An excerpt from the Spring 2023 issue of British Columbia History
Karen Aird, in conversation with K. Jane Watt
Karen Aird is Manager of Culture and Heritage at First Peoples’ Cultural Council, and we are delighted that she was able to spend time with us to talk about how climate change is impacting, or will impact, Indigenous cultural heritage in BC. The council is a First Nations-governed Crown corporation with a mandate to support the revitalization of First Nations languages, arts, cultures, and heritage in British Columbia. The organization provides funding, resources, and skills development, monitors the status of First Nations languages, develops policy recommendations for First Nations leadership and government, and collaborates with organizations on numerous special projects that raise the profile of arts, languages, cultures, and heritage in BC, Canada, and internationally.
“Indigenous cultural heritage is holistic, meaning it includes physical, emotional, mental, kinship, and spiritual components. It includes both tangible (physical) objects and places, as well as intangible aspects. Each of these concepts is inextricably linked, holding intrinsic value to the well-being of Indigenous people and affecting all generations. All are the belongings of Indigenous Peoples.”
— From the introduction to the FPCC’s Indigenous Heritage Stewardship Toolkit, July 2022. Find it at https://fpcc.ca/resource/heritage-toolkit-introduction.
Jane: Indigenous Cultural Heritage is a fabric of knowledge and identity deeply connected to lands and waters. As this context of place is disturbed under climate change, so too are all these connections. The challenges are immense, both short term and long term. Karen, what is your top priority in terms of action to address what is already being experienced as well as what is expected in the future?
Karen: The top priority is addressing the lack of direct provincial or heritage funding and support for Indigenous people who are dealing with devastating impacts to their cultural heritage places. Funding has been announced by the provincial government—as you’re aware—of almost half a billion dollars to support climate change mitigation. But none of that is to deal with immediate impacts to an Indigenous site or a place, and Indigenous Peoples have nowhere to go to access such funding.
The First Peoples Cultural Council has stepped in. We’ve completed seven pilot projects looking at the impacts on cultural heritage from climate change, and we’ve had one scenario where we had to quickly find funds to support a community whose petrogylphs were being destroyed by flooding due to climate change. Climate change is going to be part of our future, and we have to have the resources and the ability to respond quickly to emergency situations. To me, the number one priority is supporting communities to deal with emergency situations, and then it’s developing long-term, sustainable support and funding for adapting and managing climate change within communities.
Beyond the emergency situation is the other priority of documenting the knowledge of the places and Knowledge Keepers and caretakers that are going to be lost. We need to support Indigenous Peoples as they gather this information, because these landscapes, places, and people are associated with both tangible and intangible cultural heritage.
As we know, Indigenous landscapes are being deeply impacted by climate change, and an integral part of landscape is the memory of that landscape. When a landscape is lost or altered, so does the memory associated with it.
Places are changing. They’re changing because of climate change, because of urbanization, and all sorts of development. So those memories are going to change, and if we don’t capture them now, there will be a major loss. These oral histories, knowledge—all of that is part of Indigenous identity and culture—when you remove it, you’re removing a piece of the Indigenous culture and identity from that society.
This work of meeting the challenges of climate change has to be Indigenous-led, and it has to be rooted in health and wellness and connection to land. How you nourish the land is how you nourish the people. Indigenous stewardship, and supporting Indigenous stewardship, is central to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The national, non-profit Indigenous Heritage Circle has been a leader in outlining and explaining this work, and the Indigenous Leadership Initiative is working hard to support community stewardship, especially through its national Guardians program.
The FPCC funded seven climate change pilot projects, and they are all outstanding. They are about understanding climate change differently—understanding how climate change informed the cultural practice
of Elders and ancestors as well as looking at the present and future effects of climate change in different places. These communities had very short time frames to do their work—just four months—and they were working through Covid-19 and had to pivot because of weather and access and infrastructure. I am really proud of their work.
The recommendations that came out of those seven pilot projects, which really need to be our focus now, are understanding, documenting, and protecting Indigenous places and knowledge that are being impacted by climate change.
In November of 2022, we were able to begin some of that work through funding under our Indigenous Stewardship Program and Indigenous Heritage Infrastructure Program. BC First Nation communities can apply for HSP funds for projects specific to understanding and mitigating climate change. HIP funding supports First Nations communities in their work to safeguard and celebrate their heritage. Projects receive funding for two years to conserve structures, cultural and heritage sites, landscapes, and buildings. The project proposals reveal the ways that heritage and culture are intertwined in every part of Indigenous life and speak to the significance of how these spaces are used and shared. This fiscal year, we are excited to share that we are funding 16 HSP and 16 HIP projects across BC.
A snapshot of current FPCC Heritage Infrastructure Projects related to climate change
kʷʷikʷəƛ ̓əʷəƛ ̓əm First Nation
George Chaffee, Councillor of kʷʷikʷəƛ ̓əʷəƛ ̓əm First Nation:
The kkʷʷikikʷəƛ ̓əʷəƛ ̓əmm Historical Cemetery Revitalization Project is about healing and putting those who are buried there properly to rest. It is very disrespectful that so many of the gravesites and markers have been lost due to repeated and consistent flooding in the area for decades. The funding provided by the First Peoples’ Cultural Council and First Nation Land Management Resources Centre is crucial in our long-term work to create a safer, sacred historical cemetery that allows us to protect, honour, and show respect to those who are buried there. I am very proud to be leading this project and to be giving a voice to our Elders and Ancestors so that their lives are remembered not only for today, but for generations to come.
Sts’ailes First Nation
Boyd Peters, Xwilexmet Director, Sts’ailes:
We are both relieved and excited to build a heritage facility at our ancestral settlement of Poxwia on the Harrison River. The structure will protect the incredible archaeological history in this place and enable us to continue learning more about it. The space will also allow us to share this history and knowledge with others, creating greater understanding and appreciation for our heritage.
Indigenous Heritage Circle
The IHC is an Indigenous-designed and Indigenous-led organization founded in 2016. We are dedicated to the advancement of cultural heritage priorities that are of importance to Métis, Inuit, and First Nations Peoples in Canada. Working with partners from across the country, we have developed the following definition of Indigenous heritage:
Indigenous Heritage is complex and dynamic. Indigenous Heritage encompasses ideas, experiences, belongings, artistic expressions, practices, knowledge, and places that are valued because they are culturally meaningful and connected to shared memory. Indigenous Heritage cannot be separated from either Indigenous identity or Indigenous life. It can be inherited from ancestors or created by people today as a legacy for future generations.
Its vision statement: “Healthy and vibrant Indigenous communities in which Indigenous Peoples are supported and recognized in their role as the caretakers of Indigenous heritage in all forms.”
This information is from https://indigenousheritage.ca/.