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Fighting for Sutikalh

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Issue: 64 Section: Photo Essay Geography: West sutikalh, Mount Currie Topics: direct action

November 12, 2009

Fighting for Sutikalh

St’át’imc unity has kept BC-backed ski resort at bay for ten years

by Dru Oja Jay

Since first contact with European settlers, St'át'imc people (also known as the Lillooet) have fought against land theft and destruction by resource extraction and development. Their traditional territory surrounds the Lillooet River, stretching from Whistler to the town of Lillooet.

The St'át'imc way of life has always been inextricably tied to the land. For thousands of years, the St'át'imc have hunted, fished, and gathered medicine in the mountains, valleys and rivers of their land. Starting in the 19th century with the 1858 gold rush, and continuing through the 20th century to the present, settler governments encouraged settlement, clearcut logging and hydroelectric dams. The resulting overfishing, destruction of land and blockage of waterways caused food shortages and forced displacement of the indigenous population. Prime lands cultivated or occupied by St'át'imc were often simply stolen without compensation. One St'át'imc chief complained: "Our friends the whites they have been taking our lands away from us and there is nothing left to us and everything that we use they stop us from using it."

In 1911, all the Lillooet chiefs signed a joint statement declaration: "We are aware the BC government claims our Country, like all other Indian territories in BC; but we deny their right to it. We never gave it nor sold it to them. They certainly never got the title to the Country from us, neither by agreement nor conquest, and none other than us could have any right to give them title." In 1927, the Indian Act was ammended to outlaw organizing to challenge land theft.

Photos by Dru Oja Jay unless otherwise noted

In 1990, the government of British Columbia expropriated a section of the Mount Currie reserve (shown here) in order to extend Highway 99, expanding a logging road between Mount Currie and the town of Lillooet. The Lil'wat, the local St'át'imc community, took exception, and blocked the construction. A major RCMP operation was required to remove it, and 63 community members were arrested; many refused to give their names or cooperate with police, and were jailed for one month.
The extension of Highway 99 opened the possibility for further development. The BC government announced that it was seeking proposals for development of a ski resort in the Melvin Creek area. Olympic gold medallist Nancy Greene and Whistler developer Al Raine proposed a $530 million all-season resort, to acommodate as many at 12,000 visitors daily.
The Melvin Creek watershed is known locally as Sutikalh, a St'át'imcets term that means "place of the winter spirit." An important ecological area, it is one of few watersheds in the area untouched by development. For the Indigenous St'át'imc, it is a place for spiritual purification and renewal. Visitors to the area typically note the fresh air and clean water. St'át'imc medicine men would spend 12 years living in Sutikalh, learning.
In 1993, the proposal faced objections from the Environment Ministry for the destruction it would cause, and its threat to Grizzly Bear and Mountain Goat habitat. The proposal was withdrawn. By 1996, the BC government found ways to bypass these concerns, and the proposal moved forward. In 2000, as final approvals were moving forward, people from the Mount Currie reserve set up a camp at Sutikalh. On June 11, representatives from all 11 St'át'imc communities gathered, expressing their opposition to the ski resort. Despite RCMP raids and frequent harassment -- what Jim (see photo below) calls "a heavy foot and hand, from day one" -- from police and pro-resort goons, the occupation was maintained. Photographer unknown
Nine years have passed since the resort was planned, and Hubert "Hubie" Jim has lived at the camp since day one. "We set up this camp to protect the environment, the animals' lives, our mothers' lives, the air we need to breath, the water we need to drink," said Jim. "We must continue to grow spiritually to protect what is left. There is not much left. The main objective of this place is to unify and lead by example in protecting a way of life, and the lives of many who cannot speak for themselves. The plants, the animals, everything." Photo by Maya Rolbin-Ghanie
Hundreds of visitors from countries around the world have visited Sutikalh. More importantly, it is a place for St'át'imc people to gather food and medicine, and participate in cultural activities. The camp hosts an annual gathering in early May. "When we start taking pieces of the chain of life away, we start to fail, we start to get sick. We need to stop that. That's why this place is so important," says Jim.
An overwhelmingly anti-resort sentiment among the St'át'imc and strong, widespread support have kept Sutikalh pristine for nine years. When the Olympics come to Vancouver, no competitors will ski Sutikalh, one of two remaining pristine valleys on St'át'imc territory. "Everything is still here as mother intended it to be," says Jim.

For more on the Sutikalh occupation, read this longer account.

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