by Jarrah Hodge
“When the Witness project came, it made my heart wake up. To be able to take care of the spirit of the land, we have to take care of the spirit within so that we can venture and bring it out into the world. To care for the feelings, care for the spirit: spirit of the trees; spirit of the animal; spirit of the water; spirit of the unknown creatures in our forest.” – Eugene Harry/Haykwílem, quoted in Picturing Transformation.
Between 1997 and 2007 the Utsám Witness project engaged 10,000 people in witnessing and ultimately, peacefully protecting a 50,000-hectare area of the Squamish Nation from logging. It started from a fortuitous collaboration between Squamish hereditary Chief Bill Williams, telálsemkin siyám, award-winning photographer Nancy Bleck, and the late mountaineer John Clarke. Clarke and Bleck had realized that protecting the area would require leadership from First Nations, and Williams realized the benefit of reconnecting people to the land – even people outside the Squamish Nation – to build a sense of collective responsibility.
According to the Squamish Nation Assertion of Aboriginal Title, “Being called to ‘witness’ in the Coast Salish tradition is a sacred honour.” “Witnesses” are meant to listen and watch and take the message back to their home communities. They also bear responsibility to recount the events if, at any time in their lives, there is concern over what took place.
The new book Picturing Transformation, Nexw-áyantsut helps those of us who were not involved in the original project nonetheless share in it, and Bleck’s photographs of the land, the water, the logging, and the people, are the most significant part of that. I found I couldn’t help feeling drawn in , spoken to, and asked to share in the responsibility to repair our broken relationships with land and First Nations communities.
In between the photos we get to know more about the land and a range of people who were leaders in the project. Chief Bill Williams and Katherine Dodds co-wrote the text. Dodds is a longtime Utsám Witness project contributor and also founder of Hello Cool World. I did an email interview with her after reading the book. She said Nancy Bleck had been thinking about a book since 2007 and Dodds was eager to give Bleck’s work the context it deserved and continue their collaboration:
“I wanted to be able to showcase how the project came to be so effective, as a true grassroots coming together of people, from very different walks of life in many cases. In an exciting and creative way of conflict resolution. Because those were the days of much conflict in the ‘war in the woods’…Nancy and I shared a feminist perspective, we wanted to get away from the old boys club way of doing things,” Dodds explained.
“So much more could have been written than we had room for. What happened quietly, powerfully at the time needs to be understood in the context of what was at stake. For Nancy and John this was another endangered area they had concern about. For Chief Bill it was home…What he did, in opening up ceremony to the public, was also ground-breaking in the way it was done. I think this project’s legacies will be felt for some time within the Squamish Nation – the actions of many of the ten thousand people he touched by his generosity, will in fact inspire many other struggles both indigenous and environmental far and wide,” Dodds added.
The practical result of that creative conflict resolution was shown in the collaborative Squamish Nation Land Use Plan, made possible by the efforts of several Witness program participants photographing, mapping, planning, learning from each other and thinking forward to future generations – 500 years to give old-growth cedar time to mature and grow big enough to carve canoes.
“What the Squamish Nation did was to opt out of the provincial dialogue, in essence to say it would not participate in land use planning as a mere stakeholder,” Williams and Dodds write. The Nation presented their plan to the province before the province was able to get theirs together, forcing the province to be the one responding. In 2005, Chief Bill Williams signed an agreement with the B.C. government to set aside the Wild Spirit Places as a protected area under the plan.
I asked Dodds what she hopes readers who hadn’t heard of the Utsám Witness project would take away from the book.
“I would hope that the sense not only of the struggle to save this rainforest but how important it is to have a longer term vision, and broader perspective on what land means. To people. And especially to those who have unceded rights to this land from ‘time immemorial.’ There has been a lot of talk of reconciliation over the last while, but we’ve barely scratched the surface of the injustices that have done to indigenous people in Canada, and the repercussions of this,” Dodds replied.
“I think there is hope in the current movements – Idle no More; the fights against oil pipelines, tankers and fracking – and there is a need for cross-cultural peaceful activism. And ceremony…We need to give each other strength for this, because we don’t win them all, but we can’t give up. In this case, it worked. I hope it gives hope to others, to youth, who need to take up the causes. There is more work to be done,” Dodds concluded.
To conclude, here’s the video trailer for the book, which is a great way for you to hear participants’ voices and see more of Nancy Bleck’s photos. You can find more videos at picturingtransformation.com/videos.