Picturing Transformation: Nexw Áyantsut
October 7, 2014
Review By Dorothy Kennedy
Picturing Transformation: Nexw Áyantsut is the collaborative effort of a prize-winning photographer (Nancy Bleck), a writer (Katherine Dodds), and a Squamish Nation chief (Bill Williams). The 175-page coffee-table book documents the story of how a handful of like-minded people with an appreciation for nature grew into an environmental movement that harnessed the political power of the Squamish (Coast Salish) Nation to the strategic organizational abilities of the Western Canada Wilderness Committee, led in spirit and in practice by legendary BC mountaineer, the late John Clarke, and driven by the unfaltering Nancy Bleck, to keep a forest northwest of the town of Squamish from being logged.
This book brings to mind anthropologist Wayne Suttles’ 1981 paper on the “Coast Salish Need for Wilderness,” an exceptionally thoughtful piece focused on the religious beliefs of the Aboriginal people who are part of the Coast Salish continuum that stretches from the northern end of Georgia Strait to the southern end of Puget Sound and includes the Squamish. I have often cited Suttles’ paper and included it in my article discussing conflict that can arise in Aboriginal land use disputes within the Coast Salish region when worldviews are not aligned (Kennedy 2002). Suttles in his paper cogently sets outs how traditional Coast Salish social organization promoted individualism and a view of nature that is not so far away from the ideology of the ecology movement. In addition, he dispels some myths of social and political organization, along with some romanticized notions of the Coast Salish peoples’ relationship with nature. Picturing Transformation tells how committed environmentalists and a First Nations chief found enough commonality in perspective to achieve their particular goals.
Forests had become the focus of Bleck’s artistic inquiry in the mid-1990s, and while she wandered the woods “listening to the land speaking” (38) and pondering concepts such as “wilderness” and “territory,” Clarke dedicated his life to exploring the nameless peaks of the Coast Mountains and educating the public on the value of conservation. What both clearly recognized is that for people to care about the land they need to experience it. Thus began their informal mission of having urban dwellers witness the wilderness that stood at the bounds of logging roads. In the summer of 1995, an area far up the Elaho River was deserving of such purposeful visitation. Chief Bill Williams of the Squamish Nation had noticed the activity of both the environmentalists and the loggers and appeared at the streamside “Witness Project” camp with his business card and the Squamish Nation’s Declaration of Aboriginal Title in hand.
While the Squamish Nation may, in years to come, be one of British Columbia’s biggest land developers, the ceremonial nature of Bleck’s and Clarke’s Witness Project spoke to Chief Bill Williams on other levels. Not only did the media-savvy Chief seize the opportunity to assert Squamish Aboriginal title interests in the northern extent of the Nation’s territory — soon bolstered with the neologism “nexw áyantsut” — but he drew upon Coast Salish tradition to localize and personalize the environmentalists’ experience through embracing them in his Squamish people’s own witnessing ceremony. Chief Williams not only recognized that many of us share a fundamental need for wilderness, i.e., places away from humanity that may yet be essential for all of us, including Squamish individuals, to survive, but he effectively co-opted the enthusiasm of the environmentalists to his larger agenda. Ultimately the Squamish Nation in 2005 signed an agreement with the Province of British Columbia to recognize such “Wild Spirit Places” as protected areas under the Nation’s own Land Use Plan.
Suttles predicted that in spite of changes that had already occurred in Coast Salish beliefs and practices, Coast Salish people would maintain their “basic orientation towards the natural environment” (Suttles 1981:715). Picturing Transformation shows that change continues to occur, yet the basic orientation remains.
Kennedy, Dorothy. 2002. “Culture and Politics in the Aboriginal Landscape: Reflections on the Identification of Culturally Significant Places in Western North America.” In Land and Territoriality, ed. Michael Saltman, 9-35. Oxford: Ethnicity and Identity Series, Berg.
Suttles, Wayne. 1981. “The Coast Salish Need for Wilderness.” In Inventory of Native American Religious Use, Practices, Localities and Resources, ed. Astrida Blukis Onat and Jan Hollenbeck, 699-716. Report prepared for the Mt. Baker — Snoqualmie National Forest, Washington State.
Picturing Transformation: Nexw Áyantsut
Nancy Bleck, Katherine Dodds, and Chief Bill Williams
Vancouver: Figure 1 Publishing, 2013. 160 pp. $39.95 cloth