On Sep. 23, the Little Big House Build began in the pouring rain. Inside a fenced construction area beside the Student Union Building, supporters and volunteers huddled under hoods and umbrellas, straining to hear Tiffany Joseph’s opening speech over the deluge.
But Joseph wasn’t speaking English — at least not at first. A SENĆOŦEN language and culture revitalist, Joseph began by describing her ancestry in her language and acknowledging the Lekwungen and W̱SÁNEĆ peoples on whose traditional lands the University of Victoria stands. As a courtesy to the crowd, she provided a translation.
From underneath an umbrella printed with a variety of dogs, Joseph spoke about the diversity amongst Indigenous peoples living on Vancouver Island and how their different languages, dialects, and songs have been shaped by the varied microclimates on Vancouver Island. Understanding the oral histories and how Indigenous people view land, said Joseph, is imperative to understanding how to be a good guest on their land. Modern settlers may fight to save trees today, but that is what Joseph’s people have done since Europeans arrived.
Tiny houses, big causes
In Oct. 2018, UVic hosted a building event for the Tiny House Warriors, a group dedicated to reclaiming the traditional territory of the Secwépemc (Shuswap) people and preventing the proposed Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion from crossing those lands.
This year’s tiny house will travel to Ma’amtagila territory, where it will play a role in protesting salmon farming and deforestation. The Little Big House is a land “rematriation” — a restoration of a people to a spiritual way of life in connection with their traditional lands — project led by Ma’amtagila Matriarch Tsastilqualus Ambers.
The Little Big House, which will resemble a Kwakwaka’wakw “big house,” will be the centre of operations for the Matriarch Camp, a grassroots organization that campaigns against unsustainable forestry and fish farming. The tiny house will also facilitate the return of Tsasilqualus and other Ma’amtagila to their traditional land, thereby helping revive their cultural practices.
“The Ma’amtagila are still here”
“If we’re on the land, they can’t really remove us,” said Matt Ambers, Tsasilqualus’s nephew and a student at UVic. “Right now, we’re removed. We’re not on the land. But if we start to move back to the land, and start to utilize our resources again, it becomes very hard for them to continue to take what is ours.”
The “them” Ambers refers to is both white people and other Kwakwaka’wakw
peoples. The Ma’amtagila Nation was long ago amalgamated with the Tlowitsis, who eventually came to dominate the union.
“The Ma’amtagila were completely erased,” said Ambers. “The name was erased, and they said the Ma’amtagila were dead. Since then, the Tlowitsis Nation has operated with almost complete control over Ma’amtagila territory. Right now, they’re currently deforesting — you’ve probably heard — the last old-growth forest on Vancouver Island. That’s Ma’amtagila territory that they’re all deforesting. So, we need to put this house here to remind people that the Ma’amtagila are still here.”
As reported by the Narwhal, logging at Schmidt Creek above the Robson Bight orca-rubbing beaches “devastated” Ma’amtagila Chief Rande Cook, who says the Tlowitsis Nation takes a pro-business view.
Before the logging began, the Tlowitsis were consulted, but the Ma’amtagila were not. That may not have been an oversight. Cook suggested to the Narwhal that B.C. Timber Sales and logging companies are engaging in selective consultation: “These people only want to consult with the First Nations they know they can get a pro-business outcome with.”
For Ma’amtagila people like Matt Ambers, and his aunt, Tsasilqualus, the Little Big House is an assertion of existence for an erased Nation. Tsasilqualus deeply feels the spiritual aspect of rematriation. When she goes to her people’s traditional territories, she says, she feels the ancestors calling her and her people home.