The Tla-o-qui-aht People and Climate Change: Chapter 3

In the estuaries dotted with numerous rocky skerries, or small islands, the sediment carried by the water from the forested mountain slopes settles into mudflats. The sea and forests, streams and mountains, fjords and mudflats of Clayoquot Sound all form the rich matrix creating abundant and diverse habitats that shelter and nourish a wide variety of local and migratory species. 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 slowly but surely strengthening their ability to cope with social and environmental challenges, including climate change.

In Chapter 1 of this eight-part series, Adjunct Research Fellow Gleb Raygorodetsky of the United Nations University Traditional Knowledge Initiative arrived in Ha’huulthii — the traditional territory of the Tla-o-qui-aht that is widely known as Clayoquot Sound, British Columbia. He encapsulated the recent past and set about visiting with the local people who will help us understand the challenges and triumphs the Tla-o-qui-aht people have faced. In Chapter 2, master carver Joe Martin began showing Raygorodetsky some of the most significant places in Ha’huulthii. This week, we hear about the region’s unique climate and the incredibly vibrant web of life it sustains, and how this in turn has supported the Tla-o-qui-aht over the centuries.

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Vibrant web

In geological, and even human, terms the climate and forests of Vancouver Island we know today are fairly young. The millennia of glacial advances and retreats between 29,000 and 15,000 years ago carved out the 865,000 acres of watershed that drains into the Sound. When glaciers finally retreated around 15,000 years ago, the climate became colder and drier compared to today. A warming period between 12,000 and 11,000 years ago allowed Douglas fir to take hold and expand, but about 8,000 years ago, the onset of a wetter and cooler climate helped western red cedar thrive and the entire ecosystem gradually transformed into the coastal temperate forests of our time. The Clayoquot Sound shoreline dropped from about 100 feet to 10 feet above today’s sea level, between 13,000 and 7,000 years ago. After remaining unchanged for a thousand years, the sea then continued to recede to its present levels.

With the glaciers’ retreat, the coastal waters, the land, and its forests became home to a rich diversity of life forms. The warm North Pacific Current brings moist air to the western shores of Vancouver Island, but the rising slopes of the steep coastal mountains check the eastward progress of the ocean and airflows. Having used up every iota of energy carrying its burden of moisture this far, the air spills the rain and snow over the large tracts of coastal rainforest. Sometimes it rains as much as 120 inches a year here, which is why it is considered one of the wettest spots in North America.

The lakes, bogs, and aquifers absorb this deluge, while the countless rivulets, rills, streams, and rivers bring it back to the ocean. In the estuaries dotted with numerous rocky skerries, or small islands, the sediment carried by the water from the forested mountain slopes settles into mudflats. The sea and forests, streams and mountains, fjords and mudflats — all form the rich matrix creating abundant and diverse habitats that shelter and nourish a wide variety of local and migratory species.

Coastal temperate rainforest

A 60-mile stretch of Vancouver Island’s west coast is one of the few remaining places on Earth where coastal temperate rainforests endure. The giant western hemlocks, Douglas firs, western red cedars and Sitka spruce are some of the Earth’s most ancient living beings. Over a thousand years old and reaching 300 feet tall and 60 feet in girth, these giants have stood witness to the region’s history, both ancient and modern, geological and ecological, natural and human. Photo: © Gleb Raygorodetsky.

Dungeness crabs scour the shallows in search of clams with such exotic names as Manila, Butter, Varnish and Razor. Enroute from South America to the Arctic, flocks of Western sandpipers make a stopover at the Tofino mudflats to feast on the profusion of worms and other invertebrates. Herring converge on beds of seagrass along the shores to spawn, their eggs and milt mixed with seawater attracting thousands of birds, whales, and seals. Cruising along the coast, gray whales dive to the bottom of shallow bays to gulp up the sediment teaming with mud-dwelling clams, ghost shrimp, and marine worms, which they filter out through the baleen plates suspended from their palates.

Black and brown bears feast on salmon spawning in the streams and forage on salal, thimble, huckle and salmon berries abundant in the forest understory. Roaming the mountains and coasts are wolves and cougars in search of black-tailed deer and Roosevelt elk that thrive on the variety of grasses and nutritious lichens flourishing throughout the old-growth forest.

But it is the Pacific Salmon that is the lifeblood of the Clayoquot ecosystem, weaving the land and sea together as its life unfolds. Every summer, after spending up to four years in the open ocean and travelling for nearly 9,000 miles away from their nursery streams, salmon return to their birthplace, following scents and waypoints known only to them. The fish brave the rapids and waterfalls on the way to their spawning grounds — gravel bottoms of creeks and springs, where they lay their eggs. Along the way, their bodies — battered and scarred by obstacles and predators — change. They transform into ancient warriors wearing the war colors of their distinct tribes — red Sockeyes, purple Chums, and rosy Pinks. Though their fearsome headgear of hooked jaws and protruding teeth may be effective at keeping their own kin at bay as they battle for spawning partners, it fails to repel other foes, such as eagles, bears and men.

Over 190 different species of plants and animals — from killer whales to giant cedars, from insects to lichens, from loons to bears — depend on the yearly arrival of this remarkable constellation of Pacific salmonids. By dragging the still thrashing fish or the carcasses of spawned-out, dead salmon into the brush, predators transport precious nutrients, particularly marine nitrogen, into the riparian ecosystem. In large watersheds, where bears are common, the marine nitrogen “signature” of salmon can be found in plants growing as far as 2,500 feet (762 metres) away from the stream. But even in small watersheds, plants 500 feet (152 metres) from the water are also “made of salmon”, or of its constituent nutrients dispersed by predators and scavengers throughout the area and absorbed by the plant cells.

Such an intricate entanglement of life’s vital elements creates inalienable relationships between the open ocean and the old growth forest. After fattening for years in the open ocean on herring, pelagic amphipods, and krill, the salmon return to the fresh water streams to spawn and die. They bring back with them precious nutrients to nourish the old growth forests that provide cool, shaded waterways with ideal conditions for salmon eggs, as well as for fry, the fresh-water life stage of salmon, that mature into smolt, the life stage that heads out into the open ocean.

Over millennia, this vibrant web of relationships has also supported human societies as rich and diverse as the ecosystems on which they depended. According to their lore, the Nuu-chah-nulth people, whom European traders and settlers called Nootka, have thrived all along the western shores of Vancouver Island since time immemorial. Nobody knows for sure, but it is estimated that before the smallpox epidemics introduced by European settlers decimated the region’s communities in mid-1800s, the nine Nuu-chah-nulth groups living around the Clayoquot Sound numbered around 10,000 people. Today, fewer than a thousand remain.

For thousands of years, flora and fauna of ocean and land — whales and salmon, halibut and berries, herring and ducks, clams and springbank clover — shaped life for the Tla-o-qui-aht people. Echachist used to be a major seasonal hub for Tla-o-qui-aht whaling and fishing. Before the arrival of Europeans, it was a thriving center of Tla-o-qui-aht culture, serving as a major summer seat of the leading Chief Wickaninnish. The Island’s location at the mouth of the Clayoquot Sound where it meets the Pacific made it an ideal site to launch whaling canoes. The Island’s even gravel beaches were also well suited for the landing of harpooned whales — gray, right, or humpback — as thousands of animals migrated past Echachist every year.

As I follow Joe to his house, I stumble, my feet sliding on rocks slippery with algae exposed by the receding tide. At 60, Joe moves up the steep rocky beach with the agility and surefootedness of a young man who knows every pebble on this land. The faded one-story building at the edge of the forest overlooking the landing has a wide unfenced deck under a big window facing the beach and the ocean. Sun-bleached mussel shells, skulls, bones, and unusually colored and shaped pebbles decorate the top of a low bench and a couple of small rickety tables under the window.

We step inside, where the gray light, struggling to break through the fog, seeps into the cabin through the window, creating a framed image, like a vintage photograph, of Echachist’s coastline. Joe’s spartan house is spacious but sparsely furnished. There are a couple of old chairs and a table in the middle of the room. By the window, there is a bed and several shelves packed with worn books, stacks of papers, carvings, and a medley of souvenirs from his various voyages.

Traditional halibut hook

“This is a traditional halibut hook I made from the base of a spruce branch,” Joe Martin explains. “I didn’t quite finish it, because the wood had a weak point, but it’s good enough to show you how we used to catch halibut.” The hooks were baited with octopus caught on the reefs, and set on the ocean floor for halibut. Photo: © Gleb Raygorodetsky.

“In the old days, our people would spend several weeks living on the island during the spring season,” Joe explains. From a nail in the wall he lifts a hand-size hook made of hard wood. “This is a traditional halibut hook I made from the base of a spruce branch. I didn’t quite finish it, because the wood had a weak point, but it’s good enough to show you how we used to catch halibut.”

Holding one end of the wooden hook in his left hand, Joe places his right index finger across it to indicate where the missing barb and the bait would go. “It’s not too far from here to paddle out in a canoe to the halibut fishing spot,” Joe explains. “They’d bait the hooks with octopus caught on the reefs, and paddle out to set them on the ocean floor for halibut. We still go fishing in the same spot, but there are much less halibut nowadays and the fish are a lot smaller.”

Stay tuned to Our World next week as the author follows Joe to a nearby beach where his ancestors harpooned whales, butchering them and cutting up the meat right on the shore.

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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 Tla-o-qui-aht People and Climate Change: Chapter 3 by Gleb Raygorodetsky is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Photos: © 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.