Unpacking the Stories of the Land
Learning about 10,000 years of history through the eyes of Doig River First Nation
Through our work at Urban Systems, we are fortunate to have opportunities to learn from and appreciate the unique knowledge that exists within each community we partner with. Sometimes, these opportunities far exceed expectations, like the experiences consultants Julianne Kucheran and Dave Flanders have had the privilege to participate in through their work with Doig River First Nation in northern British Columbia and Alberta. Work rooted in Traditional Use Studies has become a lesson for a lifetime.
“Doig River is an incredibly prolific community, given their size,” Dave explains. “They’re quite small in number–about 300 members–but their voice is huge.” In the context of their work, he explains that much of his and Julianne’s role is helping to document Doig River’s territory–encompassing thousands of years of history–in a region that is developing very quickly. This has to be done in a way that can address the Nation’s need to communicate their connection to the land back to industry (agriculture, oil and gas, hydroelectric, mining, forestry) that is operating in the area.
The Voices of the Land
“In my experience working with Indigenous communities, and in particular with Doig River, they are active stewards of huge territories that they have historically used and still use today” says Dave. Many Elders often approach development projects with an emphasis on the environment first and people second, and act as the voice for the wildlife that can’t speak for themselves. As such, the value of nature rises to the top, and then it’s the people and the culture, and then, after those values are addressed, it’s all the other activities that are going on out there. This is not to say that a Nation is averse to participating in economic development, but the approach provides a value system to guide support for proposed projects. Out in the vast landscape, they are able to explain environmental impacts from the perspective of protecting the wildlife and habitats they find and environmental and cultural sites that no one else can otherwise adequately speak for.
As the stewards of the land, Doig River members are adamant about physically visiting any of the sites being reviewed. They want to see it with their own eyes, observe how the lands may be impacted, and consider how they wish to be involved in development across their territory. The role of consultants like Dave and Julianne is to document what the Nation is seeing, their concerns about historical and proposed development, and help build recommendations to guide future development.
Reliving History Through Stories
“I think one of the most powerful and potentially most effective parts of these Studies is the Elder participation,” Julianne emphasizes. In that environment, they are sharing their rich knowledge of the tracks and wildlife the group observes, but also the amazing stories that go along with those physical identifications. For every trip, the group is meaningfully selected with a focus on diversity, acknowledging the incredible opportunity for inter-generational knowledge transfer. The youth that participate get to experience being out in their traditional territories and share their perspectives, such as the need for employment, but also develop an appreciation and understanding of their lands through the stories and knowledge shared by the Elders in an environment that is rapidly changing.
And those stories hold powerful significance. As they walk through the brush, Elders, some of whom are in their 70’s, begin to relive their history, as if a movie is playing in their minds. “In every single one of these Studies we’ve done across BC and Alberta, there’s always someone from Doig River First Nation that’s been there, whose family used that area, who used to trap there, who hunts there or travels through there seasonally. Someone always has a history there,” says Dave. “They are literally retracing their steps and re-living the histories of that place. Newcomers need to understand this and hear what they have to say”.
During a trip in late fall 2017, Dave and Julianne accompanied a group of Elders and young people (women and men) to a remote site near the Chinchaga Wildlands only accessible by helicopter. One of the trips had been delayed a number of times due to weather, and with significant snow fall the night before, there was concern that it would be a waste of a trip, limiting the ability to identify the area wildlife. However, this proved to be an unexpected advantage. Because of the amount of snow that has fallen the night before, by the next morning numerous fresh tracks were visible across the landscape, exhibiting exactly what had come out of the woods the previous evening. Dave recounts how at one point they were following tracks from a pack of wolves that had been hunting earlier that morning. The Elders present could count the number of wolves that had been there and how they used the seismic lines that have been cut into the forest to stalk caribou, a species at risk. The experience identifies the impact development is having on the land: changing predator-prey dynamics.
Chinchaga Jack, an Elder so named because of his intimate knowledge and use of the area, saw rabbit and marten tracks, identifiable because of their size, spacing and movement through the snow. As he put together the story of the marten hunting the rabbit, describing what would have happened, it is apparent that the story is playing out in his head because he’s seen it so many times in his life. These trips are much more meaningful when the Elders are present, and very different from visiting with a formally-trained biologist, because the kinds of information that come from them and how it affects the Nation and their lives is what they’re really speaking to in these Studies.
“It also really showcases for me, how mentally and physically fit these elders are,” Julianne muses. Watching Margaret, an Elder in her 70’s, hiking all day without complaint, Julianne was in awe of how tenacious she was. It was remarkable to watch Margaret and the way she would look around and take it in, almost going back in time in her own life. Margaret would stroll through the muskeg naming all the berries, lichen and roots that the caribou were foraging, helping Juliane and Dave make the recommendations to include in a Traditional Use Study.
Where Western Science meets Indigenous Knowledge
It is an immense privilege for Dave and Julianne to be able to observe the land, the wildlife, and learn some of the stories of Doig River’s traditional territory, and one they have cherished. With an understanding of how critical the language of the Nation is, Julianne has recorded the Beaver words for what they have documented and the places they visit, with the help of Elders like Margaret and Jack. Many of the Elders still understand and speak their traditional language and are often looking for opportunities to include the language in these studies as a way to provide a tool for practicing and teaching it to the next generations.
That language transfer is part of a greater invaluable benefit to the youth, and as the Elders and youth travel through the land together, it is clear when things suddenly start to click. There is an exchange that happens out there on the land that is not like sitting in a classroom, and the amazing stories that come out from being out in the bush or by the campfire. All of these elders have an informal ‘PhD’ in ecology, and they have a different language to communicate and document it. Often, even something as simple as a Beaver name for an animal or a place is much more than just an identifier, unpacking a whole story within one word, and along with it, its importance to a community. This is where western science meets Indigenous knowledge, and how our consultants can help a Nation document not just that but also their concerns, and package it all together into a format that informs decision-making about what happens on their territorial lands.
For many years, Doig River First Nation has had strong leadership and an active Elders group, which translates into their mutual understanding of the Nation’s concerns, their ability to collaborate effectively, and to be present for every project. Julianne notes, “They have strong, capable people that lead through the band management and Chief and Council, really owning their role as stewards, making sure that they have an active voice, and making decisions about their land with the right authority. They are partners in this work and in development activities. It feels like that mindset has always been there and they’re making sure they always will be.”
Here is some beautiful footage captured by Dave from their helicopter experience: