The Tsilhqot’in, an indigenous tribe who traditionally has lived on the Chilcotin Plateau in British Columbia, have beenfighting to protect their homelands—lands that are both culturally and religiously significant—since the 1860’s when gold was discovered in the area (“Gold Rush History”). The areas abundance of natural resources has made it a target for logging, mining, fishing, etc. ventures, and until recently it seemed as if the Tsilhqot’in were fighting a losing battle. However, this past year marked a major victory for the Tsilhqot’in in their fight to protect Fish Lake. This victory highlights the use of environmentalism as a common ground through which Indigenous peoples can express their values and concerns to a culture dominated by Western values.
In 2007 Taseko Mines Limited drafted a proposal for a mining operation in the region surrounding Fish Lake (or Teztan Biny as it is called in the Tsilhqot’in language) that included draining the lake to create an area in which to store waste rock. Fish Lake and the surrounding region is an area of deep religious significance to the Tsilhqot’in. The area is traditionally a place of hunting and gathering for the Tsilhqot’in, it contains multiple ancestral burial grounds and cremation pits, and the lake itself—especially the island in the center—is considered to be a place of spiritual power and healing (Report of the Federal Prosperity Review Panel, 3). The BC government approved the proposal without the consent of the Tsilhqot’in, but after a push by environmentalists, the Tsilhqot’in, and other indigenous groups, the proposal was reviewed by the Canadian Federal Gov. In 2010 the Federal Gov. deemed that the negative environmental effects of the proposal outweighed any economic benefits from the mining operation and they rejected the proposal. However, this victory for the Tsilhqot’in and all others who fought Taseko’s proposal was short lived.
Taseko immediately came back with another proposal that would not require the draining of Fish Lake. Instead, the waste rock would be stored in an area 2km upstream of the lake. The new proposal did little to satisfy the Tsilhqot’in and others fighting to protect the region, as they believed the mining operation would still cause significant environmental harm to the region as well as industrialize a peaceful and untouched natural area (Hoogeveen and McCreary). Once again the proposal was challenged and subjected to Federal review, and once again the Federal Gov. found that the proposal would be too environmentally destructive to justify. On Feb. 26, 2014 the Canadian Government announced that they had rejected the new proposal (Stueck and Hunter).
For the time being it seems as if opponents against Taseko have won a victory (although Taseko has plans to challenge the Federal Gov.’s ruling and perhaps submit another proposal)—a victory in a larger war over the protection of sacred lands and spaces that indigenous people across the world seem to be losing. But what the fight to protect Fish Lake demonstrates is the growing role of environmentalism as a platform through which Indigenous people can express their concerns for the preservation of their culture and way of life.
For many years after settlers began exploiting the lands used by indigenous peoples it was difficult for the natives to find any empathy in the Westerners for their plight in part because the indigenous view of land, so intricately woven with their religion, culture, and way of life, was completely different than any the settlers had ever experienced. It was as if, when it came to the importance of land and sacred places, they were speaking two different languages. However, the growing environmental movement has provided a common language through which the importance of the land to the indigenous peoples can be expressed in a way that can be understood by Western ears and Western courts.
Marilyn Baptiste, former chief of the Xeni Gwet’in, a First Nations government located in the Chilcotin area, focuses on the importance of the environmental health of a sacred area such as Fish Lake while addressing the Federal Prosperity Panel (the Federal Panel that reviewed the first mining proposal). Baptiste states that, “We need all aspects of our culture and pristine environments to be physically, spiritually, mentally, and emotionally healthy” (Baptiste, 1). She goes on to connect the religious and environmental significance of the destruction of Fish Lake by pointing out that, “Mining will destroy the spiritual nature of Teztan [Fish Lake] and will devastate natural ecosystems that have sustained living species for thousands of years” (Baptiste, 3).
The Tsilhqot’in culture, like most indigenous cultures in North America, exists within a network of religious and spiritual practices that are so extensively interlaced with daily life that it is difficult for Westerners, who have grown up in a culture where religion and spirituality exist parallel to daily life—present but rarely interfering, to understand. This picture, provided alongside Baptiste’s speech to the Prosperity Review Panel, demonstrates the complex relationships between various aspects of the Tsilhqot’in culture that come together to create a whole.
The relationship between the Tsilhqot’in and the land that Baptiste describes in her speech to the Review Panel is reminiscent of the phenomenological approach to sacredness that Belden Lane describes in his article “Giving voice to Place: Three Models for Understanding American Sacred Space”. Lane describes the phenomenological approach as one in which the land has a voice in the interaction between land and person—it is an active participant in its relationship with a person or a group of people. “Phenomenologically speaking”, Lane writes, “the world beyond us is also deeply before us. We speak ‘for,’ ‘to,’ and ‘with’ it in a way that demands the total investment of ourselves” (Lane, 68). Lane describes an interactive relationship between the land and ourselves just as Baptiste describes a relationship between the Tsilhqot’in people and Fish Lake. The Lake depends on the people to protect it and keep it physically healthy just as the Tsilhqot’in “are spiritually dependent on our ancestors, and traditions, and our land and its species” (Baptiste, 1).
This complex relationship between tradition, land, spirituality, and daily life that is common among the beliefs and cultural structures of indigenous religions differs greatly from the more individual-centered Western belief structure. This makes it difficult, often impossible, for indigenous peoples to protect and preserve parts of their culture within a society and court system that functions within a framework of Western Values.
However, the lens of environmentalism has allowed indigenous cultures, for most of which land and the sacredness of land are an integral part, to find common ground with non-indigenous people who value land for environmental (and sometimes even spiritual) reasons. It is through the language of environmentalism that indigenous cultures can begin to express the importance of land to them in a way that makes Westerners listen and understand. At the end of her speech to the Federal Review Board, Marilyn Baptiste addresses Taseko Mines saying, “We thanks the Prosperity Mines Limited staff for bringing people together. We feel that there is hope for the future…The Tsilhqot’in, Secwepemc, Elk’achugh, Indigenous people, and non-indigenous people around the world have shared their concerns, and this has created common ground and unity. We sincerely hope that this positive ripple in the pond will spread out and touch the rest of the world” (Baptiste, 3).
Baptiste, Marilyn. “The Tsilhqot’in Territory Is Our Home.” Address. http://ceaa.gc.ca/050/documents/43104/43104E.pdf
Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency. Report of the Federal Review Panel New Prosperity Gold Copper Mine Project. CEAA. 31 Oct 2013. Web. 3. Oct. 2014.
Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency. Report of the Federal Prosperity Review Panel. CEAA. 2010. Web. 3. Oct. 2014.
“Gold Rush History.” Destination British Columbia. Destination BC Corp, n.d. Web. 03 Oct. 2014. <http://www.hellobc.com/cariboo-chilcotin-coast/culture-history/gold-rush-history.aspx>.
Hoogeveen, Dawn, and Tyler McCreary. “Struggles against Gold-mine on Indigenous Land.” Canadian Dimension. Canadian Dimension, 25 Jan. 2014. Web. 3 Oct. 2014. <http://canadiandimension.com/articles/5888/>.
Lane, Belden C. “Giving Voice to Place: Three Models for Understanding American Sacred Space.” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation 11.1 (2001): 53-81. Web.
Stueck, Wendy, and Justine Hunter. “Ottawa Rejects Taseko Mine Project on Environmental Grounds.” The Globe and Mail. The Globe and Mail, 27 Feb. 2014. Web. 03 Oct. 2014. <http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/british-columbia/citing-environmental-risks-ottawa-kills-plan-for-bc-gold-mine/article17129842/>