Nuxalk ladies dance 'Ista' under the new pole on King Island

Nations “working together” raise Ista Pole at 20-Year Reunion on King Island

The sun was shining brightly as the colourful image of the first woman to touch the earth, Ista, was pulled to her intended home

The sun was shining brightly as the colourful image of the first woman to touch the earth, Ista, was pulled to her intended home on King Island on Monday, September 28.

Carved by Peter Snow, who was assisted by Alvin and Lyle Mack, Herbie Hall, Dale McCreery, Vivian George and Brian James, the Ista pole features a brightly coloured blue face and cedar hat, while the body of the woman is dressed in a traditional black and red blanket.

King Island, known as Nuxalknalus in Nuxalk, is the home of Ista, which was site of an 21-day occupation in 1995. As Nuxalkmc Jacinda Mack describes in her master’s project paper, “Remembering Ista,” the “Stand at Ista” was fraught with emotional, social and political upheaval within the Nuxalk community and the community at large.

Interfor’s plans to clearcut the area in 1995 were interrupted by declarations of Nuxalk sovereignty over the territory, which challenged the authority of the Canadian government and the legitimacy of Interfor’s permits.

An alliance was formed between the Forest Action Network and the hereditary system of Nuxalk governance, the House of Smayusta, which exposed an alarming fracture between elected band council members and the hereditary leadership, as well as between individual community members.

17 Nuxalk people were jailed for the actions, and despite more direct action in 1997, Fog Creek was eventually logged as planned. However, reunion organizer Hereditary Chief Deric Snow sees the “Stand at Ista” as a pivotal moment wherein Nuxalk people experienced a cultural awakening, and both the celebration and the pole were intended to commemorate that aspect of the event.

“It was an extremely important event in our Nation’s history – community and spiritually – and we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about it,” said Nuxalk Stewardship Director Megan Moody.  “Those who focus on the divisions it created are missing the point of the reunion and the Stand(s) at Ista. We need to move forward, focus on the positives and continue to heal as a community.”

King Island is 312 square miles in area and overlaps both Nuxalk and Heiltsuk territory. The island received its English name in 1793 from Captain George Vancouver, who served under Captain James King in his youth.

The island is part of land and resource agreements for the Great Bear Rainforest that were successfully negotiated in 2006 between Coastal First Nations leaders and the Province. In December 2009, the Province and Coastal First Nations signed a Reconciliation Protocol that committed the parties to government to government arrangements and shared decision making.

Recent provincial Strategic Land and Resource Planning indicates the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources plans to possibly establish a conservancy on King Island as part of the Proposed 2015 Great Bear Rainforest Order. Under the Park Act conservancies “explicitly recognize the importance of the area to First Nations for social, ceremonial and cultural uses.”

Conservancies provide for a wider range of low impact compatible economic opportunities than Class A parks, however, commercial logging, mining, and hydro-electric power generation, other than local run-of-river projects, are prohibited.

“There’s a possibility that a portion of Ista, including the Fog Creek and Green River watersheds, may be designated as a new protected area but in the meantime they are still up for logging,” said Moody. “Government to government negotiations have improved but there is still a long ways to go in terms of the recognition of Nuxalk laws and the protection of Nuxalk values in the implementation of land and marine use plans.”

Last weeks pole raising was, however, a powerful affirmation of both Nuxalk and Heiltsuk traditional ties to the area, and the conversation focused on that objective. While both nations are part of the Coastal First Nations and employ both chief and council and traditional forms of government in their respective territories, the days proceedings were not aligned with any particular group or form of government.

Nuxalk hereditary Chiefs Deric Snow, Conrad Clellamin, Deborah Nelson and Billy Andy Jr. were joined by Heiltsuk members Frank Brown, Jimmy White, Earl Newman and Gary Housty.

After the 3000 lb pole was heaved onshore and pulled uphill it was raised by a rope and pulley system under the brute strength of dozens of people pulling together. Dances by chiefs followed and the Nuxalk women danced “Ista” under its watchful eyes.

“I’m so happy,” said Snow. “The work has been done. It’s been 20 years and every time I drive by on the boat I can feel the spirit.”

Snow made a point to recognize the women involved, both today and in the past. “Today it’s the women, they’re the ones that are the backbone of our people, they’re the ones that keep our families together, they’re the ones that organize to come out here,” he said. “This pole here today also signifies that.”

Nuxalk elder and cultural leader Karen Anderson introduced the crowd to the young Ista Oud, born in 2004, who bears the namesake of the first Nuxalk woman to descend to earth.

“The Dance of Ista comes before our strongest dance, the Dance of Thunder,” said Anderson. “We’re all meant to be here with love in our hearts, and I thank you all for being here today.”

Carver Peter Snow was recognized for his achievement in creating the pole, telling the crowd he prayed to pole before beginning the work.

“I asked her to send her descendants to come and help me, I couldn’t have done it without them,” he said. He acknowledged the Heiltsuk lineage in the carvers that helped him, saying that it was a “good day” to see the nations working together.

Hereditary Chief Frank Brown of the Heiltsuk Nation spoke of his community’s ties to the area, telling the crowd about a Heiltsuk burial site at Ista and village sites in the surrounding inlets.

“We know our history, we know where we come from,” he said. “We know that it’s not only government, but industry, that covets the resources from our land and seas, and it will take us all standing together to ensure that those resources are there for the needs of our people over time.”

Brown thanked the Nuxalk for “standing on the line” 20 years ago and commended them for “doing the work,” saying the area would have been “liquidated” had it not been for their actions. He spoke of the importance of working together and not allowing a “wedge to be driven between their communities.”

“It’s through the political alliance of the Coastal First Nations and the young people coming in that’s making this possible,” he said. “It’s very important as witnesses when you go home that we are on point with the take home message: we are going to work together and continue to work together.”