On the surface, Fish Lake is Avatar in real life: the Tsilhqot’in First Nation vs. Taseko Mines, who want to build a gold mine – “Prosperity Mine,” no less – on the ancestral land of the Nation. The plan would drain Teztan Biny (Fish Lake), the sacred lake of the Tsilqhot’in, and fill it with toxic tailings from the open pit mine. The natives are righteously pissed, and the townfolk divided.
The short story is, same old, same old: jobs and quick cash vs. preservation of an ageless treasure. The long story, however, is a new one – a story of timely awakening and massive shift, with the power to transcend politics, economics, and history.
We have been called to Fish Lake to receive the story, witness, interconnect, and to offer back what we can. We have come by invitation of the Xeni Gwet’in band, in an act of faith that strikes me as vastly courageous.
Our motley team of media samurai assembles in the airport lounge one by one, lugging equipment boxes and hockey bags. Pravin the social web-weaver, Kim the medicine keeper, Mark D. the carpenter photographer, Mark V. the youth videographer, Chris the globe-spanning editorial imagemaker, Joe the Wilderness Committee icon. Obi Nine, tech ninja. And me – writer. Invited in trust; following the drums.
We fly to Williams Lake, where we are picked up in a clean blue van branded with the gold Xeni Gwet’in logo, and driven three hours from the roughneck resource town to the shore of Teztan Biny. Bumping down the muddy single-track road across the Chilcotin Plateau, we cross cattle guards and weave through forests of silver-gold aspen and rusty dying pine. Wild horses graze among the trees. A grizzly and three cubs tumble across the road ahead of the van, which is now a uniform brown. At last we reach the sacred lake which lies calm in the light drizzle. Rain alternates with spatterings of hail and splashes of sunshine. But just below the surface, the lake churns with life. Every now and then one of the lake’s 90,000 rainbow trout leaps, flashing in the light. A small island half a km offshore guards ceremonial pit houses, and surrounding the lake are First Nations burial grounds and a roiling ecosystem of bear, deer, and edible and medicinal plants. Teztan Biny lies in the caretaker area of the Xeni Gwet’in and Yunesit’in communities, but has nourished all the humans and other living creatures of the region for millenia.
Gilbert Solomon lights a small fire of dry red pine boughs, and he and Xeni Gwet’in Chief Marilyn Baptiste drum to call the spirits. Gilbert’s spring salmon song ends in a high shout skimmed over the drum skin. There is a silent moment before the shout comes back, echoing over the lake, the spirits returning the song.
In 2007, the Tsilhqotâ€™in won a landmark B.C. Supreme Court victory, entitling their people to protect their ancestral fishing and hunting lands. A recent federal environmental review of the Taseko mine proposal was entirely damning, stating flat out that the mine would destroy the lake and cause irreparable harm to the Tsilhqotâ€™in people. Never has the Canadian government disregarded such an assessment. Nevertheless, the Province of BC staunchly supports the proposal. And so we are all waiting now, for the federal cabinet to hand down its ruling. If the mine is quashed it will be a landmark decision for native sovereignty, which will forever alter the course of development in this country and beyond. If the mine is given the go-ahead, the Tsilhqotâ€™in will go to the law courts and to the barricadesâ€“with the unanimous backing of the B.C. Union of Indian Chiefs, the full force of the Assembly of First Nations, and the support of every awakened group and individual in the country. It will be a standoff like no other.
When I ask of the Xeni, “what will you do if the mine is built?”, I am met with calm assurance – “It’s not going to happen,” says Gilbert, his mischievious twinkle replaced by a depthless certainty. Gilbert’s mother Mabel, a small, steely woman in a wheelchair, speaks in melodic Tsilhqotâ€™in with Gilbert translating – “You [all Canadians] can share what we are saying. I will be at the front of the blockade, and you can stand on the blockade with us. They won’t be able to penetrate that.”
It is the same old story, but the world changes from moment to moment. And in this moment, for the first time in the history of our species, the First Nations of this planet are united. They are standing tall, connected to the land they never forsook, by a mycelial web of consciousness. And the web does not end with First Nations people; it extends to all beings whose feet touch the earth, who drink the water and who breathe the air. The sea change is subtle but tangible, globally, as our instinct for collective survival moves from theory into practice.
The web beneath the surface grows wider and denser every day, drawing strength from our individual experience and our collective wisdom. The songs, the dances, the technologies and the medicines are being shared – from the Tibetan chants sung to us in a traditional earth lodge by an Ontario medicine healer, to the Internet artistry, poetry, imagery and far-flung connections offered up by our visiting crew. Powerful healing ceremonies pass hand-to-hand between the nations of north and south, and are shared with non-natives aligned with the struggle, in the interests of protecting our native planet. Wisdom draws from the sky and returns to the roots, to the mycelium layer, and spreads like wildfire – underground.
“The spirits are having a parliament meeting,” says Gilbert, gazing out across the lake. “If we let this go through, it is like a prayer we didn’t do..and it’s gonna kick our butt. We’re all on the same ship here, cruising through the cosmos…and the mountain spirits are waking us up.”
And so we wait, as the Federal decision is deferred and delayed yet again. In faith, following the drums.
WHAT YOU CAN DO – join us!
Sign the petition in support of Teztan Biny
Read the Vancouver Sun article, Sept. 14
Find out more about Fish Lake – Friends of the Nemiah Valley
See Mark Donovan’s photos from Fish Lake (including pic of Gilbert, above)
Check out Mark Vonesch’s awesome video of elder Mabel Solomon!