by Daniel Kirkpatrick
Florence James smiled and said the word again, a little more slowly: “Shle’muxun.” The fifty or so people in the audience quietly rolled the sound across their tongues, trying it out. A helper took a marker and wrote out the word on butcher paper, checked the spelling with Florence, and posted the sheet on the wall. Shle’muxun. This term, from the Hu’l’qumi’num language that Florence has spoken from childhood and now teaches, means “guardian of the land,” or “stewardship.”
Sharing this word was a highlight of “Reconnecting,” a four-hour event held in June 2017 on Galiano Island in the Salish Sea Bioregion—a region that spans the Canada–U.S. boundary and includes many islands and coastlines on the edge of the Pacific Ocean. Florence is an Elder of the Penelakut Nation on nearby Penelakut Island, where her people seek to live by the premise of shle’muxen. “Reconnecting” participants, diverse in age and politics, had traveled from several other islands and mainland British Columbia and Washington State to explore the concept of stewardship and what it means to them.
The perspective that Florence brought helped enrich participants’ discussions about caring for nature, ensuring that honoring the original stewards of the land was part of the puzzle. She highlighted the critical importance of watching, listening, and learning from one’s surroundings. Being carefully attentive to place can allow one to live in a way that does not take more from Nature than what regenerates.
The Salish Sea is a verdant region, reaching from mountaintops to the sea and encompassing many protected islands along the western flank of North America. Within the Salish Sea, dozens of First Nations and Native American Nations reside. Yet the dysfunction of contemporary Western society and its vast impacts lie heavily, like a synthetic blanket, upon the ecosystems and Native cultures of this region. Like so many other parts of our planet, the ecosystem has suffered dramatic increases in population density, industrialization, unsustainable resource extraction, and habitat loss.
Yet the blanket of dominance is wearing thin, yielding openings where light passes through the prevailing economic and social systems to reveal examples of ecological harmony and Indigenous autonomy. In these places we find inspiration for the pursuit of pathways toward a resonant and healthy eco-cultural future.
The blanket of dominance is wearing thin, yielding openings where light passes through the prevailing economic and social systems to reveal examples of ecological harmony and Indigenous autonomy.
The Salish Sea is in some ways an ideal place to build a model society of resilience, harmony, and wisdom. The government of British Columbia, which overlays part of this region, has one of the broadest and most comprehensive carbon tax systems on earth, which—to the extent it is effectively implemented—is a major achievement. The head of Canada’s Green Party is an elected member of parliament from this district. The region also contains the locality with the highest concentration of electric cars per capita in Canada. Further, there is a small but growing number of meaningful agreements between settler groups and First Nations about the protection of sacred sites and recognition of Indigenous land rights in the province.
In the portion of the Salish Sea flying the U.S. flag, Washington State also has a strong environmental legacy. This legacy includes mandatory kindergarten to Grade 12 environmental education, a robust set of policies guiding the protection of water quality, and a growing collection of leading-edge green industries. The historic Boldt decision regarding fishing rights in Washington State waters was a court decree that, after years of struggle, marked a substantial shift toward honoring Native fishing rights.
First Nations and Native American Nations hold on to their own autonomy on both sides of the international boundary. These groups have cared for the land and the water for millennia. Their work has not been easy; their lands have been appropriated and their autonomy repeatedly challenged. Yet each Nation has in its own way survived, and many have become leading advocates for the shift to good stewardship practices, including habitat preservation, renewable energy, and protection of cultural heritage.
First Nations and Native American Nations have cared for the land and the water for millennia.
Given this chromatically and politically green region, one might assume that its denizens have achieved a minimal ecological footprint and assured its sustainability. This is hardly the case. Industrialization and capitalism are very strong forces here, with immense momentum and entrenched power. Moreover, there is a wide chasm between belief and practice on the part of green citizens.
It takes more than a Greenpeace bumper sticker to transform one’s relationship with the ecosystem, and attending occasional public meetings does not ensure the restoration of Indigenous rights. Part of the problem for the dominant, settler population is epistemological, rooted in the way meaning is determined.
Time is always of the essence to European cultures. Contracts have deadlines, obligations are backed up by penalties if work is not done on time, and the idiom “time is money” reflects the bond between capitalist economies and the passage of time. This is an operant worldview in which things are manipulated to achieve results, typically for financial gain. Such an orientation does not place value on taking time to listen to and learn from the ecosystem. Instead, things must be done. Forests cleared, crops planted, structures built, products produced. One may lose ownership of one’s land by failing to pay tax bills on time.
Indigenous Peoples, in contrast, value place above all else. The land is alive. And for those living on the land, the close relationship between humans, nature, and survival underscores the value of attending to the nuances of the ecosystem. This attention cannot be rushed. It is a worldview of attentive presence, following natural cycles rather than imposing arbitrary schedules upon the work of living. When a place is threatened by development, as places so often are, the issue for Aboriginal people is not simply one of real estate. It is an issue of identity.
When a place is threatened by development, the issue for Aboriginal people is not simply one of real estate. It is an issue of identity.
Thus, in land-use decisions, the would-be developer of the land and the one who lives close to the land speak about different things, with different meanings, even when discussing the same project at the same location. Such communication and decisional processes are asymmetrical and come with built-in misunderstandings.
Such an asymmetry is not immutable, and the door to a place-based consciousness is not closed to settlers. Yet such awareness cannot be bought nor obtained quickly. Sit quietly. Do so regularly. Observe. Spend time watching the seasons and the cycles of plant growth and the migration of animals to slowly build the experiential foundation needed to truly understand your place. The patterns of the living world gradually emerge into discernible form for the denizen who applies consistent attention. Then, those patterns can be grounded in a cultural context through a similar discipline of learning the human history, the original names for natural features, and the stories that define the place.
It is fortunate that decision-making around land use and development is increasingly influenced by an Aboriginal perspective. In Washington State, the construction of a vast new coal-shipping terminal was abandoned in 2017 when the Lummi Nation asserted tribal fishing rights in the adjacent waters. That fishery would have been irreversibly damaged if the coal port had been built. Such decisions demonstrate that while traditional peoples may be in a familiar position—advocating for the natural world—they may be doing so with a new level of political empowerment.
Another hopeful example of Native influence is a joint study of clam garden aquaculture around the islands of the Salish Sea. This project brings together scientists from Parks Canada with coastal First Nations Elders to investigate the historical practice of building clam gardens. At these sites, rocky berms were placed in intertidal waters to enhance habitat for key food species such as clams and mussels. The recognition of this traditional practice is “new” to modern science. Most vividly, the linkage between practitioners of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) and modern scientists reflects a new opportunity to better understand this unique practice.
A theatrical production called Sxw?amet, or “Home,” marks a further bright spot in the development of an eco-cultural consciousness in the Salish Sea. Developed by a collection of Indigenous and settler playwrights and performers, this production by the Theatre for Living incorporates audience participation to explore barriers to reconciliation and enrich participants’ cross-cultural awareness. Sxw?amet was performed recently in Vancouver and is slated to be on tour throughout the region in 2018. Each performance is different, yet they all trace the complicated relationship between settlers and First Nations people, and they bring to life the path toward reconciliation for those in attendance. Through participatory arts, the Theatre for Living is playing an important role in facilitating the relational work needed for a new era of understanding.
Back at the “Reconnecting” event, the lead presenter sharing the stage with Florence James was Robert Butler, an ornithologist and filmmaker who advocates moving toward a Nature Culture.* As an ornithologist, Rob has spent significant time observing the cycles of nature, giving him a rich sense of place in the region. The Nature Culture initiative offers a path to link contemporary living with a reverence for Nature and to bring sustainability within reach. Such acts as taking walks in the woods for exercise, rather than driving to the gym, foster both individual health and an affirmation of nature. Eating more local and seasonal foods can strengthen local ecologies and economies while stemming the flow of semi-trucks carrying food from distant factory farms. Cultivating community gardens can bring us closer to both our neighbors and to the earth.
*[Ed.] See Rob Butler’s “Sustain, Benefit, Celebrate: Embedding Nature in Our Culture.”
Small group discussions followed the keynote speakers. Several dialogues had to do with land use: how can landowners care for their homes, farms, and woodlots in a way that ensures sustainability, while honoring Aboriginal traditions? The event was hosted by the Salish Sea Stewardship Alliance (SSSA), a nascent group aiming to help heal discordant and dysfunctional elements of the relationship between people and place. This group works from the recognition that, while time defines life for those of European heritage, place defines life for Native peoples. Making the shift to sustainability may require a shift from the primacy of time to the primacy of place.
Progressive and environmentally oriented people are drawn to live in harmony with the nature around them. Gardening, enhancing habitat, removing invasive species, and focusing on native vegetation are examples of healthy approaches to caring for one’s land. But what would a deeper connection with the land entail? SSSA is developing tools for landowners to better understand and honor First Nations rights, become more educated about fostering ecological health, and obtain stewardship certification for their land.
A variety of accreditation programs already exist for land and buildings. The most widely known example is LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, but many others exist, including the more comprehensive certification provided by The Living Building Challenge. What SSSA seeks, beyond a green seal of approval, is a demonstrated commitment to respecting eco-cultural in addition to ecological factors.
A landowner might agree to use native species in a habitat restoration project. She might mitigate rainwater runoff by ensuring that hard surfaces be porous. And she might go further by ceding certain rights, like that of harvesting medicinal plants, to local Aboriginal groups. Eventually that landowner might take part in an eco-cultural inventory that would feed into a region-wide species distribution and human heritage database. Together, such strategies form a pragmatic land-based stewardship model.
One does not have to tear up one’s land title to honor an eco-cultural perspective. A significant step in the right direction would be the adoption—or restoration—of Indigenous place names. Since those names, instead of featuring conquerors and exploiters, bring forth the living fabric of a place, embracing them is a vital way to restore a consciousness of place. Bringing terms from Indigenous languages into regular use also offers a chance to better understand a Native worldview and perhaps reduce the asymmetry of cultures. Ultimately, each denizen of the region must take steps to re-inhabit her or his place by investing attention in that place, growing in relation to that place, and gradually making place paramount.
Meaningful engagement and a deeper awareness of place can be the ground for a community of landowners and allies committed to tracking biodiversity, fostering cultural reconciliation, and supporting new, sustainable economies.
The Salish Sea Bioregion has a high percentage of ecologically minded people who—despite continued excessive consumption, reliance on fossil fuels, and general ignorance of Indigenous cultures—are beginning to wake up. Meaningful engagement and a deeper awareness of place can be the ground for a community of landowners and allies committed to tracking biodiversity, fostering cultural reconciliation, and supporting new, sustainable economies.
Shle’muxun is an attainable and necessary goal. As a network of attentive stewards takes shape, the door opens to a powerful new era in this bioregion, which ultimately may become a model for other bioregions around the globe.
Daniel Kirkpatrick resides part-time in Bellingham, United States, near his gardens and part-time in the Canadian Gulf Islands near an expanse of wild nature. Daniel has spent 40 years fostering learning focused on nature studies, human relations, martial arts, and global issues. He also loves writing, drawing, playing music, and carving wood.
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Butler, R. (2017). Nature Culture Blog. Retrieved from http://www.pacificwildlife.wordpress.com
Sellars, B. (2016). Price Paid: The Fight for First Nations Survival. Vancouver, BC: Talonbooks Press.
Thornton, T. F. (2008). Being and Place Among the Tlingit. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.