Freda Huson: An Indigenous ‘warrior’ for the next generation

How a Wet’suwet’en matriarch is defending her traditional territories in Canada from the construction of the CGL pipeline – and the seven-year-old who is inspiring her.

[Illustration by Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

Freda Huson starts each day with prayer in the quiet of the mountain forest where she lives in a small two-room wooden cabin. She prays for the safeguarding of her lands and waterways and then thanks her ancestors for preserving her Wet’suwet’en traditional territories.

Then the 57-year-old heads outside to begin her day’s work. There are buildings to maintain at the healing centre she runs as well as broken souls to tend to.

Huson established the Uni’stot’en healing camp 12 years ago. Located 66km (41 miles) up a mountainside from the nearest town in northern British Columbia, Canada, it is a communal gathering space that incorporates traditional Wet’suwet’en culture and helps people to heal from trauma by connecting to the wilderness.

Huson is just 4’11, but she’s a tough, straight-talking matriarch with a passion for her cause. She is a wing-chief of the Dark House Clan (named so because of the abundant shadows in the valley of the mountain where the clan’s territory is located) and is also known as Chief Howilhkat.

Today, she cleans a bedroom that an elder has just vacated in the centre’s main building, preparing it for its next guest.

Most days she takes some time to walk down to the nearby river to revel in the beauty of the Wet-zuhn-buhn (pronounced wet-zin-bun) – meaning the “bluish-green colour of the water,” the traditional Wet’suwet’en name for the Morice River, which runs parallel to Uni’sto’ten.

In spawning season, salmon fill the river, returning hundreds of miles from the Pacific Ocean to their birthing grounds to continue the cycle of life. It is these ancient life systems Huson fiercely protects.

In 2009, she left her home on the Wit’set First Nation, about two hours west of Uni’sto’ten, to live full-time in the cabin. Living on the land is worth more than everything she gave up, she says, explaining that she found the material comforts and ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ exhausting and unfulfilling. She prefers the simplicity of her cabin with its fireplace, shelves full of books on law, faith and culture, and furs hanging on the walls. But this was not the only reason she decided to move here permanently.

After witnessing the ruin of Indigenous territories across the world, she wanted to save what was left of hers for future generations. This land is sacred to her – but it is under threat from several different pipeline developments, including the Coastal GasLink (CGL) liquified natural gas (LNG) pipeline, which is already under construction. Although the pipeline was approved by some elected Wet’suwet’en members, hereditary Wet’suwet’en chiefs, representing five clans, have rejected it. Huson wanted to show that there were actual dwellings on the traditional territory of her people in order to protect it from industry.

The healing centre was the idea of her niece, 39-year-old Karla Tait, a clinical psychologist who incorporates her Wet’suwet’en culture into her practice and is the director of clinical services at the Uni’sto’ten camp.

The main building of the camp houses bedrooms with bunk beds, a games room, an industrial kitchen, an art space and several meeting rooms. Other buildings have been constructed over the years, including a smokehouse, accommodation for staff and some small houses.

For Huson, protecting this land is a matter of life or death. “We are stewards of the land,” she explains. “We don’t own … [it]; we’re entrusted to take care of it, so the land will take care of us. But if we destroy the land, we destroy ourselves.”

[Illustration of Freda Huson by Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

Her fight to protect her land has not been easy. In February 2020, she was arrested, along with her sister Brenda Michell and Tait, when the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) enforced a CGL court-ordered injunction against those blocking work on the pipeline. But Huson is tenacious – something she credits to her bloodline of strong ancestral leaders, her culture and her faith in the Creator. She also gains inspiration from her seven-year-old great-niece, she explains.

Dark-haired with rosy cheeks and delicate features, Oyate Kin Ekta Kigla Win is the daughter of Huson’s niece, Tait. She is half Wet’suwet’en and half Lakota from the Rosebud Sioux Nation.

“I want to teach her everything I know,” Huson reflects, adding: “She’s so strong.”

Whenever Huson grows tired of her work protecting the land and healing her people, she says she remembers that “Oyate is the next generation and I’m doing this for her”.

The Wet’suwet’en operate on a matriarchal governance system. “Women pass on house and clan group membership to their children within our nation,” Tait explains. “This is because women carry children in our wombs, making us more connected to future generations and Mother Earth. This emphatic understanding helps us keep the interests of our children at the forefront when it comes to land governance and sustainability decisions.”

So the birth of Oyate – the first and only girl born of her generation into the Tait family – was a particular cause for celebration. She will carry on the matriarchal responsibilities as a leader for her Gilseyhu (Big Frog) clan of the Dark House.

Her name is Lakota and means “Return to her Nation Woman”. It was given to her because, before she was born, her father had a dream in which he saw that his daughter would be a returning ancestor.

“She comes from two strong cultures that are really tied to their territories and worked hard to uphold our rights, and ways of life,” explains Tait, who says that Oyate has always been an old soul with wisdom beyond her years.

“She is so inquisitive. She would very much enjoy the company of adults. Her mannerisms mimic some of our past hereditary chiefs. When we went walking on the territory when she was a baby, she would babble and coo and almost speak to the trees and surroundings at old encampment sites as if she was speaking to the people that used to live there.”

Not long after she was born, Oyate was connected to the Uni’stot’en territory via a ceremony. Tait says she preferred learning to walk and play wearing moccasins made out of animal hide, so she could steady her feet close to the ground.

“The first time we tried to put her into little running shoes with a bit of a sole she lost her footing and couldn’t quite walk as skilled and comfortably,” she chuckles. “She didn’t like that she couldn’t feel the earth beneath her feet I guess.”

Visiting and playing on the Yintah (traditional territory) is where Oyate feels most at home, Huson says. And although she lives in the Wit’set First Nation, as soon as Oyate started talking, she began to refer to the Yintah as her home. As she would cross the Wedzin Kwah (Morice River) to get to Uni’stot’en she would clap her hands excitedly. “She’d say ‘we’re going home again’,” explains Tait, “because she felt the energy there. The territory has a special place in her heart.”

“She has so much passion for the land. She comes every weekend. And she tells me we should go for a walk because it will give us energy,” Huson says.

Oyate, who has been listening in the background, giggling at some of her mother’s recollections, explains matter-of-factly that, “the Yintah is very good. There’s moose, bears and even wolves in our Yintah. There are even fish and frogs and crows and eagles and little cool caterpillars that have fur.”

“In summer I can’t wait because it’s a nice breeze to just sit down and chill. Sometimes we go swimming in the river if it’s a hot day out. One time at the Yintah, we swam in the river and I was a little bit sick and butterflies flew around us. They circled my mom and grandma and made her dizzy. It was very neat and peaceful.”

[Illustration of Oyate Kin Ekta Kigla Win by Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

But it has not always been peaceful there. On the afternoon of January 7, 2019, the RCMP and Canadian military tore down a checkpoint that had been established by the Gidimt’en Clan on the Morice River Forest Road, arresting several land defenders, to make way for the pipeline construction. Rumours swirled that the troops were heading further up the mountain to Uni’sto’ten.

Huson and other matriarchs decided that Oyate and Tait had to leave the camp.

“I know from other front lines where folks are defending their territory or sovereign rights if children are in the picture there’s always the threat children will be apprehended and put into child protective services,” Tait explains, adding that a child protective services vehicle had been seen among police vehicles at a previous raid. Indigenous children in Canada are overrepresented in the foster care system and there is a long history of them being forcibly taken from their families and placed into non-Indigenous homes.

“There’s a judgement from the colonial state that children don’t belong in such places, but the colonial state is bringing the violence. It was hard for us to leave my mom and aunty,” Tait says, adding that Oyate was crying and insisting that she wanted to stay to protect the Yintah.

“I told her we would return and see the destruction happening to the land from the pipeline, the pain and hurt amongst her matriarchs and destruction to the trees, berry patches and natural spaces,” Tait recalls. “She would ask why people would do these things and hurt the land. ‘Do the Wasicu (the greedy ones in Lakota) have mothers?’ Because she couldn’t understand how people would harm our Mother Earth.”

Huson remembers Oyate taking her hands, wailing with sorrow and looking her in the eyes. “She asked me to promise her I won’t let them take her Yintah. And I promised her,” says Huson.

The following year, as the police moved in again against the Wet’suwe’ten and their supporters who were blocking access to work sites for the CGL pipeline, Tait decided to stay with her aunts at Uni’stot’en but to send Oyate to stay with relatives in Wit’set. Again, Oyate was upset. But she spoke with her mother and Huson nearly every day via FaceTime. Tait says Oyate had endless questions.

“I tried to let her know to have faith and to pray and that was a way to keep close. She encouraged us and told us to protect her Yintah. A few days leading up to the raid she told me she was going to come to visit and check on us to make sure we were ok. She said she was going to turn into a crow. Funny, the next day we saw a crow in the tree who was crowing at us and we all looked and said ‘hi’ to Oyate.”

When the police arrived on February 10, 2020, Huson, Tait and Brenda Michell were dressed in regalia, singing, drumming and praying as they stood near the Wedzin Kwah. The snow was reflected in the glistening waters of the river as the women’s voices echoed for miles around.

“I was in ceremony. To protect the waters, lands. To get help from the Creator. I felt this was the only way to get help because we can’t fight against a big machine,” Huson recalls.

The three of them were arrested, along with several other land defenders, charged with violating the injunction and taken to a Houston jail, from which they were released several hours later.

The raids caused weeks of international uproar with protesters decrying the treatment of the Wet’suwet’en land defenders, but since the COVID-19 pandemic began, supporter activity at Uni’stot’en has been relatively quiet. The construction of the pipeline, however, continues nearby.

Huson has managed to stall their work in Dark House territory using CGL’s inadequate environmental certificates as leverage to buy more time.

“Colonisation and oppression like this are killing our people,” says Huson with urgency in her voice. “They’re one to two years behind schedule now because we’ve been able to delay them with mitigation. But don’t get me wrong, we’re not consulting with them, we outright don’t approve of this. We’re forced into this.

“I keep doing this for Oyate, so her children and grandchildren can use the land. My hope is they would get to live on the land in peace and justice will be served. That our people will be able to live on the land together.”

Oyate says she is looking forward to walking in the woods and searching for huckleberries there this summer. “When I visit my Yintah, it makes me happy,” she says. And visiting Huson makes her happy too. “I like when Aunty Freda plays with me and chases me. Her most important job is to take care of the Yintah and she’s a warrior.”

Source: Al Jazeera