We Adapt. We Restore. We Survive Reviving Tahltan knowledge, governance and territory

Located in the far north-west of British Columbia, the territory of the Tahltan Nation spans some 93,000sq km of un-ceded and mostly intact boreal forest, lakes, mountains and the headwaters of some of Canada’s most famous rivers, including the Mackenzie, Yukon and Stikine.

The land is rich in moose, caribou, bears, wolves, lynx and other large mammals. Rivers fed by glaciers and snowpack receive migrations of all five major Pacific salmon species- Chinook, Sockeye, Coho, Pink, Chum. They are home year-round to others fish species, including trout.

A juvenile bald eagle, hummingbird hawkmoth and the rolling hills of Tahltan traditional territory. Photos: Mika Honkalinna.

These rich lands and waters have, for many millennia, been home to the Tahltan People, whose lifeways and culture traditionally stem from what can be hunted, gathered, fished and quarried from their territory, as well as traded with neighbouring Nations on the coast and to the interior.

But, as for many Indigenous Nations in Canada, the arrival of European settlers has had devastating impacts for the Tahltan and the continuity of their land-based culture. Though their first contact with Europeans came later than for many coastal Nations, the Tahltan have suffered a similarly disruptive transition from a subsistence to a cash economy, settlement in more permanent communities, mass death from foreign diseases, brutal re-education in the residential school system and a significant loss of language, culture and ecological knowledge.

We have intergenerational impacts from colonisation”, says Tahltan community leader and Snowchange co-founder Curtis Rattray. “This different culture, different governance, different land tenure system has been imposed upon us and we’re having to adapt to that… to try and heal that intergenerational trauma.”
Tahltan community leader and expert on-the-land guide, Curtis Rattray. Photo: Hannibal Rhoades

The damages and traumas inflicted by colonisation are now being exacerbated by climate change and other external threats.

Salmon, a critical species in Tahltan culture, are falling in numbers, with Chinook in particular trouble. Some elders are also concerned about over-hunting by hunters travelling in to Tahltan territory from further a-field.

Last year, huge wildfires tore through the dry forests surrounding the Stikine Grand Canyon, forcing the evacuation of the community of Telegraph Creek where 21 houses burned to the ground. It was the largest, most intense fire in living memory and a cause of great trauma to Tahltans deeply connected with their lands.

Root fires continue to burn in some parts of Tahltan Territory a year on.

Fallen, fire-damaged trees in the forests surrounding Telegraph Creek. Photo: Hannibal Rhoades


In response, dedicated Tahltans are working on the frontlines of climate and ecological change to revive their indigenous governance systems, hunting and fishing skills and the crucial connections between youth, elders and the land.

“Our territory is huge and there are some specific sites that are in need of ecological restoration, but our primary focus is the restoration of our culture, our language and our governing systems,” says Curtis.

Curtis is part of the Tudese’cho Wholistic Indigenous Leadership Development working group (TWild), a collective of Tahltans who are passionate about indigenous leadership and the revitalisation of the Tahltan Nation.

“For me my primary focus is with youth… integrating indigenous knowledge into the provincial curriculum, taking youth out on the land with the teachers and exposing them to Tahltan culture that way”, says Curtis. “Another thing we’re doing is leadership development on the land, outside the school system… I’ve taken youth out on the land for the past ten, fifteen years… that for me is the main effort in restoring our culture.”

For more than 20 years Curtis and the Tahltan have been accompanied in this work by the Snowchange Cooperative, a pan-Arctic network of indigenous and local communities pursuing the protection, revival and restoration of their culture and ecosystems from Siberia to the Finnish Boreal.

In the past 12-months, Snowchange has stepped up the intensity of this partnership with the Tahltan.

Festival of Northern Fisheries

Deepened collaboration began when Curtis travelled to Finland in September 2018 to represent the Tahltan at the Festival of Northern Fisheries in Tornio-Happaranda, on the Finnish-Swedish border.

Curtis joined over 150 international delegates, many from indigenous and traditional fishing communities from the circumpolar north, to deliver a talk about Tahltan fishing traditions.

Delegates gather along the shores of the Näätämö River, in Skolt Sami Territory, Northern Finland, to listen to Skolt community leader Pauliina Feodoroff. Photo: Hannibal Rhoades

Curtis and a number of the international delegates also travelled to two sites where wetland and riverine ecosystems are being restored and rewilded. Selkie in East Finland and Näätämö in Skolt Sami Territory, Northern Finland, have emerged as international best practice examples. In both these watersheds, ecosystems and critical carbon sinks are being revived through the close collaboration and co-management of local and indigenous peoples and western scientists.

The trip to Finland provided an insight into how similar revival efforts might be achieved in the unique social, historical and ecological context of Tahltan Territory. Meeting and speaking with Snowchange employees and allies during his time in Finland, Curtis began developing his ideas for new actions to support the revivals he hopes to see in his homeland.

A Living Library: Tahltan Knowledge Documentation Project

In February 2019, Curtis and Hannibal Rhoades of Snowchange partner organisation The Gaia Foundation, began exploring how technologies including film and audio could be used to create a living library of Tahltan knowledge, held by and for the Tahltan People.

The Gaia Foundation has been working alongside indigenous peoples from Colombia in the Amazon rainforest to Benin in West Africa to revitalise their cultures and ecosystems for over 30 years.

New technologies are employed in this process, especially in getting youth enthusiastic about sitting down with their elders and getting out onto the land. Initially enthusiastic about the tech, these youth become researchers of their own culture and in the process become more deeply embedded in the culture themselves, carrying vital knowledge forward into the future.

In temperatures that reached -30 degrees Celsius, Curtis, Hal and Tahltan artist and TWild member Tsema Igharas began the process of documenting Tahltan winter knowledge, producing the first footage for the Tahltan visual archive:

Young hunters Waylon and Gilbert Tashoots demonstrated contemporary Tahltan hunting and trapping methods, with a focus on iconic winter species, including moose, pine marten and lynx.

Pennie Louis and her husband Andy shared their deep knowledge about the traditional processes employed to tan moose and caribou hides. Involving de-fleshing, scraping, soaking in moose brain solution and drying, the tanning process produces beautifully soft hides that are used for clothing, footwear and drum-making.

Photo: Pennie and Andy work a caribou hide. Hannibal Rhoades.

Tsema Igharas interviewed her grandmother Grace Williams about Tahltan winter crafts including the vital sewing skills practiced by both Tahltan men and women, and tool making for hide tanning.

Photo: Tahltan scraping tools and awls, made during a workshop organised by Tsema Igharas and Christine Creyke. Hannibal Rhoades.

Curtis Rattray shared the history of Tahltan territory, the origin story of the Tahltan Nation and the transformation sites within the territory associated with Tsesk'iye Cho- Raven-Big.

Photo: Tsesk'iye Cho Kime- Raven-Big's House. Mika Honkalinna

Changing with the Territory: community-led environmental monitoring

In late-April, as winter turned to spring, Curtis welcomed Snowchange environmental scientist Brie Van Dam to Tahltan Territory to establish the early stages of a Tahltan community-led environmental monitoring project.

The Snowchange Cooperative has been pioneering a community-led approach to monitoring and restoring ecosystems damaged by industrial peat-mining and forestry in the Finnish lakes and boreal.

A waterway in Selkie, eastern Finland. Photo: Hannibal Rhoades

Brie’s visit provided an opportunity to explore the role such monitoring could play in Tahltan territory, both to provide environmental data on issues of importance to the Tahltan themselves and to engage Tahltan youth on the land.

“The goals at this early stage are to mobilise interest in community monitoring and build capacity within the community by involving youth in all aspects of the monitoring – from determining the issues of community importance, to the questions we should ask and how the monitoring is completed,” says Brie.
Data chart showing local climate variation for the Dease Lake area. By Brie Van Dam

A community meeting organized by Curtis and Brie brought together members of the Tahltan community to discuss issues of major concern for them, where knowledge generated through community monitoring could be of benefit.

In particular, Tahltans highlighted the importance of medicinal plants, the damage done to the land by recent wildfires, water quality and low water levels in local rivers as priority issues. Community members also expressed a desire for youth involvement in the monitoring, with the aim, as one attendee put it, to “connect Elder knowledge with youth energy and vitality.”

With this guidance, Brie and Curtis worked with a group of high school students to build their confidence and capacity to undertake monitoring themselves.

During Brie’s visit students established water monitoring sites on the Tuya and Tanzilla Rivers, Dease Lake and a warm spring in Curtis’s backyard.

Photo: The Tuya River. Hannibal Rhoades

Vegetation monitoring sites were also established in areas affected by the huge 2018 wildfire to monitor the return of vegetation and a favoured blueberry foraging patch south of the community of Iskut.

Photo: Brie Van Dam and Stefan Milkowski observe changes at a vegetation monitoring site. Hannibal Rhoades.

Set-up of these community-led monitoring sites was largely achieved through a camp-out with the high schoolers, which also gave them the space to discuss Tahltan culture, wildlife, birds, plants, and climate change around the campfire and during day hikes in the area.

Connecting science with indigenous knowledge, and reinforcing the complementarity of the two, is a major feature of Snowchange’s work and an aim of these newly established actions in Tahltan Territory.

We Adapt. We Restore. We Survive: First Tahltan Fishing Festival

In June 2019, Tahltan elders and leaders, members of Snowchange’s Finnish and Alaskan teams and representatives from The Gaia Foundation, Land is Life, ICCA Consortium and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature came together in the heart of Tahltan Territory.

Delegates gather at the first Tahltan Fishing Festival. Photo: Hannibal Rhoades

At the confluence of the Tahltan and Stikine Rivers, delegates spent 5-days learning about Tahltan fishing practices, hiking the territory and meeting elders to discuss the challenges the Tahltan face and how they are responding.

The festival was held under the banner We Adapt. We Restore. We Survive.

We Adapt

Elders and community leaders discussed how the Tahltan are adapting in their territory, watching how the lands and waters are changing and re-organising their governance for climate-changed times.

For example, Tahltans are restricting the number of Chinook and other salmon they take during the run, as data shows the number of returning fish are well below healthy levels. These actions find a parallel in Skolt Sami Territory, northern Finland, where the Sami are reducing their fish take and focusing fishing efforts on species that eat young salmon, in order to restore salmon numbers along the Naatamo River.

Photo: Tahltan elder David Rattray blesses a gift from the Salmon People, caught in the traditional manner. Mika Honkalinna.

We Restore

During the week delegates were joined by students from the local school district who came to sit with elders and hear about Tahltan fishing and other traditions. The importance of restoring connections between elders and youth for knowledge to flow down the generations was demonstrated in practice.

Elders shared how they too are working to restore their culture by re-learning their language, which was suppressed by Canada’s infamous residential school system. Tahltan elders are also learning how to knap obsidian for use as arrow heads, spears and knives, as their ancestors would have. They plan to pass on their skills and knowledge to the youth through practice.

Photo: Tahltan elders, youth, teachers and international delegates gather beneath Tsesk'iye Cho Kime. Mika Honkalinna.

We Survive

On the penultimate day of the festival delegates were given a history of Tahltan fishing practices. The day was spent fishing in traditional and contemporary Tahltan ways, using both a long-handled dip-net and a net strung out into an eddy of the Stikine using a pine boom.

Elders accompanying the fishing shared stories of nets teeming with salmon, pulled in after just half an hour in the water at the height of the run. The salmon are why the Tahltan first settled here, says Curtis, relating the Tahltan ‘Two Sisters Meet’ origin story. As long as the Salmon People still run up the river, the Tahltan will find ways to survive and thrive on their lands and waters, he says.

Photo: A small trout brought in with the nets is released back into the river. Mika Honkalinna.

The festival exchange was made possible by Land is Life, which has supported Snowchange and the Tahltan through a pioneering indigenous-led small grants funding mechanism. This supports small, but critically important opportunities for indigenous grassroots organisations that ordinarily would not have access to grant funding across the Arctic and beyond.

Support from Land is Life, the Christensen Fund and others, enabled delegates to be on the land in Tahltan Territory and to discuss next steps for Tahltan restoration efforts.

Curtis Rattray and international delegates discuss Tahltan restoration actions. Photo: Mika Honkalinna.

The coming months and years will see Tahltan-led monitoring and documentation actions combine to support the reconnection of youth with elders and the territory, with a particular focus on water, afforestation after wildfires and keystone animal species like moose and salmon.

Cultural documentation teams will be trained and begin to build the Tahltan living library, documenting traditional and contemporary skills and stories. These will also find a home (with the full and informed consent of Tahltan People) within the wider-ranging Snowchange Archive of Northern Traditions.

The Snowchange Archive of Northern Traditions is a comprehensive collection of local and traditional knowledge and practices, photographs, videos, and audio material from the work of Northern local and indigenous communities.

"The Snowchange Archive allows us to access stories and knowledge from other communities around the world to see how they are addressing the changes under way and find solutions. We also wish to preserve a visual tradition of the powerful ways of life in the North", says Snowchange's Tero Mustonen.

The observations of the documentation teams will provide an important stream of ecological information for community-led environmental documentation efforts, which it is hoped will expand through curriculum-level partnerships with local schools and the creation of a Tahltan Field Trips and Campouts Handbook for teachers.

The key to the success of these restoration actions, says Curtis, will be to get youth back out on the land, because Tahltan culture, language and the resilience needed for the changes ahead are made and sustained through interacting with the territory that has been their home for millennia.

The land has its own spirit. its own personality", he says. "People need to make that connection with the land and with specific places, get to understand the spirit of that place. I think that is the most critical thing people need to be doing. The conservation movement is trying to tug on people's immediate emotions (to get them to take care of Nature). It's not working because they're not connected to place, to the land... a different relationship to the land and the water and the mountains, that's what's really needed."


Created with an image by MikeGoad - "bull moose moose elk"