Last week I drove to Snuneymuxw (Nanaimo) where I was invited to visit with a group of Elders who attend a weekly literacy circle. On the drive over the Malahat countless truckers zipped past me carrying giant old growth cedar severed in quarters and numbered in red spray paint. I had to resist the urge to honk each time they barreled past me, driving in the way a bully pushes an innocent kid into a locker in the hallway at school.
Thankful to have arrived safely, I helped pour the tea for the group of women and shared my memoir. My book Northern Wildflower is in honour of my grandmother who is from a long line of northern matriarchs who were well equipped to live a life of hard work on the land. I carry the memory of my grandmother with me wherever I go, sharing her teachings and experiences of her life in the North to keep her spirit alive. In turn, the Elders shared their own experiences of residential school, grandmothering, and witnessing the changing landscape. Most of the women were brought up on reserve and lived completely off the land without running water or electricity. Like my grandmother, they lived hard lives and witnessed changes in the natural environment including major developments that wiped out the pristine countryside they continue to call home. Despite this, they have managed to exercise their Aboriginal rights and keep their Indigenous knowledge of traditional medicines, hunting, and gathering intact.
Our discussions on sacred plants for healing reminded me of a teaching my partner’s grandmother shared with him when he was very young. His grandmother, a Sparrow from xʷməθkʷəy̓əm Nation, told him that dandelions are powerful medicine. When settlers moved onto their lands they sowed grass, put down pesticides, and plucked dandelions as they were considered weeds. Now powerful curing agents like dandelion can only be found in the cracks in sidewalks in cities, next to irrigated and maintained golf courses, fields, and parks.
William Gagnon, a friend and engineer in the North who is urgently trying to find solutions to climate change through carbon sequestration, told me recently that women do more when it comes to tackling climate change. While there is not much research on his theory, it has merit. It could be that women tend to be nurturing and compassionate; we are the life givers, the gatherers, the menders, and the caregivers, whereas men are seen as the providers and protectors in their immediate family and the community. Yet one of the Elders in the circle shared she had been a hunter her whole life, breaking the learned stereotype that women are weak and incapable. She taught her children and grandchildren how to shoot, skin, and prepare deer, setting them up to be providers for their own families.
Women, the Elders taught me, were always the matriarchs in the community, their wisdom sought out. Yet the Elders say that the deep respect and high regard for women once celebrated in community has since been lost due to the impacts of colonization. The Elders explained they are often unable to provide input on major decisions in their own territories, silenced by their own leaders while they try to find and use their voices for change.
Through the colonially imposed voting system, men are frequently elected as leaders. The Indian Act has minimized women’s role in the community. Bob Joseph explains that women were denied Indian Status from 1859 to 1985 in his book 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act. “Prior to European contact, and the ensuing fundamental disruption to the traditional lifestyle of Indigenous communities, women were central to the family. They were revered in the communities that identified as matriarchal societies, had roles within community government and spiritual ceremonies, and were generally respected for the sacred gifts bestowed upon them by the Creator.” This disconnect has directly played into the need for a Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls inquiry, stemming from the dispossessing of women from their own homelands.
Today, more women are being elected to leadership and making important decisions on behalf of their communities. Often, they opt not to put money before the health of the land, animals, and community. Women like Chepximiya Siyam’ Chief Janice George from Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw Nation who is a powerful storyteller have been elected. Her moving talk The Spirit Moves Like a Storm honours her ancestors and brings forth their teachings, as she explains how she keeps her traditional art and culture of Salish weaving alive. Gladys is Norwegian, retired Grand Chief in the Dehcho Region of the Northwest Territories, says she will always be a guardian of the land. Gladys is committed to educating on climate change after having witnessed the devastating impact of climate change in the North as her home flooded this past summer in a flash flood.
Programs like the new Sistering Indigenous Knowledge and Western Science (SINEWS) program highlights the work being done to support Indigenous women in their efforts to increase representation and participation of Indigenous women in science-related disciplines. Programs like ŚW̱,ȻENEṈITEL Indigenous Food Systems Initiative support women like Shiloh Underwood of Stz’uminus and W̱SÁNEĆ territories and Kati George-Jim of T’suk and W̱SÁNEĆ territories to carry teachings about the relationship cycles of the ecosystem as passed onto them by the women in their family lines. Together they work to deliver grant-funded programs aimed to create food or medicine gardens, provide nutritional education, remove invasive species, provide traditional foods for entire communities, restore the land, and remove the stigma imposed by colonialism around women in leadership.
Women of all ages and backgrounds can make a big difference by speaking out, whether as leaders or peaceful defenders. My good friend and Indigenous ally Marion Cumming, an Elder in her own right, dedicates her time towards saving the old growth at Fairy Creek. She recently emailed Premier John Horgan, the Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, and the Minister of Land, Water and Resource Stewardship, about the need to better spend conservation funds. In her email, she expresses gratitude over the $185 million for old growth in the recently released BC budget while stating it leaves gaps including funding to compensate logging companies with active permits, and for Indigenous Guardian programs protecting old growth in their cultural context. Funding this would mean we would no longer watch the living legends on the backs of trucks being hauled off to lumber mills.
Reading Suzanne Simard’s Finding the Mother Tree made me realize that trees have a feminine and masculine quality about them. Trees nurture other life forces connected to them through their roots and have providence in providing oxygen for humans to live. In her efforts to save the forest, Simard was both a destroyer and saver of trees. In speaking about non-traditional occupations, Simard explains how she was often one of the only women working in the field. In her early career, she was tasked with using poisonous herbicides that damaged the forest floor. When she witnessed the devastation they caused, she began to do all she could to protect the forest. “I was heartbroken by the relentless harvesting, and it was my responsibility to stand up. To act against government policies that I felt weakened the tree-soil links. The land. Our connection to the forest.” Being a woman did not stop her from learning about trees so she could successfully educate others.
My eyes were opened last summer when I went to Fairy Creek with my partner and two of our kids. When we arrived, we were surprised to see an entire community behind a barricade. A coffee hut, community garden, and repelling rope to the river below had been constructed. People planned to stay as long as it would take to stop the logging. We left as we did not want to be arrested with our kids in tow, though we were witnesses to others laying down their lives for the trees. In some small way we hoped that by being there, we were able to show our support.
During this time of many fires, it is difficult to know where to turn, who to trust, and how to feel like we are making a difference in the fight for a healthy planet. We can get bogged down by climate anxiety. One of the important lessons I learned from the Elders circle last week was to try and remain happy. It was the women in the literacy group who reminded me that it is possible to find happiness no matter what we are up against. Despite the many hardships they endured in their lives, they remained loving and caring, laughing and joking with one another. The act of being happy is one of the Dene laws, “Be happy at all times. The Creator has given you a great gift – Mother Earth, take care of her and she will always give you food and shelter.”
Driving home over the Malahat in the torrential rains after visiting with the Elders, I feared the showers might wash the roads out again like they had when southern BC was at the mercy of atmospheric rivers. I drove cautiously but did not worry as the women reminded me that I carried a quiet strength that would help me make my way home through the storm in time to make dinner for my family.
Across my heart I wore a parting gift from one of the Elders, a hand-woven cedar heart brooch that I now wear in honour of the trees. The cedar is calling for all of us to open our hearts to practicing gentleness and strength, expressing the feminine and masculine sides of our identities to conquer the climate crisis. Let’s not let our narrow views of one another get in the way.
Attend an upcoming event with Katłįà Lafferty.
Read Green with our Climate Writer in Residence: Indigenomics by Carol Anne Hilton
Wednesday, March 30, 6:30 – 7:30 p.m.
Discuss Carol Anne Hilton’s Indigenomics with Katłįà Lafferty.
Monique Gray Smith in Conversation with Katłįà Lafferty
Saturday, April 2, 11 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.
Join award-winning author Monique Gray Smith and our Climate Writer in Residence Katłįà (Catherine) Lafferty for an exciting discussion of Monique’s wildly anticipated Young Adult adaptation of the book Braiding Sweetgrass.
Indigenous Perspectives on the Climate Crisis
Saturday, April 9, 2 – 3:30 p.m.
Join Climate Writer in Residence Katłįà Lafferty and Indigenous climate advocates Xwechtaal Dennis Joseph, Brandi Morin, Panikpak Letitia Pokiak, and Dr. Nicole Redvers to learn how Indigenous Peoples are leading the fight against the climate crisis.