Written by Peter Bradley and Desiree Lawson with editing from Kyle Rosendale and Tara Racine
On June 21st, Sitkans were treated to “Herring Without Borders,” a presentation by Desiree Lawson of the Heiltsuk Nation of British Columbia, Canada. Desiree works with Revitalizing Indigenous Law for Land, Air, & Water (RELAW), an initiative helping Indigenous people apply “their ancestral laws to contemporary environmental challenges.” She was hosted by the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, with support from The Nature Conservancy’s Emerald Edge program, in order to cultivate an exchange between two tribal governments advocating for more ecologically and culturally responsible management of Pacific herring.
The exchange highlighted the similarities and differences between Sitka Tribe of Alaska and Heiltsuk Nation; their histories, cultures, ecologies, and perspectives on stewardship of natural resources. Like the Tlingit people of Sitka and Southeast Alaska, the Heiltsuk of the Central Coast of British Columbia have a deeply rooted connection to herring going back generations– at least 14,000 years. Heiltsuk Nation’s relationship with herring is grounded in Gvíļas, or Heiltsuk laws and values. A foundational principle of Gvíļas is a respect for all living things. For Desiree, it’s clear her people have relied on herring since the beginning: “We know that our main diet on [Triquet Island] for the first 4,000 years of occupation was herring.” But, since the advent of reduction fisheries in the 1800’s, there have been large shifts in herring abundance, population, and distribution along the Emerald Edge; according to traditional knowledge.
Many Indigenous groups, including Sitka Tribe of Alaska and Heiltsuk Nation, advocate for more conservative management of this ecological and cultural keystone species. The “Herring Without Borders” exchange allowed Sitka Tribe of Alaska and Heiltsuk Nation to share lessons learned during past herring conservation work, and to discuss future ideas.
Desiree’s presentation combined lessons from Heiltsuk stories to Canadian case law, mimicking what Heiltsuk Nation did when they advocated for better management of the herring sac roe fishery. The Heiltsuk story “Raven Obtains the Herring” is an example of how legal principles are found within oral histories. As Desiree pointed out, The Kiks.ádi “Herring Rock” story does the same.
The 1990 Sparrow Decision expanded Aboriginal rights in Canada, which later constitutionally protected “Heiltsuk exclusive rights to fish for herring spawn on kelp for commercial purposes,” in the 1996 Gladstone Case. Then, Heiltsuk oral testimony and Gvíļas principles became admissible in Canadian courts after the 1997 Delgamuukw decision. However, these gains were not easily won. The Gladstone Case was in court for ten years. “They lost twice in BC courts, and then went to the Supreme Court of Canada and won the rights.”
Using the foundations built by Sparrow, Gladstone, and Delgamuukw, Heiltsuk Nation successfully negotiated a ten-year moratorium on the sac roe fishery in late 2005. However, by 2014 herring controversy came to a head when the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) opened the sac roe fishery before the end of the moratorium, without consulting Heiltsuk Nation. So, Heiltsuk Nation organized workshops for nonviolent protesting and protesters’ rights. When DFO neglected to send authorized representatives to negotiate, members of Heiltsuk Nation occupied the DFO office until appropriate negotiators arrived.
In 2015, after months of protesting, DFO elected to not open the sac roe herring fishery. They also agreed to a joint management plan with Heiltsuk Nation. When the two were unable to come to an management agreement for the 2018 commercial sac roe fishery, DFO elected to close the fishery. This marked the first time the Canadian government took Heiltsuk traditional knowledge into account when making management decisions.
For Tammy Young, a Chookanshaa (Chookan’eidi woman) of Hoonah, the event was an important one. “Although there are borders between Canada and Alaska, those borders have been pretty fluid in terms of relationships. From time to time we don’t agree with what’s happening in Canada, and vice versa, but we’re all looking in the same direction. We’re making sure that these resources are still available for our grandchildren and those not yet born.” Tammy was encouraged by the cultural backing used in the Heiltsuk Nation’s case. She recognized that the case stands out because it allowed traditional stories and practices in court. “For Desiree and Heiltsuk Nation to come and share how they were able to move their government… it offers us encouragement and lights a path that we didn’t know existed until she came to tell us.”
After her talk, an audience member asked Desiree how Heiltsuk Nation reached consensus when determining proper course of action. Desiree’s response was, “We have our own set of laws that guide how we’re supposed to act. We understand that herring have the right to live and grow and reproduce in the ocean, and it’s our responsibility to uphold that law for the herring. Anything we needed to do to protect that right is what we did.”
Although the ultimate goal of Desiree’s Sitka trip was the “Herring Without Borders” exchange, she also spent time with Sitka’s community advocates. While boating through Sitka Sound with Elders, they discussed changes to herring abundance and distribution in Southeast Alaska. Several times during her trip Desiree remarked on how much Sitka looked like her home, reinforcing the similarities faced by Indigenous people all along the Pacific coast, regardless of borders. But, she noticed differences as well. She commented on the stark differences between Indigenous rights in British Columbia and in Alaska. A lot still needs to be done in respect to Indigenous rights in Alaska, but hopefully this cross-border exchange marks the beginning of greater herring conservation collaboration between Heiltsuk Nation and Sitka Tribe of Alaska.
Following her visit to Sitka, Desiree passed along this poem by her friend Caroline Humchitt of the Heiltsuk Nation, as inspiration for Sitkans and all other people working to protect and foster relationships of reciprocal care with all of the life around us for many generations to come:
My children, and all other children who have been into the pristine forests, Know what the future has in store for them.
The people who have never been there have never realized the importance of nature.
They have never seen a bear, or any other animal for that matter.
They have never witnessed the joy that the animals bring to the children while out in the wilderness.
Neither the children nor the forests have a voice. And both are dependent on others to take care of them.
Both are beautiful and deserve the right to be left alone to grow in their own beauty and identity.
It is no longer about what is yours and what is ours.
It is about what is living in the forest and how we can keep it safe.
Why do people always have to envision money in everything?
Lives are at stake here, and life is far more important than profit.
Is it possible to either make money elsewhere or live without money?
Ask my ancestors. They were wealthy and they did not own a cent.
* Caroline Humchitt, Land Use Plan Executive Summary 2007