Across Turtle Island, a powerful resistance is rising. As corporations attempt to enter a new era of even dirtier fossil fuel production, indigenous communities are standing up to take direct action to protect Mother Earth. From Fort Chip to Beaver Lake, Red Lake to Lakota, communities are organizing. Some are pursuing legal challenges against violated treaties. Others are creating internet-driven mass movements such as Idle No More. Others still are reclaiming their roots by going back to the land to assert traditional law. Among the latter are the Unist’ot’en, the People of the Headwater, whose lands encompass a wide swath of Northern British Columbia.
When companies like Enbridge and Apache announced plans to build a massive pipeline corridor through these lands, it provoked outrage from the Wet’suwet’en people whose traditional territory lies directly in its proposed path. Of the five Wet’suwet’en clans, the Unist’ot’en were the first to officially declare themselves opposed to ALL pipelines being proposed to cross their traditional territories. Now the Likhts’amisyu, Tsayu, and Git’dum’den clans have followed suit and momentum is growing.
This article tells the story from the perspective of the Unist’ot’en and their allies at the Unist’ot’en Camp through the winter of 2012–3. It has been collectively produced by both indigenous and settler voices.
Taking Care of the Land—Unist’ot’en Resistance to Pipelines and Other Projects
Background and Cultural Context
Colonization has left a lingering impact on the 22,000 square kilometers of unceded Wet’suwet’en territories which stretch from the Bulkley Valley to Burns Lake. Weakened by a devastating series of contact-based illnesses, the Wet’suwet’en were displaced from their land over time as more and more settlers arrived in the area starting in the late 1800s. Decades of insidious assimilation policies served to reinforce colonial land-theft, including the establishment of the Moricetown reserve and the horrific residential school program that took many children from their homes and subjected them to physical abuse, sexual abuse, and Christian indoctrination. With the settlers came the logging and mining industries. Today, the forests have been decimated, a mono-cropped shadow of their former diversity.
Through all this, the sovereignty of Wet’suwet’en land was never surrendered, and to a large degree their culture remains intact. Today, many among the Wet’suwet’en still speak their language, fish and harvest berries as their ancestors did, and continue to maintain their traditional system of governance. But now the specter of a massive pipeline corridor has awoken a new urgency amongst the people. If the Wet’suwet’en do not rise to defend their lands now, the impact will be devastating, not only to them but for generations to come.
The Unist’ot’en are the original people distinct to the lands of the Wet’suwet’en. Over time, others have joined them and there are now five Clans who identify as Wet’suwet’en. Each clan has autonomous authority over its own traditional territory. Each territory has a hereditary chief who is responsible for its care.
Sovereignty and Traditional Governance
Hereditary Chiefs are chosen by the entire Clan Group; they prepare by learning about the features of the territory, how to conduct themselves on it, and the techniques and ceremonies that spiritually connect them to every aspect of their lands. In the past, medicine people selected chiefs while they were still in their mothers’ wombs. The current chief of the Unist’ot’en territory known as Talbits Kwa is Warner Williams, who was directed by his grandmother, the former chief, to protect the territory from development.
The decisions of the Clan are made in their Feast Hall, where all the members of the clan gather to share gifts with each other and manage their affairs. Here the Unist’ot’en practice a form of decision-making that resembles a consensus approach. They sit down and listen to each other, and together they come to decisions that reflect the unified position of the clan. The decisions made in the Feast Hall are the ultimate authority of the land—which is important to note in relation to the Band Council System of government.
The Band Council system is a governance structure created by the Canadian state through the Indian Act. The Unist’ot’en and grassroots Wet’suwet’en grudgingly accept that the Band Council has a limited authority, extending only to managing the affairs of the reserve it was created to represent. That authority in no way extends to traditional territory which remains governed by the Hereditary Chiefs. Therefore any deal claimed to have been reached by a pipeline company with a First Nation Band Council is not legitimate, unless it also has the consent of the Hereditary Chiefs and the Clan itself.
With respect to Unist’ot’en traditional territory, the Moricetown Band Council has acknowledged the authority of the hereditary chiefs and therefore refrained from signing any deals with pipeline companies. In other places such as Burns Lake, where the Band Council has been signing deals without even consulting the people, there has been growing protest. Representing an unbroken line of tradition that continued even through a period when the Feast system was made “illegal” by the state, the Wet’suwet’en regard their law as pre-dating and superseding the authority of the Canadian state.
The Clan Decision to Reject All Pipelines
When it came out that industry and government were hatching a plan for a massive pipeline corridor through their territory, the Unist’ot’en clan assembled to discuss the issue. They made the decision to reject all pipeline proposals. This uncompromising opposition to ALL pipelines through their territory is no surprise considering the historical reputation of the Unist’ot’en as a tough and hardy people with a fierce warrior tradition. The impact of the Unist’ot’en decision is considerable as their territories account for two thirds of the total Wet’suwet’en land base.
A major contributing factor to the decision of the Unist’ot’en was the influence of former chief Christine Holland, who directed her clan to protect the land and preserve it for future generations. The Unist’ot’en were also in a phase of reasserting their sovereignty in general; along with the other Wet’suwet’en clans, they had recently terminated unproductive treaty negotiations with Canada. In doing so, they choose to maintain their rights as a sovereign people that had never surrendered the title to their lands.
The Unist’ot’en knew that simply making the decision would not be enough to stop the pipelines. If they wanted to regain authority over their territory, they would have to get out on it. A clan cabin was constructed on the exact GPS coordinates of the proposed path of the Enbridge Northern Gateway and Pacific Trail Pipelines (then known as the Kitimat Summit Lake Loop or KSL). The site is situated in the Unist’ot’en territory known as Talbits Kwa, whose border follows the bank of the Wedzin Kwa (known colonially as the Morice River). A single-lane bridge is the only way in and out of the territory, and can only be accessed by a logging road running south from Houston, BC.
The First Action Camp
That summer the Unist’ot’en called for others to join them out on the territory for what would be their first annual Action Camp in July 2010. Among those who answered the call for solidarity were local allies from the other Wet’suwet’en clans, representatives from large environmental groups such as Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, and grassroots environmental activists and supporters of indigenous sovereignty. The camp organized a march through the nearby town of Smithers, where the Unist’ot’en served notice to the Ministries of Forest and Environment offices of their intention to manage their own affairs, announcing that any group or company which wished to access the territory would need to go through a Free Prior Informed Consent protocol with the members of the clan.
At the rally, hereditary chief Knedebeas asserted: “Our Unist’ot’en members will not sway under the threats and actions of industry and government. My grandmother Christine Holland gave us specific directions to protect our lands—that is exactly what we intend to do.”
Wet’suwet’en, Gitxsan, and Nat’ot’en supporters join solidarity action at chevron station in Smithers, BC
Falling Out With The ENGOs and Transition to Grassroots Resistance
The initial presence of environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGOs) at the first action camp was controversial. Some indigenous allies were wary based on the history of ENGOs aligning with grassroots efforts then sidelining them to sign deals with industry, such as what happened during the Great Bear Rainforest campaign; but the ENGOs had a lot of resources to help generate publicity for the Unist’ot’en resistance to the pipeline.
Unfortunately, the relationships deteriorated over the course of the camp. It became clear that some of the ENGOs were uncomfortable with certain positions of the Unist’ot’en. One person even inquired if the phrase “No Offsetting” could be taken off one of the Unist’ot’en’s banners prior to the rally in Smithers. The Unist’ot’en regard offsetting as a dangerous false solution that allows polluters to continue their dirty practices by purchasing (often fictitious) offsets from another part of the world, but many ENGOs support offsetting—and possibly even hope to profit from it to fund their own activities
Further complicating the situation was the ENGOs reluctance to support the Unist’ot’en’s opposition to ALL pipelines. While the ENGOs were actively running campaigns against Enbridge Northern Gateway, they were ignoring that there was an entire corridor of pipelines planned. The ENGOs argued that opposing Northern Gateway was strategic, because there was more public support for opposing the oil pipelines than the gas ones. To the Unist’ot’en, stopping one pipeline meant nothing if you allowed all the others to pass through. In the end, many among the Unist’ot’en felt that the ENGOs were there to gain credibility as supporters of indigenous struggle, rather than to do actual work to benefit the territory.