Photo: Enbridge or a new indigenous economy?

Tribal Journeys is an annual canoe gathering of First Nations on the Pacific coast. Paddlers travel for weeks in traditional canoes to a host community and spend a week sharing food, tradition and culture. This year, the gathering is in the Heiltsuk community of Bella Bella. (Credit: Kris Krüg)

By: Anu Rao, Senior Specialist, Marine Planning

This small community is buzzing with life. Day two of the Tribal Journeys gathering starts with men and women, elders and youth of all Nations dancing to pop music on the soccer field where the week's cultural sharing takes place. The MC calls on them to get moving, to wake up the ancestors.

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They are warming up for a rally against the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline. I am handed a seven-foot "ceremonial spear", made of wood with an eagle feather tied to its top. We circle the field, spears to either side, as eagles fly overhead, calling loudly as we march to defend the land and water that is sacred to all of us.

Nation representatives speak passionately about how their culture, land, water and people are more important than getting Alberta oil overseas. Their answer to the Northern Enbridge Gateway proposal is simple: No.

On the same day, the Heiltsuk and Kitasoo-Xai'xais First Nations launch a court challenge against the pipeline. They believe the federal government did not take aboriginal title and rights into consideration when it approved the pipeline. They join several other First Nations in filing lawsuits to stop this project.

Meanwhile, according to Heiltsuk leader and visionary Frank Brown, "If you say 'no', you have to have a solution to no." So the community does yet another special thing on day two of the gathering: they organize an Indigenous Economic Summit.

This gathering is a logical place to start talking about reestablishing an indigenous approach to economies.

Frank Brown, Heiltsuk Nation

Frank Brown, Heiltsuk Nation

"Teachings of the canoe traditional law say to take a little and leave a lot," Frank quotes from the summit. Applying this law to economic development would make sure there is always something to go back for — and something to share.

"We recognize the journey these people have made to be with us," he tells me. "This is our own journey to develop relations of reciprocity."

Bella Bella, a remote island community of 1,600 people, is hosting several thousand guests from all over the continent who honoured the invitations, and challenges, to attend the gathering. Arriving here was a massive undertaking in all respects. I am awed by how these Nations have united to make it happen.

The canoe can only make it through these wild waters with people pulling together. And by pulling together, aboriginal peoples are exploring and demonstrating their unique and vital role in the green economy. I am excited to see what comes next.

Those who couldn't make the journey can follow the week's events live-streamed through Saturday.

All photographs generously donated by National Geographic photographer Kris Krüg, skipper of the support boat for the Squamish First Nation who travelled 600 nautical miles from Squamish to the Tribal Journey's gathering in Bella Bella.

July 17, 2014

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