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For Indigenous communities in ‘Alberta,’ the oil industry has left an ugly stain

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Jason Castor is a father, construction business owner and member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. Photo by Brandi Morin

In September, journalist Brandi Morin and cinematographer Geordie Day spent several days in the Fort Chipewyan area, reporting on the enduring impact of oil sands extraction on local Indigenous communities for IndigiNews, The Real News Network and Ricochet. They met with ACFN Chief Allan Adam and other community members and Elders, and spoke with experts including toxicologist Mandy Olsgard and Dr. John O’Connor. It’s one of several reporting trips Morin has made to the area over the past year. This article, and accompanying feature documentary, are co-published by all three outlets.

The rush of the wind and sprays of water add to the thrill as Jason Castor guides his riverboat through a stretch of Lake Athabasca near Fort Chipewyan, in Treaty 8 territories. If he slows down, his boat could get stuck in the mud or even flip over because the water levels in this spot are remarkably low. He steers around buoys, dodges logs and other debris while accelerating to the mouth of the channel, which he knows should be deep enough to navigate at an average speed. 

While trawling his boat further down the river, Castor points to odd-looking clusters resembling dirty foam floating by. 

“There’s just a slurry of a foam that looks like oil or some kind of chemical in there,” says Castor, a 42-year-old father, construction business owner and member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN). 

He’s been a traditional hunter, trapper and fisherman for nearly 20 years and has documented strange changes in the water, the land and animals. 

Something’s going on in the river, he says. 

“They say that it’s natural, well, I know that that’s not natural because I’ve been on the river my whole life,” he explains as he points to brown and white foam, oil sheens and other discoloured formations floating on the river.

Nowadays, it’s risky to navigate these waterways because of industrial intakes like the W.A.C. Bennett Dam to the west in B.C.; the Alberta oil sands just up the river and impacts from climate change. 

The Peace-Athabasca Delta is the second-largest freshwater delta in the world. 

The Athabasca River, and the larger delta, also sit atop the world’s largest known reservoir of crude bitumen. 

The industry that has sprung up around it drives Alberta’s and Canada’s economy, employing about 138,000 people. In 2021, crude bitumen production totaled approximately 3.3 million barrels per day. The oil sands energy sector including oil sands, conventional oil and gas, mining and quarrying is valued at about $18 billion. 

But while Canada prospers off the oil sands industry, Indigenous communities downstream are dealing with its toxic impacts. 

Not only are the water levels fluctuating, but the health of the water flowing through the Athabasca River is jeopardized. 

Last month we released a feature documentary by Brandi Morin and Geordie Day called ‘Killer Water,’ about the impact of oil sands pollution on local Indigenous communities. You can watch it below, or find it on YouTube. 

Castor stops his boat about three hours south of Fort Chipewyan where the river flows closer to the oil sands. 

Castor worked as a heavy equipment operator for a major oil extraction company in the oil sands for several years. He says he became unnerved after contributing to the demolition of the land and moved back home to Fort Chipewyan. 

“There was so much going on, like there’s oil trucks moving around and all the spills, and there’s always the smell of bitumen and oil and diesel, and my heart — just thinking of me working for the company, and I just got disconnected,” Castor says. 

“Like, it was a point where I was only there for the money. And then I just felt sick to my stomach when I went to work. It was like, ‘what am I doing to my land? And what am I doing to the water?’” 

Castor was raised in the foster care system away from Fort Chipewyan after both of his parents died while ice-fishing on Lake Athabasca when he was young. Then, nearly 20 years ago, Castor moved his wife and children back to Fort Chipewyan and did the hard work of learning a traditional lifestyle. 

But he won’t allow his children to swim in the lake basin near home or in the Athabasca River — the risks are too high. 

When he travels the river to pick up supplies or visit friends in Fort McMurray, he doesn’t take his hunting or fishing equipment even though there are often moose and other wildlife. 

“I wouldn’t want to eat anything from there. And it’s like the animals know when you’re in that area. They know that you’re not going to hunt them…” his voice has an eerie tone as he trails off; the animals are aware the environment is poisoned, he says, and that Indigenous people won’t hunt them there. 

“I quit eating fish in this community. Because of the statistics, they say you can only eat like one or two fish because of the mercury and stuff like that. I know all the oil comes down, oil and gas and whatever else. 

“I mean, they say it’s safe, but we don’t know.” 

Castor and other locals suspect pollution from the oil sands has been affecting them for years. 

In Fort Chipewyan, many in the community have noticed changes in the water. Jason Castor pulls out of the water what appears to be a slurry of a foam that looks like oil or some kind of chemical. “I know that it’s not natural because I’ve been on the river my whole life,” he says. Photo: Still from ‘Killer Water’ documentary

Their fears aren’t unfounded. There are documented high rates of cancer and other diseases in Fort Chipewyan with no explanation as to the source, and a recent major tailings pond spill has underscored their concerns. 

In February, Indigenous communities downstream from Imperial Oil’s Kearl Mine, roughly 75 kilometres upstream of Fort Chipewyan, learned of a massive spill of 5.3 million litres from the mine’s tailings area. 

Kearl is a bitumen mine capable of producing 240,000 barrels per day. The mine’s industrial operations generate wastewater, commonly referred to as tailings, which contain dissolved substances such as iron, arsenic and naphthenic acids. 

These tailings contain the byproducts of the extraction process used in oil sands mining including water, sand, clay, residual bitumen and various chemicals. 

The Kearl Mine impact zone covers five hectares, according to Imperial Oil. It extends well beyond the tailings enclosure designed to segregate these byproducts into nearby boreal muskeg and waterways. 

The tailings water released in that spill exceeded federal and provincial guidelines for arsenic, sulphates, and hydrocarbons that may include kerosene, creosote and diesel.

This leak, named one of the largest releases of tailings in Alberta’s history, contained toxic levels of contaminants, including naphthenic acids and arsenic. 

An erosion of trust

Fort Chipewyan’s leadership was only made aware of the toxic spill through an Environmental Protection Order issued by the Alberta Energy Regulator that called on the company to immediately contain and remediate the spill on February 6. Then in March, the Canadian Press obtained a document which showed the province stalled on initiating an emergency response for a month after it knew about the spill, until First Nations chiefs in the area went public about not being informed. 

Environment and Climate Change Canada say they only learned of the incident on February 7, 2023, following the AER’s publication of the emergency order for Imperial Oil to contain the ongoing leak. Then ECCC Minister Steven Guilbeault issued a a Fisheries Act directive to Imperial Oil, requiring them to take immediate action to prevent any seepage from entering fish-bearing waters because the seepage is believed to be harmful to fish. 

Meanwhile, Indigenous leaders found out that another, long-term spill at the same Kearl Mine site had been leaking for at least nine months prior to the major incident in February. Even though mine employees discovered the leak and notified Imperial Oil, which in turn alerted the AER, neither told affected Indigenous communities, the public, or provincial, territorial and federal governments. They were only informed of the previous incident when the EPO was released. 

The government of the Northwest Territories has also accused the Alberta government of breaching their agreement to provide timely information regarding the spills. The Athabasca River is interconnected with Lake Athabasca, which in turn supplies water to the Slave River, ultimately flowing into the Northwest Territories. 

Indigenous leaders reacted to the news in anger and called for the AER to be disbanded due to an erosion of trust and policies allowing oil companies to “largely police themselves.” 

Soon after the incident, Alberta’s information and privacy commissioner launched an investigation into the AER’s communication about the tailings pond leak at Imperial’s Kearl project. 

Privacy commissioner Diane McLeod said the OIPC will examine “whether AER had an obligation under Section 32 of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act to disclose information to the public or others about the leak.” 

ACFN Chief Allan Adam accused Imperial Oil of covering up the spills and called the AER “a complete joke,” during a hearing in Ottawa at the House of Commons’ environment and sustainability committee investigating why it took nine months for Imperial Oil to go public about the spills.

Following those hearings, the committee launched a formal investigation into potential violations of the Fisheries Act by Imperial Oil. 

The nightmare didn’t end there. Just one month after the Kearl Mine spill, Suncor reported six million litres of tailings water that exceeded sediment guidelines had been released into the Athabasca River from its Fort Hills oil sands mine. 

Although Imperial Oil states its spill did not affect nearby waterways or wildlife, that contradicts the findings of the AER, which revealed that test results indicate the presence of “industrial wastewater within Waterbody 3,” a body of water that supports fish life and is situated on the northeastern boundary of Imperial’s Kearl lease. Subsequent testing of Waterbody 3 detected hydrocarbons at levels that exceeded water quality guidelines. 

Imperial Oil did not respond to requests for an interview. 

The AER asserts that the toxicant loads fall within safe limits for the general public, but it remains unclear which specific contaminants are being tested for. 

The AER declined interview requests, citing the ongoing investigation into the tailings spills and its failure to inform affected communities. 

However, ACFN leadership was granted access to the spill area in March. According to a press release, their findings were “worse than what anyone anticipated.” 

They observed toxic water still on the ground in an unfenced, uncontained area; animal tracks leading in and out of the spill area; a single pump that had only been installed the day before in an attempt to remove the visible uncontained tailings spill; new tailings puddles forming as the temperature increased; and no barriers placed between seepage and water bodies. 

The impacted Indigenous nations, who rely on local food sources and water, were kept in the dark about the leak for nine months. This includes members of the Mikisew Cree, the Athabasca Chipewyan and Fort McKay First Nations, the Fort Chipewyan Metis, and other downstream communities — all the way to the Northwest Territories. This means community members harvested meat, berries and other medicines from the territory, consumed fish from the water, unaware of the risk of contamination. Photo by Brandi Morin

It’s a battle that ACFN Chief Adam has been fighting for decades. Adam, who has been ACFN’s elected chief for almost 16 consecutive years, became internationally recognized for raising the alarm about the adverse impacts of the oil sands on treaty rights, climate change, and public health. 

During an interview in September, Adam, 56, sat at a popular lookout on a rocky knoll on Lake Athabasca, wearing a traditional hide vest with Dene beaded flowers and fringe over a black and white plaid flannel shirt. 

“Regardless of what government forms or what government is in place, when your back is up against a circle of a wall, try to find the curve, and I’ll put you there,” he says. 

He’s referencing the irrefutable proof of who’s responsible for the tailing’s leaks — and who needs to pay up.

“Right now, that’s where they’re at, and there’s nowhere for them to go. They’re trapped… by the evidence that’s there. And we will prove it.” 

He says the ACFN is preparing a court case against industry and the provincial and federal governments. 

“From ACFN’s point of view, how the justice scale goes, we will find out. And this is going to court. And it’s not going to look good for Canada. And it’s not going to look good for Alberta. Alberta will fight. But Canada will buckle. Because our treaty trumps everything. And we can’t allow our water to be tainted.” 

Celebrities including Leonardo Dicaprio, Neil Young, Jane Fonda, director James Cameron, and activist Greta Thunberg have visited Fort Chipewyan to help amplify these concerns. In 2014, South African Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu called the oil sands “the world’s dirtiest oil,” at a press conference with Chief Adam in Fort McMurray. Tutu also said, “only those who want to be blind can’t see that we are sitting on a powder keg,” in the oil sands.

Then, in 2018, along with a coalition of other Indigenous communities, Adam announced that he wanted to buy a stake in Canada’s Trans Mountain pipeline or partner to build another future line. 

“We want to be owners of a pipeline,” Adam old the CBC. “We think that a pipeline is a critical component to the oil and gas sector, especially in this region.” 

He went on to say he was “tired” of the ongoing struggles with the oil industry. 

“The fact is I am tired. I am tired of fighting. We have accomplished what we have accomplished. Now let’s move on and let’s start building a pipeline and start moving the oil that’s here already.” 

The straight-talking leader was labeled a sellout by some people who claimed he abandoned the cause of saving the environment. Adam said he couldn’t stop the industry, prompting him to change strategies in an attempt to ensure that his community at least receives long-overdue financial compensation. 

“What I did is, I went and fought for compensation for the nation because of the high rates of cancer, pollution of our waterways, the continuation of the pollution of our natural foods. Who is going to compensate us for all of that when all of this is gone?” he said in an interview with this reporter for Al Jazeera English in 2020

But it didn’t mean he gave up caring about what happens to his homelands. He says he’s ready to battle the polluters and the governments that support them. 

He believes that the resources deep beneath the surface belong to First Nations, who have never received proper compensation for being the source of Canada’s riches.

“They could be giants and walk over us and everything, but you take out their knees, they will fall,” he says bluntly, while nodding his head. 

“We have legal rights, we have legal position, we have legal title, and we never ever surrendered anything.” 

He wants Alberta to pay Treaty 8 nations a cut of the province’s earnings from industry profits in the oil sands. And he’s still waiting for Premier Danielle Smith to answer a text message he sent her during her election campaign last spring. 

“She hasn’t answered my text but I know she’s got it… I just told her straight out, like, you know, you want to continue this to go on? Well then, give us 10 per cent of all revenue sharing within Treaty 8 territory,” he says. 

“That’s within fair reason. And you don’t even have to back pay us, just pay us up to date. Because I think alone within what goes out of Treaty 8, I think 10 per cent will make every Treaty 8 First Nation build a good foundation and have a perfect home.” 

Adam, along with Mikisew Cree First Nation Chief Billy Tuccaro, accused Smith of downplaying the tailings spills when she said they had “no effect” on local waterways or wildlife.

And, after holding back a wildfire that caused the entire community of Fort Chipewyan (which is only accessible by boat or plane), to be evacuated in May, Adam is growing frustrated with the encroaching threats he believes are linked to industrial development. 

“And, you know, when times like this are happening, where homes are being destroyed by wildfire and everything because of climate change, of development and everything. I raised the alarm, you know, years ago when I said that one day we’ll become environmental refugees. Where are we now?” 

The CEO of Imperial Oil apologized to Canadian lawmakers in Ottawa last April for the toxic spills. Brad Corson acknowledged that the company had acted “negligently” by not sharing crucial information with neighbouring First Nation communities. 

The president and CEO of the AER also issued an apology saying the incidents were finally made public due to the federal environmental protection order to stop the seepage. “It is clear that neither Imperial nor the AER met community expectations to ensure they are fully aware of what is, and what was happening. And for that I am truly sorry,” Laurie Pushor told the parliamentary committee

Imperial Oil also expressed their “regrets” to Chief Adam.

“We work hard to maintain transparent communication with our communities, and we recognize the communities’ concerns about delays in receiving additional information,” oil sands and mining vice president Jamie Long told CTV News

“We have expressed to [Chief Adam] directly our regret that our communications did not meet the expectations of the ACFN community, we further committed to him that we are taking the necessary steps to improve our communications, so this does not happen again in the future.” 

That apology doesn’t mean much, says Adam, who feels like he was strung along and purposely lied to by the company. 

He pauses to look over the lake, the wind blows the waves to the shore. The light blue sky reflecting above conjures a beautiful scene of tranquility. 

“When you look at your grandchildren and everything and you say, is that my legacy that’s going to continue to happen? And yet we’re watching our own grandchildren, our own kids, pass away with diseases of cancer and everything and we can’t do nothing.” 

Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. Photo by Brandi Morin

Adam is also an avid hunter, trapper and fisherman. His tone shifts as he speaks about his ailing father-in-law, Johnny Courtorielle, who was diagnosed with liver cancer. 

“You know, 15 years ago, when we first brought it out to the public about what was going on here, just because nobody talks about it, it’s still going on. You know, people are still being diagnosed with cancer, but we live it because it’s our normal.” 

Back in April, when he testified at the House of Commons Environment and Sustainability Committee about the impacts of the tailing spills, he learned his father-in-law’s diagnosis. 

“Everything that’s here will affect people regardless of what, you know. And my father-in-law lived off the land all his life. He still goes out in the bush today. He’s 88 years old. He just came back yesterday from the bush,” he says. “And you can’t stop him. His love for the land is who he is. And like I said, it all connects together. Everything connects. The water, the land, what we eat, everything, and the people.” 

Now, he and his wife are deciding whether they will move back home to Fort Chipewyan. The two currently live in Fort McMurray because it’s easier for his wife to receive medical care for her arthritis. The only way his wife travels home to Fort Chipewyan is via boat. 

Adam says his wife isn’t able to fly, and BC Hydro’s Site C project is currently lowering water levels in the river, making it hard for them to travel. 

“My wife has to make a decision now because yesterday the doctor told us to expect one month to one year (for her father to live),” Adam says.

“So that’s a decision my wife has to take and we have to go back to McMurray to make sure that all her medication is all in place because if she comes back here, we’re isolated, and we have to make sure that the medication comes here.” 

Adam knows the pain of losing relatives to cancer and disease, including his own father. 

Choking up with emotion, he recalls taking a break from leadership to take care of his father before he passed. “When my dad went through this process, I had to make a decision as a chief back then. What do I do? Do I run the nation, or do I step aside? And I stepped aside for six months to spend time with my dad.” 

Growing up, Adam says the land and water were pure. He described the lake and riverways as the family’s “deep freeze,” that was “fresh daily,” and says he’d eat locally harvested meat and fish in abundance. These days he’s cautious about the number of fish he consumes. 

“I think within a year I take maybe four fish. And yet fish is [supposed to be] the healthiest thing that you could eat.” 

The water, a source of life, should sustain and nourish his community like it did for thousands of years for his ancestors. 

Not anymore. It’s a “killer” he says. And after the community learned of the tailings spills everyone threw their harvested meat and fish into the trash. 

“I said, ‘would you feed it to your own dog?’ No, we’ll throw it away,” the Elders were especially upset, he says. 

“Yeah, we’re scared. I’ll say that for a fact.” 

He motions to the scenery before him. The water shimmers under the golden rays of the sun, as the trees of the lush boreal forest hug the rocky banks. 

“The innocent killer. Looks so beautiful, but yet, it’s a killer,” his eyebrows raise with bewilderment. 

It’s a situation he finds ironic. Almost 80 per cent of people who live in Fort Chipewyan consume traditional foods and medicines harvested from the land and water. But the rights of Indigenous Peoples to have access to those ways of life are being eroded. 

“It’s (water) supposed to provide life for our people, for everybody, but what about down from here, downstream, and it continues on going down, and nobody listens to the people and the stories that are coming from the north. And how many people from the north are continuing to have the same illnesses, the same sicknesses that we have.”

A cluster of cancers

Dr. John O’Connor who worked as a physician in Fort Chipewyan for nearly 16 years, alerted officials about heightened rates of both rare and common cancers. He was cleared of accusations made against him in 2009 of raising “undue alarm” by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta. In the same year, the Alberta Cancer Board conducted a study that revealed cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan were, in fact, about 30 per cent higher than expected. 

O’Connor, who now practices in Fort McKay First Nation and Fort McMurray, said he noticed a disproportionate number of sicknesses in his patients in Fort Chipewyan not long into his practice. 

“Within the first couple of years, it was sort of apparent to me that this community of 1,200 people had a lot of illness,” he says. 

“And then as I got to know the community more and the trust was established, it dawned on me that this was quite a shock — cancer and autoimmune diseases of a type and a number that I really wasn’t seeing in my large practice in Fort McMurray.” 

He also made the connection that the majority of the locals live traditional lifestyles; meaning they consume the water, fish and meat from the land, and that could be the source of the higher rates of cancer and disease. 

“They hunted, fished, trapped, and gathered. You know, they couldn’t afford the food at the Northern store, some did, and obviously for some of the food they had to go there. But they were very well established, very self-contained and contented. So, it made it all the more sort of alarming for me that I would see this.” 

When he tried to forewarn the medical industry and governments about his findings, he says he was accused of “stirring up trouble.” He thinks his findings were purposely swept under the rug. 

“As years went by, it sort of dawned on me that this was probably preconceived. This is something that was already in the vocabulary in their (industry, governments) lexicon, and I just happened to touch a raw nerve with them, because there was no undue alarm,” he says. 

“The facts were there for all to see. Documented, not just by me, but by the provincial health authority and by the feds themselves. They were obviously hiding something. They were protecting big oil, big fossils.” 

He’s not surprised about the latest tailings leaks, and points out the oil sands tailings have been leaking for decades. 

Various reports, including a 2020 report released by Environmental Defence, based on the oil industry’s own reporting methods, found that Syncrude’s Aurora Settling Basin tailing pond has been leaking about 39.25 million litres per year since it began operating 20 years ago. The report highlights that the toxic waste fluids amount to approximately 785 billion litres, with the Muskeg River — a tributary of the Athabasca River — located less than one kilometre away. 

There are 30 tailings ponds operating across nine oil sands projects that cover 300 square kilometres of what was once northern boreal forest. 

On average, industry generates approximately 2,000 to 2,500 litres of tailings per barrel of bitumen. Considering current production levels, this equates to around 1.8 billion litres of tailings being produced daily. That’s the equivalent of more than 700 Olympic-sized swimming pools being filled every day. The report further estimates that since the start of mining operations in 1968, there are now about five and a half trillion litres of tailings accumulated in the landscape. 

Alberta’s oil sands Photo by Garth Lenz via Environmental Defence

Tailings ponds are often engineered with impermeable liners, such as high-density polyethylene or compacted clay, to create an additional barrier against water leakage. However, tailings pond designs and management practices vary depending on specific regulations which have fluctuated over the many years the oil sands have been operating. 

While the liners may keep the tailings from sloshing out of the ponds, they don’t prevent seepage. 

Citing research conducted in 2008, the report indicates that conservative estimates at that time saw a leakage of over four billion liters of fluid annually from the tailing’s ponds. Since then, the volume of these ponds has increased by more than 230 per cent, while their size has grown by approximately 170 per cent. Consequently, it’s estimated that the volumes of seepage could be much higher. 

“Who’d be surprised at this? Back then they had public hearings, at one of them Suncor admitted that their oldest pond had been leaking at an alarming rate for years directly into the water table,” O’Connor says, shaking his head, his forehead furrowed with concern. 

“So, these latest leaks were a drop in the bucket compared to what’s been happening forever.” And the effects of toxins leaking into the water and pollution blowing through the air breathed in by people downstream of the oil sands are deadly, he says. 

“There are carcinogenic chemicals in these tailings ponds that individually are class one carcinogens for humans and animals. There are chemicals in tailings ponds that science is unsure of the impact of when they’re mixed, the soup that’s created by these tailings ponds,” he says. 

“And there’s also even more alarming endocrine disruptors that are leaching directly into the environment, into the water, that are impacting fish. And of course, fish are a staple diet in Fort Chip.”

In the fall of 2022, this reporter visited ACFN’s Jackfish Lake reserve south of Fort Chipewyan where community members were processing a harvest caught in Lake Athabasca. 

During a short two-hour window, two deformed fish were pulled from the catch. Biologists and scientists were on hand to take samples of the fish to test for toxins. They also took samples of the abnormal growths on the fish. 

As of September 2023, tests on the samples from the deformed fish have still not been conducted due to a backup in the laboratory, says fish camp administrator and environmental scientist Bruce McLean. The results of testing of the general whitefish population, however, show low levels of contamination. 

“It looks good. I would have no concern (to eat the whitefish),” McLean says in a telephone interview. 

However, he adds Northern pike and walleye would be more susceptible to contaminants because they feed on other fish, whereas whitefish don’t. Northern pike and walleye have not yet been tested for contaminants, although plans are in the works to begin that process, he adds. 

“I do think that the (fish) resource is in danger from oil sands development, particularly the release of oil sands processed waters. The (other) thing we’re seeing, it’s landscape alteration,” McLean says. 

“We know that the upgraders bring contaminants into the water and on the snow. We know that there are changes to reproductive health in animals. But we don’t really know the full consequences of what they’re doing. And so, people do feel like they’re the experiment. And I think we know there’s big problems.” 

‘This river is my fridge’ 

Mikisew Cree member Calvin Waquan utilizes Lake Athabasca and its river systems on a regular basis. Being out on the water in his canoe or kayak during sunrise and sunset is healing, he says. He moved home to Fort Chipewyan after his father was murdered in Edmonton in 2014 because he wanted to reconnect with his ancestral homeland. 

“I see this lake as something that teaches me a lot of lessons. It’s my fridge. It’s my classroom. It’s my history book. It’s my solitude.” 

Now, he’s a husband and father of two and manages a local store, Chief’s Corner. Even though he spent summers visiting his grandparents in Fort Chipewyan and swam in the river and lake, he won’t allow his children to go in the water.

“You see the beauty of our community, the nice homes, the trucks, side-by-sides, the boats, but that all comes with a cost, and it all comes with the thought of being sick one day,” he says while we paddle kayaks just offshore of what’s known as “big dock” in Fort Chipewyan. 

The Athabasca River and Lake Athabasca have become the “toilet bowl” of industry. 

“My wife wanted to move away from here…but I want to be here with my people and with my granny and beside my father that I buried nine and a half years ago. But it’s getting to a point where I don’t know if I want to stick around because young guys like me are dying from cancers and older people are passing away and it’s sad to see,” he says. 

“Is it the meat? Is it the fish? Is it the air? Is it the plants? It’s all connected. It’s everything. It’s the medicines. It’s everything that we trusted before, we are guessing at now.” 

Mikisew Cree member Calvin Waquan says he utilizes Lake Athabasca and its river systems on a regular basis. He is deeply worried that industry has changed the land and water forever, and will eventually force many in the community to become ‘climate refugees.’ Photo: Still from ‘Killer Water’ documentary

After he learned of the Kearl Mine tailings spill he showed up at a Town Hall held by Imperial Oil in March holding a water bottle tainted with motor oil. He presented the bottle to Imperial Oil’s Long. 

“I was pretty riled up and I walked in there pretty calm, and I just told them how I felt, and how my ancestors have been trying to tell people from the beginning. Just like my granny, my Kohkum said, ‘enough is enough’. And I just had enough. I saw my little girl there, my boy,” his voice trails as his lips tremble and his eyes fill with tears. 

“Once industry is affecting the serenity of that and the beauty of this water and these lands, I’m gonna stand up and be a warrior for my people today and tomorrow and for every day to come. And, you know, when they (industry) make promises that are broken… I just thought I have to do something for my people.” 

There was a time when his ancestors lived long lives, he continues. They subsisted off the land with berries, meat, fish and hard work. After the forceful removal of the Chipewyan and Cree from their traditional territories when they were made to settle in Fort Chipewyan, even after the residential “school” system devastated their way of life, they were able to largely maintain their culture and traditions. Their new enemy is the poisoning of their water and land by industry. Waquan too has experienced unprecedented loss. 

“When I’m burying my papa and my uncle and cousins and seeing other people die from rare cancers, bile duct cancers, you can’t tell me there’s something not wrong here.” 

The prospect of one day leaving Fort Chipewyan to give his children a healthier environment is heartbreaking, says Waquan. 

“This home saved me after my father was murdered. I moved back here to help my people to create a legacy for the youth and the ones yet to come. And I have done that in the 10 years with Solar Farm and other projects.

“I’m at a point where, can I help my nation, outside this community, from afar, and keep my children safe for years to come? Because I don’t want to be bringing them to the Stollery (hospital) or places like that. I see other kids and it breaks my heart — my son had two friends, recently had cancer and they’re the same age as him, 10 years old. 

“When someone like Dr. O’Connor blows the whistle, they get threatened to take their job away, or to silence them because of the almighty dollar, but… Where’s our share? Where’s the royalties? Where’s something that’s gonna create sustainability? Something that’s going to create sovereignty for our people.” 

O’Connor is even more agitated at the increasing number of children reportedly being diagnosed with cancer. He calls it the “canary in the mine.” 

“The other health issues that are in Ford Chip are red flags… children getting cancer,” says O’Connor. “There should be a fire alarm sounded. And I don’t hear any concern being expressed by anyone in a position of authority or, in the public health, or federally or provincially.” 

He suspects the lack of concern by authorities exists to protect the interests of industry and the profits governments stand to lose. 

“I think industry is untouchable. It owns this province, everything. It’s the purse strings, the government policy.” 

Ian Peace, an environmental scientist who lived and worked in northern Alberta, including Fort Chipewyan for several years, thesis about leaking tailings in the oil sands that was published in 2019. 

His research suggests that process-affected water was likely making its way from the tailings impoundment area down to the river. 

“These are large-scale projects, and it’s widely agreed that naphthenic acids are the main toxicant of concern that is produced by processing of oil sands ore. And I did a little bit of number crunching on this and there’s only about 200 milligrams of naphthenic acid in a kilogram of oil sands ore,” he says. 

“But the larger projects are moving in the range of half a million cubic meters or tons of ore per day. And scaling that up, the result is that between Suncor and Syncrude, there are at least 200,000 kilograms per day of naphthenic acids being discharged to tailings ponds. And that is a substance that has been shown to kill fish in concentrations as low as 20 milligrams per litre.”

After tailings are discharged following the oil production process, it’s about 90 per cent water. And 80 per cent of that water drains out of the bottom of the tailings ponds, leaving behind mostly the toxic “sludge”, which industry calls mature fine tailings or fine fluid tailings. 

“So, here goes all those tailings into the tailings pond, and most of the water drains out the bottom, leaving behind these sludge accumulations. And that main contaminant is naphthenic acids. That’s the one that everybody agrees is the biggest concern. There’s lots of heavy metals and other compounds. But when we’re looking at what is the most serious one, it’s these naphthenic acids. And that is readily dissolving in water,” says Peace. 

That means that as the toxic tailings water makes its way through the ground underneath the tailings pond, it mixes with the river and everything in between. 

“It’s expressing to the river in almost the same amounts that are already dissolved into the tailings water.” 

He believes industry and governments minimize the impacts of oil sands development and the leaking tailings. 

“I think that that’s very clear. If you take a look at the way they have approached the issue, you can see that it’s downplayed tactically and strategically. There’s no doubt. They don’t look for a number of compounds. They don’t look in the areas where they might find it. And it’s been an effective strategy.” 

Peace conducted experiments with a colleague and documented tailings water leaking from a tailings pond adjacent to the Athabasca River. They sampled and tested the river water for major ions which have a different chemical makeup than regular river or surface water. One area was found to be “extremely high” in major ions. 

“But you’ve got to remember that all this stuff sort of occurs naturally in a region anyway. So, it’s hard to come up with something that’s categorically attributed to one particular source when it’s also found in natural bitumen deposits that are in the area.” 

Human health as an afterthought

There’s a significant void when it comes to knowledge of the combination of the chemicals in tailings and how the spills affect human health. The other issue at hand is proving whether or not the higher rates of cancer are linked to the oil sands, says environmental toxicologist Mandy Olsgard. Osgard has worked to assess water contamination for the AER and various First Nations communities throughout her career, including Fort Chipewyan. 

“There is no regulatory body that is responsible for community or human health once that (tailings) project is approved,” she says during a telephone interview.

“We only manage human health through the environment and environmental quality monitoring. So, there’s this gap between what we predicted as a risk to human or Indigenous community health and then how we monitor that during the life of a project. So, it’s not shocking that communities are bringing these concerns forward, whether it’s odors from air emissions, deposition of dust, changes to wildlife and plants.” 

The provincial and federal governments have said multiple water tests they conducted found no evidence of contamination of waterways near the Kearl Mine. But ACFN, the Mikisew Cree and Métis governments in Fort Chipewyan have been continuously testing the water at their treatment plant since they learned of the spills. 

However, Olsgard says standard water inspections are inadequate. 

Because of the lack of risk assessments on human health, it’s hard to determine if carcinogenic chemicals and endocrine disrupters are causing higher rates of cancer and diseases north of the oil sands. Tests for certain chemicals are just not conducted. 

“We’ve never really linked that to how it changed human health and the condition of human health. So, there are studies that have shown chemical concentrations are elevated. So that’s why when people come and say, ‘Oh, but we’re cleaning up the world’s largest oil project.’ That’s all bunk — they’re not,” she says. 

“They process the oil sands and they release different types of chemicals, different forms of those chemicals, and sometimes novel chemicals. They have introduced polyacrylamide and acrylamide into the environment up there for flocculants in tailings ponds or things that make the tailings come together and sink to the bottom to clarify the water cap. 

“And so, there’s novel chemicals, there’s increased concentrations; they change the oxidation state of metals and that’s important because of how bioavailable, how easily a human can absorb the oxidation state. So, when people are saying this was natural, no, it’s not.” 

She mentions rhetoric that many skeptics of oil sands contamination use, arguing that tar naturally exists in the Athabasca River. 

Tar does naturally exist along the Athabasca River’s banks and tributaries. Its black goo seeping from the shores has been recorded by local Indigenous tribes for millennia and as early as the 1700s by settler explorers. 

Growing up, Chief Adam says the land and water were pure. He says the community has always depended on the lake and riverways, eating locally harvested meat and fish in abundance. These days he’s cautious about the number of fish he consumes. Some fish have even been found to be deformed with mysterious growths appearing on their bodies. Photo by Brandi Morin

Throughout millions of years, organic matter, primarily algae, settled at the bottom of a prehistoric sea and became buried under sediment. The increasing depth led to the application of heat and pressure, resulting in chemical transformations that converted the organic matter into hydrocarbons, including oil.

But the naturally occurring tar isn’t what these concerns are about. The issue is the industrial process of mining the tar from the sand, and creating oil for the markets. 

Even though oil derived from “sands” appears unique, it’s developed in the same way as conventional oil. 

“Development changed it (the river) fundamentally, and that’s what we need to focus on. Did it change it to the point enough that it’s affected human health?” asks Osgard. 

She doesn’t think that the AER or other authorities will use their resources to get to the bottom of it. 

“I’ve never seen Alberta Health, or the provincial government do anything for communities based on that (cancer) report or try and figure out why. I don’t even trust them…and I’ve worked for them.” 

‘My heart was so sore’ 

Margo Vermillion is a Dene/Cree Elder who grew up in Fort Chipewyan. She was shattered to learn of the tailings spills. 

“When I heard about the tailings spill — my heart was so sore. Especially when I hear about the children, it really hurts my heart. I thought, ‘if our waters go, we’re gonna go too.’” 

She also doesn’t trust the oil industry, or the AER, and doesn’t have faith that they will remediate the harm to the water and environment. 

“You know, they’ve had broken promises,” she says while sitting on a washed-up log on a sandy beach on Lake Athabasca, near the Fort Chipewyan townsite. 

Her honeyed voice is crisp with certainty. 

“Their words mean nothing. You know, if they came and decided to live here in the community and to be amongst us, to experience what it is that we experience, maybe I’ll listen to them. But they were already covering up that spill… I don’t know anymore. I mean, when they investigate them on their own like that, nothing really happens.” 

Vermillion is a survivor of the former Holy Angels Residential School and compares the trauma she endured there to when she was evacuated during the wildfires in late May. In her wildest dreams, she never imagined the entire community would be forced out by a climate-induced inferno. 

She ended up having to stay in Fort McMurray at a hotel for over three weeks. After a few days, memories of her childhood began surfacing.

“On the fifth day, I got up. I sat on my bed. And the first thought was, ‘I want to go home’. And then, it was like, bang, something just hit me,” she holds her hand to her heart and squints her brown, weathered eyes. 

“I all of a sudden felt like I turned into a little girl again. And I cried. I had the biggest meltdown because I thought about being in the residential school and how every morning, every day when you wake up, that’s the first thought you had, ‘I want to go home’. And then it turned to two weeks and then three weeks — it was really, really tough.” 

Recently she travelled up Lake Athabasca with her son to celebrate her 70th birthday. The two found a spot to have a cookout and to her surprise, she discovered an eagle feather — considered a sacred gift — on the beach. To give thanks, she said she wandered off by herself to pray for the land. 

Margo Vermillion is a Dene/Cree Elder who grew up in Fort Chipewyan. Photo Brandi Morin

But she encountered an overpowering grief there. 

“You wouldn’t believe, you could almost feel that the trees and the plants were in mourning. Because of them being burnt. I just stood there, and I sang for them. Because I really felt their sadness of the destruction that’s happening to our earth.” 

She goes on to recall the interconnectedness her ancestors had with the territory and their knowledge of the waterways. They knew how to “read the water” and when it was safe to travel; they also knew it was healthy. 

But now, the water is dying, she says, with tears of anguish running down her cheeks. “I really believe that our waters are crying for us to help them. Like everything else that’s connected to the waters — our plants, our trees, our insects. They’re also crying. Today you look at our water and it’s sad — you can feel the sadness from them.” 

She’s tired of dealing with industry and provincial executives periodically visiting Fort Chipewyan to hold shallow meetings with committees she’s sat on throughout the years. In her opinion, industry only wants to “buy off our people,” and they’re using the “same old tricks” that they’ve been using for 150 years. 

She wants outside officials to take traditional ecological knowledge and Elders’ testimony into consideration when it comes to assessing the impacts of their projects. 

“I mean, we don’t need scientists to tell us, we have the proof here. We have our Elders that talk about the changes that they see. That’s our scientists. But now, today, if you don’t have your papers and you’re a scientist, nothing else is true, right?”

She walks to the water, lays down tobacco and starts to pray. Then, she raises her hands to the air in silence. The wind gently sweeps back her white-grey hair, her closed eyes release more tears, and she begins to sing. 

She connects the water to the inherent makeup of human beings. When the water is sick, it brings death to all living things. 

“We were born in a sack of water. And that gave us life. So, when you have waters that are dying, and their spirit is dying, you know, we can’t drink our waters today. So, we turn and we drink the bottle of water and it’s dead water. How can that rejuvenate us?” she asks. 

“So, I think that’s one of the reasons why many of our people are not well. And the fish is no longer what the fish used to be. You can catch a fish; you can fix the fish. The meat is so soft. It used to be like a firmer meat on the fish. It’s not like that anymore.” 

Meanwhile, Chief Adam isn’t convinced Imperial Oil has fully contained the Kearl Mine leak. He’s determined to keep the pressure on industry, the AER and governments to ensure they rectify their shortfalls. 

“To be honest with everybody, this is a wake-up call for Canada, and this is a wake-up call for Alberta, and this is a downfall for the AER. Because they failed to uphold the protection of this community,” he says. 

Despite the concerns of local Indigenous communities, the federal government is currently considering adopting regulations under the Fisheries Act for the release of “treated” oil sands mining wastewater into the Athabasca River. These regulations aim to permit the release of treated tailings into the environment while adhering to stringent effluent quality standards, apparently minimizing potential risks to the environment. The new regulations are expected to be finalized by 2025. 

Chief Adam says it won’t happen on his watch. 

Fisher, hunter and trapper Castor is also angry at the prospect of further toxic damage to the region. 

“It’s so crazy…They’re scrambling. What do we do? How do we get rid of this? And now they’re proposing to the government to let them release it, because they say it’s safe and treated now, into the river? They can’t even contain what they have, so that’s pretty scary if they can’t contain what they have… 

I’ve spent 22 years on that river, and then sixteen years hunting on that river. I think I have enough experience to know that there’s something happening in those areas. I’m not saying I know everything, but I know there’s something going on.”

Castor reminisces about the old days when the water was clean. Elders once dipped cups into the river and drank the fresh water. Now, he carries bottled water with him everywhere he goes. The mere thought of drinking the fresh water is out of the question, and it saddens him. 

“I would never, I would never do that. I would never take a cup out of my boat and put it in the water and put it for boiling or consumption.” 

The one necessity he makes sure to stock up on, in bottled form, when he’s out on the territory, is bottled water. 

“Here’s an old story I was told about water; when you run out of supplies, you usually go home from the bush. Nowadays, if you run out of water, you have no choice but to go home.”

Reporting for this story was made possible in part through a grant from the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

The post For Indigenous communities in ‘Alberta,’ the oil industry has left an ugly stain appeared first on IndigiNews.

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New Sḵwx̱wú7mesh history book is a walk through legends, lifeways and lands

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Legends, histories and everyday life are documented in a new book by the Squamish Nation, assembled with many collaborators by lead writer Kwetásel’wet (Steph Wood). Photo by Cara McKenna

This story originally appeared in the Tyee and is reprinted here with permission and minor edits.

The place briefly known as Howe Sound? It’s called Átl’ḵa7tsem in the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh language, where Sínulhḵay, the two-headed serpent, once lay.

Lumbermen’s Arch at “Stanley Park”? It’s the village of X̱wáýx̱way, where people made masks from nearby cedar, before settlers came and demolished the community to build a road.

The Burrard Inlet? Until the shores were dredged and lined with industry, the beaches teemed with clams, codfish, crab and oysters. “When the tide goes out, the table is set,” people would say.

But when journalist Kwetásel’wet (Steph Wood), who is Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, attended public school in “North Vancouver,” the focus of her history classes was elsewhere.

“There was an hour dedicated to residential schools,” she says. The fur trade got more time than that.

Wood, now 31, and others in her community have put together a book so that future generations — and settlers unaware of what came before — have an overview of Sḵwx̱wú7mesh culture and history.

The book is titled tiná7 cht ti temíxw (We Come from This Land) and draws from a vast array of sources: oral and written, family stories and legal documents, from within the community and colonial archives. As the lead writer for the project, Wood pored over everything from recordings of late leaders and handwritten notes on ethnobotany, to modern news clippings and podcasts.

The book, at 416 pages and illustrated with art and photos in colour, is intended to be only a “snapshot” and “a walkthrough” of all things Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, say Wood and her collaborators. Still, the book serves as an essential history and cultural overview for everyone living in the territory and beyond.

Legends, histories and everyday life

The Sḵwx̱wú7mesh people have lived on the west coast of “British Columbia” for thousands of years. Their territory spans over 6,700 square kilometres and stretches from what’s colonially known as “Vancouver’s” Point Grey to Gibsons Landing to the area north of Howe Sound.

The stories are thrilling, with heroes like Xwechtáal the serpent slayer, creatures like the powerful Thunderbird and Earth-changing events like the Great Flood. These cosmogonic and etiological tales are set in local forests, mountains and waters, explaining how things came to be, such as the mountains that many settlers know as the Lions and the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh know as the Two Sisters, which comes from a story about twins.

Artist Sesémiya (Tracy Williams) explains how important that connection between land and story is: “We need a natural landscape to be able to understand those stories and to keep them alive.”

The book might be a written document, but one of the unique things about it is how it preserves elements of oral tradition. The nation respects “the plurality of our histories,” reads the introduction. “It may include a version of a story that is different from the oral history another family carries. We wanted to bring together the resources available to us, but it is not the be-all and end-all.”

The book notes when there are variations — such as differing accounts of how the first ancestors came into being, as told in different villages — something that comparative mythologists study to trace cultural development. The book also shares stories verbatim, containing personal flourishes and information, inviting the reader into these special, immediate retellings. The name of who handed a story down is always recorded.

The chapters on pre-contact Sḵwx̱wú7mesh life are just as rich as the legends, detailing traditions as seasons pass and from birth to death.

Older siblings teach toddlers about all the colourful berries they can enjoy, and to never eat them before the young ones do, a lesson in sharing and self-discipline. Fish and game caught in the summer are cured for the winter. Large longhouses, some with room for as many as 10 fires, are an example of modular architecture, easily taken apart and rebuilt at another site. They’re masters of working with cedar, crafting baby carriers and cradles, weaving the bark with wool into clothing and making caskets to lay people to rest for their passage to the spirit world.

The book becomes a painful read when the colonizers arrive. It shares important information with readers about how Sḵwx̱wú7mesh people undertook diplomacy and fought for their rights amidst genocidal injustices such as the assimilationist residential “schools.”

Challenging colonial interpretations

The chapters that follow contact will be a revelatory experience for settlers who hold on to those sanitized stories of settler-Indigenous relations they learned in grade school, with the book’s Sḵwx̱wú7mesh accounts challenging colonial interpretations of events.

The most dramatic of them is perhaps the differing accounts of contact itself.

Through other communities, news of European settlers and even their goods likely reached Sḵwx̱wú7mesh villages before white people set foot in their territory, according to the book. Calamity, such as disease or extreme weather, was believed to strike every seven years, and the arrival of the settlers was predicted to be such an event.

If you read Capt. George Vancouver’s description of his first meeting with “Indians,” he says that they “conducted themselves with the greatest decorum and civility, presenting us with several fish” and “did not seem to be hostile.”

According to knowledge that Xwechtáal, the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh activist with legal training Andy Paull, heard from his father through those who came before, the “true meaning” of this welcome was to “invoke the all-powerful arrivals to have pity on them.”

“You see, there was motive behind it,” he explains. “They were expecting a calamity and were anxious to do anything to avoid it.”

It is said that the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh were also gifted rum, which they thought had gone bad because they had never encountered the spirit, along with biscuits, which they used as toys, and silver dollars, which they used as buttons.

The name of the bay where they met has since been named Xwelxwalítn, which means “white people.”

“When we read those history books in school about first contact, [they say Indigenous] peoples established little trading posts and that was that,” says Wood. “Our experience on the receiving end was often so erased or homogenized, like a broad-brush description of what happened to ‘all the Indians.’ This specificity of how we recalled contact was important.”

A more recent example of oral history concerns the founding of the mission at the Eslha7án̓ reserve in “North Vancouver,” which led it to be more widely known as the Mission reserve.

Settlers blamed Sḵwx̱wú7mesh people for the murders of two white people, and Lt.-Gov. Richard Moody threatened to wipe them out in retaliation. Chief Snat teamed up with a priest by the name of Father Leon Fouquet to petition the government to set up a mission at the reserve so that those who “wished to reject their evil ways and become civilized Christians” would be protected.

The church was built in 1868, and many Sḵwx̱wú7mesh leaders and community members became dedicated Catholics.

Sḵwx̱wú7mesh futures

As the history approaches the present, there are headlines that will be familiar to local settlers. There’s the development of the Park Royal mall, which the Vancouver Sun called poor urban planning. There’s the court battle against the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

And among the many stories of land battles, there’s the saga of the village of Sen̓áḵw, located in today’s Kitsilano neighbourhood. The land was expropriated by the provincial government in 1913, the buildings burned and Sḵwx̱wú7mesh people placed on a barge to be ferried to other communities.

The Indian Act forbade Indigenous people from hiring lawyers until 1951. This allowed the nation to launch a legal battle over the expropriation of Sen̓áḵw, an affair that carried on from the 1970s until the early 2000s, when 10.5 acres was returned to the nation, about an eighth of the original reserve lands.

The Squamish Nation is redeveloping the site of the village of Sen̓áḵw, located by the Kitsilano neighbourhood in Vancouver, into an innovative development that will offer some 3,000 homes. Image via Sen̓áḵw, courtesy of Revery Architecture, Westbank and the Squamish Nation

In 2022, the nation broke ground for a development of its own, to offer some 3,000 homes. But this new Sen̓áḵw also met its share of pushback when a local resident group took the city to court for collaborating on the project; the case was was eventually dismissed.

The courts, the book says, are an “imperfect” but “important” tool for Indigenous Peoples, though one that is ultimately “another arm of a colonial state.”

The book was finished in time for a momentous occasion. In 2023, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh people celebrated the 100th anniversary of the amalgamation of their villages into the Squamish Nation. In 2024, the book was publicly published by Page Two Books.

Here’s an interview with lead writer Wood on collaborating with the nation to put tiná7 cht ti temíxw together and what the book means for Sḵwx̱wú7mesh and settler readers. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Christopher Cheung: What was your experience with the stories in this book growing up?

Kwetásel’wet (Steph Wood): I was really close with my family. We spent a lot of time together but didn’t necessarily dive into this stuff. Most of it came from my granny Lucille, Kwinak’atemat-t. I remember her telling us about Sen̓áḵw. My great-great-great-grandmother Háxsten (Harriet George) was taken away on that barge.

We all kind of remember hearing this stuff, but it was more just bits and pieces. As I grew up and started to ask more questions, it would be from my aunties telling me things. [One] auntie gave me a copy of Conversations with Khahtsahlano.

[The well-known text contains transcriptions of conversations between Vancouver’s first city archivist, Maj. James Skitt Matthews, and Xats’alánexw Siyám (Chief August Jack Khahtsahlano), born in 1877.]

The book preserves the oral qualities of how stories are told, with different versions, little asides here and there, and citations of who handed them down. Why was it important to present the book this way?

The book came from the intention that [Elder] Paítsmuk (David Jacobs) set out, to share these documents that we had. Beyond that, Khelsilem [chairperson of the nation’s council] emphasized ways to acknowledge the plurality of our histories.

Each of our families holds a variety of stories, and also different versions of the same stories, and our neighbours hold their own versions of different stories. The way that history has been passed down is different for different nations and different families. So we acknowledge and respect that.

The way our people historically have referenced ‘here’s where I heard this from’ is kind of like the way that we understand references with academics. That was something we emphasized from the beginning, to frame this book the same way that our people would tell history.

When I was listening to recordings of Uncle Louie [Chief Louis Miranda], that’s exactly how he would start each one: where he got it from. He’d be like, ‘I heard this from my uncle, and he heard this from his father.’

That was super helpful when you realize you’re hearing what may be different versions of a similar story. We would try to include those in the book and say, here’s a slightly different version, here’s how this was passed down and took place in a different location.

That’s why we call the book ‘a walk’ through the history of the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh people. It’s not an academic voice, an omniscient voice that knows everything. We really can’t do that in a book.

The sections about daily life are so vivid. What was it like putting them together for the book?

The lifeways of our people was something that we really wanted to include for the book. I tried to write it in a way that was meditative, slow, like you’re going through the day and the seasons.

There’s tons of stuff in the archives: that salmon and steelhead eggs could be smoked dry, how we used reptiles and bugs, mentions of how our society works, for example, the flood story that talks about the importance of Indian doctors. We tried to paint life with the seasons, the day to day, the growing up. A lot of that you can still see today: the values behind these things are still very existent.

What do you do when you come across a settler source that does happen to hold information about Sḵwx̱wú7mesh history and culture? They might have interviews with prominent Sḵwx̱wú7mesh figures, despite being documented from an outsider’s point of view.

I was grappling with that a lot. Our Elder Vanessa Campbell was really helpful to me. Our people are the knowledge keepers and they chose to share some with these people. They had some agency we may not fully understand. It’s not specifically relying on this white person’s recording [of them], but treating it as another source for ourselves.

Vanessa also emphasized what our people might not have shared at the same time. There’s that one anecdote of Sḵwx̱wú7mesh people literally running away with their children into the woods to keep them away from this anthropologist trying to measure their heads.

Quickly looking up that anthropologist you’re talking about, Franz Boas, it’s ironic that Wikipedia says he’s had a ‘lifelong relationship with the First Nations of the Pacific Northwest.’ And then there’s Charles Hill-Tout, another anthropologist who you call out in the book as an ‘amateur.

Yes, he was just a teacher. When you start looking into this, you realize people don’t often dive into who these [experts] were, what their practices were.

You mention that your aunt gave you a copy of Conversations with Khahtsahlano. It might have been compiled by Matthews the archivist, but it also contains interesting pushback. When Matthews asks ridiculous questions, Khahtsahlano challenges him.

I really appreciate those moments because, as a journalist, there is so much assumption laid into some of [Matthew’s] questions. Then Khahtsahlano would be like, the purpose of your question is wrong in the first place.

[In one case, James Skitt Matthews asks why Sḵwx̱wú7mesh people feast and dance at a sad occasion like a funeral. August Jack Khahtsahlano pauses for a moment, which Matthews notes as him being ‘apparently annoyed at the stupidity of the question,’ before he replies, ‘You got to pay help. Whitemans give drinks [whisky] after funeral. Indians don’t give drinks; he gives eats; something good.’]

Matthews the archivist in 1957; Khahtsahlano the Chief in 1941. Photos courtesy of City of Vancouver Archives

I think we’re all really grateful to have this resource. It’s such an incredible document for the time. But I so often think about what August Jack is choosing to share.

One of the most striking details is that [Matthews] bought two masks off August Jack.

[Catholic priests had asked Sḵwx̱wú7mesh people to destroy them, but Khahtsahlano hid three masks in his home for half a century until Matthews persuaded him to allow them to be photographed. Then Matthews asked to buy them. Khahtsahlano sold him two for $20 and $50 but refused to sell the third, saying it belonged to the people.]

I’m like, whoa, I thought [Matthews] might have been someone who really values the history, learning about how everything’s been stolen, spending all those hours to record it — and he still took those masks. It makes you think, who is this person doing the recording? What kind of extractive relationship might have been playing out? We will never know.

The Welhtima Kexwusem dance group performed during the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Days Festival on the 100th anniversary of the Squamish Nation’s amalgamation. Photo by Cara McKenna

What hopes do you have for Sḵwx̱wú7mesh young people reading this?

Having young people ask questions, that’s something I struggled with when I was younger. Even though you want to learn, you might be shy, insecure or whatever reason for not asking your Elders.

I hope that it serves as a jumping-off point to then go to your auntie or whoever and be like, ‘Did our families do this? Was this a part of us?’ So learning this history, having more questions to ask further, to go into all of the amazing sources we looked at so that they can do their own exploring and have these conversations with their families.

And for settlers?

I’m definitely hoping classrooms would pick this up.

I hope it makes them think about history differently, and the specificity of our history. This is still just a drop in the bucket. It would be amazing for them to engage with this and build a foundational knowledge of where our people come from, what they’ve been through, how hard they’ve fought to hold on to everything, on a small scale and a large scale.

From going to court, everything it took to hold on to our language — all of it.

tiná7 cht ti temíxw (We Come from This Land) was published in January by Page Two Books.

The post New Sḵwx̱wú7mesh history book is a walk through legends, lifeways and lands appeared first on IndigiNews.

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In the Okanagan, syilx leaders are racing to protect a crucial wildlife corridor

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Dixon Terbasket, a syilx Okanagan wildlife technician with the Okanagan Nation Alliance from the Lower Similkameen Indian Band, stands outside of a fenced-off cherry orchard expansion site near Kelowna, British Columbia on Dec. 7, 2023. Terbasket and other conservation experts are concerned the cherry orchard’s expansion is impacting the mobility of animals that use a nearby wildlife corridor in an area under threat from urban sprawl and other development. Aaron Hemens/IndigiNews via AP

This story is a collaboration between The Associated Press and IndigiNews.

Just below the fog line hanging over the central Okanagan Valley, rows of saplings for a cherry orchard expansion span the eastern stretch above Highway 33 on the outskirts of kiʔlawnaʔ (Kelowna) in the heart of wine country.

New cherry varieties and climate change in “British Columbia’s” interior have enabled the fruit to grow at higher than usual elevations. Soon, this grassland terrain surrounded by mountains of ponderosa pine will be full of rows of cherry trees along a sloping hill above this city of about 145,000.

On a recent morning, Dixon Terbasket of the Lower Similkameen Indian Band arrived at the gate of a 10-foot (3 meter) high fence built last year. He gestures at a private property sign hanging from the fence on his ancestral homeland — a barrier to keep a soon-to-be-blossoming orchard free from mule deer and elk that once traversed this patch of land.

Dixon Terbasket, a syilx Okanagan wildlife technician with the Okanagan Nation Alliance from the Lower Similkameen Indian Band, examines a fenced-off cherry orchard expansion site near Kelowna, British Columbia, on Dec. 6, 2023. Terbasket and other conservation experts are concerned that the cherry orchard’s expansion is impacting the mobility of animals that use a nearby wildlife corridor that is under threat from urban sprawl and other development. Aaron Hemens/IndigiNews via AP

“The amount of development that’s happening so quickly and rapidly … the urban sprawl is moving out into the wilderness part of it,” said Terbasket, a wildlife technician with the Okanagan Nation Alliance.

The syilx Okanagan are Indigenous people who have inhabited the Okanagan Valley in the interior of “B.C.” for thousands of years. Their governing body, the Okanagan Nation Alliance, represents eight member communities, including the Lower Similkameen Indian Band.

The orchard expansion is approximately one-third of a mile (.6 kilometers) away from a wildlife corridor that acts as a crucial link for at-risk species moving through the region’s natural areas, from south of the border in “Washington” state into the province’s dry interior.

While not immediately infiltrating the corridor, this new orchard has heightened concerns development is bleeding farther into the valley’s natural territory. Terbasket and other experts worry man-made barriers are already hurting the corridor’s habitat connectivity, further threatening at-risk species and jeopardizing the area’s biodiversity.

A fence surrounding a cherry orchard expansion site near Kelowna, British Columbia, is damaged by animal struggle on Dec. 7, 2023. Experts are concerned that the cherry orchard’s expansion is impacting the mobility of animals that use a nearby wildlife corridor in an area under threat from urban sprawl and other development. Aaron Hemens/IndigiNews via AP

“Animals have to move through landscapes to meet their life history demands,” said Adam Ford, an associate professor in the department of biology at the University of British Columbia-Okanagan and the Canada Research Chair in Wildlife Restoration Ecology.

“So much of the land has already been degraded,” Ford said. “We’re hanging on to the last green ribbons around our highly developed landscapes, and that’s especially true in the Okanagan where we have so much pressure from urbanization and agriculture.”

Urban development in the Black Mountain community is visible in Kelowna, British Columbia, on Feb. 12, 2024. The community is near a key wildlife corridor that ribbons around the Okanagan Mountain Provincial Park and Kalamalka Lake Provincial Park. Aaron Hemens/IndigiNews via AP

Home to more than 180 licensed grape wineries and known as “the wine capital of Canada,” the Okanagan Valley is also nationally renowned for fruit orchards that produce apples, peaches and cherries.

According to provincial documents, the cherry orchard expansion — approximately 343 acres (139 hectares) — is on land owned by G.P. Sandher Holdings Ltd., which represents Sandher Fruit Packers, a local family-owned business.

The Summerhill Pyramid Winery is visible in Kelowna, British Columbia, on Feb. 12, 2024, with Okanagan Lake in the background. Home to more than 180 licensed grape wineries and known as “the wine capital of Canada,” the Okanagan Valley is also nationally renowned for fruit orchards that produce apples, peaches and cherries. Aaron Hemens/IndigiNews via AP

While parts of the corridor are in Kelowna’s eastern city limits, this orchard parcel falls within the Regional District of Central Okanagan. A significant portion of the corridor — including this parcel —  is within B.C.’s Agricultural Land Reserve, where farming is allowed under the provincial Right to Farm Act.

“The conflict you’re going to find is between the right to farm in agricultural land, and the protection of this corridor,” said Dean Strachan, manager of community planning and development for the City of Kelowna.

“The cherry orchard, under the Agricultural Land Commission’s permits, have the ability to build high fences to protect their orchards from deer. But not only deer are restricted from the land, as a result.”

Sandher Fruit Packers declined to comment.

A fruit orchard owned by Sandher Fruit Packers sits in Kelowna, British Columbia, on Feb. 8, 2024. The fruit growing company is developing an orchard near a key wildlife corridor that ribbons around the Okanagan Mountain Provincial Park and Kalamalka Lake Provincial Park. Aaron Hemens/IndigiNews via AP

Kelowna is one of “Canada’s” fastest growing cities, increasing from 127,380 residents in 2016 to 144,576 in 2021, according to the city. Recognizing the population growth, its 2040 official community plan — adopted in 2022 — calls for slowing down urban sprawl to protect agricultural lands and ecologically sensitive areas.

Ribboning around Kelowna between two provincial parks — the Okanagan Mountain Provincial Park and Kalamalka Lake Provincial Park —  the wildlife corridor is about 40 miles (64 kilometers) long and six-tenths of a mile (1 kilometer) wide.

It’s traveled by wildlife such as elk, moose, mule deer, white tailed deer and badgers — and grizzly bears have been spotted. The corridor is home to other animals and berries, plants and medicines used by First Nations peoples.

A deer is visible near the Joe Rich community on Jan. 31, 2024, which is located just outside of Kelowna, British Columbia. The community is in close proximity to a cherry orchard expansion site near a key wildlife corridor that ribbons around the Okanagan Mountain Provincial Park and Kalamalka Lake Provincial Park. Aaron Hemens/IndigiNews via AP

“For the grasslands all the way into the interior of B.C., this is a major pinch point,” said Scott Boswell of Okanagan Collaborative Conservation Program, the organization spearheading a protection plan for the corridor along with the Okanagan Nation Alliance.

“This is a top range of this ecosystem,” Boswell said.

The corridor was identified as a place needing protection because of its unique ecosystem. Though outside its boundaries, the corridor runs adjacent to the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, a cross-border partnership dedicated to protecting habitats along the spine of the Rocky Mountains.

The Kelowna corridor is more closely located to the Sagelands Heritage Program’s cross-border conservation effort dedicated to shrub-steppe landscapes in the Okanagan Valley to south-central Washington.

A vehicle moves down a roar at the Joe Rich community located outside of Kelowna, British Columbia, on Dec. 7, 2023. The community is in close proximity to a cherry orchard expansion site near a key wildlife corridor that ribbons around the Okanagan Mountain Provincial Park and Kalamalka Lake Provincial Park. Aaron Hemens/IndigiNews via AP

“Ecosystems — if we want them to be healthy and resilient at the very highest level — they need to be connected,” said Sarah Hechtenthal, an ecosystem scientist with Parks Canada and lead scientist with its National Program for Ecological Corridors.

The Kelowna area and surrounding Okanagan Valley were identified by Parks Canada as one of 23 priority areas in the country with a “significant need for connectivity conservation.”

A group of urban deer rest in a residential neighborhood in downtown Kelowna, British Columbia, on Feb. 13, 2024. Aaron Hemens/IndigiNews via AP

Hechtenthal noted the area has more rare threatened and endangered species than anywhere else in the province. This includes badgers, burrowing owls, western rattlesnakes and dozens of others.

“The priority areas in this region are really under intense anthropogenic development pressure, and are being fragmented; degraded; lost to agriculture development, resource extraction and urban sprawl,” she said.

Construction machinery work within a fenced-off cherry orchard expansion site near Kelowna, British Columbia, on Dec. 7, 2023. Experts are concerned that the cherry orchard’s expansion is impacting the mobility of animals that use a nearby wildlife corridor in an area under threat from urban sprawl and other development. Aaron Hemens/IndigiNews via AP

The orchard site is just outside Kelowna on land owned by the Regional District of Central Okanagan. The agency said residents and neighboring communities raised concerns regarding soil movement, drainage and noise in the past. Another agency, the provincial Ministry of Forests, said it was investigating whether the orchard project piped water from an unpermitted source, but declined further comment.  

While the current orchard expansion is outside the wildlife corridor, Brittany Nichols, the regional agency’s manager of development services, said Sandher “retains ownership of additional land extending into portions” of the corridor. She said an environmental assessment in the orchard’s development permit proposal outlines the company’s commitment to “environmental monitoring.”

Fruit crates owned by Sandher Fruit Packers sit stacked at its headquarters in Kelowna, British Columbia, on Feb. 8, 2024. The fruit growing company is developing an orchard near a key wildlife corridor that ribbons around the Okanagan Mountain Provincial Park and Kalamalka Lake Provincial Park. Aaron Hemens/IndigiNews via AP

Feeling pressure of human development on wildlife, the corridor’s health and connectivity, the Okanagan Nation Alliance, Okanagan Collaborative Conservation Program and their partners put together a Wildlife Corridor Action Plan finalized last year.

Fifteen actions — informed by tribal hunters and knowledge keepers — in the five-year plan are centered around their laws, principles and protocols. The plan is still in infancy, and Boswell said groups involved are looking to get funding from the province and foundations.

Dixon Terbasket, a syilx Okanagan wildlife technician with the Okanagan Nation Alliance from the Lower Similkameen Indian Band, drives by a fenced-off cherry orchard expansion site near Kelowna, British Columbia, on Dec. 7, 2023. Terbasket and other conservation experts are concerned that the cherry orchard’s expansion is impacting the mobility of animals that use a nearby wildlife corridor in an area under threat from urban sprawl and other development. Aaron Hemens/IndigiNews via AP

“We’re not just talking about moose, we’re talking about a whole ecological system that filters our water, filters our air, that provides pollinators for all of our agriculture,” he said.

“It’s a bigger picture than just one species.”

The post In the Okanagan, syilx leaders are racing to protect a crucial wildlife corridor appeared first on IndigiNews.

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Thanks to the Washington Post, I found my ancestor’s remains at the Smithsonian

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The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in “Washington.” Photo by John Brighenti

Content warning: This story contains explicit details regarding the remains of Indigenous people that may be upsetting. Please read with care for your spirit. 

It started with an email. When I opened it, I was sitting in the living room of my family’s acreage on Treaty 6 territory, utterly unaware of the journey I was about to embark upon. The contents of this email would set things in motion, things I could not have anticipated. We can never know such things in advance, can we? 

It was Christmas Eve in “Saskatchewan,” and I was enjoying a few lazy days before the new year. The email was from Andrew Tran, a data reporter at the Washington Post. He contacted me to inform me about the Post’s searchable human remains database held by the Smithsonian Institution, America’s esteemed national museum and the largest one in the world. 

“I see that your publication writes about Cree and other Indigenous news and thought you might be interested in going through the database that we just published,” he wrote.

I clicked the link, casually reading the story that contained the searchable database. I found it odd that the Post used the word “Cree” as an example of a search term one could use in the database because in the eleven years I spent in living in the “United States,” very few people I met had ever heard of the Cree. Aside from the Rocky Boy Reservation in “Montana,” most Crees live in “Canada.” I wondered if Cree people were at The Smithsonian Institution and if that was why “Cree” was a suggested search term.

It wasn’t until later that night when I was in bed and struggling to fall asleep, that I searched the database. While my husband slept, I scrolled down the website page until I found the little box that said, “Search the table.” First, I typed in Fine Day, one of my great-great-grandfathers, and nothing came up. Then, I typed in “Little Poplar” my other great-great-grandfather — and instantly got a hit. I hadn’t been expecting to actually find anything, and I flinched in the dark as though from a jump scare. 

His name was ka-mîtosis, or Little Poplar. He was the grandfather of my grandfather, Alphonse Little Poplar. ka-mîtosis was a member of the warrior society in Chief Sweetgrass’s band of Plains Cree around the time of the Riel Rebellion. A war chief, some folks call him. 

War chiefs, sometimes referred to as “sub-chiefs,” were not actually chiefs of the band but would be in charge in times of war (My other great-great-grandfather kamiokisihkwew, or Fine Day, was also a war chief). 

I lay there in the dark, staring at Little Poplar’s name in the glow of my phone screen. 

My husband, who is a light sleeper, asked, “What is it?”

“They have my ancestor’s remains at the Smithsonian,” I said, but he was already drifting off again. 

I clicked the link to the first page of the accession file (out of sensitivity, the Washington Post limits each file on its site to the first page. To see the rest of the document, you must contact the Smithsonian). Time stood still as I read what appeared.

“1 Box. Skull of ‘Little Poplar,’ Cree Indian Sub Chief from Canada” was written in faint but large, loopy cursive. It was an image of an accession Card, the document the Smithsonian filled out when receiving a donation of human remains. I scrutinized every inch of it. It looked like it had been sent from Fort Assiniboine, Montana, by Dr. C.E. Woodruff on October 2, 1894. 

At that time, in the 1880s, our people travelled freely across the U.S.-Canada border. They were there before the border was invented. Before colonization and the creation of “Canada” and the “United States,” Montana was just as much our homeland as “Saskatchewan.” When the Riel Rebellion broke out in “Canada,” some Plains Cree bands travelled south across the border to avoid persecution. Both of my great-great grandfathers did this, which is why I have some relatives on the Rocky Boy Reservation. 

The facts sat like stones in my guts. I tossed and turned in the dark, thinking about how my great-great-grandfather’s skull was in the Smithsonian. It seemed too bizarre to be true. How could my family member be in some institution’s box on a shelf? I felt sick. I regretted having opened up the email earlier that day. I shouldn’t have searched the database right before sleeping, either. I turned off my phone, closed my eyes and tried to sleep.

But for a long time, I lay in bed, in a state of shock. 

In an eerie coincidence, I had just started reading Warrior Girl Unearthed by Angeline Boulley just that morning. This novel is about the human remains of Indigenous people in American institutions. The protagonist, a young Anishinaabe woman named Perry Firekeeper-Birch, discovers that the local college has her ancestors in boxes and resolves to get them returned.

I reflected on the parallels between the protagonist in the novel I was reading and my own life. Like Perry Firekeeper-Birch, I couldn’t understand the depravity that would lead to storing my ancestor’s body parts in a museum. I felt violated somehow. How could something as personal as the remains of a loved one be treated with such disrespect?

‘All manner of deviltry’

The next day, I awoke with a ball of anxiety in my stomach. It was Christmas, and my kids were excited about their presents, but I found it challenging to be in the moment and enjoy the morning. That pit remained in my stomach for the entirety of the day. Finally, I responded to Mr. Tran’s email to let him know I had found an ancestor in the Post’s database. 

“I have seen the documents that mention ‘Little Poplar’ in accession file 028559,” he wrote, “and I have to warn you, the correspondence from the donor is quite horrifying.”

He was not wrong. The dehumanization of Indigenous people — and so many others in the world — is horrifying. I was grateful for Mr. Tran’s warning. He was able to send me the rest of the documents in the file, which meant I could skip the step of having to contact the Smithsonian myself. Still, I was unprepared for what I read. Like someone recounting a trauma, I found myself laughing at the egregious wording of the letter. But it wasn’t actually funny — dissociation and deflection are common reactions to traumatic incidents. 

“I send you by express for the Smithsonian an Indian skull and I think you have none like it, and it may be of value to your section,” wrote the donor, Charles Woodruff, to the curator of the Smithsonian in 1886. 

“It is the skull of Little Poplar,” he continued, “a Cree sub-chief from Canada. He took advantage of the Riel rebellion to attack settlers, robbing, stealing, violating women, torturing victims and doing all forms of deviltry.”

It was the “all manner of deviltry” bit that made me laugh out loud.

Coming from the pen of a man who had just dug up my great-great-grandfather’s grave, this seems almost like a compliment. 

Dr. Woodruff’s letter continues, stating that my ancestor had a bounty on his head of $2,000.

“In Aug. 1886 he was murdered right here in this post by a half breed,” writes Woodruff, referring to Fort Assiniboine, Montana, a U.S. military fort at the time. 

He details how a soldier had “watched the grave for several years and when the flesh was all off he took the skull out and kept it as a relic.” 

After that, he writes how he went to the grave with the soldier to collect “a few odds and ends” from my great-great mosôm’s grave. 

My mind was reeling. It was all too much. There was a bounty on his head? I never knew any of this history of my family. What an incredible story. What a horrifying turn of events. 

I knew I had to talk to my family about it, but I feared it would upset them. It turns out I needn’t have worried. When I asked my aunty about it, she was nonplussed. “We knew he was in some museum somewhere,” she told me. “I also heard they have the clothes he was shot in.” 

Hearing my aunty’s words reminded me of the knowledge we still hold in our families. We have an oral tradition, which is a legitimate form of knowledge-keeping. Our relatives have safeguarded the histories of our people for hundreds of years. I’m humbled when I consider the knowledge held by my family members. I’m so grateful they protected such important information about who I am — my lineage. 

I have inherited more than intergenerational trauma. I have been given stories passed down from generation to generation for thousands of years. That’s why my aunty knows about our ancestor who died in 1894. That’s how I found out he was shot.

I didn’t know these things about my family as a child — I learned them later, as a teenager and adult, after reconnecting with my family on the Sweetgrass First Nation in so-called Saskatchewan at the age of 14. Over the years, after spending time there visiting with family, I had the opportunity to hear our family history the way it was meant to be told — through oral transmission. I found it overwhelming that my ancestry was so well-regarded. Could I ever live up to that? I was just a short, poor, lost young woman who didn’t really know who she was or what she was doing in her life.

“We’re literally Indian princesses,” my cousin Irene said to me a few years ago. I laughed. I know she was being sarcastic, but I understand what she was referring to: the respected positions that my great-great-grandfathers held in their communities. It is an honour to be related to them. And, of course, the same applies to my great-grandmothers — who I know less about because of how the the archivists of the day favoured men and left women out of many records. It would be remiss not to mention them. I wish I had the opportunity to learn about them as well.

Not just a right, but a responsibility

The next person I called was my dad. I was excited to tell him what I had learned and wanted his advice about whether I should try to arrange a visit to the Smithsonian. In some ways, I needed my family’s permission to proceed with this endeavour because they were closer lineal descendants than I was. More importantly, they were my Elders and knew more than I did.

“You see, Little Poplar was affiliated with Âyimisîs,” my dad told me on that call. 

“And Âyimisîs was the son of Big Bear. So, they were the northern branch of Treaty Six Cree. And Âyimisîs was the head of the warrior society there, and Little Poplar was his cohort.”

When I told him I would be in New York at the end of February and, therefore, close to “Washington,” I mentioned that I was considering contacting the Smithsonian about visiting the remains. I wondered aloud whether I had the right to do so.

“Oh, absolutely,” he said, “It’s not just a right, but a responsibility.” 

His words were revelatory to me. I had never considered my visiting Little Poplar’s remains a responsibility, but as soon as he spoke those words, I felt it. There is still so much for me to learn.

“Those bones need ceremony,” he said, “and ceremony isn’t going to do itself.”

I discussed the rest of Woodruff’s letter and asked, “Why would he take the soles of Little Poplar’s moccasins?” Woodruff had mentioned that the soles of Little Poplar’s moccasins were one of the “odds and ends” he had taken from the grave.

“Well,” my dad said, “funeral moccasins would have had beaded soles.” 

Ah, right. That made sense. Since the person won’t be walking on them, the soles could be decorated too. 

Long after his death, my ancestor continues to teach me about my culture.

Visiting the museum

I was nervous when I emailed the Smithsonian. Although I had been told by the reporters at the Washington Post that lineal descendants receive the highest priority concerning human remains at the Smithsonian, I still felt like an imposter as I composed my email. I worried I wasn’t in close enough relation. Was I really the appropriate person to be making this request? Should someone else in the family be doing this, someone more used to representing the family in this type of situation?

But it was me who was going to be close to “Washington” and could potentially visit. It was me the Washington Post had reached out to. And I was just as qualified as anyone in my family to visit this relative. I tried to let go of my doubts. 

In the email, I laid out my case with my usual candour. I explained who I was and my relationship with Little Poplar. I wrote of the obligation I had to bring medicines to this relative and say prayers. I asked if I could have access to him.

I assumed the Smithsonian Institution would be a bureaucratic nightmare to try and navigate. I didn’t know if they would respond or, if they did, how long it would take. I don’t know about you, but I’ve always found large institutions daunting to deal with. The bureaucratic processes that came with colonization have been alienating to a lot of Indigenous people. We’ve had to get used to the fact that the words we speak are basically meaningless without a piece of paper to back it up — a paper that comes from the very government that destroyed our way of life in the first place.

Imagine my surprise when, the next morning, my phone rang. The name that flashed on my phone was Dorothy Lippert, the Smithsonian’s repatriation program manager.

My heart raced when I answered the call, but Ms. Lippert was gracious and kind. She seemed to be just as excited to be talking to me as I was to be speaking with her. She told me the Smithsonian would accommodate my desire to visit with my relative. And more than that — they would pay for my transportation there and put me in a hotel while I was in the city. After all of my agonizing, it was so simple and easy.

So, I will be heading to the Smithsonian in March. I never imagined being in a position to say these words, but here we are. I look forward to being a good relative and honouring my mosôm. I give thanks to the Grandmothers and Grandfathers for putting me in this position as I set out on this sacred journey. I will bring him gifts of medicine, pray for him and give thanks for the gift he gave me — my family. After all, like my dad said, those bones need ceremony, and ceremony isn’t going to do itself.

The post Thanks to the Washington Post, I found my ancestor’s remains at the Smithsonian appeared first on IndigiNews.

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