Photos and story by Emilee Gilpin
Listen to Emilee tell her story, in her own words.
Sometimes it's better to walk into an experience without expectations.
I left Vancouver in the early morning on December 4th, and made my way to an outlying airport terminal. I had received an invitation to visit Bella Coola and learn about the apprenticeship program of the Nuxalk First Nation, but I had little knowledge yet of the history of the territory or people.
For me, an important part of doing this work in a good way, in the right way, means respecting relationship-based reporting and community-based protocol. It means I will not visit a community unless I have been explicitly invited. In this case, I had been put in touch with the Nuxalk's band’s asset assistant, Jalissa Moody, through Chief Charles Nelson (who I met at a fish farm occupation gathering) earlier this fall. And Jalissa had extended the invitation to come to Bella Coola and learn more about what the Nuxalk were doing about housing.
So I boarded the smallest plane I have ever been on and took off with Pacific Coastal Airlines, flying northeast up the coast. Bella Coola is located 100 km east of the Pacific Ocean, surrounded by massive mountains that flaunt their white snow peaks with pride.
The plane to Bella Coola stopped at Anahim Lake, a town two hours east of Bella Coola valley, and continued on to a small airport station, where everything was frostier, more open. The noise of the city felt far away as I got off the plane and took deep breaths of clean coastal air, happy to be away from the chaos of the city, consumer culture and the easy breeding ground for spiritual dis-ease. A small coffee pot with freshly brewed coffee sat on the counter, and passengers, most of whom knew each other, filled a cup, lit a smoke, and stretched their legs, glad to be home.
Outside, I met Clyde Tallio, who was on his way back from New York, where he was visiting museums that hold Nuxalk masks, carvings, weaving, and even preserved traditional foods. Clyde has spent the last 8 or so years visiting museums where the spirit of Nuxalk ancestors are held, having been stolen from the community during the time following the smallpox epidemic, he told me. They even took traditional food and preserved it, Clyde half-laughed.
I have spoken with countless Indigenous people who talk about art, beading, masks — masterpieces held captive in museums, on display for entertainment and education, but far from the homes they were created in and the purposes they were created for.
Clyde goes to these museums to take photos of the masks and carvings, in order to remember the designs used by his relatives and bring them home for artists to breathe life into again. I didn’t know it at the time, but Clyde is a highly respected community member for the work he does as a Nuxalk language speaker and teacher, as well as teaching culture and oral history.
I sat beside Clyde on the yellow school bus we boarded at Anahim Lake. I told him who I was and what I was doing. I told him I’m Saulteaux Cree and Métis and he told me there are fluent Cree speakers in his community. I got excited, thinking about how much I would love to speak more than just a handful of Cree words, the language my relatives spoke fluently. I might like to meet one of these Cree speakers living on Nuxalk territories, I thought. How many of us are a part of this Indigenous diaspora?
Clyde started sharing stories of the Nuxalk people with me. Some stories can be shared casually like this, with a stranger on the bus, while others are meant for specific and strict cultural spaces.
He spoke about the beginning.
About epic battles between supernatural beings who waged wars in the upper world. About when the first Nuxalk ancestors came down the mountains, to the earth, guided by the eyelash of the descending sun. The Creator had chosen this place to be the landing place for his ancestors, he explained.
There was more to unfold from these stories, more rich symbolism, sophisticated teachings and brilliance in their smayusta (Nuxalk word for history), but Clyde was tired after traveling and I didn’t want to ask any more of his time and energy. I was grateful for what he did share. It was a reminder that I was a visitor in territories with a deep and ancient history.
Stephen Mecham was on his way home from logging when we met. He reminded me that we were entering wolf and cougar territories.
The most intense dream I’ve ever had involved me being chased by a pack of hungry wolves through a forest, through my childhood home, into the basement where I slammed shut the door to the room under the stairs in the face of gnashing sharp teeth. I had the dream when I was about seven years-old, and have been fascinated with wolves ever since.
Later, I thought I respected them, based on what I knew of their quiet intensity, fierceness and protective spirit. When I told Stephen this, he laughed and said, “Man, I f*cking hate wolves.”
He went on to tell me three different occasions where his family’s dogs were killed by wolves. They send their females in heat, to lure in male dogs, he said, then the pack attacks the dog, ripping them in half. They’ll also attack a cow while she’s in the middle of giving birth and carry on and eat the rest of cow.
Damn. I laughed at my naivety. Though this was just one account of one persons experiences with sharing territories with wolves, I thought about how urban culture can romanticize “the wild.” Ideas constructed from the media, or worse, zoos and aquariums, where animals are held in captivity, for the viewing pleasure of humans.
I reminded myself not to create or feed ideas about animals or people, before having my own experiences and relationships. How quick some of us are to do that, and how fragile our preconceptions can be. I reminded myself also to keep an eye out for wolves, who had indeed appeared to me in my childhood dream, in their natural form.
With instincts not yet suffocated, I knew more as a child, I thought.
As we made our way down the mountainside, the driver pulled over to put chains on the tires to prevent slipping in icy conditions. A rental car was waiting for me at the tiny airport and my heart started to beat. I was excited, high even, from the beauty of the valley I was now engulfed in. Over the next few days, locals assured me that you never get used to the beauty, but it affects newcomers most intensely.
I drove down one long road to the rez, where I dropped Clyde off and checked into the band office, where Jalissa Moody, the band’s asset assistant, was waiting for me.
Over the next few days, Jalissa took me under her wing. Jalissa, Nuxalk and well-respected in her community, knew exactly who to talk to. She knew that if I wanted to learn about the housing apprenticeship program, I needed to speak with all the people who made up its moving parts, made the dream a reality.
First, and most obviously, I needed to speak with Richard Hall, the community champion for the program. I also needed to speak with someone in the education department, who worked to access funds for students, with a council member, and a handful of apprentices, who could speak for themselves about how it impacted their lives.
But first, I stopped into my motel, owned by the Nation. I parked the jeep, and opened the door to a little bachelorette suite with a tiny kitchenette, bathroom, TV, work station and bed. A journalist’s dream.
Jalissa invited me to dinner at one of the two restaurants in town. They serve everything: Thai food, burgers, sandwiches, sushi, anything your heart desires. We both felt like sushi and crispy tofu. Midway through the meal an older man (92, I found out) came right up to the table and asked us if we knew that he had once been attacked by a cougar.
Jalissa had heard the story before but I was fascinated. As he went on to explain how the cougar attacked him when he was in the forest, about how he managed to get his hand in its mouth, taking his hat off and showing us the teeth marks, I felt a cloud of doubt arise. I didn’t know whether to believe him, I realized. Had I really been in the city so long that I had lost the ability to tell when someone was speaking their truth?
It was a true story, Jalissa told me, and one of many of Clarence Hall’s incredible tales. He went on to talk about when he was taken into a concentration camp in Germany during the second world war. He saw evil on all sides, he told us, pausing, looking off into the distance, then saying “how can there be so much evil in this world?”
The next day, I stopped at the diner on the way to the band office, to grab a breakfast sandwich and coffee. There was a group of older white men, who apparently meet everyday in the diner, drinking coffee, watching TV, joking with the waitress and sharing stories.
I felt their eyes on my body, not just because I was an outsider and new face, but because I was a woman travelling alone. I’ve felt similar stares many times before, making me hyper aware of my physical body, hyper aware of the fact that my work brings me to new territories, alone, vulnerable. I smiled, they were kind (one bought my coffee the following day) and life moved on.
Over the next two days, I interviewed 12 people.
I heard story after story about the history of the Nuxalk people, about a giant flood that displaced the community and the only two buildings that survived and were brought across the water. About a culture camp that happens every summer, where Nuxalk youth are taken out on the land, away from the town and taught by older community members in the old ways. Connecting to their traditions through the ways of their ancestors, remembering by doing, reconnecting by disconnecting.
I heard about the horrible housing conditions that the community lived with for years. What I gathered, was that disrespect feeds disrespect. Many people felt disrespected by the people who organized housing — outside consultants, contractors, engineers, imposing government standards that often made no sense for their wet west coast weather conditions and social and cultural realities.
The Nuxalk housing program, which brings instructors to Bella Coola and allows community members to stay at home to train from within the community, was the result of many hardworking people.
Richard Hall worked for the government for over a decade, inspecting houses on reservations and in cities. He saw the most disgusting conditions you could imagine, he said, conditions that no non-Indigenous person would ever dare live in. So why was this standard acceptable for Indigenous people?
Hall finally agreed to return home and work with local skilled trades workers. He took a pay cut, but was passionate about helping his Nation take a step towards sovereignty, towards freedom, he told me.
For Hall to succeed, there had to be a shift in the band council leadership. There can be a lot of complicated politics involved with band councils, and Nuxalk members said the old council mentality was, “our way or the highway.” Over time, new people took seats on council and slowly shared power with other community members. This shift, many people told me, allowed the program to take off.
After all, the program’s success meant everyone’s success.
As the apprentices learned and became prouder, more confident, it rippled through the whole community. The results were tangible, visible and constant. People who once didn’t have much purpose, found hope in their work, found something to believe in and fight for. And community members were excited by the new units, better renovations, more sustainable materials and familiar faces doing the work.
It became increasingly obvious, that this story wasn’t just about housing, it was also about healing.
Carrigan Tallio’s story impacted me especially, since she was one of the only women in a male-dominated field.
I too had grown up wanting to prove I could do it- whatever it was- just like the boys. Carrigan talked about how it was hard and intimidating at first but that, the more she accomplished, the more she believed in herself. It helped that her dad had raised her to be tough, to use tools and put her body to work, helping fix things around the house and fishing out on the boat.
During the interview, Jalissa shared a quote she had seen on Instagram that read: “Anything you can do, I can do bleeding.” We all laughed and I’m pretty sure we high-fived more than once.
Outside of interviewing, transcribing, taking photos and writing, I went with Jalissa to watch the sun set one evening, which turned out to be one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen. The whole sky transformed, and with it, my heart.
Everything was painted pink and purple. These moments, transfixed by nature’s perfection, humble me and remind me of the Creator’s power, to wash away and make beautiful. If we would just let nature take the lead, I thought, in all corners of the world, as many once did and continue to do….
Jalissa also took me on a hike, to see ancient petroglyphs, thousands of years old, the art of Nuxalk ancestors. She told me this body of water we visited was where many young girls came for their coming of age ceremonies. To have ceremonial baths, spend time on their own, barefoot, in that beautiful transformative space of girl to woman.
I brought my medicine bag and pulled out tobacco I had been gifted.
I dropped tobacco, infused with prayers, into the water, as I have been taught. I stated my presence, made my intention known and gave thanks. From my ancestors to theirs. With Jalissa’s permission, I washed my face and the back of my neck, cleaning away any negative thoughts and energy I was carrying.
Jalissa invited me to her family home for dinner, where we ate coated halibut and shared stories and laughs over tea and cookies. I went to the school’s potluck another day and ate a feast of finger foods, including bite-sized bannock and by the end of the four-day visit, I was full.
Story-sharing is an ancient art. I can’t imagine writing this story without having visited the community, seeing the houses, meeting the workers, being quieted and humbled by the land.
“Now it’s up to you to share our story,” Richard Hall had told me on my last day.
I feel a responsibility to carry these stories in a good way. I often think of myself as carrying an invisible pouch, collecting what people choose to share, and trying to share it in the way that it is meant to be told. I have been taught a word and concept in Cree, “tapwewin,” which loosely means, “when spirit speaks through you.”
I believe I am doing the work I am meant to do. And I will do it right if it is grounded in relationships. If I’m a vehicle for others and if I can quiet my ego and my scattered noisy mind, to let spirit speak through.