Words By Lynda V. Mapes
Photographs by Evan Benally Atwood
Indigenous-led land back efforts are underway on Canada’s Vancouver Island. The Frontline digs into this reclamation—and how the land’s original stewards are protecting forests from logging.
At the end of a remote logging road along a cold sweep of sea on Canada’s Vancouver Island, 69-year-old Tsastilqualus Ambers Umbas is taking a stand.
For more than a year now, Umbas, a matriarch of the Ma’amtagila First Nation who prefers to go by Tsas, has been living here and building a camp. She is spearheading her people’s return to Hiladi, or The Place to Make Things Right as the Kwak’wala name translates into English.
Umbas—whose traditional name translates to Where People Gather Around the Fire for Warmth—has taken her fire to this ancestral village site in a clearing amid dense cutover forest on the east side of Vancouver Island, not far from the confluence of the Adam and Eve Rivers. She is reoccupying unceded territory of the Ma’amtagila, a nation of the Kwakwaka’wakw peoples who are made up of 18 tribes whose territory includes parts of Vancouver Island and several other smaller islands nearby.
In addition to restoring the Ma’amtagila’s presence at Hiladi, Matriarch Camp (the name given to this reoccupation) is a base of operations to oppose unsustainable logging and industrial fish farming. Umbas is a veteran of many arrests for peaceful direct actions, including locking and chaining herself to the doors of a federal fisheries office to protest industrial fish farming and defend wild salmon.
“They didn’t know what to do with me,” she mused.
Her current occupation is a direct action in coordination with her people’s traditional hereditary chiefs.
“I am where I am supposed to be,” she said during a recent visit by relatives, non-Native allies, and supporters who hiked in gifts of food. “This is my home.”
Her house was built in the fall of 2019 and moved to this site by Native students and allies with a grant from the University of Victoria Sustainability Project. The resulting Hiladi Village Reclamation and Little Big House Rematriation Project are the start of healing that Umbas and her godson, hereditary chief Rande Cook, hope to see throughout B.C. and the world—both for the land and the people.
“When I first started talking about it, people laughed, but they forgot I am tenacious,” Umbas said of her decision to begin her people’s return to Hiladi by simply living there. “We have been gone … but we are back now.”
The Ma’amtagila never surrendered these lands, but many of their people moved away in the 1890s in part because of disease brought by colonizers. This land at Hiladi has long been bereft of its First People. “Our people died because of the smallpox,” Umbas said. “That is how our people left here.”
“We have an obligation to the land. We are its caretakers.”
Umbas’s face is traditionally tattooed, including tears at her eyes, representing the pain she seeks to heal in her people and the land. “It is all the shed and unshed tears.”
“We have an obligation to the land,” she said. “We are its caretakers.”
The noise of backup alarms on heavy equipment invades Matriarch Camp. The intrusion is the sound of industrial logging. Today, after more than 150 years of commercial logging in British Columbia, less than 3% of its biggest, most productive forests remain.
Cook, who inherited his grandfather’s chieftainship in 2008, said he supports the encampment and Hiladi reoccupation in part to stop logging on this land—an action he said the Ma’amtagila would never have condoned. Colonial violence continues today with the unsustainable logging in their territory, said Cook, who now carries the name Makwala, which means moon.
The camp is reached by more than two hours of driving over rutted logging roads. Miles of clear-cuts on both sides are not forests at all but dense, dark monoculture tree plantations, regrown so thickly that there is virtually no understory beneath their dreary canopy. Umbas, a great-grandmother, lived here with only her dog during her first winter. Sometimes, snow closed the one road in entirely.
But as her second winter in camp approaches, she has no plan to leave. “I’m not worried at all. I’m where I am supposed to be,” Umbas said. “And I don’t have to ask permission from anyone to return to the land our people are from.”
As Umbas spoke by a smoldering campfire, a volunteer split cedar shakes. The sound of a nail gun punctuated the progress underway on the bunkhouse, which had been under construction since the spring to enable more Ma’amtagila to reclaim residence on this land. The Little Big House where Umbas lives, as it is called, was built to resemble a Kwakwaka’wakw big house, a traditional community-gathering place for ceremonies, feasts, dances, and other cultural practices. The house features a welcoming double front door, gentle roof line, and cedar siding. With its large outdoor kitchen, the Little Big House is the heartbeat of the camp.
As the daylight wanes, Umbas has been preparing for winter, canning food. And this winter, she will have company. The bunkhouse is finished, and the plan is for up to four two-spirit, gay, trans, Black, Indigenous, and other youth of color to come and take up residence to get away from urban life and the frontlines of conflict. Hiladi is a place to regroup, connect to the ancestors, and heal.
It is also a place where Umbas lives intimately with the wild. The camp is frequented by bears, cougars, elk—and wind. Even on an August day, Umbas wore a sheepskin coat, her hair blowing. “It’s called Windy Point in your language,” she said of the land, offering its English translation.
Wood smoke drifted past her face and the eagle staff Umbas held as she spoke.
It’s no surprise her people have always lived here, where there is a generous sweep of flat ground, right by the salt water. All five North American species of salmon make their way home along the Johnstone Strait. A crab apple tree not far from the Little Big House could be the remains of a forest garden tended by Ma’amtagila ancestors.
Matriarch Camp is part of the larger Land Back movement underway across the globe to return lands to their first residents—sometimes by gift, sometimes by purchase, sometimes by direct action, sometimes by legislation. From farmlands and forests to coastlines and grasslands, places long used by the newcomers are passing back to Native hands. For the Ma’amtagila, reclaiming residence at Hiladi is just the start of a larger movement to go to court to regain their rights and title to their unceded territory.
“We might forget where we come from, but the land remembers.”
The Ma’amtagila are soon to file papers with the Canadian government to establish independence from the Tlowitsis First Nation with whom their people joined in 1945 when, because of smallpox and measles, most of the Ma’amtagila moved to Turnour Island, where the Tlowitsis historically resided until the 1960s. The island was designated by the Department of Indian Affairs as a Tlowitsis reserve.
While the Ma’amtagila never surrendered their territory, the government of Canada is undertaking treaty-making with the Tlowitsis without the Ma’amtagila’s participation and consent, Cook said.
To the Ma’amtagila, this is just a continuation of the settler-colonial violence they have endured since smallpox and measles first drove them from their territory. Then came the residential schools and the attempted extermination of the potlatch tradition, in which families gift their wealth at gatherings to mark important occasions, such as the naming of children, marriage, transference of rights and privileges, and honoring the dead. The potlatch ban and residential schools were imposed by the Canadian government in an attempt to erase Native cultures even as the government took their lands.
While the court proceeding will be the official path to asserting the nation’s right and title, Umbas said she asserts this culturally: “I don’t deal with the legal aspect; that is not my system. I take direction from the ancestors and from the land itself. You have to form a relationship with the land.”
Learning to live with the land—not on it—is part of her work. That involves becoming reacquainted with its residents. “We have swans that come here. Loons, ravens, eagles, mink.” Umbas’s own family crest is the seagull and the bear, relatives who also come to visit.
“My goal is to see our people returned back to the land,” Umbas said. “It is part of what makes us who we are, to be able to utilize the land … I’m a strong believer that when we heal ourselves we heal the ancestors, as well. This is my home. I will never leave.”
As a survivor of both the residential schools and a heroin addiction for many years, Umbas is grateful for every day. “I really shouldn’t be here,” she said. “I had many close calls.” Her life has purpose by simply existing.
She dreams of a huge garden, more people living with the land in the bunk house, a big house with feasts and dances—alive again with the sound of songs and drums.
“I think I always knew I would return to our land,” Umbas said. “We might forget where we come from, but the land remembers.”
The work Umbas is doing is more necessary than ever, Cook said, to help heal the global legacy of colonialism and genocide.
“We are at a point now where we need to take action because we are in a global crisis. It is not just here—it is everywhere—and we need to transcend beyond borders to pull people together collectively around the globe,” he said. “We want to work with other nations to start healing the land. Everywhere.”