Will Falk: From Unist’ot’en Camp: Responsibility, Not Rights

By Will Falk / Deep Green Resistance

Not all worldviews are created equal.

I thought this as I sat listening to Mel, a Wet’suwet’en man, explain the ideas behind the establishment of the Unist’ot’en Camp. It was lunch on my first day of the camp. The sun was strong and the few dozen visitors to the camp gathered in a clearing surrounded by tall pines. The quick-flowing clear-voiced Morice River flowed next to our gathering place, ice cold from its glacial source not far away.

My first encounter with Mel was on the bridge into Unist’ot’en Camp. Before visitors are admitted, they must satisfactorily complete the Free, Prior and Informed Consent Protocol – a series of questions that camp elders ask. Mel was quick with a smile, quicker with a hug or handshake, and quickest with a joke. He was the first to clap me on my nervous back after I satisfactorily answered my hosts’ questions in the Protocol. So it was natural I made my way to the small gathering of people listening to Mel at lunch.

“This is about responsibility, not rights,” Mel said looking around the sky and gesturing towards the river. He explained the way the land taught his people that they had a responsibility to protect the health of the land. Displaying a mastery of political theory coupled with the traditional wisdom of his people, he weaved a powerful analysis to show how important it is that the pipelines be stopped at the Unist’ot’en Camp.

One of the fundamental rules his people have long adhered to is: take what you need and leave the rest. This rule governed the Wet’suwet’en for centuries and worked very well as evidenced by the health of northern British Columbia’s environment when the Europeans first arrived.

This rule, however, stands in direct opposition to the lifeblood of capitalism – unlimited growth. Capitalism depends on readily consumable natural resources. Capitalism would collapse very quickly without these resources. Mel went on to explain that is why he felt we have to resist the spread of fossil fuel consumption. In a world gone mad with the burning of fossil fuels, in a world being destroyed because of this madness, we have a responsibility to protect the world.

From there, Mel’s analysis took a turn I wasn’t expecting. He explained the way the land we were sitting on – traditional Wet’suwet’en land – was unceded territory. His people never signed a treaty with the British or Canadian government giving them access to Wet’suwet’en land. So, many people might argue the corporations and the Canadian government have no right to build pipelines through the Unist’ot’en Camp and they would be correct.

But, and this is what I found most beautiful about Mel’s words, the founders of the Unist’ot’en Camp view themselves as members of a mutually supportive natural community where members share a responsibility to each other. The river provides life-giving water, the salmon give their nourishing flesh to animals and the forests surrounding the riverbeds, and humans, benefiting from all this, in turn bear a responsibility to protect these relationships.

To go even further, Mel showed that rights are nothing more than privileges given by a government. The Canadian government is illegitimate because it exists through genocide and is only on Wet’suwet’en land by sheer force. So, for the Wet’suwet’en to assert their rights in Canadian courts, they would be acknowledging the power of the Canadian government to decide the fate of lands they should have no power over.

Any government that fails to honor the basic rule to take only what you need and to leave the rest is illegitimate. It really is as simple as that.

As I’ve thought about Mel’s words the last few days, I’ve realized the strength in viewing our role in a burning world as one of responsibility. We simply do not have time to wait for governments to enforce our rights to clean air, clean water and healthy soil.

This gets to the heart of something I’ve been trying to articulate for a long time. Before I left for the Unist’ot’en Camp, I wrote a couple of pieces about why I felt it was important to come here to offer my help to the Wet’suwet’en. I wrote about giving up on home, I wrote about wanting to do more than just write, and I wrote about those of us benefiting from the dominant culture working to stop its destructive cycle.

Some of my closest friends told me that I was resorting to guilt and expressing a need for atonement to motivate people to work for the land. They seem to think that by truly acknowledging the atrocities of the past, I must be living in perpetual guilt. It was never my intention to use guilt as the reason we must act. But I need to be firm. I think that people who mistake the never-ending process of trying to see clearly into the past as guilt reveal nothing more than their own sense that the horrors of the past are worthy of guilt.

Putting aside the questionable notion that all guilt is bad, for a moment, I think it is vastly important that we understand the historical forces producing reality in the present and the future. History – the story of the past – is another narrative that can be used to prop up the current system of power, or used to undermine the current system’s strangle-hold on life on the planet. History, in this way, is just like religion, poetry, mass advertising and science.

You can see the power history holds when you observe someone’s everyday assumptions. If, for example, our historical narrative tells you the United States of America was founded by enlightened European men who came to this mostly empty land fleeing religious and economic persecution, you will view your role as a citizen one way. If, for a different example, your historical narrative tells you that George Washington’s famous wooden teeth were not wooden at all, but were actually real teeth forcibly removed from his African slaves, you may view your role in Washington’s legacy as a citizen in a radically different way. Or, to take this idea even further, if you believe that history is too complex to understand, then give up in the constant struggle to analyze its power over your thinking, denying that the past is real, you will view your role as a citizen even more differently.

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A simple way to say all this is: You are what you eat. Just as the health conscious person is concerned about the ingredients in her food, the world conscious person continuously challenges the history presented to her.

This is why I incorporate North America’s bloody history into my perspective. It is not about guilt or the need for penance, it’s about understanding the historical ingredients that comprise present reality.

Which brings us back to guilt. Not all guilt is bad. It is important and healthy that humans feel guilt. When you snap at your mother, for instance, you should feel guilty about that. When you are wiping insects off your windshield, counting the number of beings with lives (now ended) that were as important to them as yours is to you, you should feel some guilt. Guilt tells us when our actions are wrong and provides us with the emotional incentive to stop acting in that manner.

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Though guilt is helpful for changing behavior, it is through responsibility that society gains its imperative to overturn the current system based on the domination of humans, natural communities and the land. If guilt is rooted in the past, responsibility is rooted in the present and future. To respond implies that there is someone to respond to and in Mel’s words about the Wet’suwet’en’s beliefs about responsibility to future generations, we find those we must respond to: our children, our grandchildren, their children.

Even if it is true that all guilt is bad, the reality is the same atrocities we abhor in the past – genocide, a war on women, the devastation of land and water – are continuing at a dizzying pace.

The question becomes: once aware of these atrocities, once feeling them in our hearts, once we absorb the immensity of the threats to everything we love, how do we fail to stop what would destroy our beloved.

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Not all world views are created equal.

Some tell us that this world is not real. Some tell us we will find peace in another world in the sky. Some world views tell us that the natural world is here for us to use. Some tell us that humans are naturally destructive and everything we touch doomed to ashes.

Of course, these are all just narratives we tell ourselves. In the philosophic sense, they can not be proven. Meanwhile, the world burns. The ability of the beautiful planet to support life is under attack.

I knew this was true sitting with my lunch listening to Mel crouch on the ground with his lunch. Both his feet were planted in the soil. Behind his bright face, the pines were swaying. And underneath the noise of the Unist’ot’en Camp, the Morice River sang on as it has for thousands of years. Many thousands of those years the Wet’suwet’en have sat on her banks listening to her wisdom.

She sings of responsibility – the responsibility to protect this land for future generations.

Post Script May 30, 2014: I have decided to stay in British Columbia to offer all my support to the Camp. I am helping with fundraising, public awareness, and general organizing. I’ve already been in Victoria, BC for three days and I’ve been really busy running around town organizing for a big fundraiser we’re putting on Sunday, June 1. I have written 2 essays from the Camp that will appear on the San Diego Free Press. I’ve also been working on a collection of poetry.

In order to live and work up here, I do need some financial resources. Absolutely every little bit helps, but if you paypal me $15 I will see that you get a physical copy of a chap book of poetry from the Unist’ot’en Camp I am working on. (Of course, I will probably share the poetry anyway, so if you can’t help out, don’t worry! I’ll still be sharing…)
My paypal account is falkwilt@gmail.com. If this sounds like something someone you know may be interested in, feel free to share.

Browse Will Falk’s Unis’tot’en Camp series at the Deep Green Resistance Blog

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