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 known to the rest of the world as Clayoquot Sound, British Columbia.
In an six-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 installment in The Tla-o-qui-aht People and Climate Change series, Raygorodetsky arrives in Ha-huulthii and introduces us to the first of the Tla-o-qui-aht people who will help him understand the challenges and triumphs they have faced in restoring and supporting their ancestral relationships with, and responsibilities toward, their traditional territory.
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 black, red and white animal-shaped rings like an enormous index finger — it stabs the low-hanging gray sky, as if calling it to witness.
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.