Good evening everyone, it is such a pleasure to be with you all tonight in this beautiful hall, in this enchanted valley I am still amazed I get to call home.
It is an honour to gather here on Gitxsan traditional territory. The people in this room represent a myriad of backgrounds and cultures but I believe we all share a connection to this land that has belonged to the Gitxsan for millennia.
I have been in the valley for coming up to three years. I first came to Hazelton to work as a forest fire fighter and I now work with Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition. When I’m not working I love to explore the far reaches of our watershed.
I was a bit surprised and also touched when Joy invited me to speak tonight. Of course I agreed. By now I’ve figured out that the Allens are hard to say no to! When Joy told me the theme for tonight was interconnectedness I thought, no problem, I can talk about that. But when I started to think about what I would say tonight the true meaning of interconnectedness began to evade me. The more I thought about the word, the less certain I became of its meaning.
There’s a name for that type of word that you hear a lot and you think you understand but when you’re asked to define it out loud you just can’t quite put your finger on it. Buzz words. People love buzz words these days!
So I started asking a few other people what they think interconnectedness means. A few of the responses were: sustainability, resiliency, community…more buzz words!
So I started asking people what images came to mind when they hear the word interconnectedness:a circle, a web, tree roots grounding down and branches growing up, salmon traveling from streams to rivers to the ocean and back again …now we’re getting somewhere!
As I sat with these images a tangible feeling emerged from the word interconnectedness. And I realized that much of my experience of interconnectedness-togetherness, reciprocity; communion- I have learned during my time in the Kispiox Valley.
We are going to explore this word, this idea of interconnectedness, a bit further this evening and in the process you’ll get to learn a little bit about me, and perhaps even a bit about this place and your connection to it.
In Wet’suwet’en ‘Yintakh’ is the word for land or territory. But Yintakh is much more than simply a word, it is almost a philosophy that encompasses the territory which is made up of trees, soil, animals, fish and human beings. All of which are mutually influenced and interconnected.
A similar model exists that in our linear, western way we sometimes call the three legged stool. The three legs of the stool are:
Remove any one of those legs from the stool, and your stool will collapse.
Over the last three years I have learned that when we speak of thriving communities, economic development, or a healthy environment we are speaking of the same thing. Our language and priorities may differ but our intentions are the same. Any attempt to narrow our scope and look at these in isolation will result in a shallow and stunted conversation.
It was the environment, the natural surroundings of this place that first resonated with me and continues to captivate me. I was extremely fortunate during my childhood to be exposed to many beautiful, wild places. My family operates a guide outfitting business on rivers in the Northwest Territories. My parents are true river rats and introduced my brothers and I to this lifestyle early on. I can count on one hand the number of times my family stayed in a hotel on family vacations. With that same hand I slapped a million and one mosquitoes while setting up tents and cooking dinner after a long day’s paddle. I started guiding at age 14 and spent close to ten summers portaging canoes and rowing rafts. Prior to moving to the valley I had stopped guiding and had been moving around for a number of years. Without realizing it I had lost the deep connection to place and natural surroundings I had taken for granted while growing up.
My first memories of the valley are of stumbling around in a daze with my eyes half closed wondering is it always this sunny here? Mind you I had spent the previous 6 months living in a basement suite in Vancouver but I felt a bit like a cave dweller when I got here. My arrival coincided with the arrival of spring and the sunlight was streaming through the first flush of electric green leaves. Later Todd Stockner tried to explain to me something about how the valley is perfectly situated to catch the light but all I knew was that I had landed in a magical place where the sun gleams off a river so clear you can see the salmon as they swim past your canoe. Holy moly I think I was meant for this place!
What I am describing is something I would imagine every person here tonight has felt at some point. A wonder and awe at our surroundings. We have something truly special, a place where so far people are coexisting with salmon and steelhead, grizzly bears and wolves.
I was recently down in Montana hanging out with a bunch of dorky environmentalists; I’m including myself in that title. They taught me a new word for bears and wolves-charismatic mega fauna. These are people who spend their lives working to protect habitat for charming mammals, but a lot of them had never seen a grizzly bear before. Their eyes popped out of their heads when I told them they’re known to hang out in my front yard. I came home with a deeper appreciation for just how unique and intact our valley is.
This sensation is deeper than just recognizing the beauty around us. When you live in a place where the rhythms of the natural world are evident on a daily basis you can’t help but to tune into them. There is no denying the intricate role our environment has on our lives. From the air we breathe, to the rich soil in which we grow our food, to the rivers we guide on to make a living, it is impossible to extricate our human community from the environment. And while it was the landscape that I first fell in love with here it is the community that allowed me to stay.
What makes a healthy community? And how can we acknowledge this interconnection between community and environment and still have our needs met?
Returning to the concept of Yintakh-The health and well-being of the territory reflects the health and well being of the people
When I first came to Hazelton I didn’t know a soul, except for the 19 dudes on the fire crew, but I somehow knew that this was a place I could fit in. I remember being so excited by how many people had gardens, and we’re not talking a single raised bed with some trendy mesclun greens, we’re talking BIG grow a winter’s worth of food kind gardens! I didn’t know it at the time but my first observations can tell us a lot about a community. People who garden typically have a connection to place. Which is a key aspect of a vibrant community.
At SWCC we have had a very sweet woman from Florida stay with us while she works on her masters research. It has been such a pleasure to watch her experience our community. When I asked her about interconnectedness she tossed out a few buzz words but then paused and very genuinely said “I think interconnectedness is something I know nothing about but that seems normal up here-interconnectedness is knowing your neighbour”
I must admit it took me a while to get used to people just dropping in on me unexpectedly-don’t these people have phones?!. But after a few visits from Allan Westen while I was still in my pajamas I began to recognize just how vital it is to know your neighbours. And those impromptu visits from my neighbours are now something I cherish about living out here. Maybe one day I’ll catch Allen in his pajamas!
This building we are sitting in is further evidence of the strength of this community. So I have to take a moment to thank everyone who has worked so hard to put tonight’s event on, and those who work throughout the year to maintain this space for us to come together in whether it’s for solemn occasions or a good ol’ rowdy party this space is the heart of our valley.
The final leg of the stool is economy. This leg of the stool is one that is often offered as a stand alone, a be all and end all. But what I have come to learn is that economy, in the dollars and sense meaning, is the most vulnerable of the three legs and can not exist without a healthy environment and community.
Storyteller’s Foundation has done a lot of important work in this region around communities and economies. I’m borrowing from their work here:
“What we have found over and over is that an intact ecosystem is first and foremost the key to healthy people and healthy economies…. For the people of the Upper Skeena, these are inseparable. People are the land and the land is us. This is true not only for the First Nations of our region but for all citizens who live a land-based life.”
One of the most essential principles of Gitxsan culture is Gwalx Ye’insxwtis, the belief and ethic of we received a full basket and it’s our duty to pass a full basket on. There is no doubt in my mind that we have received a full basket, and I believe that the strength and grace of everyone who lives here will allow us to work together to pass a full basket on.
We are so incredibly wealthy in this valley. Whether it be the ability for us to make a living off the land by growing vegetables or trapping. Or whether our income comes from sharing our beautiful rivers with others from distant places, or the richness that comes from knowing your neighbour and that you can call them in the middle of the night if you’re home alone and there is a bear knocking on your front door. The vast wealth that has come into my life from living in this place, where interconnectedness to community and environment is unavoidable, is something I will forever be grateful for.
I would like to close by having all of you think of an image that represents interconnectedness for you. While you hold onto those images I will leave you with a few words from the Kispiox Valley Declaration. This declaration so beautifully written embodies the idea of Yintakh, of Gwalx Ye’insxwtis , of interconnectedness.:
“These lands and waters are woven into the fabrics of our lives and are deemed as necessary and vital elements that support our economy our community and our way of life.”