One of the measures of global environmental health is the survival and well-being of indigenous people. So when the Ainu people of Hokkaido, Japan, approached the David Suzuki Foundation in the early '90s, requesting our help to promote their culture and protect their traditional lands, we readily agreed.
The word Ainu simply means "human," but since the arrival of settlers in Japan in the 15th century, the Ainu had been treated as anything but. Like North American settlers, those in Japan brought diseases that decimated indigenous populations. They also banned the Ainu language, took control of traditional lands and forced the Ainu to change their names. In the late 1800s, the government stated that Japan had no ethnic minority groups, making many Ainu so ashamed of their culture that they began denying their heritage.
When the Ainu people approached the Foundation, they wanted help not only to build respect for their culture but also to save what was left of their traditional lands from the Nibutani Dam, which the government planned to build on their last sacred river.
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The Foundation set to work voicing opposition to the dam and profiling the rich Ainu culture. In November 1992, David Suzuki and a group of native leaders from North and Central America visited Ainu territory while attending a conference in Japan. The following February, an Ainu elder and Japanese professor came to British Columbia, helped organized the North American Friends of the Ainu, made significant contacts with B.C. aboriginal leaders and attended a plenary of the First Nations summit.
Soon after, Ainu elders and dancers visited B.C., and the Foundation hosted one of its first public events, introducing the Ainu to British Columbians and celebrating the UN's International Year of Indigenous Peoples. Enough money was raised from this event to send a delegation of B.C. First Nations to the first international Ainu Festival. It took place in one of the last Ainu villages, which the Nibutani Dam would flood when complete.
Unfortunately, plans for the dam had progressed too far to be stopped, and the project proceeded as planned. But thanks to the positive profiling of the culture, some Ainu finally began to acknowledge their heritage, and the Japanese people gained respect for their traditions. The government even began promoting the Ainu culture, although it wasn't until 2008 that it finally recognized the Ainu as an official indigenous people.