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Northwest Notes

tyler.mccreary's picture
Northwest Notes focuses on Indigenous-Canadian relations in northern British Columbia, particularly around resource development issues. It is written by Tyler McCreary and Dawn Hoogeveen, with occasional contributions from their friends.

Songs and stories of a land without pipelines

| January 18, 2012

"The truth about stories," declares Native author Thomas King, "is that's all we are." Wet'suwet'en people know their identities and territories through the songs and stories that connect their people to their land, history and ancestors. These stories and songs are evidence that the Wet'suwet'en people have occupied the land since time immemorial.

The Wet'suwet'en term for oral history is kungax. Literally translating as "trail of song," the kungax allows Wet'suwet'en to trace the tracks of past generations across their territories and map the path of their people into the future.

On January 16, members of the Wet'suwet'en presented in Smithers, B.C., before a federal panel reviewing a proposed pipeline to transport tar sands bitumen across their traditional territory. Entering the hearing, a long line of Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs and members filed into the meeting room at Hudson Bay Lodge in full regalia. As they entered, the room filled with the powerful echo of the Gidimt'en clan song.

Wet'suwet'en society is traditionally organized into five clans: the Gidimt'en (Bear Clan), Likhsilyu (Small Frog Clan), C'ilhts'ekhyu (Big Frog Clan), Tsayu (Beaver Clan), and Likhts'amisyu (Fireweed Clan). The clans are broken up into houses, based on small groups of extended families, each headed by a hereditary chief.

Before the panel, the Wet'suwet'en spoke with a unified voice. Together, all the clans declared a resounding "no" to the proposed Enbridge pipeline. Assembled at the front of the room, the Wet'suwet'en then began to sing a song specially composed by hereditary chief Wil'at, Susie Alfred, and her brother George William and her daughters Delores Alfred and Marg Dumont.

Noh' y'in tah way atsan nay
[We live off our land]

Noh' y'in tah way atsaan tsun
[Our territory is our livelihood]
Ha ya ha haa. Hey ya haaaii (((rattle)))

Noh' y'in tah way ha naaay, way ha nay badats t'sa naaay
[We survive on the wildlife on our land]

Noh's y'in tah way atsaan tsun
[Our territory is our livelihood]
Ha ya ha haa. Hey ya haaaii (((rattle)))

A'nuk no'eten, h'anic, yin tah
[Law, language, land]

Noh's y'in tah way atsaan tsun
[Our territory is our livelihood]
Ha ya ha haa. Hey ya haaaii (((rattle)))

Yin' tah lha a'nay lhkiy si ohn lee
[Connection of land and animals]

Noh's y'in tah way atsaan tsun
[Our territory is our livelihood]
Ha ya ha haa. Hey ya haaaii (((rattle)))

Enbridge noh' y'in tah wagga way sow' ye'h
[Enbridge don't step onto our land]
Noh' yin tah wagga way sow'ye'h
[Don’t step onto our land]

Noh's y'in tah way atsaan tsun
[Our territory is our livelihood]
Ha ya ha haa. Hey ya haaaii (((rattle)))
Ha ya ha haa. Hey ya haaaii (((rattle)))

The Wet'suwet'en position on the pipeline was clear. Over the subsequent hours, 22 Wet'suwet'en witnesses testified to the risks the proposed Enbridge pipeline posed to their territory. The Wet'suwet'en people also recounted the stories of their connection to the land.

Stories are wondrous things. Stories are powerful. Stories tell us where home is. They tell us how we relate to one another. Stories communicate our responsibilities. They tell us who we are and where we belong.

When the Wet'suwet'en people sat before the federally appointed panel reviewing the Enbridge pipeline, they opened their box of stories. Hereditary chiefs and elders, fishers and trappers, grandparents and children, recounted how they learned to use the land. They talked about connection and they talked about responsibility.

Each speaker began by respecting their ancestors, recognizing their forebearers. The Wet'suwet'en are matrilineal people. This means each Wet'suwet'en child belongs to his or her mother's clan. The names of chiefs pass through the generations, following the mother's side. The father clan, however, also provides vital support, and Wet'suwet'en speakers recognized both sides of their lineage.

Marg Dumont thanked her ancestors for giving her the courage to speak. Looking directly at the panel she said, "we ask the creator that you make recommendations based on our stories."

The Wet'suwet'en speakers passionately expressed their connection to their territories. The Wet'suwet'en word for territory is "yintakh." Yintakh excapsulates not only the physical landscape but also fundamental interconnectedness of the ecosystem. For the Wet'suwet'en, their yintakh is not distinct from the people but includes the people. Similarly, the land is part of the people. Destroying the land not only strips the people of resources but also tears at the heart of the Wet'suwet'en people.

The interveners described memories of spending time on the territories: hunting moose, running trap lines, fishing for salmon, harvesting berries and medicinal plants. People remembered how their grandparents and parents, aunts and uncles, taught them about their traditions, how to get food and how to show respect. Speaking in the Wetsuwet'en language, Russell Tiljoe (Likh Dilye) stated, "It is the words of our ancestors that I speak to you today. That is why we say no."

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