Introduction from the Editor
When most people think about museums they think of items from the past, collections from history. Today in BC, many researchers are working to not only preserve the past but to help protect the future. In 2015, Royal BC Museum researchers took part in an intense biological survey (bioblitz) of the Peace River Valley. This bioblitz was part of a larger effort to document the species of the valley in light of the proposed Site C Dam. While researchers are focused on recording the species of the Peace River Valley, the dam would also impact agricultural land, First Nations communities and their sacred sites.
Julian Napoleon is on the front lines of the battle against the dam, alongside many others across the province. Julian is a Dane-zaa Cree man who grew up in the Peace River Valley and whose ancestors have called it home since time immemorial. As a complement to the museum’s perspective, I asked Julian to write about his relationship to the Peace River Valley and how its loss would affect him and his community.
Francine Cunningham, Guest Editor
My Dane-zaa ancestors have lived in the Peace River watershed since time immemorial. Our oral history spans millennia. Our stories trace back through the Pleistocene Epoch, back to a time when water still covered the land. It was muskrat who was finally able to dive down deep enough to grasp a handful of earth and from this we were all born. Wuujo aasanalaa, we give thanks.
The watershed of the Peace River has always provided for us and we have cared for it in turn. Over 10,000 years of archaeological evidence speaks to the sustainability of the Dane-zaa lifestyle. Our seasonal rounds provided bountiful fish, beaver, bison, moose, elk, bear, berries and medicines. When early migrations of Cree arrived from the east, they too recognized the richness and beauty of the Peace. Skirmishes between the Dane-zaa and Cree were resolved in a Peace treaty that gave the river and region its name. Many Cree and Dene families intermarried, including mine. Cree became the language of my great-grandmother, my grandmother, my father.
When I was a kid the elders in my family still lived the old way. My uncles hunted moose on horseback, leaving right from the reserve. They trapped beaver, marten and lynx. My kokum (grandmother) tanned moose hides and made beautiful beaded moccasins. She cut dry meat the old way: thin, no holes. Our days revolved around food, our food. We would catch jackfish, whitefish, bull trout, rainbow trout and grayling in the Moberly River, a tributary of the Peace that flows into and out of the lake where our community lies. We would also net huge lake trout and burbot out in the lake. Hunting grouse, ducks and geese was common, even swans on occasion. Countless rabbits were snared for hearty stews cooked on the wood stove. Then there were the wild berries—blueberries, cranberries, strawberries, raspberries, saskatoons and my favourite, the sweet and juicy huckleberries. Berry picking was serious business and would involve the entire extended family and friends picking all day long. Some precious berries were always sundried and mixed with moose lard and ground dry meat to make pemmican. Living in this way, along with our language, governance and spirituality, has always defined who we are as a distinct race. This is our biocultural heritage.
We have always known the significance of the Peace River Valley, it is sacred land. It was not surprising when biologists conducting a recent “bioblitz” supported by the Royal British Columbia Museum confirmed the ecological richness of our homelands. Species, like the prickly-pear cactus, are not found this far north anywhere else in the world. Countless rare and unique species were discovered in a matter of weeks.
Unfortunately for us our land isn’t just rich with beautiful food. Our territory is home to natural gas, coal, lumber and massive hydroelectric projects. The W.A.C. Bennet Dam forever changed the landscape of the Peace. Countless villages, sacred sites and abundant wildlife habitats were lost forever. The W.A.C. Bennet Dam, along with its predecessor the Peace Canyon Dam, released methylmercury into the aquatic ecosystem, making the fish upstream toxic. The natural gas industry already has over 10,000 frack wells in operation. Add on the vast coal mines and seemingly endless beetle kill cutblocks and you can begin to imagine our present-day reality. Over 75 per cent of our territory has been degraded by industry. Now we’re facing Site C and massive LNG expansions. The land and water are suffering and so are we.
Our sacred relationship is being destroyed. Our self-determination and access to culturally appropriate food and medicines is being destroyed. Our communities carry the pain of these wounds as a heavy burden over the deep tissue scarring of the Indian Act. It manifests itself in different ways: cancer, diabetes, obesity, substance abuse, suicide. But we are strong, we are resilient, we have already survived so much. The land can heal.
We can heal.
All we need is the opportunity to exist, to not have to fear for our way of life. All we need is healthy land and clean water. Too bad dams and fracking need land and water too.