A former chief of the Xeni Gwet’in First Nation, 2015 Goldman Prize winner Marilyn Baptiste led her community in defeating one of the largest proposed gold and copper mines in British Columbia that would have destroyed Fish Lake—a source of spiritual identity and livelihood for the Xeni Gwet’in. In the Q&A below, we discuss the background of Baptiste’s campaign and what led her to take action.
Can you speak to your childhood and the role growing up in Nemiah Valley played in your life?
“As Chief, my dad surveyed the land, taking our family on hunting, fishing and camping trips together. These experiences taught me discipline and the values of my people.
Being able to live and grow up in Nemiah Valley taught me a lot about the legends – the lessons and teachings of the elders and [my] people. I learn all the time from the land. And I continue to learn from the land every single day.
One of the things that I was taught was that our water is the most precious resource we have and it will become more valuable than gold, oil or gas.”
“When I was young, my father took our family to Fish Lake and showed us how to fish. He told us where to place fish traps and how he relied on these traps for food. He also taught my son and nieces and nephews how to fish on Fish Lake…. These visions particularly stuck with me when I decided to take up the fight against Prosperity Mine.
Of the land that was threatened by the Prosperity Mine, what are the ‘sacred sites’? How are they sacred in your culture?
“It’s very difficult for us as a people to explain why that place is sacred. In our teachings, in our way, much of our rituals, our medicine and how to make our medicine are sacred things. That means you’re not exploiting them in public, you’re not writing and sharing them with others outside of the Xeni Gwet’in.
What I can say is, when we walk on our land, when we are able to drink out of the waters of our lakes, our rivers, our creeks, our streams – those things are sacred because those are the gifts from Mother Earth. Those [things] are what bring us our fortune, our values, our way of life, our strength.”
“We as Tsilhqot’in people never gave up our right to fish. We have never given up our aboriginal rights or our aboriginal title. We had title and rights before the courts even started, that’s what our people have always said. This court case is very significant, but at the same time it is only a tool for us to use against government and industry so that they can no longer deny that we as aboriginal people have rights.”