An indigenous perspective from Paul Chiyokten Wagner
This piece was originally published in Cascadia Spoke, a community publication dedicated to raising awareness of the Cascadia movement and bioregionalism.
Lansing Scott and Brandon Letsinger-Brown of Cascadia Spoke sat down with Paul Chiyokten Wagner to discuss his work with Protectors of the Salish Sea and the role of indigenous wisdom—particularly the teachings of the Coast Salish people—in bringing our communities and society at large back into greater harmony with the web of life we are all part of, whether we acknowledge it or not. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Hi Paul, please tell us about who you are and where you come from:
My tribal affiliation is a member Saanich nation. Our people have lived along the shores of these lands since time immemorial, and cared for these lands with the sacred promise in our hearts, educated by our elders, causing us to be an elder society people. With that understanding of who we are, and that form of education and form of leadership, we were able to co-create paradise here.
The world had fallen. Our stories inform us that the world had fallen to bone and ash. A long time ago, when humans were brand new—it was really the time of the animal people. It was so long ago. Humans were just beginning in that time and and the only thing that brought us back were these sacred promises that ended all disrespect. Because the falling of the world is attributed to planting the seeds of disrespect causing a chain reaction, causing darkness to move over land and into the hearts of the people and causing the burning of the world.
Everything fell. But we managed to create paradise with with tools and knowings and sacred promises to hold a sacred relationship with every being that the Creator put here on these lands.
So there’s a lot of things that don’t live in colonialism that have lived in our hearts. Allowing every child to understand their human responsibility, for them to understand their place amongst all other beings. Even the children understood these things in those times before contact.
Do we continue to plant seeds of disrespect to the burning of the world, the falling of everything and the destruction of all? Or do we start listening to the first peoples? We hold the roadmap to paradise.
On the importance of indigenous teachings:
These knowings need to be taught to the children who are not necessarily indigenous to these lands, but they’re people of Mother Earth, right? Everybody is. We’re all the children of Mother Earth. We’re all indigenous to somewhere from some point in time. I believe it’s each and everybody’s responsibility to understand that to rekindle that, to re-indigenized themselves and see the world through indigenous eyes, once again. Experience the world through an indigenous heart once again, and feed the children indigenous understandings of Mother Earth, the circle of life, and the creator. And we can create a beautiful world once again.
Certainly the opposite of that is happening right now. In an extremely short period of time—a blink of an eye in our tens of thousands of years of existence here.
The ancient forests—we never harmed any of them. Yet we utilize the materials from them very wisely. Whenever we needed, that material is there for us. And now those ancient forests that went all the way from, you know, California to Alaska, before contact, now those here in our Salish Sea are 98% annihilated. There’s 2% left, even in the illegitimate province of British Columbia, what they call British Columbia, that huge territory. We’re trying to protect the last 2% now and and they fight us violently the minute you oppose them. Even the salmon are down to 2% now.
We understand ourselves the cedar tree people. The mother tree of our people is the ancient cedar trees. We’ve worked with those cedar trees for many thousands of years. Now they’re virtually gone. And we’ve also recognized ourselves as the salmon people because we’ve worked with a salmon for so long. And they’re down to 2%. And climate disasters, walloping them, cooking them in the river. The glaciers are melting and the waters are shallowing and heating up and so we just have a lot of work to do.
The governments of what they call the United States and what they call Canada need to start listening to our first peoples. We need to be at the table. Our indigenous-hearted elder women matriarchs need to be at the table in every decision making point.
What is the direction of our society? In the colonial society, there is no direction other than to take towards oneself. That’s the only direction that colonialism has, and that direction has zero future. Zero.
Our people here have always had a direction given to us by these indigenous elder women matriarchs looking at the last voice spoken in a circle. We make decisions with that voice. Colonialism does not have that form of decision making at all.
Indigenous perspective is extremely important. Every person who walks in the bones of our ancestors here on these lands in our Coast Salish territories and throughout Turtle Island can gain indigenous perspective.
Our people don’t even understand it anymore. Our culture has been smashed and robbed and raped and abused out of us inside of those death camps they call boarding schools. They were nothing more than death camps, cultural genocide. My four uncles were raped and murdered in those camps. My mom pulled up on the shores and witnessed everything that those priests had done to them. Last she saw them was still kicking and screaming, pleading for my grandpa and grandmother take them home, because they managed to pull up on the shore in a little power boat. But the priests had guns.
I believe that each and every one of us has good ancestors if you go far enough back. They lived in villages. They listened to the women, and women put their hands on Mother Earth and got the roots of the medicine plants and now spoke to their spirits. And they learned things about this world that gave them strength and ability to heal and help their societies go in a good direction. But that was smashed by white male patriarchy and they burned millions of them, called them witches. Burned them and then took over the world by brute force. Men are just not necessarily designed to lead our our societies. That’s why the women gifted us men the drum which is the heartbeat of Mother Earth, so that us men could understand life just a little bit closer like a woman does. Right?
So we need more voices of women. We’re getting that representation in the US government and you’ll see more women of color being voted in. More indigenous women being voted in because people understand they have to have a strong gift.
On reconnecting to local place and local indigenous wisdom:
The colonial world doesn’t have access to ancient wisdom because the destruction of the elders and the matriarchs. So they came here as adolescent-society people without elders. It’s very sad. And yet we have remained elder-society people, which means that we held on to an education system of elders raising children. For tens of thousands of years, not the parents, elders. Those elders are the bank of wisdom for the circle life, Mother Earth, and ways of life that respect.
Before contact, those elders were surrounding us inside of our longhouse. They would raise the child from first breaths until that child heard those teachings so many times throughout their life that those teachings were now part of who they are. Their bones were filled with the teachings and the sacred place in their being—this intelligent place. Now you’ve become a rich person. I tell people, I want you all to be rich because we were the richest people on the planet. We’re walking embodiment of the teachings of Mother Earth in the circle of life.
We’re working on returning these ancient ways for people now. I believe that that we all need to do what we can to access it. Access ancient wisdom and knowledge and show up when our people hold an event. Show up, sit, listen, be quiet, like how we instructed the children. Sit, be quiet, and listen; it could be you up there next. Watch how they carry themselves. Listen to the way they speak. We need to just start all over and rebirth as a society that understands ancient wisdom and knowledge.
Like elders told us, we were put here last to lift up all the ones that were put here before us. In other words, we humans were the new kids on the block. And and all these other beings they’ve been here so very much longer than we have. And indeed, our knowings that creator put us here for that very reason, that we would be the ones that ensure that each and every family of every being is going to continue in a way that the creator intended until the end of time. That’s how it was when Lewis and Clark landed. Salmon plugged the rivers in ancient forests went from California to Alaska; now they’re gone. Gone in a heartbeat. So if what I’m saying isn’t true, and how else did all of this happen in the blink of an eye? I see no other explanation.
We need to all recognize where we’re at, what group of families we’ve come from, and do our best to think about those ancestral roots. And if we don’t have access to those old teachings, then listen to the people who are offering them up and sit with them as much as you can. The children should be sitting with with our old people. Children are bright, connected to the creator—they still have the umbilical cord to the creator. And when you speak to these things, they get it instantly. I love working with children.
Respect and acknowledgement. That means you give respect to all beings and you acknowledge gifts in other words, you reciprocate gifts, you give gratitude for anything that comes to you. You give something back to it and and live life in a reciprocal way instead of thinking about what I can take for myself. What can I give to this world to help those children? What can I give to my family? What can I give to my community?
Sadly that community doesn’t still really exist but we do our best to simulate community now. We mostly have to get in our car we have to get on a computer to say well, this is my community. But a true community as we held would be that you rely on upon somebody’s presence and the sharing of spirit and the gift that they give in every single day. If they were to go away, your existence would suffer a little bit. That’s community and yet we can’t achieve that anymore. Because equity has been robbed from us by these dominant, abusive colonial governments, what they call the United States in what they call Canada.
Tell us about the work you have been doing in recent years:
I want to thank our ancestors, and our elders, and all that I spoke of. That’s why we stood up. Those are the ancient wisdoms—why Sitting Bull fought, why Leschi and Geronimo fought. It’s because we’re born as protectors. Our education systems allowed us to know that our job is very important. And that we we must stand up to anything that would want to harm these things that keep us alive. So they fought for that, too.
And so I do my best to get out there. Some of the best times in my life have been on the front lines. The vacuum of colonialism is a difficult place. It’s a hard place, especially for our people. And yet on the front lines, there is community. Community does exist on the front lines, and it virtually doesn’t exist anywhere else. We absolutely rely upon each other; we have a common purpose and a goal and there’s no money involved. And we just show up. Nobody’s getting paid to show up. We’ve done a lot of different things.
Of course, Standing Rock was a major major influencer. We started there by building these indigenous structures that we gifted—48 of them with extremely efficient wood stove heaters—very warm structures that held up to the blizzards very well. Toasty as a matter of fact—blizzard minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit. The Standing Rock Sioux use them so they, in a term of endearment, they name them tarpees. (Ed. note: Teepees made with tarps.)
To date we’ve built and gifted many of them to resist fossil fuel and destruction of ecosystems from colonial government slash corporations. We occupied the Olympia state capitol three times using these structures: demanding that they kick out the fish farms the first year and that they consider the fossil fuel expansions that they’re invested in the second year.
We demanded a climate emergency declaration from Jay Inslee in September 2018. We walked from Seattle to Tacoma and then on the last day we popped up our tarpees on the lower step of the state capitol. We’ve returned to this Coast Salish built site to reoccupy it until they they do something real for our children’s future. Our number one enemy for our culture is climate disaster.
Then on March 10, 2019, in the early stages of the pandemic, we put up two very large tarpees, that were washed away with 70 riot police after the sun went down. Peaceful people who just say we’re here for your children, too. We’re not leaving until we get a declaration of a climate emergency. And Jay Inslee, this so-called climate hero, sent 70 of his riot police to flush us away.
We used those structures to shut down Chase banks, Ferry Creek, and other places. And Line Three, we gifted about a dozen to help them make it through winter. Yeah, we’ve supported stopping of Trudeau oil, which is basically a tar-sands oil that they want to invade our nation’s lands with putting tar sands oil through our land. Which is crazy. I mean, it’s the highest carbon oil in the world. They just dump it on the ground and berms. We can see it from space. It’s actually larger than the city of Seattle. More like 80 square miles of toxic tailing ponds, and they just dump it on the ground and say it doesn’t go anywhere. Just look the other way.
The Athabaskan people have to eat the fish and elk from there and there’s tumors, and now their people are sick and dying. They say that children can’t be more than three minutes in the water because it’s so toxic. And so they’re literally killing our relatives.
There’s so many things going on right now that people need to stand up for and show up for and get involved in some way. You might not be able to get on the front lines, but that’s the number one way to do it. And after that, I would say just organize amongst people that you know, and just talk about what are we going to do?
There must be something we can do and you can do it. You could start a petition, you could just show up and demonstrate, and now’s the day, now’s the time. There may not be another time if we don’t do it now.
At Ferry Creek we were up there on the mountain for months just battling the RCMP to say, hey, these are unceded lands, you have no right to be here. They’re doing extremely violent things to peaceful people. So yeah, we’re on the front lines. Protecting that last 2.7% of any tree that’s 150 years to 250 years old, causing it to be an ecosystem. In the illegitimate province of British Columbia, there’s only 2.7%. Just 0.7% if it’s 250 years or older. So of truly ancient trees, there’s not even a percent left.
On taking local action, wherever we are:
I know people get overwhelmed. It’s a tough thing you know, to look at all the things that are going on in the world, but we can just pick one thing and find some people that are passionate about it. And it actually relieves a lot of the stress, because now you’re actually putting your spirit into something rewarding.
We can just take a look at at what is right under our feet. How is the water there? How are the trees here? Or how’s the circle of life right where you’re at? Because the truth is, it’s not well. Ninety percent of the ancient forests have been annihilated and in a blink of an eye and 95% of the natural animals without those forests where they can live. It’s just it’s no brainer. And upwards of 95–98% of our indigenous people are gone. Indigenous people in the Salish Sea are only a half a percent. And the rest are settler colonial people who continue, for the most part, continue to destroy this place.
There’s just not time to live like cancer on Mother Earth anymore. We all need to really examine our our our relationship with all beings, even give equity to water. That we would speak to its spirit before we interact with it. My grandmother did this was my mom and she was a little girl. And and so I know we’ve given equity to water for tens of thousands of years here. And it’s something to learn from our people that way.
We’ve got to keep coming together. By ourselves we can we can come up with some nice ideas but it’s hard to bring them into fruition unless we’re talking to another being and then they chime in with their ideas and bring up their synergy and then you’re feeling good about doing something good for for this world and the future of the children. So yeah, we can just decide we’re going to get together and have a have a talk, you know, make a meal. And talk about some things that are the closest thing that you could find that you could affect. How could you change that and how?
Indigenous people hold and protect 80% of global diversity on Mother Earth today. And 33% of forested lands are protected by indigenous peoples who only make up 12% of the population globally. So we’re still number one threat to these corporations and governments because we’re willing to give our lives for these things you know, we have in the past. Many of the people in the global South still do. The corporations send thugs off to the Amazon areas like that. They literally just kill them.
On the role of stories, music, and culture:
There really are a lot of layers of ways that we co-create a paradise—I use that term because I believe it’s true. And once we co-create it, we hold it very dearly. When I do storytelling, these traditional stories are teachings and they are living beings and they hold power. They hold these things that can allow us to become a better human being. have a better relationship with all these other beings around us. And the songs are very important for us to also because they’re living beings too and we would use them to express the spirit power and in a song that begins as a cry and then turns into a song, and then that’s an expression of your spirit power that came from nature.
That spirit power already exists. And part of that whole process is that song and everybody supporting each other with that song, the entire house, entire longhouse, multiple families singing one person song, supporting them, lifting them up. As they dance their spirit power around that house.
So all of these different ways, including the songs and stories, are ways that we connect the Mother Earth and connect to nature, connect to each other, and connect to the ways of the Creator and the circle life, Mother Earth and they empower us and they give us they give us a lift up. They are tools or ways that we can help each other and help ourselves in this world.
For more information about Paul’s work, see protectorsofthesalishsea.org or the Facebook page, Protectors of the Salish Sea. For his music, see sacredbreath.ca.