Totem poles are being carved to take a stand against mining in Nuxalk traditional territory.
“We’re telling the world we don’t want any mining within the Nuxalk territory,” said Nuxalk Nation hereditary chief Snuxyaltwa (also known as Deric Snow).
“For the future of our great-grandchildren, that’s the message we want to send with these totem poles.”
Snuxyaltwa is leading a special project in protest of mining exploration work which was taking place near Bella Coola. Three totem poles will be carved with the intention of placing them on top of three local mountains as symbols of Nuxalk sovereignty. Funding to install the poles on the tops of the mountains is yet to be determined, but the project began last year.
Mining exploration drilling had been taking place on some of the mountains surrounding the Bella Coola Valley by Juggernaut Exploration Ltd. in 2022. Juggernaut Mining Exploration Ltd. did not respond to media requests prior to press time.
Four Mile Mountain, Pootlas Mountain and Howe Mountain were reportedly part of the exploration.
According to Snuxyaltwa, these mountains are important for a number of reasons.
Not only can he see two of the mountains from the windows of his home, and doesn’t want to have the mountain views in the valley impacted by a mine which would necessitate taking the top off of the mountain to access the metal ores, but he asserts mining on these mountains would jeopardize five fish-bearing streams and three estuaries.
“We need that freshwater, so does Mother Earth,” he said, noting he fears what could happen over the next 20-30 years if exploration and mining work continues. He said elders were warning of the possible collapse of local fish stocks decades ago, much of which has since come to pass, and he does not want to see things get worse.
“We are burning, we are flooding,” he said.
Besides the environmental concerns and potential impacts on views, and tourism, he also said there is significant cultural value in these mountains.
Pootlas Mountain is a part of the Nuxalk origin story. Snuxyaltwa said the Nuxalk believe this was one of the first places the Nuxalk came to, and tell a story of supernatural beings, sometimes referred to as Sasquatch, who lived in the Bella Coola Valley before the Nuxalk.
When the Nuxalk had to relocate from their original village site in the South Bentinck Arm, the story goes they then negotiated with these beings, who agreed to move to Pootlas Mountain and let the Nuxalk live in the valley.
He also said copper is a sacred metal for his people and it has long been known there was copper and gold up on these mountains, but only certain people were allowed to go up and seek it to make ceremonial and cultural items, because it was so sacred.
The Sasquatch story was once told in a dance said Snuxyaltwa, but it was lost during the federal ban on potlatches and ceremony.
“We’re just on the verge of rebuilding our cultural ways,” he said, noting a copper Sasquatch mask was returned to the Nuxalk not long ago which helped rekindle interest in this story.
Snuxyaltwa was told Juggernaut is done in the area as of December 2022, but he said this news does not mean an end to the totem pole project.
“I really don’t have trust in anyone now,” he said, noting he believes as long as there is gold, people will come looking for it.
Juggernaut does still hold a five-year permit for ongoing work and a permit can be amended to transfer to another company, should Juggernaut Exploration Ltd. decide to sell their mineral rights, according to the provincial Ministry of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation.
Snuxyltwa said this totem pole project also ties in with the return of a totem pole which is at the Royal BC Museum, where it has been on display for decades. The pole is scheduled to be returned to the Nuxalk in February of this year. The entrance pole was taken from the Snuxualtwa family longhouse in Talleomy and its return symbolizes a return of their culture.