Peace River (Photo by Darcy Sawcheck)
By Christy Jordan-Fenton, special to Red Power Media
Arriving back at the Rocky Mountain Fort Camp the day after they managed to get their feller-buncher past our fire keepers was devastating. The corridor they rammed into the forest had the feel of a grisly murder scene. Trees older than Treaty 8 lay on the forest floor, separated from their mammoth trunks. I sat beside a large cottonwood tree and cried, the tears freezing to my face in the -20C weather and opened my heart to feel what had just happened. And that’s when the trees began to speak. All they could ask is how someone could cut them down without seeing them? Without pausing for even a second to think of their lives and honour them? Not for one moment was the more than a century of their lives given a moment of pause. They asked over and over why their lives didn’t mean anything. I had no answer. All I could do is lay tobacco and tell them that we saw them and we honoured them.
Trees are prayers from Creation that all living things may have shelter, and medicine, and food, and fire. But all that was likely on the minds of the contracted BC Hydro employees the day they rammed their heavy equipment through, was breaking past our lines. The day after, as I sat and listened to the trees, now dying having been severed from their roots, I made a vow that no matter what would happen to that forest, I would do all I could to honour the plant nation, the animal nation, the rock nation, and all the other spirits held in the forest at the apex of the Peace and Moberly Rivers in Northeastern BC.
It was a sentiment deeply shared by the other campers. And so we brought broad cloth and tobacco to the flat, praying in good ways for our generations to come to be able to enjoy this sacred place, and for the renewal of the forest, the land, the air, and our precious waters, and for our abundant eagles who were the very first targets of BC Hydro’s destruction.
We gave respect to our ancestors and the sacrifices they made for us to be here, asking them to guide us in good ways, and honouring this place where the spirits rest. We prayed for healing of the people, of the land, of the water, of all living things, of our hearts, of the hearts of those who can so easily and without conscience destroy such places. We prayed for the return of the bison, for our unity and synergy, and to remember the fortitude of the bison who face into the storm instead of turning away from it. And we prayed, each of us, for the personal ways we connected to the Rocky Mountain Fort. We gave thanks and we celebrated and we offered our hearts. We placed those prayers with tobacco in prayer flags. We placed them in mourning flags. We made prayer bundles of strings holding fifty specific prayers each. We made them in a good way with good intentions, and blessed them with pipe ceremonies— with sacred pipes given to the people by White Buffalo Calf Woman. And then by tying those to the trees, we offered them in a good way to the spirits. Children hung those prayers. Elders hung those prayers. People of all nations (indigenous and not) placed those prayers where the spirits called them to be hung.
Prayer flags. (Photo by Christy Jordan-Fenton)
And now that we have been forced to leave by court injunction, evicted from sacred lands and traditional territory that access and use of was guaranteed for as long as the sun shines, the grass grows, and the rivers flow, BC Hydro and the RCMP are looking for a way to remove those prayers we offered. On Tuesday three RCMP members and one BC Hydro Safety and Security employee came to read the injunction to us, and give us their terms of eviction.
Let’s keep in mind that many of the elder Treaty 8 Stewards of the Land could recall coming with their families, as young children, to camp and hunt and gather medicines. One of our members retold the story of how her grandmother travelled across the Peace River to meet her husband on that flat. Our spokeswoman, Helen Knott, is the great-great-granddaughter of Chief Bigfoot, the last signatory of Treaty 8. And maybe a little more than ironic that the very spot where the RCMP stood reading the injunction to us, was the first place where contact with the white man was made for this territory.
To add insult to injury, there was much concern over what to do about the prayer flags. First, let me say that by their laws, trees that hold sacred prayers are considered to be culturally modified trees and are protected by the Heritage Conservation Act, which is Forestry jurisdiction in British Columbia, not the jurisdiction of the RCMP. Next, for those who do not know, by our natural law, to disturb sacred prayers offered to the spirits brings very bad medicine. It is not something to take as superstition or mess around with. These prayers were made in sacred Sun Dance ways and carry power.
Prayer flags. (Photo by Helen Knott)
So between legalities and worries of bad medicine, BC Hydro and the RCMP were interested in finding a solution to remove our prayers so logging can proceed, as 49 trees are currently held by prayers for the spirits.
As the only one in camp on that day who practices these ceremonial ways, it was for me to answer for these prayers. The entourage of RCMP included an Aboriginal Liaison NCO, who was full of questions and quizzes about the significance of our prayers. And so I patiently explained the teachings I have received in these ways, choking back all the emotion I could manage over having to concede this sacred ground in the first place. And then came a point in the conversation where the Sergeant looked me straight in the eye and said, “Look, this isn’t my first rodeo. If you can read between the lines, is there a way we can minimize the mojo of removing these.” What was being suggested was that an elder come in to do a ceremony to remove our prayers. ON SACRED GROUND. Now I understand the Sergeant felt in a precarious situation and was trying to mediate. But earlier that morning the RCMP were told by our community’s most senior Sun Dance elder that those prayers do not get moved. Both by their law and by natural law. It was made clear, those prayers can’t be moved. I couldn’t help but think as I was asserting the exact same as the elder had done that morning, that standing on soil that holds the bodies of more than ten thousand years of ancestors, where women journeyed to have their babies, where children made their first hunt, where the trees shared breath and recorded the stories of the ancestors into their own topography…in such a place, our prayers and the legal ramifications, in addition to the bad medicine stirred from removing them, is the least of their worries. Violating the sacred is violating the sacred. Stirring sacred ground is stirring sacred ground. There is no ceremony to make it OK to disrespect the spirits, and the prayers offered by those who stood in humility aligned in the sacred space between the ancestors and the descendants.
It is abhorrent that Treaty 8 members should be evicted from their sacred ground so that it can be mowed flat in order for BC Hydro to dump acid rock there, while four pending court cases are waiting to be heard, and any one of those cases could halt construction permanently. To say the desecration of this sacred ground is premature is a gross understatement. But now to be asked if there is some kind of loophole to remove our prayers made in honour of this sacred place, so it will be more convenient for BC Hydro to continue desecrating this ground is beyond insulting. I wonder if the RCMP would request if there was a way a church or a statue of a saint be moved, so a cemetery could be violated by the greed of a corporation. My guess is not in a million years.
In the words of the recently ascended, modern indigenous rights pioneer, John Trudell, “Sacred is sacred.” And it is. There is no wiggle room. No grey area. No loopholes. No pieces of paper to sign and then change the meaning of, or ignore all together. Unfortunately, we sorely lacked the numbers or any means to logistically hold the Rocky Mountain Fort Camp in a physical way, which has been unbearably crushing to us all, but we are not removing our sacred prayers from sacred grounds.
They can violate their own laws. They can remove us from the land with their injunctions, and threat of police force and $8 million civil suits. They can disrespect our prayers. But BC Hydro can’t remove the spirits. And may Creator have compassion and pity for anyone who seeks to violate the natural laws of the spirit world. We have offered sacred to sacred. There is no injunction that can steal stewardship of sacred, nor remove us from the place where we stand between the ancestors and the descendants.
At the time of this writing, it is not known if the prayer flags and bundles have been removed or disturbed, as entrance to the Rocky Mountain Fort is blocked by the RCMP and attempts made by press to document these prayers have been thwarted. The Fort St John RCMP detachment assures they are still looking into the matter, though no details have been given. You can report the existence of these culturally modified sacred trees to the BC Ministry of Forestry under their archeology department.
Watch for future actions from the Treaty 8 Stewards of the Land. We are far from done!
Christy Jordan-Fenton was an active member of the Rocky Mountain Fort Camp. She is the author of four books about Inuvialuit elder Margaret Pokiak-Fenton and her time spent at Indian residential school, to include “Fatty Legs” (Annick Press 2010) and “A Stranger at Home” (Annick Press 2011).