Have you ever been in a library that's ten thousand years old? La'goot Spencer Greening has spent years in his peoples' library, Tsimshian territory, as a student of its culture, laws and oral history, learning what environmental conservation means from an Indigenous perspective.

In an interview in his home in Prince Rupert, Greening told National Observer that Indigenous peoples' place-based knowledge, cultivated through thousands of years of direct relationship to territory, seasons and ecosystems, should be what governs what the western world calls "environmentalism, conservation and stewardship."

Greening is from the Tsimshian community of the Gitga’at First Nation (Hartley Bay) on the northern coast of British Columbia. He is currently a doctoral student in the faculty of environment at Simon Fraser University, where he studies the relationship between Gitga’at traditional ecological knowledge, language, and history in the context of Indigenous resource management. He has been recognized as a Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation Scholar, for 2018-2020.

As a part of the First Nations Forward podcast series, reporter Emilee Gilpin interviewed Greening in his home in Prince Rupert.

Listen to the interview:

Emilee: Can you introduce yourself?

Spencer: My name is La'goot of the Gitga'at people of the Tsimshian. You might know us as the Gitga'at First Nation. My English given name is Spencer Greening, La'goot (la-go-et) is my ancestral name, of the Raven Tribe of the Gitga'at people. I live primarily in Prince Rupert, but in between Hartley Bay, the home community of the Gitga'at people and here in Tsimshian territory, where you're recording now, Prince Rupert.

Emilee: Where did you grow up?

Spencer: I grew up in the interior of B.C., in a small community called Burns Lake. My family moved there shortly before my brother and I were born. We have family roots here in Tsimshian territory. My community on my status card and my community that my ancestral Tsimshian name comes from, is Hartley Bay, the Gitga'at First Nation. I grew up interior, but we would come back and harvest fish in summers, and stay connected with my grandparents, and that sort of thing.

Emilee: Where is Tsimshian territory?

Spencer: If you were to travel up the coast, at some point, you would reach Prince Rupert. And if you can imagine, I think most listeners or readers know where Haida Gwaii is, you can imagine that big of a footprint and put it on the mainland, and that would be Tsimshian territory. And so within Tsimshian territory is Prince Rupert - it goes up the Skeena (River), down south towards Klemtu, Bella Bella, and as you go down south from Prince Rupert, about 90 miles is Hartley Bay. So it's quite a remote community. It's only accessible by float plane or a small ferry.

Emilee: How many communities make up the Tsimshian nation?

Spencer: If I were to start from the south and head up north, there would be Klemtu, which was traditionally sort of half Tsimshian. If you move up, you would have Hartley Bay, Kitkatla, Prince Rupert area, that's Metlakatla, just north of there you have Lax-Kw'alaams, and then if you were to head up the Skeena, you would have Kitsumkalum and Kitselas and then there's one American community, Metlakatla, Alaska.

But these are all communities that are confined within the reserve system. And if you were to go back beyond that, generally people talk about the tribes, and there were approximately fifteen tribes within the Tsimshian peoples and that would be fifteen very specific villages who each had their own territories within them. There's a whole bunch of factors as to why people came together and lived in less tribal settings, less than fifteen per se, now we have, what did I list, eight? People came together for, whether it was sickness, political reasons, or being forced to through colonization.

Emilee: What is your job, your work, your research focus?

Spencer: First and foremost, I just try to learn to reclaim how our elders really want our younger generation to live.

That's at the forefront of what I want to do in my work, is to honour those elders and the vision they have for us. And so when I think of work, sometimes it's "professional work," but often, a lot of that work is that community work, first and foremost. And so, really being a community member is the day-to-day stuff I really truly care about that takes time and energy and is a good thing and doesn't take up energy in a bad way. On a "professional level," currently I'm a PhD student at Simon Fraser University who does research in environmental studies. And my research is a mix of resource management, anthropology, archeology, and I dabble in a little bit of linguistics, but it's mostly because I'm passionate about trying to learn our language and becoming a speaker in that.

Emilee: It sounds like all of those things are connected?

Spencer: Absolutely (laughing). Really, what it boils down to, I mean all those titles are titles and sometimes they don't mean anything, but the way I make sense of it is, I'm learning how to tell these stories, stories that come from the land, and translate them into an academic way. And so really it's just learning how to be a storyteller in these two different worlds, the storyteller in your own culture and learning from the elders and working with them and trying to continue that small piece of the puzzle that I represent that make Giga'at people who we are as a community and trying to be a solid community member. But also learning the language of speaking to non-Indigenous Canada and colonial Canada in a way that is also healthy for our people and often becomes healthy for the whole land. And really the laws we've been given and how that relates to how we need these relationships with land now.

The research that has really become my life is looking at a specific territory, a watershed, and that watershed has a very consistent long-term occupancy by our people. We call it 'Laxgalts’ap,' we call it 'Old Town.' It was our previous village, before the reserve system. At the time of colonization, here in Tsimshian territory, there was a lot of migration happening between the villages and people dipping their toes in the Christianization, in the missionization of this territory. And, as part of that, people moved from Laxgalts’ap. People were moving back and forth between both Metlakatlas, because that was the height of the missionization and there was a whole bunch of political and religious stuff going on, and when they decided to come back to our territory, they stayed in Hartley Bay, as opposed to Old Town, Laxgalts’ap.

My research though is in Old Town, because there's such deep roots there, thousands and thousands of years of consistent occupancy.

The oldest dates we have on the coast for archeology are like 14,000 (years old), from Bella, Bella. I'm sure we'll find more dates like that up and down the coast and I foresee that happening in our territory. This is one of the places where you get pretty close to that consistency of occupancy. And so you can have that archeological data and history, along with the oral histories of that place, just like every other nation would have.

You can really tell a story of what it means to be a people who are continuously guided by this piece of land and how that shapes your worldview, how that shapes your laws, your governance, and ultimately your stewardship and relationship with that land.

And so my hope is that, in my work, I can work with elders and my community, and portray that story in a way that's both good for us, but also challenges how Canada understand stewardship and management of these lands.

Emilee: What are some differences between the ways that Canada understands what the English language refers to as 'conservation, stewardship, environmentalism,' and the way you are coming to understand that relationship to your ancestral lands, waters and non-human relatives?

Spencer: I think one thing that most people are probably aware of is how othering mainstream society is towards "nature." I know in our language, there's no word for nature, because we were just as much a part of it as were bears and salmon and trees and all these things were a part of that system. And mainstream society still hasn't made that jump to see that.

When you think of environmentalism or conservation, it's kind of like "that was put there for our use," humans entitlement to resources. And that inherent belief that we have the right to do what we can for profit. And that's the stuff that still resonates and is alive in the foundation of how mainstream society works with land management and stewardship. And so you can look at the extremes.

That is still the case in the structure of our political government, our government when it engages in politics and resource management. And it really became clear to me when I was on council for our community, being in those rooms with government, you kind of get to understand, well you see it on the ground and how agreements take place and negotiations. It comes down to this structure that is built on the idea that the Crown owns the land, it is entitled to that land to create its own profit.

I don't think, in my understanding of our Tsimshian laws, that there was ever an emphasis, let alone an end goal of our people, to engage with land in a way where it was about profit.

So that's the huge difference is that, when you're engaging in these political battles, both sides are coming with a very different end game. It's very loud in those rooms when you're working with government. But on a community level, it's so loud how much we see ourselves as a part of that land as well. And a key part of that land too, and that we are here, not only to use that land or rely on that land, but we can also help it flourish. And there's plenty of examples of how Indigenous people on the northwest coast allowed land to flourish. And so I think if we were to backtrack to your question, "how do these worldviews differ?" that's the very first and probably most obvious difference between the two cultures.

Emilee: When you have people coexisting with such different worldviews, what ways are you finding to translate or to engage with that space? When you're sitting around the table with the province and the feds and your community, how do you find ways for people to understand one another, when they're functioning from such different worldviews?

Spencer: That's a good question. I think back to times where I feel like I have been heard or my community has been heard and it comes down to this idea that everyone is human and all humans have trials and tribulations and we can't romanticize the idea that Indigenous people have been absolutely consistently sustainable for millennia. We have our oral histories on how society has changed and grew and cultures changed, and languages changed, and practices changed. Often, laws and stories are kept to really recognize that change and recognize that we've made a mistake at point A and we moved to point B, to become more aware and to improve on that mistake.

And if you have a certain group who has been in tune with a geographic area for thousands and thousands of years, they've been able to do that point A to B to C for a very long time. If you look at another group that's only been here for a fraction of what Indigenous people have, they're not in their maturity with the land in that way. And I think recognizing that resonates with people, and we can't kid ourselves that certain people know the answer all the time. But we're in this place as humans and we're trying to gather the tools we can get to ensure that there's a future with the environment.

By allowing Indigenous voices and people to have power in that space, you just create a fuller tool-box.

There's always a struggle when it comes to the power dynamics and I know there's co-management, consultation, reconciliation, and what does it look like on the ground and in environmental assessments? The power dynamics can still cause a lot of conflict for Indigenous people and there's no question about it, but that relationship is slowly changing. And I think it's peoples' awareness, really asking the questions, where do we want to go in the future? And if that future involves being in relationship with our ecosystems, what are the best ways we can come to understand those ecosystems? And it's kind of obvious that the best way to understand those ecosystems are the people who hold libraries in their culture over thousands of years of relationship with those ecosystems.

Emilee: Have you seen any examples of the respect for that knowledge, relationship, and thousands of years of people existing and getting to know seasons and ecosystems and environments... have you seen any examples where you think, "cool, this is what it could look like, this is where Canada could learn how to take the back seat or support Indigenous-led conservation, Indigenous-led stewardship or Indigenous governance, Indigenous laws?"

Spencer: I think we're in these awkward teenage years where we haven't gotten it yet, the awkward teenage years of this "reconciliation," or that's how it's framed right now. And so we're just, we're going there, and I think in our own community there's agreements, protocol agreements and data management and sharing with Department of Fisheries. But when it comes down to making the real powerful influential decisions, there's still that paternalistic 'Canada is the one that knows best and has the right to make that decision,' which is a farce to us. But we're stuck in that. And so again, it's that power imbalance where we don't have a veto in these decisions, but we're able to feed information, which in a way feels manipulative. But also, in a way, that wasn't happening 50 years ago, when they were just destroying our fish weirs and fish traps and things like that. So the relationship has changed. It's more frustrating probably than it is relieving, but we have to recognize some of it is relieving to see.

Some other cases might be Indigenous people having more say on, let's say, logging practices. I think if communities who wished to engage with logging can really implement their own laws, if they see a very serious need to do that, and a serious threat by companies over logging, or it depends how much people find acceptable within their own worldview. Each nation will be different, but there's room for that conversation now. I think what it could potentially look like... I think abalone is a really good example.

Indigenous people across the board, from what I've understood, and have heard, they completely oppose, especially in this territory, the commercial harvest of abalone when it showed up and just decimated the species. Our people were saying, "we have specific laws around how to harvest this. If you harvest it in this way, it's gone, it's going to be gone," and of course that happened and it almost went extinct and now it's sort of recovering. There's been this weird solution, where you can just boom and bust a resource, and that happened to abalone. You go in, just mess so many things up, and then just step back and be like, okay, if we let it be, it'll recover on its own. Which isn't the case.

Removing that species affected a ton of other species and, if you were to do that sort of siloed approach, where we can just go and then let it sit on its own and just pretend that it'll do its own thing to recover, we're being ignorant to the connections to all these other species of the ecosystem. And so what we have is the opportunity in these situations to potentially introduce an Indigenous harvest of abalone that is enforced under Indigenous laws. It will strengthen that species, that resource, if we enforce those laws, because you can gradually bring it back to where it's becoming accustomed to being harvested again. Because it's still quite delicate, if you just leave it alone and hope for the best. But you can build a resilience if humans are actively integrating their previous systems back into play, so that species can get used to it and live the way it did, because people were actively harvesting it for thousands of years and that's what that species got used to. And so, that's a way that you could really imagine the power shifting into Indigenous people's hands, is by allowing for that space.

And it becomes very local, but I think that's what we often need, is the people on the ground who really depend on these ecosystems in specific geographic areas. You need those ones at the forefront of these management systems. That's where you could see the power dynamic shift, putting the the ball in our court, where we're given our rights to stewardship and our rights to Indigenous laws and we're actively putting them in place. Right now, if we are to do that, it's considered illegal under Canadian law, but potentially legal under our law.

I think people need to push that boundary sometimes and really say "this is our law" and we need to challenge Canadian law if it's not working, because under our law, we've honed these laws in over millennia, and they've worked for us. So why would we just give them up?

Emilee: Well and let's look at Canada as laws. How old are they? Where did they come from? What did they formed from? They came from somewhere and they're pretty young. And they didn't come from the land, because they're colonial laws and colonial legal systems. What are some examples of your law that you've had the opportunity to learn about and how do you abide by those laws?

Spencer: I just want to touch on something you mentioned there and I think it goes back to when I was talking about the relationships with the end game between our government and the western government. It's very similar about those laws.

If we look at colonial law, the end game of that law was not to have a sustainable relationship with a specific ecosystem. That wasn't even on the radar, but so many of our laws, that was the end game - how do you create a respectful, sustainable relationship with this land we're on, in a way that human society can thrive, along with the plant society, the fish society, any kind of non-human society is able to thrive. And so yeah, it's interesting to look at those two end games.

Emilee: It's a fundamental difference of values embedded in the laws...The way that I've come to understand is that a lot of Indigenous legal systems, it's more natural laws that, to put it simply, come from the land...So it makes sense, when you look at, for example, a salmon spawn, and you look at how some salmon will spawn where they were born, and how natural that is, and instinctual, and intuitive...So when we wonder why they're sustainable... you're saying the end game is to have sustainable relationships...for the orcas not to become extinct and the caribou not to become extinct and the moose not to become extinct. Whereas, when you have a legal system and the values are democracy, or putting humans as supreme, or to protect capitalism...and the ways a lot of laws have been built, is to protect that colonial agenda.

Spencer: It's interesting you brought up treaties with non-human beings, and I think that's a great example. I remember looking at environmental assessments, when I was working on council in the community, and talking about tanker traffic. There's a specific place in their territory where you're not supposed to make noise and you're supposed to give offerings to a spiritual being. And this is like a treaty that we've developed with a non-human being, and it's just as serious, to put it in mainstream western terms, if you drive through a national park, you have a toll and these protocols that you have to follow around littering and garbage, and all these other things. It's essentially the same idea, but rooted in this deep, long relationship with the land and a personal relationship experience with the spiritual aspect of the land, but they're still laws. So that's a great example.

If we're hyper-aware of how these laws should exist in our world today, we should be enforcing them for outsiders as well. And that's where it gets complex, because there's this respect thing, and will people understand? I'm not sure. But I know one thing's for sure, is that I'm not upholding my treaty with those spiritual beings, if I'm allowing people to disrupt them and people to go through without making offerings. And so, that's one way to really dive into these laws and see how it could exist.

Another example is the management of game and fish. We have a hereditary structure of people who, under our laws, have been trained and put in that place, to make those decisions of what's being hunted and to what extent. And right now we allow, or I don't know about we allow, but mainstream Canada would enable DFO (Department of Fisheries and Oceans) to make those decisions on quotas.

We can fundamentally challenge that law through our own hereditary system, because as stewards, we should be the ones stewarding that land, in our eyes. That's a part of our law, to be the steward, and you have to go that extra mile as Indigenous people to say, 'as stewards, we should be deciding our quotas as well, and how we harvest from the land and how we engage with it.' So that's another aspect of that law.

Emilee: What are the consequences of breaking your own laws?

Spencer: It's depends on the context. Well, there's definitely different consequences and procedures, based on the different offences. Something that I like to recognize, is that things are dealt with in a very communal way and more local way, and it creates an accountability to larger society. Whether that's a potlatch, where you have to make up for what you've done and recognize to the entire community that "I've done this, I'm being accountable to this and this is how we're going to deal with it and I'll follow through with that," to a hereditary chief saying "you are not able to step foot on this territory." It can range, but things revolve around a community relationship to the offender. In mainstream society, it's easy to become individualized and you serve an individualized sentence. You can go to jail, you might get community service. In an Indigenous setting, this person's in relationship with the whole group of people, and so that punishment isn't just about that person, it's about all these other ones and just framing our problem solving around that.

Tsimshian scholar, hunter, fisherman and student of his culture, Spencer Greening, looks out on his territory and wonders whether this will be the summer he will hunt his first mountain goat. Photo by Emilee Gilpin

Emilee: There's been a ton of examples where...people have been arrested, jailed, killed, punished, for breaking colonial laws, while upholding other laws, Indigenous laws, pre-existing laws...So there's these constant clashing of laws, right? Indigenous people saying, "no, these are legal systems, these are laws, these are responsibilities and obligations." It's not protesting. It's not counter. It's not being against something and just trying to bring something down. There are other pre-existing systems and realities.

Spencer: And that's something that I hope people will come to understand in time. We can look at the Wet'suwet'en example, and you have all these people potentially supporting the (pipeline) development and shaming, whether it's the Unist'ot'en, or whoever is "blockading." They're being very constructive, honorable citizens in their world.

And what it boils down to is this superiority complex that Canadian laws and values will trump those Indigenous ones at every step of the way.

That's how Canadian society will see that relationship right now. And yeah, hopefully people will understand that, no, they're representing an in-depth legal system that needs to be honored and needs to be upheld. How people feel so passionately about Canadian law and their country, you can imagine how the Wet'suwet'en feel, except they've been tied to their nation for a lot longer (laughs).

Emilee: Bringing up the Wet'suwet'en, there's a lot of conversations around how the hereditary system interacts with the elected council system. Speaking from your experience, how does your community's hereditary system interact with the elected system?

Spencer: I had a really positive experience working in our council and we're sort of privileged that one of our chiefs, a hereditary chief, is the elected chief counselor as well. He holds the two roles. We have a long history of hereditary chiefs being council representatives as well. And I think the community just sort of intuitively knows that that's generally a good idea. But when I was on this, I think it was the term prior, a few terms prior, they made it official that there would be hereditary representation and when anything comes to a land-based decision, the hereditary leadership has to be consulted and in the room, but also they would have a veto. And so if they say "no go," it doesn't happen.

So we were able to put ourselves in the position to say, what power do we have as a council? Through that question, we're able to lift our own leadership up, our hereditary leadership. So let's not play into the game that disempowered our people, let's try to turn it around so, in our law, we lifted them up, so they have the power structure, the power dynamic is back in their court, so to speak. Because they are the stewards to the land, the territory, they're the ones that would hold that title, not the band council. And so we put them in the position that they rightfully have, because we believe in that system.

Emilee: And every system is a little bit different. And I know the word chief even can be quite misleading, so what is the word that you would equate or translate "chief" in your community and cultural context, and what would their responsibilities be?

Spencer: Our word is "Sm'oigyet" (and "Sm'gyigyet" for plural), and I'm glad you point that out, because the word 'chief' can be misconstrued. You even have some communities, like Lax Kwalaams, Port Simpson, their counselor, they call him a mayor, just because there's that tension of misinterpretation. We still go by chief counselor, who is the representative, the chief representative of our elected council. But our Sm'oigyet, is the head of a lineage. And that lineage would have a body of members of people who are born into it, and they would be the spokesperson of the ongoing social relations, but also of stewarding specific territories that that lineage has rights to.

It's very similar to how politics work today, making decisions, but the processes that go into making those decisions can be quite different and whether there's a council of matriarchs behind them or not, often we would see that in Tsimshian territory, where the matriarchs are quite valued. They're how you get born into the lineage is through the mother as well, in our territory. And so they're a very important part of decision making as well. Those are the dynamics, where just like in Canada, you have a parliament, and a house of representatives, Senate and you would have bodies like that within these lineages, or these clan groups, just like an elective representative in Canada, they're the spokesperson. They don't have authoritarian control. We have oral histories of people that did try that and usually they go sideways. And so we have laws in place to try to not make that happen, because we've learned from that, over our long history in this neck of the woods. But, it's generally our Sm'oigyet will be a spokesperson of the people.

Something that is always interesting to think about is how we understood wealth disbursement and our conceptions of healthy communities, and how it challenges ideas of wealth.

I'm often thinking about how we've trapped ourselves in individual accumulation and how Tsimshian wealth, and I think a lot of coastal people, the conception of wealth, was just completely flipped on its head. In order to be at the top of the hierarchy, because there was hierarchy, there was this huge difference. In mainstream society, you accumulate wealth and you get power through that individual wealth. In Tsimshian society and other coastal peoples, you have to disburse it. And so the active pursuit of power and wealth, was actually making communities healthier and stronger, and more resilient, through the dispersion of resources. And so it's just two very different morals around understandings of what wealth is. You were a wealthy person based on how much you have done.

And imagine if that's what we strived for today, as opposed to mainstream society striving to become individually wealthy or rich in a monetary value. But if we were born or mainstream society was born thinking, I'll be a good person, I'll be the elite, I'll be in the upper scale of Canadian society, if I disburse my wealth, we would look totally different. So that's always interesting to think on how those governance structures really embodied a different moral and value and how we look at large populations.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Every time I read a First Nations story in the papers, I am compelled to go to the Net to find out how many people the story affects. There are two web sites, and the one at gigaatnation.ca claims 130 people in Hartley Bay, and about 500 in Prince Rupert, unknown others in Vancouver. That's so few people they can easily just have a vote on this by direct democracy. It's a real reach to ask us to respect the wishes of hereditary leaders if the 630 people themselves are majority-opposed; never mind the tension between 'elected' and 'hereditary'; who needs leaders making decisions for the people when the people themselves can just speak up?

Or perhaps the 130 people of Hartley Bay consider themselves the only ones who deserve a vote, the only ones living near the lands affected; that's a thing for the nation to sort out.

Nearly all of the First Nations communities are small enough that really huge decisions like this can be made by direct democracy, and leave all leaders, elected and hereditary, out of it.

The Tsuu T'ina beside Calgary went to referendum with the huge, I think $100M, decision to allow or not allow Calgary's "Ring Road" to pass through their lands; and rejected millions of dollars to maintain territorial integrity, and it was respected by all. (We Calgarians were disappointed, sure; but we accepted it).

Yoicks, I forgot the end of the Tsuu T'ina story. They turned down a huge deal in 2009, then accepted a slightly improved one in 2013, with the band council speaking up for it in several meetings. The vote was 650 in favour out of 900, making the decision clear, so everybody could feel right about it.

That's how it's supposed to work. Reading these stories of internal governance dysfunctions is always sad.