An inside look at the Unist'ot'en camp

OPINION: As questions swirl about potential RCMP action on Unist'ot'en lands, Dorothy Field provides an insider's look at the camp that's asserting local sovereignty over the clan's territory.

Check point leading into the Unist'ot'en camp. All photos courtesy Dorothy Field.

Troubles are brewing for First Nations in northern BC, talk of the RCMP gathering to break through the Unist'ot'en protocol that prevents pipelines and their employees from entering their land, and talk of mass arrests. To be clear, this is not a blockade.

When someone arrives at the Unist'ot'en boundary, the bridge over the pristine Morice River, they must seek permission to enter. A spokesperson arrives and asks their intention, whether they work for the pipelines, and how they might help the Unist'ot'en people. Those connected with the pipelines are denied entrance. Everyone else passes through.

The Unist'ot'en are a clan of the Wet'suwet'en. Their unceded land is slated for an "energy corridor" several kilometres wide to carry six different pipelines. The Tsilhqot'in decision changed the game with its affirmation of First Nations' right to choose how their land will be used for both traditonal and modern purposes. This is not something that pleases Stephen Harper.

In 2012 and 2013, I rode the ancient school bus up to the Unist'ot'en summer camp west of Houston along with a busload of idealistic young people. I've been through the protocol twice, the first time at 3 a.m. when our bus finally got to the bridge after driving lost on logging roads for several hours. We'd been instructed how to do this but still my sense of awe choked me up. This ancient protocol applied to everyone travelling across traditional boundaries.

The camps included local elders, elders from other parts of the province and the country; people experienced in international Indigenous issues; some sweet, open-hearted kids with green hair and dreads; a few old ladies like me – I am 70, as old as many of the elders.

When I stood in the long food lines, elders said I must go to the front of the line. Hard for me, but along with privilege comes an obligation to share my wisdom, if I have any. The camp is dry – no drugs, no alcohol. And no nudity when swimming in the river.

During the day, participants held workshops on such subjects as local medicinal plants, non-violent approaches to conflict, and a primer on First Nations perspectives for non-native participants.

We had campfires and we sang. We lived in tents and pitched in on cooking, dishes, and outhouse maintenance. Some people set up solar systems to power the camp. Some worked in the large permaculture garden or building a pithouse. Others offered acupressure and massage in the healing tent. We learned how to make soopalallie “ice cream”.

Our first morning, an elk carcass hunted the night before hung from a beam in the cookhouse – meat for the camp, a disturbing sight for vegetarians.

My first summer the Unist'ot'en completed a log cabin in the path of one of the pipelines. When the company rerouted the pipeline, a second cabin was built on the new route.

Several clan members have given up good jobs to move from town onto their land. Others who live in town come to hunt, gather plants and berries, and just be there.

This isn't any old summer camp. The Unist'ot'en are standing for the purity of their water – the pristine Morice River, and the viability of their traditional lifestyle. Salmon, deer, and a variety of food and medicinal plants remain their staples. The pipelines threaten all of that.

This land is their life and their culture. I've been enormously impressed with the leaders: Freda Huson, the Unist'ot'en spokesperson and her husband, hereditary chief Toghestiy.

Google Freda Huson and you'll find clips of her explaining protocol to oil people and the RCMP. She remains calm and firm, but her resolve is clear. During the camps, some of us kept guard round the clock to alert Freda when someone turned up. The negotiations were always peaceful and respectful, but oil people were sent packing.

The Unist'ot'en are not terrorists. They are deeply aware of the ramifications of their stand. They are highly educated in both traditional culture and modern day disciplines. Nor are the young people terrorists. Some are college graduates, some are drop-outs.

What marks them is their engagement in the issue of pipelines and First Nations rights. Nor am I a terrorist. I don't think it's cynical to say that Harper is directing this RCMP action to frighten Canadians with the idea that these First Nation radicals threaten our oil policy and our whole future.

The Unist'ot'en stand is the stand we should all be taking to protect our lands and our precious resources. For those of us who do not want to turn our Canada over to the oil companies, the First Nations stance may be all that is between us and losing what we truly care about -- a democratic Canada that protects our wild lands, our deepest values, and all our people.

The protocol requires each of us to examine ourselves deeply and to speak for ourselves in the most responsible way possible. I read about the RCMP plans to break protocol with deep trepidation. I fear officers keyed up to face radical terrorists. I fear a descent into violence, that no one wants. I'm sure the Unist'ot'en will not initiate it. I fear an incident like those of recent decades. My heart is in my mouth.

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