The West was Never Won
by Dan Lewis
Canoes were traditionally the main form of transportation on the West Coast. Any place that looks like a good place to land, get water or camp, is most likely a Native site. Often you can find signs of cultural use, such as canoe runs, fish weirs, and middens.
Wilderness is a European concept. North America was wild, (in the sense of intact, flourishing, self-propagating), before we immigrants arrived, but it was not wilderness (in the sense of a place where humans are visitors who do not remain). As Gary Snyder writes in The Practice of the Wild, "The fact is, people were everywhere. When the Spanish foot soldier Alvar Nez Cabeza de Vaca and his two companions were wrecked on the beach of what is now Galveston, and walked back into Mexico between 1528 and 1536, there were few times in the whole eight years that they were not staying at a native settlement or camp. They were always on trails."
It took me many years to start to understand the difference between wild and wilderness. Paddling in Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve here in BC was a good start. The Haida run a program with Parks Canada in which 'Haida Watchmen' spend their summers at traditional village sites, to greet visitors and to share Haida culture with them. It is a great way to visit with the elders on the land, and did much to change my concept of wilderness from being a place without people, to a place where people are part of the land.
I think the big breakthrough for me came just a couple of years ago, right here in Clayoquot Sound. Bonny and I had volunteered to do some kayak instruction at Hesquiaht Rediscovery, a summer camp for Native and non-Native youth. After our 2-day stint, we found ourselves unable to leave. Camping in the wilderness with local Natives whose ancestors had resided on that beach for thousands of years was a completely different experience than visiting a similar beach were the people have long since been moved to a central reservation. While in the past I'd experienced wilderness, suddenly I found myself camping with people who knew the traditional name not only of the beach we were on, but all the other beaches in the area, and also of the natural inhabitants such as bear, cougar and wolf.
Kayakers seek solitude and beauty in wilderness settings. Yet the beautiful beaches we want to land on and explore, are only available as our private recreation playgrounds because Native people have been removed. The feeling we sometimes get, that we are the first people ever to set foot on a pristine beach, is a direct result of colonisation.
Some people say we cannot be responsible for things that happened hundreds of years ago. Yet we continue to reap the benefits of colonisation today. I can travel through the traditional territories of various First Nations, without having to request permission, without having to acknowledge protocol, without having to pay any tribute.
Here in Clayoquot Sound, Native leaders speak frequently of respect, and protocol. One way of showing respect is to take the time to learn which First Nation's territory you are heading into when planning a kayak trip. Good guidebooks, such as Kayak Routes of the Pacific Northwest will contain this information. You can then contact the Band office by mail, to let them know you would like to visit their territories. When you arrive, you can drop by in person to let them know of your plans. If there are certain sites they would prefer you not visit, better to find out in advance, so you can change your plans.
Another way to show respect is to understand the designation of 'Indian Reserve'. You need to be able to read them on a chart - look for the letters 'IR' inside the reserve boundaries, which are shown by a dashed line and/or the shoreline.
Many people think that Indian Reserves in Canada belong to First Nations - they do not. Indian Reserve lands are owned by the federal government, and held in trust for First Nations. Non-native people are not allowed to go on Reserve lands without permission. This is the least we can do to show respect. As a Native friend of mine once told me, from his point of view, all the lands belong to his people, yet they have been taken away by newcomers, and stripped bare by clearcut logging. Indian Reserves are the one place he can expect to go, and not find white people, constantly reminding him that his lands have been a taken away. For him, it adds insult to injury to go to a Reserve, and find non-Native people there without permission.
I used to be interested in the history of names on the BC coast. While researching, I realised that I was learning more about British naval history than the places on the coast. Many locations are named after early explorers, traders, missionaries, and other folks who did much to oppress Native peoples.
Lavina White, an elder of the Haida Nation once told my partner Bonny to not use the names of the colonialists, but to use the traditional names, the names of power, names rooted in place.
We found a report which describes place names in Clayoquot Sound. The people are so intimate with the land! The names describe the place to get a drink of water without getting out of the canoe (how convenient!), the place to get urchins, the sandy beach sheltered from southeast gales.
Kayakers are beginning to re-develop this kind of knowledge. Stories are passed around campfires the evening before a crossing, marked on charts, shared at club meetings, or on living room floors while planning trips.
But let us not be fooled to think that we are unique in having this sort of knowledge. That Native girl at the fuel dock, probably knows more about her area than we will ever know, even if she takes it so much for granted that she has no sense of holding special knowledge.
We can't turn back the clock. It's easy to say that it all happened long ago, and that it's not our responsibility to bear the guilt. Yet we can take steps to become aware of our history, to understand what has been done to Native people by our governments, and to begin to rectify the situation by showing respect for First Nations and supporting their calls for justice.
First published in WaveLength Magazine, Feb/Mar 2000.