Promoting Aboriginal Territoriality through Interethnic Alliances: The Case of the Cheslatta T'en in Northern British Columbia

By Larsen, Soren C. | Human Organization, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Promoting Aboriginal Territoriality through Interethnic Alliances: The Case of the Cheslatta T'en in Northern British Columbia


Larsen, Soren C., Human Organization


Across rural North America, aboriginal and nonaboriginal people have formed strategic alliances to defend what are perceived to be common resources and attachments to place. Thus far, little is known about how these partnerships have factored into indigenous pursuits of territorial autonomy. This article describes how the Cheslatta T'en, a Dakelh (Carrier) community in north-central British Columbia, established a measure of control over their homeland after forming an alliance with local nonnative residents. Cheslatta leaders used cultural exchanges and social networks generated by the alliance to fashion territorial initiatives that, when taken together, channel popular environmentalism, provincial forestry policies, and ancestral ethnoecology into collective identity, action, and authority. As a result, the band has attained political influence over its traditional lands without participating in the province's treaty settlement process. Interethnic partnerships in rural areas are particularly relevant to political ecology because they reveal how the common experience of powerlessness can generate new forms of resource management that synthesize diverse constructions of nature. In this way, the paper contributes to the growing empirical work on such alliances and to emerging frameworks for a political ecology of social movements. It also adds to the ethnographic literature on the colonial encounter in British Columbia by highlighting the role of interethnic collaboration in contemporary rural resource management projects.

Key words: First Nations, human territoriality, place attachment, political ecology, rural development, British Columbia

In rural areas across the Americas, aboriginal and nonaboriginal communities have formed alliances to defend what are perceived to be common resources and attachments to place (Bystydzienski and Schacht 2001). The alliances take shape as coalitions between specific actors (Long and Dickason 2000; Warren 1998) and as larger, community-based social movements (Escobar 1998; Peet and Watts 1996). Recent ethnographic research has revealed that a complex and often volatile mixture of collaboration, conflict, and negotiation characterizes the politics of these ethnic partnerships.

This article concentrates on the territorial aspects of one such alliance in a rural area of northern Canada. It describes how the Cheslatta T'en, a Dakelh (Carrier) community in north-central British Columbia, gained greater control over their homeland after forming a partnership with local nonnative residents. This manuscript is based on ethnographic work in the region that spanned a period of five years from 1998 to 2002, including a nine-month term as a Fulbright scholar. I conducted formal interviews with 82 native and nonnative individuals as well as informal interviews with scores of other residents. In addition, I participated extensively in silviculture work, potlatches, hunting and trapping expeditions, and political and community meetings. Cheslatta leaders used the cultural exchanges and social networks generated by the alliance to fashion territorial initiatives that, when taken together, channel popular environmentalism, provincial forestry policies, and ancestral ethnoecology into collective identity, action, and authority. As a result, the band has attained political influence over ancestral lands without participating in the province's treaty settlement process.

On a broader level, this paper argues that interethnic movements and coalitions in rural areas are especially relevant to the field of political ecology because they reveal how shared senses of place-and, in particular, common experiences of powerlessness-can generate new forms of resource management that synthesize diverse constructions of nature. In this way, it contributes both to the growing empirical work on interethnic alliances in rural North America (Bystydzienski and Schacht 2001; Long and Dickason 2000) and to emerging frameworks for a political ecology of social movements (Escobar 1998; Peet and Watts 1996). …

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