Background image of Past Indigenous Leadership Awards honorees


A rich sense of honor: Learning from tribal leaders

In this world of broken economies, broken climates, and broken institutions, it’s an opportune time to ask: what if Native people were in charge?

On Haida Gwaii (the Islands of the People) off northern British Columbia, an area one-third the size of BC’s lengthy Vancouver Island, native Haida are back in charge. They don’t just oversee a pittance of a government-defined reservation. They own and co-manage the whole place, as a matter of sovereignty and inherent rights, part of a series of hard-won stands, court cases, alliances, negotiations and the occasional reconciliation agreement over the last two decades with the provincial and Canadian federal governments.

Here’s what’s happening on Haida Gwaii now: The vast forests aren’t being auctioned off to the highest bidder, freeing the islands from the endless boom-and-bust cycle of industrial forestry. Instead the Haida have implemented a go-slower harvest of trees, certified their own holdings under the rigorous Forest Stewardship Council, and begun supplying high-end niche manufacturers like Martin guitars and Steinway pianos – while looking after cultural and environmental matters.

Indigenous Leadership Award honorees and staff
Ecotrust Indigenous Leadership Award winners past and present gather with Ecotrust staff on Nov. 13. Photo by Liz Devine.

Where only a few years ago trophy hunts for bears on native lands by non-native outfitters were Haida Gwaii’s claim to fame to some, now Haida people are hosting ecotourists and sharing traditional ecological knowledge about the temperate rainforests there — its hot springs, staggeringly diverse marine life, endemic bears, and local salmon runs. Haida artistry — so desired around the world that Haida totem poles were lifted by early invaders and sent to European museums — is now flourishing again on the island, supported by a new cultural center.

An economy and way of life rooted in place is re-emerging and growing stronger in resource use, land and marine management.

Most telling, non-native loggers on the islands recently cast a vote of confidence of sorts, siding with the Haida in a recent blockade. The non-Haida logging families voiced support of the Haida Nation in the Supreme Court of Canada saying that they would rather entrust their future to the Haidas than international corporate giants or the provincial government.

“It makes sense to have people who depend on a place also manage its resources,” says Guujaaw, the President of the Council of the Haida Nation. “Timber companies just don’t have to think about fish or the long term on the earth—only this year’s bottom line.”

All up and down the West Coast of North America, from the Aleutian Islands to the Mexican border, Alaska Natives, First Nations, and American Indian tribes are resurgent and the results are hopeful: more holistic land and resource management, stronger advocacy for the things we all need (like clean water and healthy fish), a renewed focus on community health, family and personal wellbeing. Native leaders and governments are positioning their communities and those around them for recovery and long-term health. This is the sort of leadership we’ve been yearning for but lacking in the United States and Canada.

As Jon Waterhouse, executive director of the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council says: “Maybe it’s not that we don’t fit in, it’s that they don’t fit in. The modern business model doesn’t work for everyone. And modern culture has lost its way.”

Native people have persisted, survived and are modeling leadership practices beyond their borders. “We have no choice,” Gail Small, Northern Cheyenne, told the crowd on November 13 at Ecotrust’s Indigenous Leadership Awards ceremony, which recognizes the innovative work of leaders like Small to advance cultural, economic, social and environmental resilience.

Leaders gathered for the awards ceremony, many of them past winners, expressed several common goals for the near future.

This group sees it as critical that modern science be informed by traditional ecological knowledge, those timeless management tools and techniques that helped native people through fat and lean times. Along the Broughton Archipelago on the British Columbia coast, Chief Adam Dick (Kwaxsistalla) and Kim Recalma-Clutesi have documented the way native communities once stewarded extensive clam ”gardens” to buffer against cyclic salmon run declines in the region. Inland from their territory, ancient Okanagan teachings dictated that key returning salmon be left in the rivers at the headwaters of the great Columbia River system, to protect spawning stocks.

A new generation of tribal leaders, represented at the gathering by ten outstanding young people from Alaska and British Columbia, are translating the wisdom and the language of their elders into action in native and non-native cultures alike. And they’ll need to do that before it is literally too late — with a dwindling cohort of knowledge keepers such as Adam Dick. Leaders would like to build new institutions of learning to speed that knowledge transfer, the “Harvards of traditional knowledge.”

What was palpable from the discussions of the gathered leaders was the sense of obligation now to lead all groups, Native and non-Native alike. They voiced a common sense of struggle with people and communities everywhere, despite the dark periods tribes have endured in recent history under American and Canadian rule. Jeannette Armstrong, an Okanagan leader, spoke of other communities across the land as “brothers and sisters,” on a shared journey to restore the Earth and to build wellbeing and resilience.

“We can do nothing by ourselves,” Northern Cheyenne leader Gail Small said at the awards gala. “We all need you, all of you, whatever race, whatever culture. We have to come together to protect what’s in jeopardy.”

The journey will not be easy. But Small and others helped bring their communities back from respective states of destitution, landlessness, and near extinction. And they did so by overcoming what the Supreme Court of Canada has recognized as an “impoverished sense of honour” on the part of governments in not recognizing the historical sovereignty and rights of aboriginal people. By insisting upon their inherent human and sovereign rights to living well in their homelands, native peoples are showing the way to a more resilient world.