by Patrick Strzalkowski
Our class left for Hesquiat territory on the morning of August 24th in the water taxi Wolf Dancer. For two hours we travelled north along the western side of Vancouver Island, covered at the time by a dense fog. The seven of us eventually arrived at the Hooksum Outdoor School run by Steve and Karen Charleson. Hooksum educates about 100 people every year. Most visitors, staying for 28 days, are trained in first aid and kayak guiding. On top of the two certificates, students learn to be comfortable in Hesquiaht territory. We too were invited to treat Hooksum, as Steve and Karen put it, “not like a remote wilderness nor like an adventure holiday, but instead like our own living room.” This was the first gesture in welcoming us into their “hahoutli.”
Steve explained that hahoutli is a part of the landscape to which a group of people belongs. The Hesquiaht belong in their hahoutli. This relationship of belonging has several implications. The chief and other tribe members are responsible for keeping their hahoutli in a healthy state. Steve stressed that no one technically owns the hahoutli in the way that one might own a piece of property. The Hesquiaht are caretakers entrusted with its permanent well being. In return, their hahoutli provides everything they need to survive. I can only imagine what it must be like to know that your ancestors have lived and cared for the same trees, hunted the same game and walked the same beaches for thousands of years. Clearly this brings a deep sense of attachment and responsibility to maintain the hahoutli and pass it on to the next generation.
The idea that was hardest for me to grasp was that the First Nations from one hahoutli rarely involve themselves in matters outside of their territory. The idea is that each tribe is responsible for their own hahoutli and anything outside of that region is another tribe’s issue. I find this tough because they are potential for decisions from one tribe to affect much more than themselves. Shouldn’t people have a voice and an opinion on matters that will affect them, even if it is not within their hahoutli or territory? This was an answer given to me when I asked a few different people as to what right or responsibility do you feel that you have in influencing decisions made in areas that are not of your own.
As of very recently Vancouver Island is the only area in Canada where treaties were not signed between the First Nations and the Government of Canada. The Ucluelet First Nation recently signed a treaty with the government but much of Vancouver Island still remains First Nations’ territory. This creates an interesting dynamic as the government still controls much of what happens on the island in terms of resource extraction policies and other industry regulations. The government has policies for how much forest must be logged, the amount of fish to be caught and mining permits all on First Nation’s territory. The First Nations have been in the area for thousands of years and have gained deep knowledge of the systems of their hahoutli. To me, it makes little sense that should be restricted on making their independent decisions by the government’s regulations.
It would be a great idea if every tribe, neighbourhood, or city taking care of their region, treating it as a hahoutli. In today’s world where everything is becoming more interconnected and every place is becoming more accessible. Admittedly, some issues do not remain within borders, climate change being perhaps f the more salient. But these large scale issues are often difficult to wrestle with even in theory, let alone in practice. It can also be somewhat demoralizing to know that one’s own efforts are potentially undone by what someone else is doing. By contrast, environmental action that focuses on one’s immediate surroundings can have tangible, rewarding effects. In the words of Dan Lewis of Clayquot Action put it, “one must tend your own garden before tending to someone else’s.”
Edited by Stefan Linquist