Protection of Natural Resources: Paredes Memorial Plenary (SfAA 2016)

This session was presented in honour of the work of J. Anthony Paredes and his contributions to Native Americans in the Southeastern United States. As a result of a generous contribution of an endowment by the Poarch Band of Creek Indians in Alabama, a community in which Tony worked for many years, this session will become an annual event at the Society for Applied Anthropology Meetings. The Paredes Memorial Committee has determined that Tony’s memory and the endowment would be best served by presentations by Native Americans and First Nations’ representatives drawn from the region where the meetings are held. In the first annual meeting, the focus was on cultural strategies for environmental protection.

In Vancouver the keynote address was presented by Grand Chief Edward John, LL.B.. Dr. Gwen Point (Sto:lo Nation) and Darrell Hillaire (Lummi Nation) followed with presentations on Sto:lo approaches to land and water protection (Point) and the use of film to convey Native American voices to preserve the earth (Hillaire). I was honoured to stand with these eminent Indigenous leaders and to share experiences from Gitxaała Nations efforts to halt the transportation of crude oil through our territorial waters.  My talk was an excerpt from a forthcoming chapter co-authored with Caroline Butler (Gitxaała Environmental Monitoring). The session was recorded by the SfAA Podcast Team and is to be posted.

What follows is my presentation script for the talk.  

On the Front Lines!: Gitxaała, Oil, and Our Authority

(Written by Caroline Butler and Charles Menzies. Presented by Charles Menzies.)

Of all the contemporary development projects suggested for the North Coast, the Enbridge Northern Gateway proposal has been by far the most terrifying for Gitxaała. A massive twin pipeline would carry crude oil from the tar sands of Alberta to Kitimat, BC, and condensate back to the tar sands. From Kitimat, 220 supertankers per year would traverse through the marine territories of several coastal nations, including Gitxaała, en route to Asia. The catastrophic potential to Gitxaała society of a shipping accident resulting in an oil spill on the coast motivated the Hereditary Chiefs of Gitxaała to direct the elected band council to spare no expense in fighting the project. The Nation rejected all offers of share ownership and employment opportunities from the proponent, and to date has spent well over two million dollars engaging in research and legal action to block the project.

The project was reviewed by federal agencies through a procedure called a joint review panel (JRP). Three panelists were appointed by the Canada’s National Energy Board and they officiated over the receipt of written and oral testimony from First Nations and stakeholders. The JRP held hearings from Alberta (the source of the crude oil) to Coastal BC during 2011-2012. First Nations, environmental groups and other interested parties registered as interveners to directly participate in the process and to present evidence to the panel.

Gitxaała participated extensively in the consultative process. The Nation made the second largest number of submissions of all the interveners in the process. A great number of these were legal motions challenging the process itself; Gitxaała questioned the legal ability of the JRP to assess impacts to Aboriginal rights and title. Gitxaała requested the greatest length of oral testimony time of any intervener (7 full days) with over 30 Gitxaała citizens providing testimony. The Nation retained a number of experts who provided written reports submitted as evidence to the panel on topics such as the biophysical impacts of oil spills, cumulative effects, and Gitxaała governance. An expert on oil spill modeling provided a report illustrating the movement of oil through Gitxaała territory from spills of various sizes, at various locations, with varying tidal and wind action.

In addition to using legal and scientific expertise to engage directly with the JRP process through standard mechanisms of legal process and Western biophysical science, Gitxaała also forced the JRP to engage with Gitxaała governance, territory, and culture in meaningful ways.   The first 5 days of Gitxaała testimony occurred in the village of Lach Klan in March 2012. The hearings were in the school gym. The JRP members were seated at the front of the gym, on the right handside, with Sm’algyax translators and the court transcribers beside them. On the left handside of the gym, Gitxaała Smgigyet were seated in a horseshoe to witness the proceedings officially, as per Gitxaała protocol. Photographs of deceased Smgigyet and Sigidmhanaa had been blown up to posters-size, and dozens of these ancestral images were hung around the room. Each was framed with cedar boughs. Photographs of Gitxaała citizens out in the territory, harvesting and processing marine resources were also plastered around the room. The entrance and balcony area were also hung with cedar boughs so that the entire gymnasium smelled like a forest. The proceedings were opened like a feast; each Smigyget was announced in Sm’algyax, and escorted to his seat by attendants in regalia. Over 150 drummers and dancers opened the hall with the dance of each of the four tribes. The opening protocols took almost two hours. Gitxaała citizens from all over the province came home to witness the hearings, so that the gym was full. Throughout the week, every meal served to the huge contingent of JRP support staff and Enbridge representatives was Gitxaała foods: salmon, herring eggs, seaweed, sea urchins, sea cucumbers, sea prunes, eulachon, octopus and many other species. The JRP proceedings were halted on three different occasions as Gitxaała protocol was followed to amend mistakes or offences, such as the mispronunciation of someone’s name. Blankets were given and fruit distributed to resolve these issues.

Gitxaała had organized our witnesses into panels: Governance, Harvesting, Youth, and Culture. The Smigigyet on the governance panel described Gitxaała hereditary governance and explained how it was connected to territory; specifically, the Smgigyet emphasized the sovereignty of each house territory. The Harvesting panel described the extensive ways in which Gitxaała people continue to rely upon their territories and resources for commercial and community uses. The Youth panel emphasized the continuity and strength of Gitxaała traditions in the youth, and the importance of a healthy territory to their cultural education. The fifth day of the hearings in the village, Gitxaała received special permission to take the Panel on a boat tour that followed the proposed tanker route through Gitxaała territory. Along the route, historical and spiritual sites were identified, and the areas where particular resources are harvested. The sites’ connections to the oral and written testimony already submitted were highlighted. Gitxaała wanted the Panel to experience the area that was at risk from an oil spill, and the disruption posed by tanker traffic, to actually see the territory they were trying to protect. Gitxaała’s lawyers had to lobby very hard to have this trip approved as part of the evidence submission.

The Cultural Panel took the last two days of Gitxaała testimony that occurred in April 2012 in Prince Rupert. Smgigyet and Deputy Elected Chief Clarence Innis provided an overview of Gitxaała history, the disruptions of colonialism, and the revitalization and protection of Gitxaała language and culture. Language experts Ernie Bolton and Doug Brown presented a map of Gitxaała place names and taught the panel how many place names reflected the connection to marine resources. Sigidmhanaa Jeanette Moody tried to make the panel understand her fears about the development angering the naxnox (supernatural beings) and the repercussions that Kmsiwah disrespect of these naxnox could cause for Gitxaała people. The final piece of Gitxaała oral testimony was an Elder singing songs in Smalgyax that spoke to the link between chiefs and territory, and the richness of Gitxaała territory. In fact, the two days dedicated to Gitxaała’s panel on Culture were the last days of the public hearings, so the last moment of the JRP public process was the singing of a Gitxaała hunter’s song.

Sigidmhanaa Rita Robinson, the holder of many Gitxaała Limii (songs) described the protocols associated with house ownership of songs and publicly requested the appropriate permissions. She then sang an ancient song about a hunter who encounters a SpaNaxNox in the form of a ‘yaans, or sea prune. The song has many verses, and lists the many marine resources harvested and protected by the Gitxaała. It was presented as evidence of the interconnection of Gitxaała culture and the ocean. Rita’s granddaughter Wendy Nelson drummed, and Rita sang the opening verse. Slowly, all the Gitxaała people in the hall joined in, singing quietly.

This moment, as all of the hearing, was both beautiful and terribly ugly. Rita’s singing made the young people happy and proud, it was an inspiring and meaningful end to the proceedings for the Nation. It also was incredibly hard for her – she had always been told to guard these songs and other aspects of her culture carefully.   Every piece of evidence, written and oral, shared by a Gitxaała citizen was treasured proprietary information of house and tribe that Gitxaała people had always been taught to keep within their community. The chiefs and matriarchs who got up on the stand to explain their governance structure and their relationship with Naxnox, the supernatural beings who reside throughout the territory, they all struggled with publicly speaking about their treasures.   The sharing of this information and the public performance of many of their practices were critical tools in the fight against Enbridge, however it was a difficult and painful thing for Gitxaała people to do.

The Enbridge project was a threat in multiple ways. The potential impacts of an oil spill in the territory presented the ultimate threat to the Gitxaała way of life – more devastating than any of the previous forms of colonial change and dispossession. The experience of hearings and the regulatory process was also a cultural threat, demanding that Gitxaała people contravene their protocols and their ayaawx (laws) in order to protect their society. However, the Gitxaała-ization of the engagement empowered and connected the community in significant ways.

Some of the written evidence and the associated maps have been transformed into educational curriculum. The placename map that was consolidated for the hearings will be a critical language revitalization resource. The conceptualization of impacts and risks demanded by the process has provided Gitxaała chiefs with the ability to articulate Gitxaała values and concerns more precisely in other regulatory processes. There is now a greater understanding of and comfort with various forms of documentation and research, resulting in greater participation in cultural research, and more opportunities for the development community-relevant research products.

Finally, the very particular way in which the Enbridge process, specifically the hearings, were shaped by the Nation laid the foundation for a Gitxaała-specifc approach to research, documentation and impact assessment – now implemented in LNG EAs.

Gitxaała laid itself bare for the JRP, but also covered the place with cedar and button blankets. Since that simultaneous baring and blanketing, there has been an ongoing exploration of how to shake things up in the regulatory sphere – how to work in Gitxaała culture, values, and rights in different areas, and different ways. Until the Enbridge hearings, Gitxaała resisted extensive documentation of cultural practices, laws, and stories. The fact that this kind of research is now possible is both tragic and an opportunity. There is an aspect of desperation in these cultural assertions -mapping the unmappable, measuring the unmeasurable – which represent the intense level of threat posed by projects such as Enbridge Northern Gateway. But there is also an incredible strength and power in sharing these reports and testimony – the confidence that this type of information can be put forward in a foreign manner, in a colonizing process, without it actually harming Gitxaała culture.


Barbara Rose Johnston, reflections on a lecture (SfAA Vancouver, 2016)

This year at the SfAA meetings in Vancouver I was honoured to serve as one of two discussants of the Michael Kearney Memorial Lecture (the other discussant was Mark Schuller). The lecturer was the noted scholar, Barbara Rose Johnston. Barbara’s work highlights the importance of linking environmental justice with human rights. Her lecture on March 31, 2016 was “a mix of stories, reflexive voice and analysis” that  explored the twin precipices of environmental disaster and disregard for human rights. While acknowledging simultaneously the potential of victory and the draining sense that power inevitably unleashes horrific backlashes, Barbara found a moment of hope in her concluding observation that “by documenting, communicating and advocating for a healthy transformative change we redefine the fundamental agendas that guide institutions of power.” 

The session was recorded by the SfAA Podcast Team and is to be posted.

These are my discussant comments.

What is to be Done? An action plan for transformative change.

“The transformative change that environmental justice struggles seek to achieve require fundamental alterations in the architecture of power.” Barbara Rose Johnston, 2016.

No truer words have been spoken. But. We know this. So why can’t we move forward? As academics we often suggest that to know the context gives us the answer and provides a path forward – a solution. From experience we build a response. But then Dr. Johnson reminds us of the backlash that comes with each tiny victory – the ways ruling classes dispenses punitive discipline enacted upon the bodies of Indigenous and working class peoples. Is this the grit that makes us stronger? Is this the experience that teaches us the way forward? What is to be done?

The Egyptian Arab Spring first encouraged us as an exemplar of the new digital social entrepreneurial activism. That a few young people on twitter and facebook could rouse a nation from slumber and bring down a corrupt authoritarian leader gave people hope across the globe. The reports from Tahir Square amplified the story of this new twitter revolution. Then the backlash, the disappointment as the story took what was presented as a surprising tone; but clearly for those of us who study social revolution we feared the outcome wasn’t going to be CNN-rosy for long. The only organization that had the institutional structure in place that had survived Mubarak’s attacks against civil society organizations was the authoritarian Muslim Brotherhood. Their grasp of state power was short lived. And the generals returned to power reinstating the status quo.

We are witnessing the mayhem of regime change across much of the so-called Middle East, a zone that for at least two centuries (longer if we consider the ancient Greeks). In Iraq and Afghanistan we witness how the vengeful war for democracy has thrown those societies into such great chaos that for some the earlier regimes are seen as golden eras of stability. In Syria we see another twitter revolution that descending into horrific acts of suppression and then disorganized armed insurrection.

Each of these examples presents a harsh lesson on social transformation. Say what one might; simply invoking the will of the people or the power of the masses will not bring us any closer to transformative social change. These are situations in which, on the one hand, the authoritarian state structure had sufficient foresight to understand that allowing any kind of civil society to coalesce would threaten the states regime. So in Egypt and Syria when the revolutions started the power all lay in the hands of the state and there was no effective means of resistance. The Egyptian state was strong enough (so far at any rate) to withstand the opposition and for it’s ruling elites to ultimately regain control over their territorial assets. In Syria the state, while still hanging on to power, is far weaker than Egypt and has lost much of its territorial possessions a disorganized array of insurgents. In Iraq US forces effectively destroyed (as much as they could) all institutions of the state and installed their own proxy. Here we see neither a legitimate indigenous counter movement, nor the institutions of the former state have much of a role to play in social transformation: Iraq has been made over into a dystopic capitalist hinterland.

Johnston argues that our ingenuity as a species “has led us to the precipice of [a] dangerous tipping point.” She goes further to suggest that the precipices of eroding human rights and ecological crisis are in fact one singular precipice: “in order to secure meaningful remedy, necessarily requires radical transformation in the structural arrangement of power.” Dr. Johnston may well be right. At the very least it’s a contention that I share. Though I suspect that we have come to this similar conclusion from different pathways.

As a teenager I didn’t really think much about the big picture issues. Growing up in a working class resource dependent town in the 1960s and 70s I knew first hand about strikes, unions, communists, and big business. I also had first hand experience of the world beyond the confines of urban space – I worked on our family’s fishing boat (was on it since I was a pre-teen, earned a share as a teenager), hiked and camped through the backcountry where I grew up. Like many other working class families, whether Indigenous or Kumskiwah, we ate food closer to it’s source – fish, game, produce- because it was good, but also be cause we had to. I am not sure these experiences either helped or hindered me. I would say that they have played a role in shaping how I think about issues that confront us today.

My first forays into professional anthropology involved arguments over fisherfolks’ local knowledge and the inadequacy of so-called bio-economic science to adequately account for what was really happening. But my first foray into politics was in the trade union that represented deckhands who fished on the boats in the local fishermen’s co-op.

This early experience of labour syndicalism and social democratic market capitalism contributed to my developing belief in the necessity of equity. As a crewmember in my own right I was accepted into the fraternity of the male workworld: I had proven my worth on the boat. In the union we talked fairness and equity. In the fishermen’s co-op that we all belonged to we learned about the ravages of private capitalism. As a cooperator we shared in the profits that the companies would have taken. This unique blend of syndicalism and market socialism opened my eyes to the possibility of social justice for all.

I should say that a book, lent to me by a high school teacher, also played a pivotal role in shaping my thoughts on issues of social injustice at that time and what needed to be done: that book was Brian Easley’s Liberation and the Aims of Science: An Essay on Obstacles to the Building of a Beautiful World. What I learned from Easley can be boiled down quite simply: (1) things aren’t always what they seem, (2) a beautiful world is possible, and (3) it’s worth fighting for.

I must also point out that simultaneously, simply as a part of who I knew I was, has been the place played by being Indigenous. The realities of racialized conflict and colonialism was clear where I grew up. I have written about these matters elsewhere. But it was not until I was employed at the University of British Columbia that I came to understand myself as an objectified subject. Sociologically speaking this is not a new experience: this is the realization of all kinds of people marginalized by structures of power tilted toward a minority ruling class. It is, just the same the experience of working in the academy brought home to me the critical linkages between human rights, environmental justice, and class struggle that motivates my interventions today.

So what is to be done? We know the answer. To a certain extent there is a ghost sitting here, to my left, whose early 20th century title I have freely borrowed without attribution. He was an intellectual and political strategist who understood that taking power from the minority requires sacrifice, commitment, but above all else organization and time. Even then he knew that nothing was guaranteed. I am not standing here today calling for a new vanguard party – different times, different methods. Nor do I place any hope in transnational NGO’s, the UN, or other similar bodies. The answer may well lie in working here in our homes making small changes. Keeping our histories alive.

In my home community there are stories of the old time when people forgot who they were. The youth disrespected the elders. The elders ignored the youth. And everyone disrespected the animals and world around us. Some calamity would befall the people. A rock slide, a flood, a giant wave. Most of the people would perish leaving a mere handful behind. But out of those remnants respectful ways were reestablished and the world continued on better, more beautiful than it had been before. As Dr Johnston tells us we are on the edge of a precipice. I fear that truly our only option is to fall and trust that in our rebirth our new societies will return to the ways of this land, remembering who we are, and reestablish the rightful relations between people and the other beings we share this place with.