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Nuxalk elders must be protected from COVID-19, say hereditary leaders

There are only three fluent Nuxalk speakers left
Nuxalk speakers in the early 70s who kept the language alive included Margaret Siwallace (Sisinay), Felicity Walkus (Stalywa), Agnes Edgar (Alhtiycw), and Dan Nelson (K’wisus) (photo courtesy

By Evangeline Hanuse

The Stataltmc (hereditary representatives) in Bella Coola have closed Nuxalk territory to non-essential traffic. The small and remote community of Bella Coola is located in Unceded Indigenous Territory on the central coast of so-called British Columbia. In the face of the global coronavirus pandemic the Stataltmc demand that non-residents abide by the closure.

Housing on reserve is often overcrowded due to higher levels of poverty and lack of housing options. Many families also live intergenerationally. There is well-documented underfunding of Indigenous Peoples in Canada and the effects of this negligence manifest in chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. These factors provide easier methods of viral transmission and leave Nuxalkmc at higher risk during this pandemic.

In particular, Nuxalk leadership is worried about protecting elders and knowledge-keepers. There are 3 remaining fluent Nuxalk-as-a-first-language speakers left in the community. These elders are increasingly at risk with the arrival of outsiders due to the threat of the highly contagious COVID-19 and the Stataltmc are prepared to go to great lengths to protect them.

Faye Edgar is a Nuxalk cultural liaison and firmly believes in protecting the elders. She explains, “What our elders have instilled in us is how to look after our spirit and speaking our language is looking after our spirit.”

Staltmc (hereditary representative) Q’umulha Rhonda Schooner wants visitors and virus-escaping migrants seeking refuge in Bella Coola to know how highly valued the elders are in the community. “Elders are the ones that are full of knowledge and they are the ones that have passed down stories that teach us about our smayusta (ancestral history).”

Schooner feels that closing the road is her duty as a Staltmc and that this is not a job she can simply relinquish because it is handed down through a hereditary system. “It has to be done. We have to stand together and be medicine for each other, ixsatimutilh.”

Highway 20 is the only road access in and out of the Bella Coola Valley, part of which cuts through Nuxalk reserve lands. This road enables a lifeline of truck deliveries of food, mail and other essential items. Currently at the bottom of “the Hill” entering the valley, an information checkpoint is largely crewed by Nuxalkmc monitoring the traffic and providing information on health protocols.

Nuxalk and other Indigenous populations are familiar with debilitating diseases. Snxakila Tallio, Nuxalk cultural leader, states that there were two known waves of smallpox. “The 1862 smallpox wave was the most devastating since it was spread intentionally by people who came in and brought it right into towns and homes which [resulted in many more deaths] because of the multiple exposure points in the valley.”

The smallpox epidemic decimated Indigenous communities throughout the region due to a complete lack of immunity to the disease.

Some estimate the Nuxalk population pre-contact was 35,000. After smallpox devastated village after village, less than 300 Nuxalkmc remained and gathered in Q’umk’uts (Bella Coola).

Currently the still recovering Nuxalk population sits at approximately 1,700 registered members - a mere 4.86 percent of the original pre-contact population. As a result, there is an incredibly heightened sensitivity to any disease that could bring further disaster to the community.

Visitors are demonstrating extraordinary selfishness in potentially bringing COVID-19 into the community. They are also gambling with their own lives by leaving metropolitan areas with large and well-provisioned hospitals to come to a tiny and remote community with minimal medical services which need to remain available for the resident community. If an outsider were to fall dangerously ill, they would likely need a medivac out to Vancouver, potentially compromising locals’ access to this limited service.

However, protecting Nuxalkmc from this latest threat to their well-being is not a simple matter. The various layers of government, including federal, provincial, local government, Nuxalk Band Council, and the Nuxalk hereditary structure add to the complexity of the situation on and off reserve, especially in these unprecedented times.

Indeed, jurisdiction (over roads, for example) in Nuxalk territory may be characterized as mixed and/or controversial, as lands were never ceded by treaty. Andrea Hilland, a Nuxalkmc lawyer, states that, “the Nuxalk people have not signed treaties with any government. Nuxalk laws state where Nuxalk territorial boundaries are. Stutwiniitscw (thank you), Nuxalkmc, for consistently resisting the subversion of Nuxalk laws.”

When COVID-19 first became a concern and local hospital capacity limits were recognized, Nuxalkmc acted to reduce non-essential road travel to Bella Coola. In support of these efforts, the Central Coast Regional District declared a local state of emergency and issued a Travel Restriction Order. On March 26 the provincial government sought a unified approach across the province and declared a state of emergency and suspended all local states of emergency aside from the City of Vancouver’s.

Nuxalk language and culture is exclusive to Nuxalk territory and it is imperative that the road closure by Nuxalk leadership be respected to preserve this distinct people and culture. As Tallio summarizes, “We are standing up for our human right to be safe in our own territory where our Nation, language and culture have existed for over 10,000 years.”

It remains to be seen whether the province will step up to stop non-essential travel and hear the pleas echoed in Indigenous communities across B.C.