One morning during our Sacred Headwaters trip, minutes after emerging from our tents, the swarms of black flies, mosquitoes, and no-see-ums had found fresh southern blood. Even though I had warned my coworker Jason of the bugs, nothing prepares visitors for the onslaught if they haven’t experienced it before. “So this is northern Canada, huh?” Jason asked.
We headed north to the Tahltan community of Iskut. On the way, we crossed the Nass River. The Nass is the last healthy eulachon fish runs on the Coast. Eulachon and Pacific Smelt are favoured for their high oil content. First Nations traded this oil, which they collected from vats of eulachon, inland for other goods. This process gave rise to the historic Grease Trail.
In Iskut, we met with Tahltan First Nation elder Mary Dennis. She’s a great-grandmother and grandmother to 54 or 55 children (she’s lost count). In her mid-70s, Mary is still keen to hunt moose, and can beat out the younger women in backcountry skills to be crowned Bush Woman of the Year.
She showed us photos of when she and her family first moved to Iskut 50 years ago. Her son was the first child to be born in Iskut. She told us the Klappan region is where her people hunt, collect medicine, and camp. It’s also where salmon spawn at the headwaters of the Skeena. She told us that she fishes every year in the Stikine at Telegraph Creek.
The Tahltan have historically been nomadic, travelling throughout their territory with the seasons. The Iskut and Klappan were at their winter camp. They moved to the Stikine at Telegraph during the summer fishing season.
Mary was one of the elders arrested during the blockades in 2005 and 2006 to stop coalbed menthane development (which would require fracking) in the headwaters. “We’re pretty proud to stand up for our land, “ she said. “Staying [at the blockades] all summer brought our people together.”
We also met with Jodi Payne, a community health worker. In her mid-20s, Jodi is the youngest councilor on the Iskut Band Council. Jodi told us “Development in the Klappan could impact the way of life for [the Tahltan] and everyone downstream.”
These stories from the Tahltan, and residents downstream, are what Jason and I had come to witness and record to share with others.