The tricky business of protocol and permission
Northern BC comprises a host of First Nations territories and, as a settler/guest, there are certain ways I have learned to recognize those territories, the traditional families and elders. This is a contentious issue because it involves recognition of First Nations rights and sovereignty on the land. In this age of rushing to exploit natural resources, this becomes a loaded proposition.
My opinion comes from working with scholars and elders who are considering these issues in terms of culture and legality. It comes from listening to leaders like Freda Huson and Toghestiy of the Likhts’amisyu clan of the Wet’suwet’en and their guidelines for obtaining consent to enter their territories. It comes from living here for 14 years and wanting this to be a just and healthy region for future generations, my kids, to live in.
The first step, often the hardest, is informing oneself of the territory one is entering. I think it is important not to think about the process in terms of trespassing and private property, but as one of dialogue and co-operation. Of course, if your intent is to harm, destroy or plunder the land, this dialogue might be difficult. Most individuals aren’t going to do this. Activities like fishing and hunting, if done responsibly, can be a co-operative effort. Communication with indigenous communities can create a productive and healthy discussion about animal and fish populations.
My experience with this has to do with harvesting berries. The sharing of information with the Nazko and Lheidli T’enneh (Carrier) over what berries were fruiting and where to pick was a heartening exchange. Part of the process was to explain my intentions and ask permission to enter the territory for that purpose. Potentially, that permission might be denied, especially if populations are threatened, but this would be a good thing for a responsible harvester.
Permissions are also important, in a similar way, if one is engaging with traditional stories or images. This is especially true at an institution like the University of Northern BC, where there is a danger that people and stories are taken as objects of study without proper recognition of the rights involved. Traditional oral stories, knowledge and images have, in the past, been stolen indiscriminately by Western scholars and writers. More and more, institutions are developing protocol agreements with First Nations in order that there be a co-operative model for the dissemination of that art and knowledge. Again, the protocol begins with an informed answer to questions like whose story this is, where it is from and whether it is suitable to share.
Other elements to the protocol include: 1) consent must be prior to entering a territory or using traditional knowledge; 2) a relationship of trust must be established between the traveller and the host, or scholar and storyteller; and 3) benefits (monetary or cultural) from the harvest or knowledge must be shared with the First Nations community.
The first gesture ideally would be one of respect: a gift or offering. But at its core, protocol calls for recognition, by settlers and travellers, of where you are, the long and rich history that already exists here and the rights of indigenous peoples to unpolluted culture, lands and waters.