“Our laws and traditions are oral,” said Slett. “They’re passed down by our Knowledge Keepers,” a group of Elders who have learned the Nation’s customs, traditions and protocols. “We only have 30 fluent Hailhzaqvla-speaking Elders left,” she added. “We’ll uphold Heiltsuk laws and do everything we can to protect them.”
Slett is referring to the emergency measures her community has put in place.
Like many Indigenous communities in coastal BC, and around the world, the Heiltsuk Nation has enacted a strict lockdown, opting to go well beyond the provincial guidelines by banning all non-essential travel in or out of their territory.
We only have 30 fluent Hailhzaqvla-speaking Elders left
- On the roads and in the public ferry terminals leading into the normally tourist-friendly communities on BC’s coast, checkpoints have been set up, manned by Guardian Watchmen who typically act as friendly ambassadors and cultural interpreters.
- Out on the water, these Guardians are using AIS (Automatic Identification System) to identify, track and intercept any boat that arrives in their waters. Their role is to ensure the vessel should be there and turn it back if it’s not.
Shifted to a new frontline, these traditional protectors, stewards and guardians of First Nations lands and waters have begun rediscovering the power of protecting a Nation’s greatest treasure: its people.
Combination of Traditional & Modern Approach
Canada’s Indigenous people have always been stewards of their land and culture – but what’s changed is how they now combine Western science and law with cultural knowledge and traditional laws to secure their survival.
Often, the weight of this combination is directed towards things like sovereignty claims; archaeology has been used to secure land claims.
But now communities, who cherish their Elders for the guidance they provide, are listening to international health guidelines and then combining that knowledge with their own values in the way that protects the community best.
Foreign contact brought devastation & diseases?
It’s not difficult to understand why the Heiltsuk have opted to manage the pandemic by following the advice of their own leaders and shutting off their community to outsiders.
- For 14,000 years, they have lived in balance within a territory that spans about 15,540 sq km and extends through the Great Bear Rainforest.
- Heiltsuk historians estimate that at their cultural peak, as many as 20,000 people lived in 50 summer and winter villages set in ancient forests of huge Sitka spruce, red cedar, western hemlock and Douglas fir.
European contact, dating from the 1780s, brought devastation. “We survived smallpox, we survived measles, we survived government policy,” Slett said. But the onslaught took its toll.
In the 1880s, the remnants of the severely depleted Heiltsuk communities gathered into one village near Bella Bella: their population had been diminished to around 200 people.
And then the 1918 flu came. “My mom told me about my grandmother who remembered the ladies crying and talking about all of the losses. There were whole households passing away – and no time for proper burials,” said Slett.
Cultural Tourism – A Painful Journey
Cultural devastation wasn’t unique to the Heiltsuk. In many Indigenous tourism offerings in Canada, that painful and turbulent journey is something visitors learn about. “Our most effective businesses are built around sharing culture and cultural revitalisation,” said Keith
Henry, president and CEO of the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada.
Since time immemorial, Guardians have had a role in managing land and water and in exerting rights
More than opportunities to see wildlife, hear songs or learn how people create art or survive off the land; modern Indigenous tourism in Canada is a $1.8bn industry that combines experiences with culture in a way that celebrates the warmth, humour and resilience of Indigenous people.
“It’s not Disney-fying us, it’s not making us like a petting zoo; it’s really just sharing who we are,” said Henry.
Located 55km north of Bella Bella, the Kitasoo / Xai’xais Nations village of Klemtu is also on lockdown. Chief councillor Roxanne Robinson says the decision to close the community to outsiders was an obvious one, as “protecting the health and safety of people is the work of a leader”.
The rugged landscape and wildlife, which includes whales, coastal wolves, black bears, grizzly bears and the spirit bear, attracts visitors from all over the world and makes up a vital part of the local economy.
Robinson says that closing their community in mid-March was a hard choice, but it was just in time. Just south, Heiltsuk Watchmen on the water reported they started turning back yachts. American and Canadian boaters trying to flee big cities and those who wanted to hunt or fish (which is considered essential in BC, but not by the coastal communities) had started heading for more remote, Covid-19-free communities.
In normal times, these Guardian Watchmen would ensure people knew to stay away from sacred sites and to follow wildlife regulations.
A global concern
Inadequate healthcare and higher rates of chronic health conditions means indigenous communities around the world are at greater risk from Covid-19.
- Argentina: Home to at least 35 officially recognised indigenous communities, some have opted to insulate themselves from outsiders.
- Australia: Some remote indigenous communities locked themselves down early. They were quickly supported by the federal government, which is using its Biosecurity Act to limit access to essential staff and services.
- Brazil: With 850,000 indigenous people, different groups are responding with strict isolation; guarding their communities from outsiders and using traditional treatments.
- Kenya: Maasai people have traditionally survived pandemics by isolating deeper into their territory. During Covid-19, many people are currently scattered and isolated.
- US: The Navajo Nation is one of the epicentres of the virus in the US and currently has the highest infection rates in the country.
Read More: COVID19 Threatens Indigenous Communities After an Amazonian’s Death
“They are an extension of nationhood,” said Claire Hutton, Indigenous Stewardship Director at conservation organisation Nature United. “Since time immemorial, Guardians have had a role in managing land and water and in exerting rights.”
In earlier Kitasoo / Xai’xais villages, Robinson said, there was always one Guardian Watchman situated outside the village to watch for strangers. While in the Heiltsuk culture, the Guardian Watchmen were informal custodians of the land and water, following traditional laws to protect food sources and conserve the landscape.
Supporting these Communities
While the ancient tradition faded with colonisation, modern Guardian Watchmen programmes came into being in the 1980s with programmes in Haida Gwaii, 200km west of Bella Bella, and in the Innu territories in Labrador. Today more than 50 different programmes in Nations across Canada fulfil a wide variety of different roles, depending on what a community may need.
Hutton, who coordinates a team that provides technical support to Guardians across Canada, says the programmes are as distinct as the Nations themselves, but there are common themes and issues.
- Many are focused on stewardship and ensuring the protection of traditional food sources.
- Some have a strong science focus, and Guardians are critical for data collection and monitoring biodiversity or species at risk.
- Other programmes concentrate on tourism and the Guardians act as interpreters.
The goal of Nature United is to support the Guardians with resources that match their requirements. But manning checkpoints to prevent the spread of Covid-19 has brought up an unexpected set of needs. “Offering conflict training and Tactical Communications webinars is new,” Hutton said.
Travelers Question Authority
As the Guardian Watchmen shift from scientific data gathering and land preservation to guarding the frontlines, they’ve encountered pushback from travellers who question their authority.
While British Columbia’s Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation agree that First Nations have the authority to restrict travel into their communities, at the same time the province, like many places, has begun reopening, forcing Indigenous communities to protect themselves.
Slett says while it would be better if Canada and BC reinforced Indigenous restrictions, the communities have the knowledge they need and are ready to safeguard themselves.
Informing Visitors and Keeping the Balance
Following traditional laws, which focus on balancing the needs of the people, the environment and the economy, coastal Nations, which battled each other in ancient times, have come together.
In an effort to keep out outsiders, Haida Gwaii and the Central and North Coast, including the Heiltsuk and Kitasoo / Xai’xais Nations, have set up a coalition.
- They are working collectively to let visitors know that while they are valued and wanted, now is not the time to visit.
- The communities are simply too vulnerable to risk any loss.
We are self-isolating at this time so that when we gather again, nobody is left behind
“We know that this isn’t over and it’s going to be a few years before there’s a vaccination and it’s no longer a threat to humankind,” Slett said.
“Indigenous communities cannot be left on the sidelines and on the fringes of what’s going on. We need to work together as we uphold our measures.”
Meanwhile the Heiltsuk – and other locked-down communities that have closed their borders – have turned inward. “We have Guardian Watchmen that are out there daily. We also have a patrol that monitors the entry points of the community,” said Slett. “And we’re turning to our Knowledge Keepers to see what we can do in terms of adapting during this period.”
- What the Knowledge Keepers are teaching is the value of self-sufficiency.
- All along the coast, communities are relying more heavily on traditional marine foods like eulachon oil, smoked salmon, fresh herring eggs and roasted seaweed.
- Community gardens are being started and leaders are encouraging people to find strength in the power of looking after themselves.
Read More: Indigenous Communities That Warned of COVID19 Disease Emergence!
Self-Reliance & Confidence
“If you look through our histories, I can’t imagine our ancestors or our leadership of 30, 40, 50, 100 years ago having the kind of confidence to determine our future this directly,” said Henry.
While the financial implications of shutting down tourism will hurt communities, he added, the whole point of tourism all along has been to strengthen the culture: Nations making their own decisions does that.
Slett said that they want tourists, they want visitors, but later. Right now, they need to get everyone through the pandemic safely: “One of our staff members posted this on Facebook: “We are self-isolating at this time so that when we gather again, nobody is left behind.”