“In the Western tradition there is a recognized hierarchy of beings, with, of course, the human being on top. But… we must look to our teachers among the other species for guidance. Their wisdom is apparent in the way that they live. They teach us by example.”
-Robin Wall Kimmer
A deceiving call, shouted into the woods, prairies, and alpine zones as we hike. Although out of context it sounds like we’re inviting the grizzlies to join us, in reality we yell this to ward off any bear, and consequently, every other skittish wildlife that may cross our path. This perfectly reasonable precaution that we, as a group of student hikers, must take is also an interesting way to take a closer look at our relationship to the land and its non-human inhabitants.
In our time spent in the Purcell Mountains in British Columbia and the towns surrounding the area, we have discussed often the differences in western settlers’ relationship to the land compared to the native nations, specifically the Ktunaxa. Take the grizzly bear for example. The Ktunaxa people see the land we have been on as “home to the grizzly bear spirit Qat’muk, who provides guidance, strength, and protection for the community.” Adrianna Kipp wrote this in her article, the Failure to Understand Indigenous Religion, in 2017. This was in the middle of the fight for the protection of the Qat’muk, known by westerners as Jumbo Mountain. For the Ktunaxa people, this issue is much more than the loss of beautiful wild lands to industry and development. The Jumbo Mountain project, a plan for the development of a ski resort in the midst of the Purcell mountains, is within the territory of the Ktunaxa Nations native land. This project would drive the Qat’muk (grizzly bear spirit) out of the area, which would not only weaken its connection to the Ktunaxa, but it would drive the people of the Ktunaxa nation out of the area as well.
My classmates and I, as a group of environmentalists who are also opponents to the Jumbo project, don’t share this same fear of losing our connection to the grizzly spirit because we never had it to begin with. However, I personally feel extremely passionate about wanting to protect the grizzlies and allow their essential corridor to remain intact. The grizzly bear populations surrounding the Purcell mountains depend on the area within Jumbo mountain as a main corridor for movement. The Jumbo ski resort would fragment these grizzly bear populations so that their habitat would be cut in half and the species would be put at higher risk. Regardless of my love for the animal, somehow I continue to hear my voice push the bear away as we hike through the woods.
My mind is driven crazy by the battle between wanting to see and be connected to the grizzly bear, and the fear that has been driven into me that this animal is dangerous. This is something constantly running through my brain as an eighteen-year-old who is still trying to develop her own values while learning about and respecting other peoples’ values. I am now, more than ever, aware of the westernized version of environmentalism that I have been taught and currently abide by. There is an entire portion, some would even say the majority, of modern society in both Canada and the United States that have tended to disregard the importance of the land completely. This is one end of the spectrum, as I see it, and there is always room for grey area; but in order to wrap my head around all I’ve learned on this trip I’ve tried to picture it like so:
On one end are the people fighting for industry, stuck in a corporate system that doesn’t allow for them to prioritize the environment. This includes the proponents of the Jumbo Resort and Oberto Oberti, the man with the idea that started it all. On the other end are the groups of people who are spiritually and historically connected to the land who depend on its protection in order to continue their way of life; in this case the Ktunaxa nation. Somewhere in between there is me, and my peers, and teachers who have a connection and care for the land, but without the spiritual and historical past. I sit here by a flowing river emerging from the Lake of the Hanging Glacier and I am aware of my surroundings. I feel the power of the rushing water and the prickle of the breeze run through my hair. This type of connection I feel is hard to explain, it’s physical while still intangible, and it’s real while unimaginable.
We all have different lenses that affect how we as humans interact with the land and all of its non-human inhabitants. So how do we decipher if there is a “right” way? Modern environmentalists would applaud us for the experiential work we are doing while fully immersed in the mountains. However, the Ktunaxa tribe may find our travels through these areas that they call sacred to be disruptive. Our close studying of plants and animals may be viewed as prohibiting natural growth under the constant pressures of exploration and recreation.
Does there need to be a correct way to advocate for the protection of grizzly bears and their habitat? Does the same apply for other very similar environmental issues? Can our society find a way to accept two ways of knowing like Robin Kimmer writes about, or is it intrusive to attempt to incorporate western conservation values into an area of land that has been occupied by the Ktunaxa for over 400 generations? While I walk, bear spray holstered close to my body, shouting to warn away the strength and courage of the grizzly bear spirit, I mull these questions over in my mind. I ponder the position I am in as a young and inspired person to create real change. In times of both cultural and environmental turmoil, my fellow students and I have the chance to look at these issues as conjoined, and find navigation through the differences that now separate them so that there can be harmony in the future. This opportunity is essential to allowing the Qat’muk, it’s physical body of the grizzly bear, and the Ktunaxa to stay on their land for as long as they please.