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Part 1: On the Front Lines in Wet’suwet’en Territory

After a whirlwind trip to New York and Washington D.C. last month to meet the 2015-16 Fulbright-National Geographic Fellows (an impressive group) and publicly present our projects at National Geographic headquarters, I am back in Canada for two more months of production. Since my last post (so long ago!), I’ve been traveling back and forth along the Yellowhead Highway in northern British Columbia, visiting communities impacted by energy-development projects and organizing participatory map-making workshops using low-tech citizen science tools, developed by Public Lab. I will be returning to New York this fall to begin a fellowship at UnionDocs Center for Documentary Arts.

HOUSTON, BC – It’s 3 o’clock in the morning. In the north, this means the sky is beginning to brighten again, after a few hours of darkness. The birds have begun their chatter although not yet in earnest. I am 65 kilometers down an active logging road, deep in the bush on Wet’suwet’en territory in northern British Columbia, on my way to the Unist’ot’en Camp. I pull my car over onto a gravelled turnout just before the camp entrance and turn to my friend who drove up with me. “Let’s camp here for now and be at the checkpoint in the morning when everyone is up.” In the fading darkness, we set up a tent and fall exhausted into our sleeping bags. After 18 hours on the road, we are almost there.

Wildfire haze in early July, British Columbia. Photo by author.
Smoke and ash from wildfires across British Columbia in early July. Photo by author.

Arriving in the wee hours of the morning was not part of my original plan. However, the spate of wildfires across British Columbia in early July forced us to take a detour, adding six more hours to an already long drive. The road was less hazardous than I last remembered when I first visited the camp back in May. There was still snow on the ground then. It even snowed the second day I was there, although that snow soon melted in the hot sunny days that followed. It is now early July and I can see, even in the darkness, the outline of thickly leafed trees and smell the moisture from the river running alongside the road. With logging activity back in full swing for the summer, all the car-sized potholes and dips in the road that nearly destroyed my car the last time I came in have been filled in, smoothed out and evenly graded.

For the past five years, a collective of indigenous people of the Wet’suwet’en Nation and their supporters, have been living off the grid, deep in what a long-time urban city dweller like me would call The Wilderness, keeping watch of all who enter their traditional territory by air, land or water. What started out as a single log cabin has grown into a sprawling and growing homesteading compound consisting of: a large residential structure (bunkhouse in camp lingo), a root cellar, outhouses, sheds, a chicken coop and pen, permaculture garden, pit house (traditional residential structure), and most recently begun, a two-story, gabled, multi-use large building that will function as the Unist’ot’en Healing Center, Community Kitchen and Dining Hall.

Unist'ot'en Camp supporter working on the Healing Center, which began construction in May 2015.
Unist’ot’en Camp supporter working on the Healing Center, which began construction in May 2015.

The Unist’ot’en Camp is named after the Unist’ot’en, the Wet’suwet’en clan (there are five in total) that claims the land it is on. From its beginnings, the primary, unwavering focus of this small community has been to prevent pipeline companies from sending workers into the territory to do work that would go towards the construction of a gas or oil pipeline.

While the territory is networked by centuries-old traplines and walking trails, it is a vast, difficult terrain, populated with grizzly bears, moose, and other wildlife. Surprisingly, there is only one logging road into the territory, which crosses a bridge, where the Unist’ot’en have set up a checkpoint–they have been careful not to call it a blockade–to monitor everyone who wishes to enter the territory: loggers, tree-planters, mushroom-ers, backpackers, and government or industry employees.

Bridge into Unist'ot'en territory, within Wet'suwet'en territory. All visitors must participate in a Free and Prior Consent Protocol to request permission to enter.
Bridge into Unist’ot’en territory, within Wet’suwet’en territory. All visitors must participate in a Free and Prior Consent Protocol to request permission to enter. This picture was taken in early May when there was still snow on the ground. Photo by author.

What is your name and where are you from?
Do you work for the government or industry who are destroying our lands and the environment?
What kind of skills do you bring to the Unist’ot’en Camp?
How long will you be staying?

Everyone who wants to cross this bridge and enter Unist’ot’en territory is required to ask permission by answering these questions, posed by representatives for the Unist’ot’en. These questions, which the Unist’ot’en call Free, Prior and Informed Consent Protocol is based on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and also modeled after traditional protocols practiced by the Wet’suwet’en for thousands of years.

I spent a total of three weeks at the camp over the course of two separate visits. I interviewed Freda Huson, the spokesperson for the Unist’ot’en, who has been living in the cabin since the beginning, and the many supporters, some who are local and many who come from across Canada, the United States and around the world.

The politics around whether or not what the companies are doing is legal has a lot to do with how Canada’s First Nations have slowly, steadily inched their way towards indigenous sovereignty in court over the last twenty to thirty years. If you’re wondering what this has to do with pipelines, I will be covering some of the legal battles and history of indigenous people in Canada in my next blog post, specific to this region, along with some notes about my observations and experiences at the camp. If you’re interested in getting a head start, Maps and Dreams by anthropologist Hugh Brody is a great place to begin. More specific to the Wet’suwet’en, A Death Feast in Dimlahamid and Our Box was Full talks about the precedent-setting court win by the Wet’suwet’en against the province of British Columbia.

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On a side note, I will be leading a balloon mapping workshop this Sunday, July 26 in Kitimat, British Columbia at the Kitimat Museum & Archives. If you live in the area and are interested in learning how to take aerial photographs and make maps using a kite or balloon, please stop by.

As always, thanks for reading. I invite you to follow me on social media at the links below.

Ann Chen is a photographer, multimedia artist and researcher from New York City. She is currently in Western Canada tracing the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline through collective storytelling, community mapping and citizen science. Read her earlier posts here or follow her project on TumblrFacebook, Instagram or Twitter.