize the growing circle of people involved in this good work and they were able to raise funding to scale this work up and build the village-like facilities we see today at Koeye.
There are innumerable layers of empowerment work that Larry shared with us as part of the origin story of Koeye; from the way the land and original lodge were acquired and how the new lodge buildings were constructed using local wood milled in Bella Bella, to the restoration of the hereditary chiefs’ role in community governance and growing local capacity for the community to blend traditional ecological knowledge with scientific approaches to natural resource planning; and much more, too much for me to go into here. For the purposes of this brief field report I will add that about the time the lodge was being rebuilt after the fire there was a joining of forces with the newly formed Supporting Emerging Aboriginal Stewards (SEAS) Community Initiative and together they became a stronghold for cultural revitalization on the BC coast.
I ended up missing out on the first night with the kids because I passed out early and did not wake up for dinner. Oh man did I need it too. I was woken up briefly a couple times after the dinner hour: the first time by the gleeful laughter of the kids as they played various forms of tag just outside the cabin door; the second time by the voices of the kids singing traditional songs around the campfire.
Our second day at Koeye was another sunny one, even to the point of being hot! The kids headed out early to explore up the Koeye river and go for a swim. We stayed back and spent some more time with Larry before he took us up the river in a skiff to do some exploring of our own. What a fantastic estuary! And a sockeye system to boot! Brown bear and wolf tracks mixed in with the kids’ footprints on the sandy beaches near the mouth of the river. Dungeness crab scurried away from the boat as we plied the sandy shallows on the way up the estuary. Mergansers, loons, eagles, kingfishers, etc. all clear indicators of the riches that this watershed provides to its inhabitants. Larry dropped us off in a lush meadow at the upper reaches of where the tide influences the river, right next to a Grizzly Bear rub tree and set of “hot-feet” (my favorite kind of animal sign!). If Larry had not won over my heart by then, the rub tree and hot-feet would have certainly done the job:) While we were stretching our legs in the meadow I took the opportunity to fly the drone and got some cool video of this lovely spot.
The Koeye watershed was designated by the Heiltsuk people as a conservation area through the Great Bear Rainforest Agreement. There is a detailed management plan (developed by the Heiltsuk Nation) for this and other areas of ecological and cultural significance in the Heiltsuk traditional territory that is implemented and kept up to date by the Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department (HIRMD) based in Bella Bella. An overview version of this plan is linked in a paragraph below.
After returning from the boat ride up the river we had dinner with the kids. On this night, and over the course of the 3 days we spent at Koeye, I had conversations with young people, school teachers and SEAS coordinators that spoke volumes about the value of the SEAS program to them personally, and to the present and future vitality of their culture and communities. I was particularly struck by conversations I had with a few adults on the whale tail deck where they told me about how SEAS not only introduced traditional cultural practices to the young people in their schools, but also introduced these practices to many adults, including themselves. They described themselves as part of a lost generation; between where traditional cultural practices brought punishment from missionaries in the past and the cultural revitalization that is happening today.
We also discussed how well it was working to have kids from Klemtu and Bella Bella staying together in an environment where they couldn’t fall into the trap of isolating themselves by using their electronics or even their social cliques. We talked about how present day politics between Nations and within villages can undermine the work of cultural revitalization and recognized the power the Koeye experience could have in reducing future political conflicts by helping the young people from the different villages to form bonds of friendship at an early age. Here again the SEAS coordinators and community school teachers at camp described themselves as missing out on this kind of opportunity when they were young but also appreciating their chance to form similar bonds with the coordinators and teachers from other villages today.
At Koeye lodge (and the Qqs Projects Society in general), the programs are guided by principles for youth education, environmental awareness and cultural awareness. On our third day, and the kids’ third day, the emphasis was on cultural knowledge. We started out with a leisurely morning around “the big house” with the kids playing games and me flying the drone. I also had a chance to walk the property (80 hectares) with Larry to talk about opportunities to integrate some terrestrial restoration activities as part of the programming there (the property was clear-cut about 30 years back). After lunch we all headed down to the longhouse for singing and dancing. We only had about an hour before the sea taxi returned for our departure but it was clear from watching the group learning to celebrate their culture together that the enthusiasm was sincere and that the whole experience was a kind of healing and strengthening of culture that also served to nurture future leaders who will carry on these traditions throughout the BC coast.
The ride back to Bella Bella was stunning, though a little choppy. We arrived in the late afternoon and immediately went over to the HIRMD office to meet with their staff. Kelly, the HIRMD Director, was a very gracious host and fed us dinner while we learned about the amazing array of programs and projects that they are currently managing. I was particularly impressed with their stories of restoring a local sockeye run, regaining access to herring eggs, the extensive geospatial mapping of traditional use data they have achieved, and the overall level of influence this office has over the use of natural resources in their traditional territory. Here again there is just too much to go into any detail (plus our brains were packed so full by the end of the night I am certain that I can’t remember half of what we heard) but please explore these links to learn more about the many cool projects they are working on in Heiltsuk territory.
We were invited back to the HIRMD office for a breakfast herring eggs and to share some of the work that is happening via the SSP that the Heiltsuk people may be interested in. We shared the Hoonah Native Forest Partnership, Path 2 Prosperity business plan competition, some good stories about salmon habitat restoration (a new interest at HIRMD), the success of the community carving sheds in Hoonah, Hydaburg and Kasaan, the development of the cultural tourism campus in Kasaan and overall how the SSP operates. Folks were grateful for the overview and were interested in doing an exchange to the north to learn more first hand.
At the end of our visit HIRMD Chair and Heiltsuk Chief William brought out a family heirloom; a Haida dancing apron that includes a Chilkat blanket woven in. He brought it out to show us because he knew that Carrie would be particularly interested in this item of shared heritage. While watching the group learn about the apron I was struck by how imaginary the border is, at least in some ways, between the US and BC; that in fact it is truly One Coast. Many nations have inhabited, and will inhabit the lands and waters of British Columbia and southeast Alaska – but a trip like this really drives home the basics about our connections to one another through the land and the sea, and our common interests in cultural diversity, youth education, wild food gathering and the awe-inspiring beauty of the emerald edge that we all have the great fortune to inhabit.