Indigenous Jurisdiction an Ancient and Modern Reality​

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 It was a specific strategy of forestry that developed because cedar bark was a staple commodity in the societies and economics of coastal life. Cedar was used in an endless array of purposes. Cultivation of giant cedars was a task of millennial proportions to make trees produce surplus cedar bark as a raw material for production of manufactured goods. Families, and their descendants in fact, used the cedar to thrive in communities and this dependence on the Tree of Life was elementary.

Nothing was left to chance, nothing was left to waste. A term like "old-growth forest" was meaningless in a culture practicing specialized cultivation  over many centuries. Indeed, a burned forest was an opportunity to harvest a different list of highly-prized resources. Everything on an island like Yukusem was designed around the need to produce cedar bark for future generations. 

A prime example of the transgenerational planning policy occurs on a site identified as Bear Grove on Yukusem. Garrick’s maps point to the existence of at least 55 shaped cedars per hectare in the Bear Grove sector of the island. This intense concentration gives evidence of surplus bark creation. It becomes obvious from this magnitude of concentration that a highly organized effort to cultivate and exploit cedar bark was made in patterns showing sustainable, long-term, transgenerational planning.

The people living in the vicinity of Yukusem 1350 years ago cultivated a specific tree to furnish Namgis carver Beau Dick with raw material for a canoe project in the modern age. In this context, ancient people provided a transgenerational chain of evidence to Harry Alfred and Don Svanvik, CMT researchers from Alert Bay, who are able to exert Indigenous  jurisdiction over Yukusem cedar groves in the present. The vital (and heretofore missing) evidence was produced from messages in trees hundreds of years old. The fingerprints of this forest interaction have been uncovered in many of the forests of B.C., even so, it was a long and arduous 20th century for Indigenous people around Yukusem. Only in 2004 did they recover jurisdiction over Yukusem.

CMTs studied by Garrick provide scientific evidence to give Indigenous people proof of former jurisdiction that turns into present jurisdiction. It is interesting to note, however, there was no apparent conflict in the management of Yukusem resources until the year 1930, Garrick explains. His archaeological time-line shows that before the cataclysmic culture meltdown took place (residential schools, banning of potlatch, et al), the arrival of industrial foresters was a not-unwelcome event to a degree. The industrial foresters cooperated with cedar managers by taking only a few non-cedar trees from Yukusem’s treasured groves, and Garrick reports they left cedar trees untouched. Cedar was left to the cedar shapers who used it as a specially-managed and treasured resource. Garrick proved how two management paradigms can co-exist!

It required an exercise of government policy to alienate Indigenous Nations from their management and jurisdiction of cedar shaping activities. From the time such government policies were introduced until Yukusem Heritage Society was formed in 2004 the cedar groves on Hanson Island faced dire circumstances. Garrick’s archaeological study was the one thing standing in their way. In a pleasant turn since his study began to reveal a series of scientific facts, people are free to exert their sovereignty.

“I am the land and resource officer of the Namgis First Nation,” said Harry Alfred, one afternoon in a communal garden on Yukusem. Alfred described how people have rebounded because of Garrick’s work in these groves. Cultural energy burst from the CMT research and people regained a sense of cultural balance. New community energy has been born from the old secrets. Alfred and Don Svanvik were on the Yukusem board of directors on behalf of the Namgis First Nation. (Two other Bands share jurisdiction over Hanson Island -- Tlowitsis and Muntagila.) Alfred and Svanvik have become CMT experts within their communities. “The Namgis Nation,” said Alfred, “comprised 4,000 sq km.” With a sweep of his arm he described a rectangular shaped territory with Yukusem sitting almost at the centre.

Under the guidance of famous Indigenous artist and historian Beau Dick (sadly passed away in 2017), a group of volunteers built a few community facilities on the south-west quadrant of Yukusem to teach people a few more lessons about the old ways. Dick described how one social organization took people into the sylvan wilderness and constructed dugout canoes. It is known canoes were constructed in cultivated cedar groves in areas adjoining other food or health or community-based cultivated resources. The canoes were dugouts designed in a technically superior manner to take people back and forth across oceans, between communities and fishing grounds or other harvest areas throughout the Broughton Archipelago and spanning the entire west coast.

A volunteer canoe building project was done as part of the reclamation of Yukusem,  and it was an idea belonging to Beau Dick who grew up in a Big House society. His background came out of what remained in the splendor of Kingcome Inlet, a miraculous survival of traditionalists who dodged bullets (literal and figurative) through many previous decades.

Dick learned to carve from his grandfather and father and obtained teaching about hidden meanings in a unique form of artistic expression. Life goes on, yes, and Beau Dick, despite being a realist, believed he was restoring historical significance to the Indigenous nations by uncovering old secrets of cedar forest management. On the southwest quadrant of Yukusem he staged a come-back by building a cultural camp to teach people the old ways -- sharing a forest in a transgenerational and environmentally sustainable way.

Beau Dick was a compelling story teller, and recounted stories passed down by generations in relation to first contact with Europeans on the coast of the Pacific North West. One of them described the fate of the first domesticated feline, and another the chiefs reaction to the 'rum custom' of the British Navy. 

The Spanish had sailed up the outside coast of the Pacific North West around the islands and into the archipelagos as early as the mid-1500s. But the domestic cat made its first appearance at a Kwakwaka’wakw ville in the Pacific North West in the mid 1700s when the Spanish landed inside the Kwakwaka'wakw nation to begin conducting business.

This nation of Houses, clans, and villages occupies the mainland, several islands, including the top of Vancouver Island on both sides. When the Spanish sailed up to one of the well-populated villes, they were visited immediately by the chief who greeted the ship’s captain with a cordial welcome to the Kwakwaka'wakw nation, a short-lived situation. At this meeting the chief saw a cat capering aboard the Spanish ship. The Kwakwaka'wakw chief was enthralled by the creature and the animal was brought before the chief for closer inspection. After playing with the cat for a spell the chief believed he had received full possession of it. Dick ascribes the Spanish captain’s devotion to his pet as enormous, and the Spanish captain of the ship refused to relinquish it. A couple of intrigues later the Kwakwaka'wakw chief was in full possession of the cat.

The infuriated Spanish captain unleashed a cannonade at the community blowing apart several Kwakwaka'wakw war-canoes parked on the beach in front of the bighouses. Canoes were never in short supply in a Kwakwaka'wakw community and a few minutes later a flotilla coursed toward the Spanish ship. They surrounded the Spanish and returned the cannon balls. They also demanded the Spanish perform this excellent feat again. (They were not, however, returning the cat.) The Spanish sailed away and left the chief in possession of the curious animal and he announced a special event to be held in his bighouse. Soon a gathering of chiefs and important clan members and associates had been assembled and the stage was set to unveil the cat.

The chief reached into a large cedar basket and grabbed the terrified cat and threw it some distance against a wooden post where it stuck. Everybody oh'd and ah'd while the cat did a couple of frantic loops and took off never to be seen again. The Spanish spent a number of years exploring and mapping in the Kwakwaka'wakw nation. They left the territory with a legacy of sketches of people, villages, ship’s log entries, and a few Spanish place-names. Soon the Spanish were superseded by the British who brought something other than a cat.

Beau said the British Navy began stopping around the territory occasionally gunning the Spaniards out of the region and often stopping at the houses of the chiefs of Kwakwaka'wakw communities.

The British had a custom of ending each occasion with the protocol of a shot of rum. At first the chiefs were kind of 'taken' but not all were happy with the custom and some were offended by the British insistence at imposing the bitter tasting liquid on these special occasions. Indeed a large argument ensued among the chiefs about whether to allow the British to stay. The argument prevailed, "Ah, let them stay. What harm can it do?"

McColl Magazine is operating under the maxim "Indigenous Canadian economic development is the pathway to progress for all Canadians"

Indigenous life on the west coast of Canada provides a host of cultural contrasts within a modern society. Indigenous jurisdiction on the west coast was defined by a system and ceremony known as Potlatch in which people even today express a lot of unique national heritage. Today's Indigenous descendants employ indelibly cultural artistic endeavours. Indigenous Nations identify the presence of their communities with iconic art found in countless locations on the coast. When you come to see major features in Indigenous Canadian Northwest art you are likely in the midst of an Indigenous community. 

Tourism on the west coast takes visitors on adventures like whale and bear-watching tours to places like Bute Inlet, Toba Inlet, and Desolation Sound. When you go farther north, tours take visitors into the Broughton Archipelago, Knight’s Inlet, or Kingcome Inlet, or around the top of Vancouver Island. As a cultural exploration, Vancouver Island is one of countless  islands, many of which had been inhabited while others were cultivated, and others were used for communal harvests of various sustaining food and building products.

It is astonishing how many people lived in places no longer considered for habitation. In some of these places there are communities holding extinction at bay with one or two Tribal members living in remote locations like Hopetown or Gilford Island. At Kingcome Inlet, very top of the world, when you are there, 125 souls keep a solid Indigenous footprint on the ground (while they live in houses on stilts).

Victoria is a picturesque city full of art shops and museums often honed in on the Indigenous culture of the Pacific Coast, but Victoria is a city. On the opposite side of the prominent Malahat from Victoria going north yet still southerly on Vancouver Island is the city of Duncan, halfway point between Victoria and Nanaimo. Duncan is a great place to see the cultural contrast in full bloom. 

They call Duncan the City of Totems and there are totem poles set around the city but the main attraction is the Quw'utsun' Cultural and Conference Centre. It’s a re-created Salishan village nestled beside the Cowichan River, a beautiful expression of past and present Cowichan Tribes communities.

The north end of Vancouver Island contains rugged beauty enhanced by temperate weather, and a temperate rainforest is readily available to visit. Hiking, touring, fishing, and outdoor activities continue on a year-round basis top to bottom on both sides of the big island. Alert Bay is on Cormorant Island at the entrance to the Broughton Archipelago, and not far away is a place called Yukusem, formally known as Hanson Island, where you learn about the study of Culturally Modified Trees (CMT).

CMT's provide the study of human beings working with rainforest resources. David Garrick, anthropologist, uncovered  'transgenerational' management of forest resources on Hanson Island, conducted by Indigenous people at the north end of the Inside Passage, and it is an amazing study. Garrick's study of transgenerational management provides evidence that Indigenous people used forest resources in coastal rainforests in complex arrangements.

Special preserves of rainforest were managed under carefully defined jurisdictions and managed to provide essential resources to a wide number of communities. Social groups arrived on the island to conduct large scale horticulture within particular groves of cedar trees on Yukusem’s 16 square kilometres. Several communities would cooperate on a truly grand scale so that together they made cedar trees do the most incredible things. This cultivation was done in a manner that shaped trees and modified cedar trees to produce a surplus of bark while maintaining the integrity of a living cedar tree. Indigenous people maximized cedar bark production by modifying the tree, doing this in a way that left the cedar tree to heal, thrive, and produce more surplus bark. 

​​Beau Dick