Leaarning new ways from Elders

Our sabbatical in 2006 included visits to other areas of the globe were people live in relative isolation from the outside world. We sought out communities that were similar in size to Rapid City, but with access to more remote places. We were especially interested in indigenous communities and sought out opportunities to visit them in British Columbia, Canada and in central Australia. Our sabbatical was all to short to establish a definitive study, but with the reading that we did during our travels, we gained a sense of those communities. We learned enough to be sure that we want to return.

With our retirement looming, we have once again been thinking of the people of British Columbia. Our proposed retirement community is near the coast about 90 miles from the Canadian border, making it possible for us to return to some of the coastal communities across the border. Those visits, however, won’t be occurring this year.

The Great Bar Rainforest is famous for its eco-tourism opportunities. Bella Bella is a remote community accessible only by water or air and hot to the Heiltsuk Nation. The Heiltsuk completed a new Big House and expanded the opportunities for non natives to visit and learn about their culture as well as use Bella Bella as a starting point for trips into the wilderness.

All of that is on hold now. US Citizens aren’t allowed to cross the Canadian border unless they are engaged in essential business. And the residents of Bella Bella are keeping their community locked up and isolated. They have every reason to worry about the threat of Covid-19. The Heiltsuk have lived in the region for 14,000 years. At the peak, there were as many as 20,000 people in their communities. Then in the 1780s contact was made with Europeans. And with that contact came diseases for which the Heiltsuk had no natural immunity. Smallpox and measles devastated the tribe. A century later in the 1880s the population had dwindled to around 200 survivors.

Then the 1918 flu came. Entire households passed away with no time or resources for proper burials. The cultural devastation matched that of other indigenous communities on the North American continent.

The threat of Covid-19 carries an especially devastating aspect because it is especially dangerous to older people. Elders are essential to the culture of the Heiltsuk. Their laws and traditions are all oral, passed down from generation to generation. Knowledge Keepers are a group of Elders who have learned the customs, traditions and protocols of the nation. The Heiltsuk have perhaps 30 Elders left who are fluent in their language. Protecting these Elders is essential to the survival of the language and culture.

The normally tourist-friendly communities of British Columbia are protected by checkpoints. Guardian Watchmen, whose usual job is that of cultural ambassadors to tourists now need to track and intercept any boat that enters their waters. Appointed to protect the land and the fragile ecosystem they have a new role win protecting the health of the people.

The Great Bear Rainforest is an amazing place to visit. Home to wildlife including whales, coastal wolves, black bears, grizzly bears and the spirit bear, there is a lot to see and much can be seen from small boats in somewhat protected coastal waters. Visiting this area in normal times requires that visitors learn how to stay away from sacred sites and follow regulations to protect the wildlife and the rainforest itself. Now is the time for visitors to simply stay away to allow nature to care for the animals and the people of the land.

Throughout the history of human occupation of the world, there have been circumstances when plagues and pandemics have spread widely while missing a few pockets of isolated people. Despite the loss of tourist dollars that have supported some of these communities, this may be a time for them to return to isolation in order to survive.

The coastal tribes, being more remote than the indigenous communities of the South Dakota Reservations, have a better opportunity to remain isolated. While there have been efforts to limit travel to and from Reservation lands, there are many roads, including state and federal highways, that criss cross the territory and those who live on the Reservation need to travel off-reservation for essential services such as grocery shopping and health care. Folks on the plains simply don’t have the same options as those living in the rainforest at the edge of the ocean with no access by roads to their communities.

The time will come once again when it is reasonable to pay a visit to the remote places. I hope that we will be able to make some visits. But now is not that time. Patience has long been a virtue of the culture of Pacific Northwest tribes. Patience may be essential to their survival in these times of pandemic. Visiting them in their own places will require patience of would-be visitors as well.

There is much of watching and waiting going on all around the world. As the leaders of our church consider when and how to begin in-person worship it is clear that not every one agrees with the decisions of the Church Board. As we go forward there will be many more discussions and other decisions that will be questioned. We are exploring uncharted territory as a community. Like the Heiltsuk people, our community has many elders with increased vulnerability to the disease caused by the virus. Like them, we need to have ways of making decisions that respect and honor people of all ages and circumstances. There is no “one size fits all” solution to the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

We, too, will need to learn to practice patience as we wait to see what our next steps may be. And patience is not one of my best qualities. Th crisis contains an opportunity. But that opportunity may take time to reveal itself.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!