The Tla-o-qui-aht People and Climate Change: Chapter 1

Eli Ens, the co-director of Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation Tribal Parks, embraces his people’s Ha’huulthii — traditional territory — from the top of the Wah-nah-jus (Lone Cone Mountain) at the western edge of the Meares Island Tribal Park. The Tribal Parks are land and sea designations within Tla-o-qui-aht territory, managed by and for the Tla-o-qui-aht people to better harmonize environmental and human wellbeing. Photo: © Gleb Raygorodetsky.

Like other indigenous First Nation communities throughout Canada, the Tla-o-qui-aht people are survivors. Over a century of cultural genocide, Christianisation, forced assimilation, land alienation and re-settlement reduced their numbers tenfold and pushed them to the brink of extinction. But despite environmental, social and cultural upheavals, the Tla-o-qui-aht are finding creative holistic solutions and restoring their traditional stewardship over the Ha-huulthii, their traditional territory that is widely known as Clayoquot Sound, British Columbia.

In an eight-part series, Adjunct Research Fellow with the Traditional Knowledge Initiative of the United Nations University Institute of Advanced Studies Gleb Raygorodetsky will tell us how the Tla-o-qui-aht are developing a local economy that does not undermine, but supports, local ecological and cultural systems. Raygorodetsky’s photos and first-hand accounts illustrate how this First Nation is working on restoring logged watersheds after decades of clear-cutting, reviving traditional salmon runs recovering from the effects of logging and overfishing and healing their communities devastated by the decades of government assimilation pressure. Through such holistic approaches rooted in their traditional principles of Hishuk Ish Tsa’walk — everything is one, everything is connected — Tla-o-qui-aht people are slowly but surely strengthening their ability to cope with social and environmental challenges, including climate change.

In this first chapter in the series, Raygorodetsky arrives in Ha-huulthii and introduces us to the first of the Tla-o-qui-aht (pronounced KLAH-kwat) people who will help him to understand the challenges and triumphs they have faced in restoring and supporting their ancestral relationships with, and responsibilities toward, their traditional territory.

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Thin undulating bands of waves lap at the beach behind my back. The gray, damp morning seeps into the sand under my feet turning it into a sticky paste, like wet raw sugar. The setting is anything but sweet, though, for looming over me is a totem pole hewn out of a single western red cedar log. Stacked with red, black and white animal-shaped rings like an enormous index finger — it stabs the low-hanging gray sky, as if calling it to witness.

Totem pole at Tin-Wis Hotel, Tofino.

In the spring of 2013, to celebrate the survivors of the residential school system, the Tla-o-qui-aht people raised a striking totem pole in front of the Tin-Wis hotel and called it Tiičswina, or “We survived!”. The crests of the twenty-foot pole represent all of the Tla-o-qui-aht groups affected by the tragedy of forced assimilation. Photo: © Gleb Raygorodetsky.

I stand in front of the Tin-Wis Hotel, owned and operated by the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation just outside of Tofino, a modest-sized town of almost two thousand at the southern end of Clayoquot (also pronounced KLAH-kwat) Sound on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. This was the site of a government-funded and church-run Indian Residential School, one of several operating in the area, until it was shut down and reclaimed by the Tla-o-qui-aht Band Council. For decades, under the banner of the “nation building”, the Canadian government made every effort to assimilate First Nations into mainstream Canadian society throughout the country — to “kill the Indian in the child”. As if the phrase weren’t gruesome enough, the means to achieving this goal were even more so — forcibly separating children as young as two years old from their families for up to 15 years, forbidding the use of their language, and punishing them if they dared engage in any traditional practices. At its peak in early 1930s, the residential school system operated 80 such facilities across Canada.

Until the last school closed its doors in 1996, the lives of over 150,000 First Nations children were irreversibly changed through systematic psychological, cultural, physical and often sexual, abuses. Only in 2008 did the Canadian Government make an official apology to the victims of this cultural genocide, to their families and to all First Nations, setting up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in order to document testimonies and inform all Canadians about what happened in the residential schools and to ensure that it would never happen again.

For decades, there was little here to remind anybody of this tragic chapter in the history of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation — one of 15 indigenous groups that make up the Nuu-chah-nulth (pronounced new-CHA-nulth) nation, who have been living along the west coast of Vancouver Island for millennia. The only two buildings remaining from the original sprawling residential school complex were remodeled into the Tin-Wis hotel conference centre and a maintenance shop. But in the spring of 2013, to celebrate the survivors of the residential school system, the Tla-o-qui-aht people raised a striking totem pole in front of the Tin-Wis hotel. They called it Tiičswina, “We Survived!” The twenty-foot pole is a black-red-and-white pyramid of crests, or living beings, from the tiniest mouse to the imposing bear, representing all of the Tla-o-qui-aht groups affected by the tragedy of forced assimilation.

Standing next to me is Joe Martin, the lead Tla-o-qui-aht carver for the Tiičswina project. He explains that for the Tla–o-qui-aht people, a totem pole is much more than a piece of art, but rather the embodiment of their traditional laws — their constitution. “It represents our rights and responsibilities based on the Natural Law of Mother Earth,” says Joe. “It is a reflection of Hishuk Ish Ts’awalk — our understanding of the world where everything is connected.”

Tla-o-qui-aht Master Canoe Carver Joe Martin

A Tla-o-qui-aht Master Canoe Carver, Joe Martin has spent his life crafting and paddling canoes, an art he learned from his late father, Chief Robert Martin. Photo: © Gleb Raygorodetsky.

Like many indigenous communities around Canada and throughout the world, the Tla-o-qui-aht people have suffered greatly at the hands of the dominant society from colonization, missionization, development, and assimilation. Over the last two decades, however, they have made significant progress toward restoring and supporting their ancestral relationships with, and responsibilities toward, their traditional territory. But more recently, another quite significant variable — climate change — has been added to the equation of challenges that the Tla-o-qui-aht people have been trying to balance for decades.

I am here to learn about the current challenges facing the Tla-o-qui-aht from people like Joe, who has agreed to take me on a tour of their traditional territory in the Clayoquot Sound to help me understand the impacts of climate change on his people. A Tla-o-qui-aht Master Canoe Carver, Joe has spent his life crafting and paddling canoes, an art he learned from his late father, Chief Robert Martin. He is also a skilled fisherman and is just as proficient at handling motorboats as he is at paddling canoes. An unrivaled guide to the Clayoquot Sound, he often takes visitors like me around the Ha’huulthii, the traditional territory of Tla-o-qui-aht people, and generously shares his deep knowledge of the lore of the land, sea, and traditions of the original peoples of the Clayoquot Sound — the wolves, orcas, salmon, trees, Tla-o-qui-aht, and others. My visit is part of the larger journey I have embarked on, traveling the globe in an attempt to understand the impacts of climate change on the ecological and social integrity of those few remaining places on Earth where the millennia-old relationships between the original peoples, the land, and the water — be it an ocean, a river, or a lake — remain intimate and vibrant, despite centuries of disruption.

I first came to Tofino for a meeting a few years ago and immediately fell in love with the landscape and the people of Clayoquot Sound. Some of it brings back memories of my own childhood on the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia, growing up in a small village on the Bering Sea’s northern shore. It also reminds me of my fieldwork on the Alaskan coast, the Seward Peninsula, when I was a graduate student at the University of Fairbanks. Now I have returned to the Clayoquot to re-connect with this place and my Tla-o-qui-aht friends.

Tofino, Clayoquot Sound, Vancouver Island, British Columbia.

Tofino, Clayoquot Sound, Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Tofino — a modest-sized town of almost two thousand at the southern end of Clayoquot Sound — is a nature lovers’ mecca. The town’s small resident population swells tenfold as the whale watchers and anglers, surfers and bird watchers, kayakers and storm trackers flock here throughout the year from around the world. Photo: © Gleb Raygorodetsky.

Standing next to the bear crest at the base of the totem pole, Joe reminds me that the phrase “totem pole” in Western culture connotes an individual’s status, importance, and power depending on how high up or down he or she is in relation to others. In the traditional worldview of Joe’s people, however, the totem pole is all about interdependence, inclusion, and integrity where each animal crest is dependent on others while respected for its own function and significance. The crests at the very bottom of the totem pole often symbolize the fundamental role that those animal or spirit beings play in the functioning of the Tla-o-qui-aht universe. Without them, the totem pole crumbles.

“The top crest of the totem pole, in our tradition,” explains Joe, “always represents the Sun or the Moon. Those things are very important. Everyone’s life is influenced by those. Doesn’t matter where we live in the world, we are all affected. This is the first Natural Law and it teaches us respect — self-respect and respect for other living beings. The second crest is a fundamental part of each totem pole in our tradition. That’s one of the most important crests — the Wolf, who is responsible for upholding the Natural Law. Then, another crest is of two serpents and it has several meanings. It is the lightning in the sky as well as a mythical sea serpent. It represents our teachings about being aware of everything around us. It reminds us of all the creatures that fly and walk in the world, and the laws of nature by which we all live and die. This includes our gratitude and responsibility to our past and future ancestors. We are the link between them because we have inherited all of the medicines that sustain life both physically and spiritually, and are responsible for passing them on to the future. We are accountable to them and all living beings to live in accordance with the Natural Law.

“All of this was taught to our people through our Ha-ho-pa, traditional education, from the moment we were conceived, and all throughout our lives, by our parents, relatives and elders. This was the thread connecting us to our past and future ancestors, anchoring us in this world. But the residential schools did us real damage by cutting this thread — and it will take generations to recover what’s been lost.”

Joe reflects that the only way Tla-o-qui-aht people have coped with — and will continue to adapt to dramatic changes in the past, cultural, social and or environmental in nature — is through maintaining their relationship with their traditional territory, their Ha’huulthii, and remaining firmly rooted in the ancestral teachings of the Natural Law.

Please visit Our World again next week for the next story in The Tla-o-qui-aht People and Climate Change series.

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This article is part of the Healing the Earth project of the Conversations with the Earth (CWE) initiative, a multimedia platform that brings indigenous voices on climate change to the global audience. It is supported by Land is Life. Follow CWE on Facebook or Twitter @ConversEarth.

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The text of Tla-o-qui-aht People and Climate Change: Chapter 1 by Gleb Raygorodetsky is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. The photographs are © Gleb Raygorodetsky.


Dr. Gleb Raygorodetsky is an Adjunct Research Fellow with the Traditional Knowledge Initiative of the United Nations University Institute of Advanced Studies (UNU-IAS) and a Research Affiliate with the POLIS Project on Ecological Governance at the Centre for Global Studies, University of Victoria, Canada. Gleb is a conservation biologist with expertise in resource co-management and traditional knowledge systems. Prior to joining UNU-IAS, Gleb led the development of a new global grant-making strategy for the Christensen Fund on biocultural diversity and resilience. Gleb works in the field of biocultural diversity with a focus on participatory research and communication, indigenous rights, climate change mitigation and adaptation, and sacred natural sites. Gleb co-chairs the Ethics Program for the International Society of Ethnobiology (ISE) and is an active member of the IUCN Specialist Group on Cultural and Spiritual Values of Protected Areas (CSVPA). Gleb has contributed to such magazines as Cultural Survival, Alternatives, Wildlife Conservation, and National Geographic, writing about climate change, traditional knowledge, and Indigenous peoples.