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.


Make it real – an Indigenous take on research

Over the years I have had the opportunity to speak around UBC on matters of Indigenous research. In each of these talks I discuss the critical importance of standing with Indigenous peoples.  By this I mean don’t turn us into the objects of your gaze but rather work with us and do what you are best able to do study your own society.  Too often settler researchers use our Indigenous communities as laboratories to test their ideas. Worse yet they use our ideas, histories, actions as data sets to input into their own visions of the world.

At a recent anthropology conference I heard researchers who, almost as an aside, described the situations of state interference into the lives of Indigenous peoples they were working with. These were asides as the primary focus of the researcher was the lives and beliefs of the Indigenous communities. The opportunity to study the state, its functionaries,  and it’s mercenaries should not be overlooked.  Settler researchers who wish to act as allies should study other settlers and the way settlers infringe upon Indigenous peoples’ lives.  The time for studying us is long past.

Here are three talks that highlight some of the issues I find central to a respectful anthropological research.

Respectful research in a colonial context.

Reflections on identity: does it matter who I am, who you are, when we do research?

Meditations on research and responsibility.



Social Justice, US Anthropology and BDS

It’s big news (in anth circles) right now.  The business meeting of the AAA voted by about 1000 to 150 to put a motion on the ballot of the general membership supporting BDS this spring. It really was the talk of the meetings.  Every where I went friends and colleagues were discussing it. They weren’t unanimous in the positions.  Some were opposed to it, others were unconditional in their support, still others took the hold your nose and vote yes approach. I opted out of participating in the vote.

I find much to agree with Maximilian Fortes‘ position on the AAA resolution. Here’s a key quote from his detailed blog post:

My point is that there is a surplus of misdirection, mendacity and hypocrisy at work among AAA members who support the academic boycott of Israel, and that the boycott is being supported using not just specious reasoning, but also by endorsing imperial political and moral narratives. The wrong conclusions are being drawn from preceding AAA actions, so as to better take the AAA on a new turn: international arbiter of human rights and protector of endangered others (and only those who are endangered by others). The same logic used in the pro-boycott petition could justify calls for regime change and sanctions against other nations that are the targets of US imperialism. All of the markers of an imperial narrative of protection and intervention are present in the motion to boycott Israel: support for “civil society” (thus reinforcing the neoliberal undermining and bypassing of Palestinian national authorities); and, asserted universals about “human rights”. The notion that violations of Palestinian rights can be traced to the work of Israeli universities—while downplaying the role of the US universities in the same endeavour—is fraudulent. I am also accusing the AAA of serving not just as an agent for imperialism, but as an agent of imperialism in its own right—by reasserting the US’ neo-feudal hold over Israel (and reminding its leaders of their proper place in the international hierarchy), and by validating US anthropology’s sense of its own superiority and indispensable centrality. The exercise is ultimately one of legitimating “American Exceptionalism,” and it almost certainly has nothing to do with concern over “human rights violations”.

. . .

“I think the AAA has damned itself, and its supposed support and solidarity for Palestinians. Dishonest gestures guided by ulterior motives hardly serve Palestinians, at least not as much as they may insult their struggle. What is best served by this motion, however, are (neo)liberal politics and a vindication of “American Exceptionalism”. The motion is effectively and primarily one that expresses US solidarity with US anthropology.”

Fortes’ critique is direct, definitive, and damning. The issue lurking beneath the AAA resolution (one that did not really come out in the discussions reported by colleagues and through social media) is that this is really more about a variant of US Imperialism.

In the early 1980s central american support activities were a big issue amongst leftist activists in Vancouver. We were all familiar with groups like the FMLN (El Salvador) or the FSNL (Sandinistas, Nicaragua). The actions of the US government in supporting the contras  and fueling counter revolution were soundly decried. We saw in this class struggle a clear and obvious set of choices: either support or struggle against US imperialism and destruction of the lives of working people and agrarian poor. This sense of the struggle manifest itself in the brief emergence of a home-grown militant group, Direct Action (also known as the Squamish Five).  At least two milieu activists also ended up joining the struggle directly and were sentenced to long jail terms for their efforts. The underling idea for all of us was that real social transformation included social justice struggles at home (to change local exploitative settings) and political campaigns of support for fellow militants in theatres of armed and intense social struggle. Boycotts were conceived as a weak and low order tactical choice. More direct engagements, focussed in sites of production and at locales of governance were considered the more strategically appropriate approach.

This was also the moment in which the South African divestment and boycott campus movement started up. While the underlying issues were similar – local struggles against oppressive situations- the support movement activities were of a different order.  Whereas the central american support activities were based in a shared idea of class struggle at home and away, the campus south african divestment/boycott movement elided concerns with class struggle and focussed instead upon moral issues and an inherently anomic tactic of corporate divestments and individualized consumer boycotts.

In the contemporary BDS debates the south african example is held up as an example of a successful deployment of tactics like divestment and symbolic boycotting. Such a conclusion is curiously ahistorical. The role played by the collapse of the Soviet Union , the rising tide of neo-liberal austerity measures and liberalizing of international trade and capital flows is quite likely a far more reasonable explanation for the end of minority rule in South Africa. While correlations can be made between south african capital and US university divestment the overall set of causes can not be strongly linked to the divestment campaign.  Though, the story of divestment leading to majority rule in south africa is an elegant tale that gives juice to current fiscal activists who find it easier to support neo-liberal economics than getting their hands dirty in real social struggles that build better social just communities.

The current BDS campaign simplifies the issue into a narrative of two great actors: the Imperialist Israeli State and the Oppressed Palestinian. The antagonists are reified and held in an almost ahistorical amber of cultural entrapment.  Much like an old style anthropology monograph on a ‘village’ the only possibility of change is seen to come from outside.  Thus enters the possibility of a white crusader from the west.  This is a strange parody of a fight within the semitic family: Jew/Muslim/Christian. The reality lives far away from this simple story spun by BDS advocates. To a large extent the possibility of their being both an Israeli and a Palestinian identity has only conceivable in recent centuries. These modern fraught social identities are ones that have emerged  out of a common historical moment and they seem to rely upon the continuation of the other for their own existence. Perhaps the only real solution is to transform these separate identities into one common identity, one nation without religion?

There is much that is wrong with our world. There are a great many people who will stand up to say that this struggle, that concern, is the most important. What I have seen as I move through my life is that the further away – socially, intellectually, geographically, etc- an issue is then the more intense the rhetoric around it. At least that’s what it looks like from my vantage point.  Point is we can’t solve every problem everywhere.  We need to focus, to select, to be discerning.  Ideally we should also be consistent. For me that leads to focusing on community activism at home and within arenas that I have some small modicum of potential in making what I hope are positive changes.

So when a major national professional association makes a decision with potential global reach we need to think very carefully about this. At the most simplistic, if it is right to divest from Israel and to boycott Israeli cultural and academic institutions why not other nations as well? One also needs to ask if the tactic that is being advocated will have the desired outcome. What are the underlying principles that are being activated to make all of these decisions?

My sense is that a vague combination of liberal guilt (the worry that despite being progressive one is also implicated in oppression), a desire to be ‘on the right side of history,’ and a sense of wanting to do something that might ‘make a difference,’ came together in a room in which 1000+ members of the U.S. Association of Anthropologists voted to initiate a boycott and divestment campaign.  I’m not convinced BDS is the elixir that will make our world a better place.