“Remembering Ista” by Jacinda Mack
Master of Arts Thesis (excerpt), York University, 2006
The Nuxalk Nation is an isolated but very politically active indigenous community located in the Bella Coola Valley on what is now known as the central coast of British Columbia, Canada. Situated in the heart of the coastal temperate rainforest, the area is subject to aggressive resource extraction, with the most predominant being industrial logging.
Although multinational corporations such as International Forest Products (INTERFOR) have agreements with the Canadian governments to harvest millions of dollars worth of timber from Nuxalk Territory, the Nuxalk people themselves have not been consulted nor have they benefited in any way from these operations. In fact, the Nuxalk face near crippling poverty with a stable unemployment rate of over eighty percent for several generations. (Personal interviews, Nuxalk Nation 2005, 2006)
The Nuxalk heavily rely on the integrity of the natural environment for subsistence and cultural cohesion, in addition to upholding their spiritual and physical responsibilities to the land itself. Unsustainable logging practices have damaged and polluted entire watersheds; depleting vital salmon stocks, natural vegetation and wildlife that feed the poverty-stricken nation.
“Ista” is the name of the first Nuxalk woman, as well as the place and Smayusta (creation story) that relate her to Tatau, the Creator, as well as the land and people who descend from her. She is the reason that we dance with blankets at potlatches and other ceremonial events. We actively remember where we come from each time we sing and dance her story. But we must understand the story of Ista to fully appreciate the sacred knowledge we carry.
In 1995, the House of Smayusta (HOS), comprised of Nuxalk hereditary chiefs, elders and their supporters, organized a direct action resistance known as the “Stand at Ista” in attempts to stop the planned clear-cut and raise public awareness regarding outstanding issues pertaining to their land and human rights. Proclamations of Nuxalk Sovereignty were issued over the entire Nuxalk Territory, challenging the authority of the Canadian government and the legitimacy of INTERFOR’s permits regarding harvesting on unceded Nuxalk lands.
The HOS sought to make their position public and hoped to appeal to the international community, by enlisting the assistance of the Forest Action Network (FAN), a so-called ‘radical’ environmental group who utilize non-violent, direct action tactics. However, this alliance was a difficult one, stemming mostly from FAN’s ‘outsider’ status in both the Nuxalk and wider Bella Coola communities. The legitimacy of the HOS was further compromised with the messy internal politics regarding Nuxalk leadership, weakening Nuxalk solidarity in the face of colonial imposition.
In retrospect, it is apparent that the internal political turmoil of the Nuxalk community was exposed by the events of Ista, although some Nuxalk members blame the events at Ista as the cause of the factionalism. Approximately half of the newly elected band council did not support the alliance between the House of Smayusta and the Forest Action Network. The elected chief councillor Archie Pootlass made public statements against the environmentalists, claiming that their presence would do more harm than good, as evidenced in other Native communities. (Archie Pootlass, Broadcast 1, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Vancouver, July 8, 1997)
Internal social upheaval ensued, as Nuxalk members were divided into two general groups: ‘traditionalists’ who supported the action at Ista, and those who sided with the status-quo band council. Although people often did not publicly state where their support was, ‘allegiance’ to one group or another was often assumed, based on family ties or employment status within the band. Most families were politically divided evenly between those who supported Ista and those who did not.
Despite the labels, many people claim that they didn’t support either side; that the split and confrontational politics in general were misleading and unhealthy, and they did not like its effects on their family and community. Allegations of corruption and lack of authority were made against both elected and traditional leadership, fracturing families and diverting energy and attention away from saving the land in question.
Many people within the wider Bella Coola community, both Nuxalk and non-native, were incensed at the fact that ‘outsider environmentalists’ knew more about what was taking place at Ista than the locals did. In the end, hereditary chiefs from the House of Smayusta, along with supporting community members and environmental activists were arrested, and despite another direct action two years later, Ista was eventually logged as planned.
Eventually, INTERFOR and the Ministry of Forests closed their offices in Bella Coola, relocating to Port Hardy, another coastal community, while continuing to log in Nuxalk Territory. Although the battle for Ista may have been lost, the war against colonialism was re-ignited. The actions taken at Ista have continued to influence modern Nuxalk society and identity, as well as contributing to the larger landscape of environmental awareness and campaigns for protection in areas within and outside of Nuxalk Territory.