B.C. First Nations salvaging the sacred from climate disaster

In November 2021, the storm brought violent downpours and floodwaters rose quickly and silently at Nicole Norris’ home and other homes in Halalt First Nation on Vancouver Island.

Norris, a First Nations planning officer with British Columbia’s Ministry of Emergency Management and Climate, said her brother fell asleep in the home’s ground-floor suite and woke up with his legs dangling over the side of the bed, submerged by the overflow of the Chemainus River. .

“We had four feet of water in the basement of our house. There was no sound,” said Norris, also known as Alag̱a̱mił. “He immediately yelled at my daughter so they could start pulling things out of the basement.”

Not everything of value escapes unscathed, said Norris, a kingmaker, weaver and holder of cultural knowledge.

Prints and artwork on the walls warped from the humidity in the house. Thankfully, Norris’s collection of wool, looms and cedar hat equipment was not damaged, as they happen to be in her non-preserve apartment, she said.

Not all families are so lucky. Many traditional weavers in the neighboring Penelakut Nation lost the wool used to make button blankets for the region’s famous Cowichan sweaters. She noted that this is the second consecutive winter flood in the Chemainus region in two years, with another in 2022.

Aboriginal communities on Vancouver Island have suffered extensive flood damage and a spate of evacuations in recent years. Ongoing climate change is expected to only lead to increasingly intense torrential rains, exacerbating the threat of flooding in the region and the potential damage to precious artefacts.

Now, a new initiative will help Aboriginal peoples protect and restore sensitive artefacts from climate hazards like fire and flooding, Norris said. In the Strathcona Regional District in the Campbell River region, $250,000 from the BC Community Emergency Preparedness Fund will be used for Aboriginal cultural safety training.

“We invite Aboriginal communities from Vancouver Island and the Central Coast to come to workshops and learn the skills to care for sacred items for themselves,” she said.

Aboriginal homes can be like museums, Norris said, as they often house regalia, sacred objects or traditional art passed down through the family. While damage to homes and community infrastructure is often insured and rebuilt after emergencies, the loss of valuable artifacts such as masks, carvings, blankets, oars or totem poles is often unrecognized.

“When I do a rapid damage assessment of a community after a disaster, I’m looking at everything that wasn’t saved,” Norris said.

“Some of these designs or crafts were made by people who are long gone and passed down from generation to generation.”

The goal of the funding is to co-develop a pilot training program followed by five workshops for First Nations on Vancouver Island interested in learning practical skills to protect, restore, salvage and restore community or generational property or artifacts, Shaun Koopman said, Strathcona Conservation Services Coordinator for the Regional District.

The first step was to bring together Aboriginal signmakers and cultural workers with emergency responders and planners, and the BC Heritage Emergency Response Network (BCHERN), a volunteer network of heritage and restoration experts.

In addition to developing workshop materials, first responders will learn to work with Aboriginal communities in more culturally sensitive ways to restore artifacts after disasters, Koopman said.

He added that there are gaps in the province’s disaster-relief financial assistance to communities that do not take into account the value of culturally significant properties. BCHERN will also use Aboriginal input to create guidance documents on the respectful and appropriate handling of baskets, masks, carvings, drums, feathers, regalia and other objects.

Ultimately, the workshops will train a caucus of Aboriginal responders to serve as “sacred cultural salvage commandos,” he said.

When disaster strikes, the ultimate goal is to ensure Aboriginal people handle and restore artifacts, especially sacred objects, that require respect and ritual and should not be exposed to people outside the culture, Norris said.

“We have rules about what we’re allowed to do and what we’re not allowed to do,” Norris said.

She added that it was important to identify which items were sacred and should only be handled by Aboriginal curators.

Norris has participated in previous BCHERN restoration workshops and finds it valuable on a personal and community level.

She added that sacred items or objects made by regal makers take a lot of time and money to produce and are often a significant source of income for these artists.

“I would personally be very upset if I lost my wool or cedar, or if my loom was damaged,” says Norris. “It’s about preserving the intimate cellular relationship we have with our ancestors.”

Mindy Ogden, a heritage site expert in Ka, says that in addition to preventing local losses from climate disasters, expanding Aboriginal technical capacity to protect and restore artefacts is also important for communities looking to retrieve artefacts from museums at the height of colonialism: yu :’k’h’/Che:k’tles7et’h’ (Kyuquot/Cheklesath) West Vancouver Island First Nations.

“We’re also thinking about the future, if we do have showcases, or a relic room, for repatriating some holy objects from the museum,” she said.

“Museums don’t always release these items easily. They may have some questions about how we can keep this object safe.”

Creating inventories and assessing how the climate crisis or natural disasters, such as tsunamis, might affect sacred or culturally significant sites is a concern for KCFN emergency planners, Ogden said.

“With climate change, rising sea levels and more severe storms, things like that are on our radar,” she said.

“Things like mounds and old village ruins…they start to erode and then that information gets lost.”

Protecting or restoring important objects from climate or natural disasters is critical to rebuilding and preserving Aboriginal cultures that have been all but erased, says carver Matt Jack, who is carving KCFN’s first village totem pole in decades .

The totem pole is a form of historical record that captures and reflects the community’s culture and significant events when carved, said Jack, who is also an elected legislator for the KCFN government.

“The totem pole tells the story of the timeline we’re in now,” Jack said.

“A lot of stuff was lost, like the carvings, the dances, the songs. So, we’ve been trying to rebuild and do all of that, and trying to save it is our story.”

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