First Nations - Land Rights and Environmentalism in British Columbia


Musgamagw Tsawataineuk Tribal Council members in a traditional Kwakwaka'wakw canoe protesting at the Heritage Salmon fish farm in Broughton Archipelago on 10 July 2004, and demonstrating their support for the Greenpeace campaign Keep it Wild - No Fish Farms. Photo: Greenpeace Canada



'Namgis Kwakiutl Quatsino




"Ever since the white people first came to our lands, we have been known as the Kwawkewlths by Indian Affairs or as the Kwakiutl by anthropologists. In fact, we are the Kwakwaka'wakw, people who speak the Kwawala language, but live in different places and have different names for our separate groups. All of us, who are related because we come from that original tribe that split up, are called the 'Wakashan Language Family.' That word is pronounced [Wuh-CASH-shun]" U'mista Cultural Society.

Kwakwaka'wakw Tribes: Order of Rank.
Photo: U'mista Cultural Society


Kwakwaka'wakw Territory. (Click to enlarge)
Map: U'mista Cultural Society

"Each of those related groups speaks a different language now, so they are not Kwakwaka'wakw. All of the Kwakwaka'wakw can understand each other, even though we use some words with a different dialect" U'mista Cultural Society.

"Some of the Kwakwaka'wakw have disappeared, among them the Awa'etlala of Knight Inlet, the Nakamgalisala of Hope Island, the Yaltiaux of Cox and Lanz Islands. A few of the groups died out, while some amalgamated with other groups. Some of the villages have been abandoned for years" U'mista Cultural Society.

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"The Europeans brought iron tools, firearms and other European goods. They also brought diseases, like the measles, influenza, tuberculosis, venereal disease and small pox. To the First Nations people, with no immunity to these European diseases, the consequences were devastating. Two thirds of the population was wiped out within a relatively short period of time. Then in the early 1900's a vast population increase began and continues to increase" U'mista Cultural Society.

For thousands of years, the Kwakwaka'wakw (pronounced "kwa kwa ka wak") people have lived on northern part of Vancouver Island, on the adjacent mainland coast and on the islands between. Compared to the high population density of the metropolitan areas in the south (gold on map, right), the Kwakwaka'wakw homeland has not been invaded to the same extent by European settlers.


Kwakwaka'wakw lands. (Click to enlarge)
BC Government (text added)

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Broughton Archipelago.
Kwakwaka'wakw Territory

  Long stewarded by its original inhabitants, the Northwest Coast is one of the most biologically diverse environments in the world, a natural paradise. The heartland of Kwakwaka'wakw Territory is the spectacular Broughton Archipelago, a rich marine area (left) with the highest fish and wildlife biodiversity on the coast and an essential migrating route for several species of wild salmon.

The incalculable long term ecological and economic value of the Broughton Archipelago is being destroyed by multinational fish farm corporations. Already the cumulative effect of 100 years of colonization and industrial resource extraction has resulted in the severe ecological degradation of southern coastal areas and development pressure is increasing all along the northern BC coast.

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Chief Bob Chamberlin, Oslo, Norway, 30 May 2006.
Photo: Anders Minge

Most of the fish farms operating in Kwakwaka'wakw Territory are located in the Broughton Archipelago (right). This is part of the ancient tribal territories of First Nation members of the Musgamagw Tsawataineuk Tribal Council (MTTC). The MTTC policy of "zero tolerance" toward aquaculture is widely supported: "Fish farms seriously and severely impact Aboriginal Title Lands and Waters. Water is contaminated, poisoning salmon, shellfish and other marine life ... All marine resources, most notably salmon, are already deeply depleted as a result of mismanagement. Fish farms only serve to further endanger salmon stocks which are already fighting for survival. When our salmon, oolichan, shell fish and other marine resources die or are attacked, our Peoples are attacked" Fish Farms (Union of BC Indian Chiefs).


Chief Bob Chamberlin (left) of the Kwicksutaineuk Ah - Kwaw - Ah - Mish (left) travelled to Pan Fish headquarters in Norway in May 2006 to warn the world's largest fish farm corporation: "The way Pan Fish is operating in our territories is putting our traditional food sources in jeopardy. My people rely on salmon for survival, but those wild fish could eventually be wiped out if Pan Fish fails to adopt strict environmental standards. Our governments aren't listening to our concerns, so it is our duty to take these issues directly to the salmon farmers themselves" News Release, 30 May 2006: BC First Nations Travel to Norway.

Fish farm locations. (Click to enlarge)
Map: Living Oceans Society

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Northern Resident Orcas, mid Queen Charlotte Strait.
Photo: Alanna

Kwakwaka'wakw waters are inhabited by 17 pods (extended families) of about 250 killer whales which are grouped into three major clans (related pods). The magnificent endangered sea mammals are known as the Northern Resident Community of Orcas.

The Kwakwaka'wakw are comprised of approximately 30 autonomous groups speaking the Kwakwala language. These include: Da'naxda'xw Awaetlala, Gwa'sala - 'Nakwaxda'xw, Gwawaenuk, K'omoks, Kwakiutl, Kwiakah, Kwicksutaineuk Ah - Kwaw - Ah - Mish, Mamalilikulla Qwe' Qwa' Sot' Em, 'Namgis, Quatsino, Tlatlasikwala, Tlowitsis, Tsawataineuk, Wei Wai Kai, and Wei Wai Kum. Coalition groups include: Musgamagw Tsawataineuk Tribal Council; Hamatla Treaty Society; Kwakiutl District Council; and Winalagalis Treaty Group.


All Kwakwaka'wakw tribes share a geographical and cultural orientation to the sea. Traditional villages, resource sites and burial grounds are located on the water and tribal territories include large bodies of water with complex inherited fishing rights. Kwakwaka'wakw society today is governed by both hereditary chiefs and traditional practices and by elected councillor chiefs.

"Blunden Harbour," Emily Carr, c. 1930.
National Gallery of Canada

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Ubumpa, 'Nakwaxda'xw elder, 1988.
Photo: Adrian Dorst

The Kwakwaka'wakw were world famous long before they gained recognition in Canada. They are one of the most studied indigenous groups in the world, having been the subject of extensive field research beginning in 1886 with German born anthropologist Franz Boas. Regarded as the founder of modern anthropology, Boas dedicated himself to recording the Kwak'wala language, legends and mythology while making systematic collections of Kwakwaka'wakw artifacts, primarily for the Museum of Ethnology in Berlin and for the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Long celebrated as icons of "primitive" art, Kwakwaka'wakw artifacts are on display in museums across the western world. An example is Dzonoqwa (right) a magnificent Gwa'sala - 'Nakwaxda'xw house post carved in red cedar. Bought from a chief at the village of T'akus by an English collector (C. F. Newcombe), it was sold in 1905 for $50. In 1912 Dzonoqwa was exhibited at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, then traded to a New York antique dealer. In 1942, Dzonoqwa was sold to German artist Max Ernst, the founder of Surrealism, who in 1975 donated it to the Musée de l'Homme in Paris where it is today exhibited.

During the 1920s, as "Dzonoqwa" was becoming a precious art object in New York, the Gwa'sala - 'Nakwaxda'xw homeland was alienated by the BC government. Logging companies were given timber licences to desecrate its ancient forests and its people were forcibly amalgamated with the Kwakiutl in Port Hardy. See the book by Alan Fry, the Indian Agent at Port Hardy: How a People Die (1970).

A vast ethnographic literature exists on Kwakwaka'wakw art, language, social organization, religion and mythology including: George Dawson, Customs and Arts of the Kwakiool (1887); Franz Boas, The Social Organization and the Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl Indians (1896); Franz Boas and George Hunt, Kwakiutl Texts (1905); Kwakiutl Texts II (1906); The Kwakiutl of Vancouver Island (1909); Ethnology of the Kwakiutl (1921); Geographical Names of the Kwakiutl Indians (1934); and Edward S. Curtis, The Kwakiutl (1914) in The North American Indian (1907 - 1930).

See also: Helen Codere, ed. Kwakiutl Ethnography (1966); A. Hawthorn, Kwakiutl Art (1979); Aldona Jonaitis, ed. Chiefly Feasts: The Enduring Kwakiutl Potlatch (1991); Robert Galois, Kwakwaka'wakw Settlements 1775-1920 (1994); George Stocking, ed. Volksgeist as Method and Ethic: Essays on Boasian Ethnography and the German Anthropological Tradition (1996); S. B. Nielsen, Civilizing Kwakiutl (2001, dissertation); Ira Jacknis, The Storage Box of Tradition: Kwakiutl Art, Anthropologists, and Museums (2002); Martine J. Reid and Daisy Sewid - Smith, Paddling to Where I Stand (2004); Lucy Bell, Reclaiming Mamalilikila Lands (2004). Bibliographies: Wakashan Linguistics (Washington Univ.); and Kwakwala Language (Yinka Dene Language Institute).


Ba'as (Blunden Harbour) is a "Place of Origin" for the Gwa'sala - 'Nakwaxda'xw. Using a photo of Ba'as taken in 1901, the artist Emily Carr portrayed the village in a painting (above) that has became an icon of Canadian art. See the National Gallery exhibition: Emily Carr.

Ubumpa (1900-2003), also known as Catharine Adams, was a remarkable 'Nakwaxda'xw noblewoman from Ba'as. Ubumpa (left) was a fluent speaker of the 'Nakwala dialect of the Kwakwala language. Her loss at 103 years old was a great tragedy given the close to extinct status of Kwakwala.

The current National Gallery exhibit is in contrast to the action of the Canadian government in 1964 when it forcibly relocated the 'Nakwaxda'xw and Gwa'sala from Ba'as (Blunden Harbour) and T'akus (a Gwa'sala winter village at Takush Harbour in Smith Inlet). RCMP officers removed the people and took them to Port Hardy where they were housed under appalling conditions without health or education facilities on the Tsulquate Indian Reserve in Kwakiutl Territory. T'akus was destroyed to prevent their return. Today the Gwa'sala - 'Nakwaxda'xw are suing Canada over this shameful abuse of Aboriginal Title and Rights.

"Dzonoqwa," Musée de l'Homme, Paris.
Photo: Joseph Jastrow

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"Rounding into Port - Qagyhl." (Click to enlarge)
Edward Curtis, Plate 352, The Kwakiutl, 1914.

The Kwakiutl (1914) is the largest volume of the 20 volume work The North American Indian by Edward Curtis. It contains some 100 photos and descriptions of the Kwakwaka'wakw. Scenes of fantastic sailing canoes demonstrate the close relationship between the Kwakwaka'wakw peoples and the sea (above). The traditional sea going canoes were carved from massive ancient cedar trees and had sheets of cedar bark matting for sails.

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"Indian Village at Salmon River," 1881. (Click to enlarge)
Photo: BC Archives (E. Dossetter)

From a pre contact population estimated to be 19,000, the Kwakwaka'wakw were reduced primarily by waves of epidemics to about 1,000 by 1921. As the Kwakwaka'wakw became increasingly a minority in their own territories, their lands and waters were alienated by the government and private companies. Settlers moved into the Salmon River territory of the Lekwiltok in the 1890s and named their community "Sayward" in 1911 after an American lumberman who had made a fortune on Vancouver Island.


With the opening up of Kwakwaka'wakw territories to settlement, many traditional villages were abandoned. The Lekwiltok village of Xwasam was located at the mouth of Salmon River (left and below). At the 1881 census there were eight cedar houses and 17 families here. In 1886 the government allotted Salmon River Indian Reserve #1. In about 1918 Xwasam was abandoned. During this period, the number of whites in Kwakwaka'wakw territories exploded from 41 in 1881 to about 5,000 in 1921.

"Graves in the Indian Village at Salmon River," 1881.
Photo: BC Archives (E. Dossetter)

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Ancient forests were stewarded by the Kwakwaka'wakw; the largest cedar trees provided planks for dwellings and logs for dugout canoes. The cedars were harvested and felled by traditional methods. The extermination of these trees by the logging industry has resulted in a loss of traditional carving skills needed for making the massive sculptural figures (right) and canoes (below).

Kelsey Bay, canoe at Salmon River, June 1911.
Photo: BC Archives

The Salmon River watershed was deforested primarily by the Salmon River Logging Company. To sort and transport the logs, a depot was built in Kelsey Bay (right) at the mouth of Salmon River where it destroyed valuable estuary habitat.


Kelsey Bay, Village at Salmon River, June 1911.
Photo: BC Archives

Salmon River Logging Co., Kelsey Bay, 1976.
Photo: BC Archives

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Brenda Assu and Vernon Price, Cape Mudge, 2004.
Photo: Quadra Island Tourism

The Assu Family was renowned for its lavish potlatches, held at its magnificent house at T'sakwa'lutan (Cape Mudge). When Chief Billy Assu (1867 - 1965) held his great potlatch ceremony of 1911, he gave away 17 canoes carved from red cedar, seven of them over 60 ft long. In 1912, Chief Assu (right) was the first in his community to own a gas powered fishing boat. He and his son Chief Harry Assu (1905 - 1999) were life long seiners, greatly respected for their fishing skills and for their devotion to aboriginal rights.

The economic growth of BC's commercial salmon fishery depended on outlawing traditional catching methods and removing indigenous control over the salmon rivers. Colonial entrepreneurs dispossessed First Nations and destroyed their fisheries by clearcut logging the primaeval forests and by building sawmills and canneries at the mouths of rivers. Aquaculture is the latest form of resource exploitation and continues the colonial cycle of industrial degradation. Chief Harry Assu was one of the first to reject farmed salmon, having witnessed the effects of logging during his lifetime: "There used to be a lot of fish. It is the logging that has ruined the fishing ... everybody realizes that fishing has been sacrificed for logging in BC" Harry Assu & Joy Inglis, Assu of Cape Mudge (1989).


Brenda Assu and carver Vernon Price (left) are members of the Wei Wai Kai Tribe of the Lekwiltok Kwakwaka'wakw. Clearcut logging has been so extreme that few ancient cedar trees have survived and today it is difficult for carvers to find large enough specimens for traditional canoes.

Chief Billy Assu, c. 1915.
Campbell River Museum (H. Twiddle)

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Salmon ceremony, Cape Mudge.
Photo: Kwakiulth Museum


Each year when the first salmon runs begin, usually in June, the Wei Wai Kai hold a ceremony at Cape Mudge (left): "The ceremony is held to thank the salmon, as members of the Animal Kingdom, for allowing themselves to be killed in order to provide food for humans ...   The salmon's head, bones, and entrails are separated from the flesh and wrapped in a cedar mat or bow ...   The salmon remains are then put into the water so that the salmon can return home to its people and tell them how well it was treated. Because the salmon's remains were placed back in the water, the salmon will come back to life and return again the next year" Kwakiulth Museum, Cape Mudge.

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Already by 1924 about 60 logging companies - many with their own railways - were clearcutting entire watersheds in Kwakwaka'wakw Territory. Salmon spawning rivers were further despoiled by dams, power generators and heavy metal pollution from the mining and forest industries.

In 1958 the John Hart Dam was built five miles up from the mouth of the Campbell River to supply cheap energy for Elk Falls Pulp and Paper Mill (right). This mill was the "coup de grace" of one of the world's greatest salmon rivers, with amazing runs of cutthroat, chinook and steelhead that were made famous by fly fisher and writer Roderick Haig Brown.

Diseased wild salmon, Broughton Archipelago.
Photo: Living Oceans Society


Elk Falls Pulp and Paper Mill, 2007.
Photo: Karen Wonders

Elk Falls Pulp and Paper Mill, owned by Catalyst Paper, is located across the water from the Wei Wai Kai band at Cape Mudge. In 2005 the band sued the BC government over pollution from the pulp mill, a case described in the Tyee Magazine: Coal Smoke Adds to Band's Cancer Alarm. On the health risks, see: Why Does Pulp Pollution Matter? (Reach for the Unbleached). Kwakwaka'wakw waters are also being polluted by wastes from industrial fish farms and the precious wild salmon stocks of the Broughton Archipelago have been found to carry lice and diseases (left) spread from farmed Atlantic salmon in open net cages.

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Aquaculture was introduced in the 1970s when salmon stocks collapsed after decades of fisheries mismanagement by Euro Canadians. In the rush for short term profit, no heed is given to warnings that farmed Atlantic salmon will exterminate native salmon stocks by colonization, predation, habitat destruction and disease. First Nations observers were invited by Musgamagw Tsawataineuk Tribal Council to tour the Broughton Archipelago and see the problem for themselves (right). A 2006 study confirms the impact of sea lice infections on wild salmon: "The study shows that fish farms are changing the way wild salmon get infected with parasites. As a result, up to 95 per cent of wild juvenile pink and chum salmon are dying from sea lice infections in coastal BC" M. Wonham and M. Krkosek; Epizootics of Wild Fish (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

The environmental problems associated with fish farms are well known by their predominantly European owners: Norwegian Aquaculture (2003). The genetic diversity of the wild salmon species in BC is without equal in the world. Destroying this precious biodiversity is a crime not only against Nature but against the First Nations peoples who have stewarded the salmon throughout the ages. See the conservation report: First Nations, Salmon Fisheries.


Aboriginal observer, Broughton, 2004.
Photo: Union of BC Indian Chiefs

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MTTC protest, Vancouver, 27 January 2005.
Photo: Joe Foy


Sea lice on wild salmon, Broughton Archipelago.
Photo: Andrea Morton


The ongoing conflicts with commercial fishing and canning industries led the Kwakwaka'wakw to found their own branch of the Native Brotherhood of BC in 1931. To further represent their interests, the Kwakwaka'wakw founded the Pacific Coast Native Fishermen's Association which merged with the Brotherhood in 1943 to become one of the most powerful First Nations advocacy organizations. Aboriginal fishing issues today are addressed by the First Nations Strategic Alliance on Aquaculture (FNSAA). On 11 July 2006 members signed a resolution (right) "to collaborate on legal, political and cultural strategies to protect traditional territories from further degradation and risk from open net cage fin fish farms." Chief Eric Joseph is signing the resolution and standing (from left) are: Chief Darren Blaney, Chief Bill Cranmer and Chief Bob Chamberlin.


FNSAA founding chiefs, 11 July 2006.
Photo: FNSAA

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Kwakwaka'wakw tribes, c. 1850. (Click to enlarge)
R. Galois (text added)


Many of the existing Kwakwaka'wakw "Places of Origin" or winter villages are the same as those recorded over a hundred and fifty years earlier. A map (left) shows the territories and winter villages of five tribes in 1850: 'Namgis (Xwalkw, Nm11); Kwakiutl (Tsaxis, Kw23); Quatsino (Xwatis, Ks4); Kwicksutaineuk (Gwa'yasdams, Kx9); and Tsawataineuk (Gwa'yi, Tw12).

Land right issues in Kwakwaka'wakw territories are complex and cannot be separated from traditional fishery and resource procurement sites: "For the Kwakwaka'wakw, thinking about land involves knowing what group or family claims and has the right to use it, knowing its resources, and, finally, knowing how to use those resources" Robert Galois, Kwakwaka'wakw Settlements.

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