Register Monday | March 4 | 2024

Spirit Food

When everyone wants the same piece of land, can food resolve conflict?

“NOBODY DREAMED FOR ONE MINUTE that we’d show up here,” says Arthur Loring, sitting under a tarp on the helipad of a mining camp in the Atna Range of northwestern British Columbia. “But here we are.” He grins, waving away campfire smoke. “There’re only two ways for us to go now,” he says. “Either we use this approach to send information to the mining industry, or we go into full blockade.”

He glances at the faces of the young people gathered around the fire, and then looks over at his sister, Yvonne Lattie, sitting beside him on a makeshift wooden bench, her eyes closed behind her glasses against the smoke. “And in talking to Suu Dii,” says Loring, “we are going to go into full blockade.”

Suu Dii is Yvonne Lattie’s Gitxsan name. The Gitxsan are a First Nation that claim aboriginal title over approximately 30,000 square kilometers in northwestern BC. According to archeologists, Suu Dii’s people have lived on these traditional lands for at least 6,000 years. The Gitxsan have a complex culture organized into house groups led by a high chief and wing chiefs. Each house group uses oral stories and crest designs to lay claim to a specific territory on which they have exclusive rights to hunt and fish. Suu Dii is the name of a wing chief in the House of Gwininitxw, a group with a territory roughly dead centre of Gitxsan lands.

Until recently, the territory of Gwininitxw had no roads or logging slashes on it. But now, 95 kilometres north of Hazelton, the nearest town, there’s a road cleared through the forest, leading from the mining camp to some drill sites. In 2006, a Vancouver-based junior mining company, Roxgold Inc., and the BC Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources began consultations with Suu Dii, informing her of Roxgold’s plans to look for minerals on her territory. Suu Dii did not agree to the exploration. For the past ten years she and others have mapped Gitxsan fishing camps and trails used on the territory for thousands of years. Their plan is to offer eco-cultural trips for both tourists and young Gitxsan.

The discussions were at an impasse. Then the chief of a neighbouring territory, Tsa Buk, claimed the mining camp was on his territory, and, according to the ministry’s summary of the consultations, demanded compensation for the use of that territory. While it’s uncertain if he was paid, it is certain that in spring 2007 a bulldozer cleared a trail across the alpine to the mining camp, and, in July, Roxgold began drilling.

“If this becomes a mine,” Suu Dii had said, back in Hazelton, “the whole territory will be open for whoever wants to come in—poachers, miners, loggers—the land will be ruined.” I asked what she was going to do about it. “I’m going to fast,” she said. “My grandmother always told me that to make a good decision it was important to fast.”

I asked her what fasting was like. “The first time I did a fast, the spirits fed me,” she said. “On the first night, out of the blue came this big mug. It was my grandfather. He only ever drank home brew, eh, so that’s what he was giving me.” She laughed. “And the next night my grandmother came. Her favourite foods were Orange Crush, crackers and cheese, and she fed my spirit with that. Then on the last night I was alone. But that was okay, it was a part of finding out who I was deep inside.”

It’s now the second day of her fast, a day where she doesn’t speak at all. Staccato rain pops off the tarp loud as hail. Mud cakes our boots, pants and the flanks of horses in the rain. She looks across the helipad at the large white canvas tents of the mining camp, some thirty metres away. “We have the rights here,” says Loring. “The right to the resources, the right to decide how this land should be used.” Suu Dii nods, then prods at the coals in the fire with a stick, shooting sparks into the rain.

NORTHWESTERN BRITISH COLUMBIA is home to a collision of worldviews. Gitxsan feasts, or potlatches, were outlawed until 1951. Up to the 1970s, First Nations children were taken from their families and put in residential schools, where they were often beaten for speaking their language, and many were sexually and physically abused. Today, most Gitxsan live on reserves or in towns, away from their traditional territories, and many suffer from chronic social problems such as low literacy levels, teenage pregnancy, high suicide rates and drug and alcohol dependency.

Despite this, in recent decades the Gitxsan have had a cultural renewal of sorts. Food is still gathered from the land—salmon, mountain berries, game animals and edible and medicinal plants. Feasts are held on a semi-regular basis, sponsored by house groups to recognize marriages, acknowledge a death, give out new names to house members and settle disputes. In the feast hall, high-ranking chiefs and members of other house groups witness the proceedings and are given gifts of food, cash and other useful items to acknowledge their presence at the feast and status within their house group.

“When we get our names in the feast,” said Suu Dii, speaking about the feast her house group planned to hold in August, “the names that we hold are attached to the land. It’s our responsibility to ensure that the land is kept intact to be passed from one generation to the next. Without the land, the culture will not exist.”

As a Nation, the Gitxsan claim they never relinquished title to their land, and the Supreme Court of Canada agrees with them. In 1997, in a case known as Delgamuukw v. The Queen, the Supreme Court recognized that the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en (the Gitxsan’s immediate neighbours) claim aboriginal title to their traditional territories. Though they didn’t give title outright, and urged negotiations rather than court cases, the court defined aboriginal title as an exclusive right to land, including subsurface minerals. Later court decisions held that Canadian governments must meaningfully consult with title-claiming First Nations before giving out permits for development projects.

The decisions were controversial. Quoted in a New York Times article, BC constitutional lawyer John D. Weston said the court decisions “create an ungovernable, uneconomic and unharmonious community of Canada.”

Lawyer Richard Overstall, the research director for the First Nations in the Delgamuukw case, said aboriginal title does create uncertainty over “who legally has a say on what happens on Crown land.” However, in practice, he said, “Since the trial not a lot has changed in terms of how people live on the ground. Roads are being built, mining carries on, and if people want to go to court to stop it, they’re looking at tens of thousands of dollars, which of course they don’t have.”

“Big companies come here for our resources,” said Suu Dii. “But they don’t live here, they don’t live off the forests, they don’t need the fish to survive, they can buy what they want. But this is what we use as a means of survival. It is part of our culture. I refuse to allow my children to go on without a culture.”

Out on the territory of  Gwininitxw, on the day after Suu Dii’s fast ended, Loring set up a roadblock, revving a chainsaw and cutting into the trunk of one, then two, big balsam trees that toppled with heavy thumps, cutting off the mining camp from the drill sites. “I worked for years as a selection faller,” said Loring. “I can drop a tree on a dime.”

Now he stands with Suu Dii, his long black hair pulled back in a pony-tail, his arms crossed, staring across the blockade at Alan Raven, CEO and president of Roxgold Inc. Raven is joined by his drilling crew, burly young men wearing ball caps and plaid shirts. “I realize this house territory is in dispute,” Raven says, adjusting his glasses to stare back over the blockade. “It’s not my place to offer any opinion on that situation.”

“No, but that’s a part of why you see this here,” says Loring. “There’s a major house feast that’s coming in August,” he says. “It’s going to deal with this issue [of an internal Gitxsan boundary dispute].”

Raven takes a deep breath. “I lose another month,” he says. “Is there any compromise we can reach so we can go back to work?”

“I really can’t say until we meet with the ministry and see what they’re willing to do,” says Loring. “We’re sorry about you getting caught in between.”

Raven nods, grimly, then he and his crew turn and trudge back over the muddy road to their camp.

“It’d be good to get more people out here,” says Suu Dii. Loring nods. “Not many people have done the guiding and hunting that I’ve done,” he says. “It’ll be hard to get them to come and do that trip. In the old days they would have. That’s where the food was, on the land. But now the food’s in town. At Safeway.”

“In the old days they’d kill white men if they came on the territory,” says Suu Dii.

“It was the laws of survival,” says Loring. “If you hunted on someone’s territory without permission, you were taking food from their mouth. It was a serious thing.”

Suu Dii stares at the road. “If this continues,” she says, speaking of the blockade, “we might have to cancel the feast.”

A WEEK LATER, the tarp is set up in the middle of the road, around the corner from the blockade, and Suu Dii is standing by a double-burner camping stove, stirring at the contents of a pot with a plastic spoon. “It’s very important that I maintain this position until the issues are resolved,” she says. “I don’t see that happening in the near future.”

Since meeting with Raven at the blockade, Suu Dii has heard nothing from him or the BC Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources. She shakes her head. “We don’t have full-time jobs that earn us a lot of money,” she says. “I grow my own vegetables, I have my raspberry patch that needs to be picked, all the fish that needs to be smoked and dried for the feast. I’ve given up my entire summer to be here.”

She spoons globs of sticky rice and chow mein mixed with ground beef into bowls. “This’ll stick to your ribs,” she says, as she passes out the bowls. “I wish we had Kentucky Fried Chicken,” says James Loring, Suu Dii’s teenage son.

“I’d like huggle zum soup,” says Arthur Loring, referring to a soup made from salmon hearts, salmon eggs, seaweed, oolichan grease and salmon heads from which you suck out the eyes and chew off the cheeks and the soft top of the head. “It’s my favourite.”

He grins. Food has replaced politics as the topic of conversation—food and hunting. Loring once killed two moose with one shot of a .30-06. The bullet broke through the spine of the first and lodged in the heart of the second. He cut the first one’s throat with a knife. To kill a moose with a small caliber .22, he says, you shoot it behind the ear into its brain or hit the small hollow space in its skull above the forehead. Moose is a staple food item, but up here in the mountains there are also delicacies, such as groundhogs. They’re small, usually showing only the top of their head. You need patience to get one, but it’s worth it, he says. The meat is tasty.

I first ate groundhog after James Loring shot one in the alpine. It looked like a small, silver-tinged beaver, and its belly was warm and jiggly with ribs that seemed to float in fat. “Our word for groundhog is gweekxw,” he said. “It’s the same word for money.”  I bit into belly flesh. It was good, like fat marbled chicken.

“It’s nice to know we can survive out here,” says Suu Dii. “We don’t need a whole pile of stuff. We’ve gotten kind of spoiled by civilization.”

She looks up. There’s a whistle from the blockade. Alan Raven is there. He passes a letter to Suu Dii over the fallen trees, a letter from Tsa Buk—the chief who claimed the mining camp is on his territory—which states that Suu Dii started a conflict with his house without the consent of all her own house members. Five Gwininitxw members signed the letter. It’s a blow.

“I have to warn you, legal counsel is instigating proceedings against you,” says Raven.

“That is all right,” says Suu Dii.

“When you get the bill for $80,000,” says Raven, “we’ll see how happy you are with that.” Suu Dii walks from the blockade. “Our own people,” she says to Loring. “They don’t know the territory, they never walk it.” She shakes her head. “It breaks my heart.”

“Sometimes you have to retreat,” says Loring. “It’s not defeat. This must be dealt with.”

Several hours later, after telling Raven that the Gitxsan will pull out from the area, Loring hands a letter back over the blockade. It states that the once the boundary issue is resolved, the government must engage in meaningful consultation with the House of Gwininitxw before any further development occurs.

“I will accept that,” says Raven. “I will have the helicopter fly the people out tomorrow.” He’s visibly relieved, and agrees to call off the lawyers. “We’ll continue consultations, probably in the fall, when we all have more time,” he says.

“And we’ll have our maps all laid out,” says Suu Dii, “so you know exactly where our territory is, and where our trap lines are and where our trails are.”

“At this feast,” says Loring, “the high chiefs will be there. It’ll be those high chiefs who say whose territory this really is.”

“Good,” says Raven. He turns and walks back to his camp. Suu Dii and Loring walk away in the other direction, leaving behind only smoke from the fire dying on the road.

AT THE LATE AUGUST FEAST, in Hazelton, heaps of food are piled in front of guests, bread stacked three loaves high, mounds of apples, oranges, bananas, bags of candy, jars of home-made jam and twelve-packs of root beer and Coke. The hall, longer than a basketball court, with a high ceiling, is filled with tables stretching from wall to wall. High chiefs sit at the ends of the tables, elderly Gitxsan men and women with wing chiefs directly beside them, house members sitting further down. At some tables people are crammed shoulder to shoulder while other tables are empty but for a chief or two.

Since five in the afternoon, members of the House of Gwininitxw have been distributing food to the guests—bowls of moose stew with tender chunks of moose meat floating among garden-grown carrots and potatoes, plates of smoked salmon and bannock, cups of tea and coffee and strawberry-rhubarb compote. Most house members wear red and black vests with the crest design of a wolf on the back, showing they belong to the wolf clan. They circulate through the room, doling out food, gifts of towels, drinking cups and cash.

Suu Dii stands at the front of the hall, speaking into a microphone. She’s telling the story of the house crest, which has a niidziba lax gan, a Sasquatch-like creature, beside a wolf with the rear end of a grizzly. It’s the story of when chief Gwininitxw and others attacked a First Nation that moved onto Gitxsan lands. The battle was fierce. At the end only two intruders were left—an old lady and a beautiful young woman. Gwininitxw wanted the young woman, but the niidziba lax gan leapt out of the trees ahead of him. Stinky, hairy, full of lust, it grabbed at the young woman, but Gwininitxw was faster. He killed it, got the girl, and the other chiefs gave him the creature for his crest. A grizzly bear robe used to lure the intruders into battle was divided between Gwininitxw and another chief.

During the Delgamuukw trial, stories like this were told in court as evidence of Gitxsan ownership of their traditional territories. The judge in the original trial ruled oral history was inadmissible in court, but the Supreme Court overruled him, judging that oral stories could be used to prove aboriginal title. The feast hall, lawyer Richard Overstall told me, is where these stories are retold, and ratified by witnessing chiefs. “The telling of the story is an exercise of Gitxsan law,” he said. “It reaffirms title.”

“The blanket that we wear covers our territory,” says Suu Dii. “All the people that reign in the House of Gwininitxw are under this blanket. The land and all that is on that land belongs not only to the chief, but to all house members.”

She looks around the hall. The house members who signed the letter passed to her at the blockade are moving from table to table, pouring coffee and ladling soup. Before the feast, Suu Dii reminded them of their territorial boundaries. Here at the feast she relates the boundaries again, telling all present that Roxgold’s camp is on Gwininitxw territory.

“We blockaded Roxgold,” says Suu Dii. “And the day that we started our journey up into the alpine was the day I began my fast.” She speaks of earlier fasts, her grandmother’s spirit bringing Orange Crush, and then she relates another vision seen in a fast.

 “An elderly lady came out of the devil’s club and weeds,” she says. “She was as old as time, hunched over, and she looked deep into my eyes. She gave me a task that I didn’t know I had, that I have the responsibility to ensure our house, and territories, continue.”

It’s two in the morning. The feast has gone on for nine hours. Some of the elderly chiefs from the other houses look exhausted, their eyes closed, heads bent to their chests, but as the feast wraps up the high chiefs stand one by one, speaking in Gitxsan, a language with little resemblance to European languages. I don’t understand what they say, so afterwards I ask Arthur Loring what happened. He says that Tsa Buk was in the hall but left before speaking. The other chiefs spoke in favour of Suu Dii. “If he still wanted to claim the territory,” says Loring, “he’d have to hold another feast and address it directly. But it’d be hard after this.”

He grins. Suu Dii comes up, and I ask how she interprets the evening. “The chiefs agree with us,” she says. Then she laughs. “I’m so tired,” she says, “but it’s worth it.” She looks at Loring. “This is going to continue,” she says, speaking of the mining dispute, and, by extension, the issue of whether title-claiming First Nations or Canadian governments get to decide what happens on the land. He nods, and begins to pack up his food. The feast is over. I walk outside, eating a last piece of smoked salmon and washing it down with a swig of pop, the sweet fizz and the fish mingling unsteadily on the tongue.