One and a half hour’s drive up a mountainous gravel road near Houston, B.C. is a secluded, Indigenous-run healing lodge. The route there is lined by thick woodlands encircled by towering snow capped peaks and is parallel to a sacred river of the Wet’suwet’en tribal peoples who have called this stunning landscape home for millennia.
The Unist’ot’en Healing Center is tucked a few hundred feet from the road, nestled along the sacred Wedzin Kwa river where a large, two-story building constructed with thick logs harvested from the forest hosts a kitchen, dining room, learning center, bathroom facilities and bunk bed clad rooms for various guests. Several other cabins and storage sheds, a smokehouse and gear for living in the backcountry dot the large clearing, along with a children’s park. This is a remote sanctuary of restoration initially dreamed up by Wet’suwet’en tribal member Dr. Karla Tait and her aunt Freda Huson.
“Freda had already been out here for a few years and started sharing about the impacts of the land on people’s physical and mental health and her own improvements in health,” explained Tait on a frigid winter afternoon while relaxing in a cozy study area on the second floor of the healing center.
Tait, 42, is a clinical psychologist and the director of programming at the center. She lives here full-time with her nine-year-old daughter Oyate whom she is raising to know how to live off the land.
There is wild medicine that flourishes here, not only in the form of traditional plants and roots — it’s the soothing ebb and flow of the river, smells of birch, spruce, and aspen trees and the sights of soaring glacial mountains framed by far stretching skies. It’s an environment ideal for healing the heart, mind, body and spirit.
“And then (Freda) said, we should have a healing center on our Yintah (land) and we can help people with training and we can have the land available for them to heal. She just recognized really early on that healing the land and healing the people go hand in hand.”
Unis’tot’en has evolved into a haven to help revitalize the cultural and spiritual practices of the Wet’suwet’en people to heal from generations of trauma stemming from the colonization of Indigenous lands, peoples, and their cultures.
“So many families, they’re disconnected from our teachings. And that’s a legacy of residential schools too,” Tait explains, her waist length dark hair pulled behind into a loose pony-tail. She’s spent the earlier part of the day canning moose meat with Huson and her mother Brenda Michell, who also lives there full-time.
“Our children were pulled from their homes and not taught how to do traditional ways. Our people were herded onto these reserves and told to stay there and not able to go out onto their territories and forage.
“It was just kind of realizing how many aspects of our lives that we have had eroded over time because of colonization, like food sovereignty, or our governance system, which is still intact. We still have our laws and our teachings, but we also have this colonial system too, that ends up competing with the traditional.”
Several years ago Tait’s mother conducted a ceremony with a group of Wet’suwet’en elders and matriarchs near a mountainside where industry was logging in their territory. It was something they were devastated to witness because it had been done without their permission.
“There was a lot of anger,” Michell explains from her tiny office at the healing lodge where she’s seated in front of a computer dotted with multi-coloured sticky notes. Small amounts of traditional medicines like sage and cedar are perched on her desk, and Indigenous artwork, inspirational signs and framed images of Indigenous resistance decorate the walls.
“It was very disheartening and very sad (to see the land ripped apart). My Auntie came with us and she cried. She wailed. To see all that destruction… She was mourning for the land. Like somebody had died.”
It was hard, recalls Michell, but it emphasized the urgency of mending their ties to Mother Earth. And that coincides with mending the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of their community.
She spends a lot of her time taking an online addictions counseling course. Before this, Michell worked as a social worker with Indigenous families for more than two decades. Now, she serves as a Wet’suwet’en language instructor and support worker at Unist’ot’en. When she completes her training, she will work with guests struggling with addictions at the healing lodge.
But the healing center is facing more threats than logging.
Lately, hunting and harvesting traditional foods here is getting scarce. Wet’suwet’en territories are threatened by a multi-billion dollar liquified natural gas (LNG) pipeline currently being constructed. Over the past several years, Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and land defenders including Tait, Michell, Huson, other family members and supporters have endured multiple militarized police raids and arrests while attempting to stop the pipeline. Yet, Wet’suwet’en traditional territories have never been ceded or surrendered.
The 670-kilometer (417 mile) long Coastal GasLink (CGL) pipeline will carry LNG from northeast BC to a terminal on the coast in Kitimat. A portion of it is set to pass through the 22,000 square kilometers of Wet’suwet’en traditional territory that was never legally signed over to the Crown or to Canada.
“We didn’t get any more (moose) because the industry broke down our gates,” says Huson, 58, regarding the rarity of harvesting meat off the land.
“So, (for a while) we stopped getting moose. The moose are scared because of the heavy traffic and destruction of the habitat back here. But this year, we put away a lot of fish and got a moose. So, we're really fortunate,” she says.
Whiffs of home cooked moose soup trickle in from the kitchen downstairs, which will be eaten for supper. Often volunteers come to stay here and contribute various skills to help operate the healing center. Whether that’s labour work, teaching, cleaning or cooking. The food (a certified chef volunteer fixes at Unist’ot’en) incorporates meat and vegetation derived from the territory. Eating healthy, home-harvested meals is as important to healing as anything, Huson points out.
Huson carry’s the Wet’suwet’en name of Chief Howilhkat. Her persistent disposition has helped steady the vision of Unis’tot’en Healing Center through many challenges. She’s small in stature, about four feet eleven, but known for her feisty and assertive demeanor.
And she knows firsthand about healing on the land. After leaving her home on the Wet’suwet’en Witset reserve (in the valley about two hours south) to live full-time at Unis'tot'en over a decade ago, she says her life was transformed.
Back then, Huson suffered from severe allergies and wore prescription glasses, but in less than a year, she says, she was cured from being on the land, eating wild meat, berries, roots and drinking the fresh water from the Wedzin Kwa River.
“My allergies went away and I ended up losing my glasses in the river,” she laughs, recalling a time she swam in the turquoise-blue coloured waters, dunking herself in not realizing her glasses had drifted away. Her brown eyes light up in amusement as she exclaims, “And lo and behold I didn’t use (my glasses) for that long period and I got my vision back!”
Before giving up her nine-to-five job working as an economic development officer for the Wet’suwet’en Nation, Huson said she grew tired of the status quo.
“People told me I needed to get an education, an identity, and make money. I did all that and it didn't feel like I was supposed to be able to be happy still until I came back to the land. And it's just like a spark that ignited in me. Once I got reconnected back to the land, I felt more alive. I want the same for our people.”
Her father had beckoned her to return to the territory before he died years earlier and that invitation was confirmed by her elders soon after. Various outside development projects began showing up, which set off instinctual alarm bells to protect the territory, she says.
At first, Huson moved back to do just that-defend her territories from the toxic effects of industry. That’s when she discovered the power of reviving the ways her ancestors had once lived.
But this journey of healing and reclamation won’t last for long. If the pipeline project pollutes the fragile ecosystems there, it’s over, says Huson. CGL is now drilling under Wedzin Kwa just across from Unist’ot’en, threatening the health of the water, salmon who spawn there, and the other aquatic and land life systems.
“Contaminated water makes us sick. It really limits our capacity to be on our land. It limits our access to plants and animals that we depend on to survive. For diverse ecosystems, healthy ecosystems, to thrive, you know, water is life as so many people say,” explains Huson, whose days are often filled with gathering wood to heat the healing center and her cabin close-by, or breaking snow trails through the forest to set snaring traps, harvesting herbal medicine and other rigorous tasks to keep Unis'tot'en up and running. But, she says, all the hard work is yet another aspect connected to healing.
“The woods here and Wedzin Kwa are the prime reason why this site was chosen for the healing center, because there's pristine living potable water here that is healing, and that's a key necessity for life,” Huson says.
“The land — we are so close to the Creator here. There are people that come here that are broken, are struggling with addictions, or women fleeing violence or families struggling in the child welfare system. If we have the space for them to be out here, they’re going to reconnect. Their spirits can get ignited, and they’re going to want more connection with the land (and they will heal).”
Huson, Tait and Michell are certified in trauma-specific training through an Indigenous-focused therapy program developed by Dr. Shirley Turcotte, a Metis knowledge keeper and registered clinical counsellor who works internationally with survivors of childhood abuses, and complex traumas, including residential school survivors.
The notorious state-run and Catholic Church-administered residential schools in Canada, operated from the late 1800s until 1996. The goal of the schools was to forcibly assimilate Indigenous children into European mainstream culture.
Approximately 150,000 Indigenous children were taken from their parents and communities and forced to attend the schools, where abuse – verbal, physical, sexual, spiritual and emotional – was rampant and cultural practices were banned.
Thousands of unmarked graves of children who died at residential schools have been found since mid-2021, and the search for more graves across the country is ongoing.
Intergenerational trauma stemming from the abusive schools is passed from survivors to their families.
Tait explains the Indigenous-focused therapy approach and how trauma impacts victims' minds, bodies and spirits.
“Trauma lives in our bodies. I think one of the best examples that Turcotte shares in the training is the fact that, like all other mammals, our bodies will hold trauma,” Tait explains. “But because of our cognitive capacities we often get in our own way of dispelling the trauma.
“So, if you watch an animal that's been attacked by a predator that survives the attack, they play dead, right? They have the fight or flight, freeze and collapse response. So, they’ll use one of those and then they might survive. If they survive intact, and it was just a scare, their bodies will shake off the trauma. And then they’ll get up and they'll run away.”
She continues to describe how human beings, due to their cognitive capabilities, don’t often allow their “body’s wisdom to guide us on what it needs.”
Indigenous-oriented therapy is a method to help people get in tune with where the trauma is located in the body and then release it.
“The unique thing about this is it allows you to process without telling the story of the trauma and re-traumatizing yourself, but just focusing on the body’s felt senses and the body’s wisdom about how it needs to express itself. It can help you process your own trauma, but also trauma that’s collective or from past generations.
“So, it’s a really beautiful approach that isn't as triggering. We are here on the land where our ancestors once were, with the water, the animals. And you kind of get this sense that there was always strength and helpers and you were never alone.”
Molly Wickham, a Wet’suwet’en mother and land defender, also lives on her traditional territories with her husband and three small children, about a 20-minute drive from Unist’ot’en. After being raised near Burns Lake by her mother June Wickham with older sister Jennifer, Molly was once determined to leave her territorial homelands forever.
“Like so many other people that I know, there was so much trauma and so much violence, lateral violence, and all those kinds of things that we grew up around,” Wickham said, speaking from inside her cabin home that overlooks Lhudis Bin, a stunning glacier-fed lake in danger of becoming a basin for mine tailings.
“When I left, I thought I’m getting the hell out of here and I’m never coming back. And so I spent a lot of time in Victoria and I ended up going to school there.”
She initially planned on becoming a lawyer but ended up enrolling in an Indigenous governance degree program at the University of Victoria. It was there where her journey of reconciliation with her past, her identity, and her passion for the land was ignited.
“Once I hit university, I started realizing all of the things that were missing, learning about how colonization has impacted our people and our communities and our land. And I started really becoming involved in tribal journeys down south,” Wickham says. “And the more that I was around Indigenous culture, and the more that I was around people that were really strong in their culture, the more I realized that I wanted that for myself and that I wanted our culture. I wanted my kids to grow up immersed in our culture and our laws and our songs and our dances. And I knew I needed to go home.”
And she did. Wickham and her husband Cody have built a family around a life of connection to the lands and waterways in her home territories. She credits Huson for taking her in under her wing and teaching her the Wet’suwet’en ways of land-based living.
It was a healing journey that was, however, a long time in the making.
Wickham’s maternal grandparents were taken to residential school and their culture, language and ancestral knowledge stripped away. That trauma became intergenerational. Her mother June is a survivor of what is commonly referred to as the 60s Scoop.
June, who is from Stella’ten First Nation, was taken from her parents as a baby and adopted into a white family in southern B.C. She wasn’t raised to know her Indigenous language, her relatives or her lands. Connections to her culture were severed.
“I was brought up and I didn't even know I had an Indigenous clan,” said June in a phone interview from her home in Smithers, B.C. “I didn't even know I belonged to a group of people… But my girls, I’m so proud of my girls.”
It was June’s daughters who first felt compelled to return to their matriarchal territories over a decade ago.
“And so my mom, even though she didn't know exactly what was traditional or cultural for us as Wet'suwet'en, she always told us that that was like a gift and something to be proud of and to fight for,” says Jennifer, who runs the social media accounts for the Gidimt’en Wet’suwet’en Clan, which has an industry resistance camp in the territory
“We have this right and responsibility to be out on the land and to do our harvesting.”.
Wickham was born determined, June says, a trait that helps her stand her ground, especially now. “She’s always been that way. And she’d run around the racetrack at school — and she’d be so tired, sometimes I was scared she’d pass out. But she’d keep going.”
That determination has helped Wickham endure getting arrested twice. Wickham, who carries the Wet’suwet’en name Sleydo, has been opposing powerful forces like CGL, and the provincial and federal governments that back it for years.
Jennifer, Wickham’s older sister (by just 18 months she notes), says the two have always been best friends — she says they’re in this together for the long haul. It’s Wickham’s wits and creativity that have helped her survive up to now.
“She’s (Molly) incredibly smart, and it takes a lot to be out there. And our mom has just experienced so much in her life and she always just keeps going too. And so, I think that's definitely where Molly gets it from. No matter what happens, you have a goal, you just do it. Like there's no question.”
Wickham is still recovering from the traumatic experience of violent police raids and being arrested in November 2021 for a second time.
“I was trying really hard not to have a physiological response, but I couldn't stop myself. My hands were shaking. Everybody's hands were up,” recalls Wickham, who is still recuperating from the traumas of that day when dozens of RCMP officers surrounded a tiny house she was in with two other land defenders and two journalists.
That day, the RCMP dropped officers onto the territory via helicopter, some were bussed in, and a few were accompanied by trained attack dogs to tear her away from her homelands.
Wickham vividly describes the terror of that moment. “Right at the front of my mind, my whole nervous system, and all of my physiological reactions was that there were these attack dogs just fighting to get off of their leash and get to us that were barking and yelping.”
The officers were heavily armed, some with AK47 rifles and sniper guns. The land defenders inside had no weapons, except for the knowledge of their rights as sovereign Indigenous Peoples. Wickham refused to heed RCMP requests to open the door because they didn’t have a warrant. That’s when RCMP used a chainsaw to gnaw through the door.
“I did not take my eyes off of that gun and that man who was holding that gun and pointing it at me,” she recalls of the tense moments when an officer in what appeared to be combat fatigues pointed his long gun at her from the door.
“I was thinking, what's going to happen if the dog comes in, or if somebody makes the wrong move. The RCMP, this is the third violent raid that they’ve had on our territories, but they also have become increasingly bold and increasingly violent,” she says.
Wickham was detained, stripped of a small pouch of ceremonial items she carried with her for strength and protection and forced to spend nearly a week in jail. She and other land defenders, including a Wet’suwet’en hereditary wing chief, were eventually charged with criminal contempt.
“By allowing Coastal GasLink to continue construction on the traditional, unceded territories of the Wet’suwet’en without their free, prior and informed consent, the governments of Canada and British Columbia are not only contravening the spirit of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, but also their binding human rights obligations,” said France-Isabelle Langlois, Executive Director of Amnistie internationale Canada Francophone in a January 2023 statement.
“Amnesty International calls on the governments of Canada and B.C., and CGL to immediately cease all construction on the pipeline and return to constructive discussions with the hereditary chiefs that respect the laws and the right to free, prior, and informed consent of the Wet’suwet’en people.”
Ultimately, Wickham derives strength from her ancestral territory to endure the grueling emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual battle to save what’s left of it.
“I look at my kids and they continually inspire me to do this work, but I think that, in terms of sustainability, it's really the land and my family that just keeps feeding me and helping me make it through. This is justice work, and this work is soul sucking — it’s so hard,” she admits.
“But being able to be out here and harvest medicines and foods really fuels me and fuels my soul. And when your ancestors are running through your veins, you know it’s (strength) in you and around you.”
But time is running out. Wickham’s dreams of raising her children on the territory and providing the opportunities for other Wet’suwet’en people to heal there could soon be destroyed, she warns.
“Despite how tired we are, how tired I am, how much we've been through, we just have to keep going, and we have to keep going with great conviction and energy. Because we don't have any other choice. We're not going to get another chance to stop them (CGL) from drilling under the river.
“You know, once they’ve drilled under the river, it's just, it's done. Like it's just destroyed our ability to drink, to heal, to be here. The water will be gone forever and we just can't take that risk.”
Meanwhile, the pipeline, other impending industry projects, and broken promises from governments to uphold Indigenous rights are getting in the way of Unis'tot'en efficiently running healing and culture camps, says Tait.
Tait, her mother and Huson have all been arrested as well.
Yet, CGL maintains that they are respecting Indigenous rights. On its website, the company states: “We value the culture, lands and traditions of Indigenous groups. That is why our team works closely with First Nations communities throughout the life of the project. We're proud to have signed project agreements with all 20 elected First Nations governments along the approved route.”
This is a tactic CGL often uses to legitimize its actions by referring to the consent it has obtained from 20 First Nations situated near the pipeline route. But the company is skirting around the rights of the traditional Wet’suwet’en governance structure that has been in place for millennia. The manufactured consent CGL refers to comes through the elected chief and band council system, a colonial construct created via the Indian Act.
The Wet’suwet’en hereditary leaders hold collective authority over what happens in their territories through Inuk Nuat’en (Our Own Law), which is the Wet’suwet’en legal system. This division of authority has been recognized by the Supreme Court of Canada.
“It was really infuriating three years ago when we were raided and arrested because that's the same year that we had been approved for funding and we couldn't run any of the programs because of the invasion of our lands and our arrests,” recalls Tait.
“And it just made it so clear how the lip service and piecemeal offerings from the federal government that seemed innovative and supportive, such as supporting land-based healing, are completely undermined by the continued oppression and militarized policing. And the theft of our lands and the criminalization of our people for living on our land.”
Huson and sister Michell are leaning on their faith and perseverance. To them, the healing center is key to stitching their community back from the wreckage of the violence of the colonizing forces that once tried to expel them from their lands forever. Ironically, that violence continues.
“I think they don't really care if they harm any of us at all,” Huson states, while sterilizing glass jars of canned moose.
“I pray daily and I always pray for protection over the Yintah and any supporters here. We can’t do anything in the courts. So that’s all we can do right now. But the truth is we will win. The truth of the corruption of what the governments and CGL are doing has to come to the light. I feel at peace about that.”