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Kitlope Ecosystem, British Columbia

Raising totem pole
Recovering a lost totem, a Canadian First Nation fulfills the reconnection of culture and territory in a vast rain forest watershed

Misk'usa stands beside the estuary where the Tsaytis and Kitlope Rivers enter British Columbia's Gardner Canal. One of four traditional villages of the Xanaksiyala people in the Kitlope Valley, Misk'usa was emptied by waves of smallpox and influenza in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The few survivors relocated to Kemano and Kitamaat, a day's boat journey to the north.

Testament to that vanished community, Eagle Clan chief G'psgoalux commissioned a totem pole in 1872 to commemorate a spirit encounter with family and clan victims of the epidemics. The pole stood silent above the estuary until 1928, when a Swedish consul based in Prince Rupert arranged for its removal and shipment to Stockholm's national Ethnographic Museum.

The Xanaksiyala connection with the Kitlope, traditional heart of their territory, dwindled as few maintained traplines and fishcamps in the valley. Surviving Xanaksiala joined with people of the Kitimat River estuary to form the Haisla Nation in 1947.

Kitlope lake
Kitlope lake

As heavy logging advanced through BC's more accessible valleys, a day of reckoning for the Kitlope's forests approached. Haisla elders knew that large-scale logging in the Kitlope — the last intact part of Xanaksiyala traditional territory — would destroy the spiritual foundations of the Haisla Nation. In 1990, elders found a logging road flagged into the valley.

The same year, Haisla elder Cecil Paul discovered a photograph that disclosed the fate of the G'psgoalux pole. For a community dispirited by social problems, unemployment, and displacement from traditional lands, his discovery reawakened a sense of possibility.

At the time, Ecotrust analysts were performing a global survey of the status of coastal temperate rain forests. Satellite photographs revealed the scarcity of intact large, forested coastal watersheds in coastal British Columbia. A detailed survey of BC watersheds concluded:

"The largest contiguous area of undeveloped primary watersheds in the coastal temperate forest of BC appears to be in the Gardner Canal area south of Kemano. This area encompasses the Kitlope and four others that are pristine, including the Kawesas and the Tsaytis."

The words described the heart of traditional Xanaksiyala territory, the place marked by the G'psgoalux pole.

Haisla elder Louisa Smith and former chief councilor Gerald Amos traveled to Stockholm to request the return of the totem. While in Europe, they visited Eurocan Pulp & Paper, a Finnish-Canadian joint venture that then held logging rights in the Kitlope, to ask them to leave the valley's forests uncut.

Ecotrust, meanwhile, brought the Kitlope to the attention of conservationists, emphasizing the valley's worldwide significance and central importance as Haisla territory. Cultural and scientific studies of the valley steadily strengthened the Haisla's hand with the provincial government and Eurocan.

In 1993, responding to growing Haisla pressure, the West Fraser Timber Company (who had bought out Eurocan's logging rights) proposed to protect 100,000 hectares (250,000 acres) of the Kitlope in exchange for guaranteed logging rights elsewhere in the ecosystem. The company offered the community of Kitamaat fifty jobs and a logging operation under Haisla control. By this time, however, resolve on behalf of the Kitlope had become unshakeable. The Haisla turned West Fraser down. Gerald Amos recalls, "To a person, there was no hesitancy it was the right decision."

Within a year, the Swedish government approved the return of the G'psgoalux totem. Then in an act of still-unmatched corporate goodwill, West Fraser's chief executive Hank Ketchum abandoned the claim to log the Kitlope, voluntarily relinquishing rights to 317,000 hectares (783,000 acres) without condition and without compensation. BC Premier Michael Harcourt and Haisla leaders announced that the Haisla people and the Province would jointly manage the Kitlope Valley. Huchsduwachsdu Nuyem Jees (the Kitlope Heritage Conservancy Protected Area) assured permanent protection to the largest coastal temperate rain forest watershed on earth.

In 1999, the Kitamaat Village Council invited Ecotrust Canada to help the Haisla repatriate the G'psgoalux pole. Master carver Henry Robertson, his nephews and granddaughter were enlisted to carve two new poles — one destined to stand in Stockholm's National Museum of Ethnography in place of the original, and the second to stand again at Misk'usa. In August 2000, more than two hundred guests of the Haisla Nation joined there to witness that pole raised in fulfillment of G'psgoalux's spirit vision.

At Misk'usa, where the new G'psgoalux pole now stands above the waters, the spirits of the former village are joined by a new generation of Haisla voices and the guests they choose to bring. The place and the valley it marks breathe again with the life of the Haisla Nation.


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Case Study: Kitlope Ecosystem (496kb PDF)


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