On the Wedzin Kwa
Indigenous solidarity begins with recognition of land rights and respect for the host culture.
Standing at the checkpoint on the bridge over the Wedzin Kwa (Morice River), four women (two settler allies, one indigenous elder and one indigenous youth) meet me and ask questions in accordance with traditional protocol upon entering Unist’ot’en—a part of the Wet’suwet’en—territory. The moment is both a personal “checkpoint” and a microcosm of a moment in the history of the land. The Unist’ot’en’s Free, Prior, Informed Consent Protocol asks where you are from, what you can offer to help the people defending their land, and whether you have worked for resource extraction companies.
When I answer the questions, the last ends up being the most complicated for me. Of course, I don’t work for Chevron, but I can easily see how a post-secondary institution like the one where I work functions as a “resource extraction company.” Instead of oil, minerals or lumber, universities extract knowledge and endanger indigenous cultures by not properly recognizing and respecting their ways or giving proper credit to traditional knowledge holders.
The Unist’ot’en camp is a peaceful expression of legal rights and rightful occupation of traditional lands (as confirmed by the 1997 Supreme Court of Canada decision Delgamuukw/Gisday’wa, Tsilhqotin Nation v. BC). It is not a blockade but a re-establishment of a tradition of protocol when entering another’s lands. The land is untreatied and unsurrendered territory. Being permitted to enter is a bit like going through customs from one nation to another, without the pat-down, except you are travelling to a smaller nation that has had to survive 150 years of injustice and pressure to give up its rights. And so the question: “What can you offer to help the Unist’ot’en?”
I didn’t have much to offer so I washed dishes. Lots of dishes. It made me think of postcolonial African literature in which there is a symbolic representation of Africans working in white man’s kitchen—it meant you had sold out to the colonials. It seemed rather fitting, then, that I was working in a First Nation’s kitchen, selling out to the resistance, helping to serve a counter-colonial meal.
The camp is run on principles that are in keeping with traditional values: respect for the land, cooperation and sharing, honouring elders and teaching Wet’suwet’en ways. In my view, this was as much an act of resistance as the gate across the bridge. The lifeblood of the camp is its water, the huckleberries collected, the vegetables from the permaculture garden and the deer meat on the table. It is crystal clear how a pipeline or a pipeline rupture would destroy this community. Both physically, conceptually and socially in the path of pipeline development, the Unist’ot’en represent the most coherent argument for a new way of thinking about land in settler-named British Columbia. I have no doubt there will be more sites of resistance like this, with this camp serving as a healthy model.
For the settler-guest, the question becomes: how will you answer the questions, standing at the gate on that bridge across cultures?