A Māori tribe made history recently when a New Zealand river was granted legal rights. The Whanganui River has been granted personhood and rights, thus settling the longest running court case in New Zealand’s history.
The Whanganui iwi [tribe] of the Māori fought for 140 years to protect their river. “The reason we have taken this approach is because we consider the river an ancestor and always have,” said Gerrard Albert, the lead negotiator for the Whanganui iwi. “We have fought to find an approximation in law so that all others can understand that from our perspective treating the river as a living entity is the correct way to approach it, as an indivisible whole, instead of the traditional model for the last 100 years of treating it from a perspective of ownership and management.”
Hereditary chiefs typically designate a speaker to speak for them in public. This is because when they say something, it can’t be taken back. So I was curious when I heard Chief Maquinna from Ahousaht was going to speak at a Raincoast Education Society event in Tofino about old growth forests—how was this going to work?
Lewis George is the hereditary chief of Ahousaht, and bears the traditional title m̓ukʷina (Maquinna), which he received from his late father Earl Maquinna George. The first thing he did last week was to explain why he was speaking. Hereditary chiefs can only speak for themselves when they have good news. And Ahousaht has good news!
The Ahousaht confederacy recently announced their marine- and land-use vision for their traditional territories (ḥaḥuułʔi). The community consensus is to protect their lands and waters, including the globally rare ancient rainforests—the massive cedars and spruces—of which they are the custodians.
The indigenous people of northern Europe are called Sami. They are known for herding reindeer on the tundra. What we learned while in Norway is that the coastal Sami culture centres on wild salmon, much like coastal Natives in what is now called British Columbia. These two species, with their predictable migration patterns, provided the protein on which a rich culture was founded—the Sami.
The Alta River in northern Norway is famous. The stretches downstream of Northern Europe’s biggest canyon teem with big salmon, and have been a mecca of sports fishing for many years. The reindeer herds also come to the banks of the headwaters to calve in the rich pastures.
A major dam on the Alta River?
Back in 1970, the Norwegian government announced plans to build a major hydroelectric dam on the Alta River. Questions about the reindeer, the wild salmon, or interference with Sami rights were not even considered. What became known as the Alta Controversy began as a conflict between the Sami and the Norwegian government. The Sami village of Masi was to be flooded, and people rightly feared extensive disruption of the environment. Eventually the resistance morphed into a People’s Movement which became a nationwide flashpoint for a growing awareness of the need to protect the environment and uphold indigenous rights.
23 year old Tamo Campos grew up in North Vancouver. A sponsored snowboarder who chased winter for the last 12 years, he’s now putting roots into both environmental and humanitarian work. This led him to cofound Beyond Boarding, to spread awareness in the
Dan Lewis is a founding director of Clayoquot Action.
It’s not possible to work on conservation issues in British Columbia in this day and age without coming up against the reality that the issue of who owns the land has not been resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. The simple fact is that Canada’s sovereignty was established right over top of pre-existing indigenous sovereignty. This has resulted in uncertainty for governments and business, confusion for Canadian citizens, and injustice and suffering for First Nations.
So last week I decided to check out the federal government’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission National Event in Vancouver. The TRC is the federal government’s response to the legacy of the Indian Residential Schools run by the government and churches from 1875 to 1996.
The schools were an attempt by the church and state to eradicate indigenous cultures and languages—as was infamously said, “to kill the Indian in the child.” But indigenous peoples survived and this attempt at cultural genocide failed. However, the effects of the schools are intergenerational and are still being manifested. Native communities today are still in the process of healing.