The Sacred Headwaters
The Sacred Headwaters aptly describe the northwest corner of British Columbia where three great canadian rivers, the Skeena, Nass, and Stikine begin. About the size of Oregon, the region remains one of the only pristine wildernesses left in North America. The Tahltan people, the local indigenous group, call the area “Klabona” which has been loosely translated to mean headwaters but also means high and sacred valley. Only one road has so far been built spanning the coastal range in this region north to Alaska and south to Vancouver and Seattle making the region one of the most remote and inaccessible in North America. Klabona has been aptly described as the Serengeti of North America due to the still abundant populations of large game including grizzlies, stone sheep, mountain goats, caribou, and wolves.(Davis, TED) Today, however, the sacred headwaters run the risk of changing forever due to any number of industrial development projects.
Mr. Wade Davis, a prominent Harvard anthropologist, a dedicated ethnographic conservationist, and a BC Native writes in his latest book “ in 1879 Mr. Muir went up the Stikine River, which along with the Skeena and Nass Rivers rises in the Sacred Headwaters – and it blew his mind.”(Hume, Mark 1) John Muir, a father of transcendentalism and the American environmentalism movement continued to describe the Stikine river valley as a “Yosemite… a hundred miles long.”(ibid) When prominent philosophers and spiritual leaders speak about the inherent beauty and intrinsic value of any given location, others are bound to take notice. Can our understanding of an intrinsic value on land create a movement strong enough to prevent the place from being exploited for its resources and left as a toxic pile of debris and rubble? Wade Davis, a modern Muir, wants us to think so.
There are places to put mines to extract valuable resources, and there are places not to put mines. The top of Towtagon mountain, a place which harbors the largest known population of stone sheep certainly would be a place not to put a mine. Wade Davis notes, “Canada’s 75th largest mining company has secured permission to put an open pit copper and gold mine right on top of the flank of Towtagon.” A strip mine here would ruin the sacred mountain. “To put one on top of Towtagon mountain is like drilling for oil in the sistine chapel.”(Davis, TED) He continues to point out the absurdity of our extractionary rationale by declaring “There is not a single metric in the calculus that rationalizes the industrialization of the wild that takes into account, or places any value whatsoever, on the land left alone.”(Davis, TED) Why can a few people who have never even been to Klabona, never experienced a harsh winter there or a renewing spring, can get online and purchase the mineral rights from their offices in Toronto or god knows where, and then start extracting? The government will allow for mining as long as certain quotas are met and taxes paid. One of the most painful ironies of the situation is that a so called “eco-friendly” law subsidizing green energy would use Canadian taxpayers’ dollars to electrify the Sacred Headwaters region so these mines and wells would have power.(Ibid) Klabona has one of the highest wild salmon populations and the native Tahltan fear a pipeline system as well as fracking practices will completely reshape the surface of the mother.
“Wouldn’t it be wonderful to know those places [Grand Canyon and Yosemite] as John Muir knew them? Or to know the grand canyon before it was stifled by dams?” Asks Wade Davis. “The answer is you can – but you have to go to Canada.”(Davis, Patagonia) When we think of wilderness we perceive a place where a human presence can hardly be felt. We dream of an untainted and unspoiled land natural and free, thriving with wildlife. However, our wilderness in America today advertises a geoengineered eco-tourist destination over-crowded and full of technology. Does wilderness even exist in America anymore? Arguably, our national parks and forests have been so isolated from each other by our networks of rails and roads so as to become islands of illusionary wilderness: more like zoological spectacles. But there is one place left here in North America. Could the sacred headwaters, the Klabona, the home of the Tahltan, be even more sacred than ever before due to the finite existence of similar truly natural wildness? Scarcity, the exploration and mapping of all of the earth’s surface, as well as the iconic image of earthrise taken from the surface of the moon, have all allowed for and encouraged a shift and awakening of our collective human consciousness. Whereas in ages and epochs before man strove to conquer and tame the frightening mysteries of the infinite depths of wilderness, today we awaken to the possibility of harmonization with our global mother’s frequency.
In essence, the Tahltan journey to save Klabona is more about saving their provider in order to save themselves, and their way of life, than it is to save any specific species, or a specific mountain top. For them, all is sacred, all my relations. “This is not just an issue of the environment, its about human rights and human justice,”(Davis, Ted) assures Wade Davis. The anthropologist attests to the frighteningly high rates of losses in language and ancient wisdom lost through dramatic cultural homogenization. With every passing tribal elder, the old ways are lost forever. In Black Elk Speaks, Black Elk recounts an ancient prophecy: “There was once a Lakota Holy Man… who dreamed what was to be… the four-leggeds were going back into the earth and a strange race had woven a spider’s web all around the lakotas.”(Niehardt, Black elk speaks) The prophecy refers to a “strange race” which could seem to imply a race of humans with much different perceptions of existence and with a different connection to the creator than the constant connection the indigenous Lakota learned to have. The prophecy continued, “When this happens you shall live in square gray houses, in a barren land, and beside those square gray houses you shall starve.” The prophecy has come true in many respects. The prophecy causes us to contemplate: at what cost have we “progressed?” Are we morally and spiritually “starving” due to our perceived separateness and isolation from our creation? “The most significant difference between tribal religions and the larger religions in theological terms must certainly revolve around the idea of creation. The tribal religions regard the world as a continuing process of creation.”(Michaelson, Robert 106-107) In order to coexist harmoniously in the future, we have to value our indigenous brothers and sisters and respect what little they have left. Our creation may have happened already, but we must realize our actions today create our existence tomorrow. The illusion of a separateness from creation and the creator must be broken to terminate our dissonant greed and hunger for material mineral wealth.
Today, Royal Dutch Shell has proposed a coalbed methane extraction project in the Klappan river valley as well as hundreds of miles of pipelines.(Wiki, Klappan Coal Bed Methane) If completed, pipelines and wells would effectively destroy the sacred headwater region as well as contaminate the waters. With the till involved and the toxic waste, the animal populations would surely diminish and the natural pristine beauty of the place will be lost. The proposed network of pipes will permanently destroy the area of the Sacred headwaters.
We must also realize the value of what is underground is sometimes not worth loosing what is aboveground. We must also relinquish our assumed worldview superiority. Our way of life, unlike any other, cannot be assumed to be the way of life. Lingering effects of a colonial imperialistic history echo generation to generation – but today, now, in this moment we are changing. “Until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned everywhere is war.”(Marley, Bob, War) Today, modern scientists have confirmed what ancient indigenous religious have known since the beginning: we are all brothers and sisters. We are all one. If we cannot overcome our fear and greed we will lose everything, but if we can stop for a moment, observe the sacred lands we have been given, be, exist, and let it be, then just maybe we will survive as a species into the next epoch of humanity. The Sacred Headwaters, then, are not only zenith to the constant cosmogony of the natives to the pacific northwest, they are our source waters of all life on earth. We must save our sacred land for our children.
Davis, Wade. “Violating the Sacred.” (n.d.): n. pag. Web. <http://0-web.ebscohost.com.tiger.coloradocollege.edu/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=da9842af-53f2-420c-a829-78497c54fb74%40sessionmgr14&vid=6&hid=21>.
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Michaelsen, Robert S. “THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE AMERICAN INDIAN RELIGIOUS FREEDOM ACT OF 1978.” (n.d.): n. pag. Web.
Nelson, Joyce. “Shell’s “Sacred Headwaters” Project Draws Growing Protests.” N.p., n.d. Web. <http://0-web.ebscohost.com.tiger.coloradocollege.edu/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=3&hid=21&sid=d878f3f8-3e45-4aba-8738-f6c867e9db24%40sessionmgr10>.
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“Sacred Headwaters.” YouTube. YouTube, 16 Aug. 2012. Web. 02 Nov. 2012. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wQa2eZ5M7y8>.
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“TEDxUWO – Wade Davis – The Sacred Headwaters.” YouTube. YouTube, 23 Apr. 2011. Web. 01 Nov. 2012. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BGzDNfMumYU>