Pristine waters in majestic fjords, lined by evergreen forests and a backdrop of snowcapped mountains. A bald eagle flies over treetops and a harbour seal peeks up from the waves.
To most B.C. citizens, these are not mere postcard pictures, but real memories that many of us, at least the lucky ones living near the coast, have experienced, travelling on one of the ferries.
“Your identity derives from the place where you have roots, where your origin stories are. Everything comes from the land,” says Jessie Hemphill, a young aboriginal woman who joined filmmaker Lisa Jackson and her crew on a boat trip to the homelands of her nation, the Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw.The scene is part of the feature documentary How a People Live, which is shown at the Vancouver International Women in Film Festival on Sunday, March 9th and followed by a Q&A, moderated by filmmaker, writer and community planner Kamala Todd .
In the film, award-winning filmmaker Lisa Jackson and producers Catrina Longmuir and Sharon Bliss trace the history of the Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw Nations‘ forced relocation from their traditional territories on the coast of British Columbia in 1964.
Candid and moving interviews, striking archival films and photos dating back over 100 years, as well as a visit to their stunning homelands bring to life the story of a people known for their theatrical dances, their strong connection to the land, and the strength that has enabled them to overcome incredible hardships.
Following the rise of the Idle No More movement, this masterfully lensed and edited documentary emphasizes the importance of remembrance and reconciliation when meditating on Canadian history at large.
So how did it come about?
In January 2011, producer Sharon Bliss was approached by Colleen Hemphill, Chief Treaty negotiator of the Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw Nations and Linda Dorricott, a researcher who has worked closely with the Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw for years.
“Initially, a team of four filmmakers went up and conducted a week of digital filmmaking workshops where youth and members of the community learned how to create short films celebrating their culture and stories, some in the Kwakwala language,” says producer Catrina Longmuir. “It was modeled on similar workshops Lisa Jackson and I have done for a project called Our World. Community members made fantastic little first films.”
The crew met many of the community members and researched for the feature film. The week ended in a celebration screening where the filmmakers informed the community about the documentary which would be shot in the fall. They also reached out to people willing to take part in the documentary.
“Lisa put a substantial amount of time into research and preproduction that spring and summer, and the filming happened in two sessions,” says Longmuir. “First, the ‘homelands’ shoot took place in the early fall of 2011 and the formal interviews were filmed later that fall.”
Jackson says she felt honoured to be asked by the Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw to make How a People Live.
“It was apparent from the beginning that everyone involved felt it was (finally) their story that was going to be told, and as a result they were totally open and honest. It’s clear that oral storytelling is a living tradition – they were some of the best storytellers I’ve ever encountered,” says Jackson.
“There was a mutual respect in the making of this film that was very special. I was given freedom as a filmmaker, and the community opened up to me, trusting that I would make a film that captured their voice authentically.”
Originally, the film was supposed to be a half-hour short documentary, but it quickly became apparent to the filmmakers and the Nations that that wouldn’t be enough time to do their history justice.
“One of the biggest challenges was fitting everything in in a way that didn’t feel rushed,” says Jackson. “It also took some time to find the film’s structure, shifting between traditional life and the narrative of the destructive events that had happened over the last 100 plus years.”
Colleen Hemphill explains why it was important for her people to tell the world about their impressive history.
“Our Nations had ways, places and people that survived for thousands of years; people who had developed unique technologies, structures and societies whose arts and ceremonies attracted ethnographers, anthropologists and filmmakers and people the world over,” Hemphill says.
“In the film How a People Live we depict the land, we talk about what happened over a period of 150 years, and we demonstrate a strength of will and soul that is moving us toward a healthy and vibrant society once again. We want our children to know our past as told by us and in this way, realize the strength and foundation that will see them through many more years into the future.”
Jackson is proud with the results. “There were a lot of people that put their heart and commitment behind this project to bring it to fruition,” she says. “It truly was a labour of love.”
In 1964, the Gwa’sala –‘Nakwaxdaxw, who used to live as two separate tribes, with similar practices, but different dialects and cultures, were forcibly removed from their traditional territories of the Smith and Seymour Inlets and surrounding islands. The new destination was a small plot of land on another nation’s territory (the Kwakiutl) called Tsulquate, just north of Port Hardy.
Their original homes were burned, and there was no possibility for the Gwa’sala –‘Nakwaxdaxw Nationas to return, says Hemphill in a backgrounder about the film.
Through a lack of planning, the Gwa’sala and the ‘Nakwaxdaxw arrived at Tsulquate only to find houses in deplorable conditions, as the elders in the film remember.
In their homelands, the people relied on their boats to travel, hunt, fish and gather food; at the new location, promised docks were not available.
The 1964 relocation – combined with previous impacts from trade, settlement, the banning of the Potlatch, residential schools and government legislation – took its toll on the Gwa’sala –‘Nakwaxdaxw people.
In the early 1960s, an Indian Agent (as they were called in those days) named Alan Fry wrote a book entitled How a People Die. His view in this fictional account, and as he witnessed the new Tsulquatian community in the late 60’s, was that the Gwa’sala –‘Nakwaxdaxw people were not going to survive very long into the future.
The Gwa’sala –‘Nakwaxdaxw today
Today, the Gwa’sala –‘Nakwaxdaxw are a small, semi-rural community of about 500 on-reserve community members, with about 350 band members living off-reserve near Port Hardy.
How a People Live is shown on Sunday, March 9th at 1 p.m. together with a short documentary about Cree actor Michelle Thrush and followed by a moderated Q&A and panel discussion.
Find tickets here.
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By Katja De Bock