This Black History Month, let’s remember nature is for everyone
As Black History Month comes to a close, we want to highlight some stories on...
“Uncle, want to do the safety check?” Tim Lezard says to his nephew Weston Roberds.
The two men review their personal protective equipment, checking for gloves and garbage bags. The safety check is a critical part of their work, and the first task of each day before they head out on the land.
As land Guardians for the Penticton Indian Band, Lezard and Roberds are caretakers of sn’pink’tn (Penticton). One of the seven First Nations that comprise syilx Nation, sn’pink’tn spans more than 46,000 acres and stretches across the northern tip of the Great Basin Desert.
It’s one of the most sensitive and ecologically diverse places in what has been briefly known as Canada, and its three reserves encompass a varied topography of gentle hills, rocky cliffs and everything in between. Nestled in the southwestern Okanagan Valley, close to Highway 97, sn’pink’tn also borders the cities of Summerland and Penticton. As sqilx’w peoples, Lezard and Roberds continue the tradition of stewarding sn’pink’tn, a responsibility handed down across the generations since Creation.
For me, a sqilx’w (Indigenous) woman from my syilx Homelands who was born and raised in n’qmaplqs (the head of Okanagan Lake), it was exciting to observe the land Guardians in action. For two days this past summer, I witnessed the Guardians’ commitment to our syilx teachings on how we go about navigating the land, respecting protocols and fulfilling their responsibilities as caretakers.
sn’pink’tn is one of more than 170 First Nations that have Guardians programs, which recognize our unique responsibilities as caretakers of the land. The rise of Guardians programs reflects a growing recognition of the need for Indigenous-led stewardship.
What makes the Penticton Indian Band’s approach distinct is its unwavering focus on stewardship within an urban context. The impact of colonization and human activity has profoundly altered the landscape, as well as the scope of responsibilities for its caretakers. In addition to monitoring owl nests, sacred sites and salmon spawning creeks, the Guardians spend their time collecting trash to protect the sensitive ecosystems and dealing with encampments.
“When people leave things we can’t just leave it, no matter how disgusting it is. We can’t just leave it, we pick it up,” Lezard explains. “Our [personal protective equipment] is a big part of being able to do our job, having puncture resistant gloves, and such.”
Picking up discarded needles and clearing out abandoned campsites isn’t what comes to mind for most people when they imagine First Nations caring for the land. But for the Guardians of the Penticton Indian Band, those acts are equally important and meaningful ways of showing their love and respect to their Homelands.
The land Guardians, which operate through the Natural Resources Department of the Penticton Indian Band, began as a team of two in 2016.
“It all started because we were having a lot of garbage dumped so we would go and take pictures of garbage being left,” Lezard says. “There was a lot of trespassing, camps and drug-use.”
The land Guardians serve as “the eyes and the boots on the ground,” according to their website. In addition to stewarding the landscape, they also engage in public outreach and education, greeting visitors to their Homelands and building relationships through their patrols.
While many Guardians programs receive funding and support from the First Nations National Guardians Network, which was established in 2018, the Penticton Indian Band program is an example of a grassroots initiative that has been wholly led by the community.
Over the past seven years, the team has grown in both numbers and in the area they cover. There are now three teams of land Guardians. Roberds and Lezard are the territorial team, and their work is complemented by an on-reserve team and an Okanagan Valley team, each comprised of two members.
Part of the work of the on-reserve Guardians has been building relationships with the City of Penticton and the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen. As a result of those efforts, the city is now partially resourcing the on-reserve program, recognizing the impacts to the Penticton Channel. The seven-kilometre channel, which winds through the reserve, is a popular recreation site for Penticton residents and tourists alike — leaving the Guardians to manage the problems created by so many visitors.
Together, they now cover all of syilx Homelands on the northern side of what sqilx’w peoples call the imaginary line: the border dividing Canada from the U.S., which intersects many First Nations along the 49th parallel. The syilx Homelands extend south into what has briefly been called Washington State, and encompass a vast area of approximately 69,000 square kilometres.
“[Penticton Indian Band] is interesting because it’s so big,” James Pepper, the natural resources manager for the community, says. A biologist by training, he has spent his career working alongside Indigenous communities. His role is listening to what the community wants and then finding the funding resources to make it happen.
“So the Guardian program is part of the overall community lands protection and responsibilities,” Pepper says. “We have many other programs as well, such as a restoration enhancement program, forestry assessment program, a crown consultation program, we have a water focus, fisheries focus, all sorts of stuff going on.” He emphasizes their bottom-up approach, where they engage with the community to understand their needs and proceed with initiatives based on these grassroots requests.
The responsibilities of the Guardians are diverse and informed by the community, Pepper explains. They include restoration and rehabilitation, and preventing further destruction to vulnerable areas, like the banks of the Penticton River Channel.
“It’s not just all about garbage and stuff, but saying, here’s a pictograph, we need to check on it and make sure that nobody’s messing with it, and covering it up so that it will be hidden. They also look at if there’s a logging company and they’ve spilled some oil, and they’re not cleaning it up like they should, then we’re talking to conservation officers, we’re making sure there is compliance because the province really doesn’t have any enforcement.”
Pepper highlights that a significant portion of the Guardians’ projects originate from their witnessing of the land’s needs and bringing that information back to the community. The Guardians also take part in several community initiatives, which have strengthened kinship connections and in turn strengthened the program, he explains.
“We help with the fish distribution when that comes around, and we also trade fish with a local beekeeper whose bees utilize our community flowers to make honey,” Lezard says. “So we have local honey and pair fish and honey with [produce from] our local community garden and give that out too.”
Another responsibility of the Guardians is caring for the burrowing owls. In collaboration with The Burrowing Owl Conservation Society of BC, the Guardians have cared for endangered owls bred in captivity and raised by the community before being released on their homelands. The Guardians feed owls, monitor nests and document sightings and migrations. When they see an injured owl, they contact the South Okanagan Rehabilitation Centre for Owls so it can be cared for and hopefully released back into the wild.
The Guardians program thrives on community support, and youth involvement is a key focus. Weston Roberds represents a new generation passionate about land stewardship. He’s been a land Guardian since May 2023, working alongside his uncle. Roberds says his passion for the work comes from the love for his home, which was nurtured from a young age, particularly at Outma Sqilx’w Cultural School, which centres nsyilxen and culture.
“I went to Outma my whole life and we had a lot of time out on the land. I just saw that this was a job opportunity that was close to that experience and so I saw it come up and applied,” he says.
The land Guardians program has grown thanks to the desire among young people in the community to be involved. The Natural Resource Department is made up of 40 staff from the community, and seven of them are under 30 years old. The department has also developed a mentorship program, inviting youth to come on ride-alongs with the Guardians in order to see the work that is being done on the land.
“If a young person came to us and wanted to work with us, we would find a way,” says Pepper, who also expressed they are currently looking at how to build more of that engagement among youth.
While climbing steep and rocky terrain, Roberds keeps a close eye on the land, watching out the window for any shifts or changes in the environment. Noticing a fire nearby, he asked his Uncle to stop the truck so they can jump out and take photos. Later that evening, those images are uploaded to the Guardians’ Facebook page for community members to see.
On any given day, their Facebook page is updated by the three Guardians teams with their findings and activities. You might see a post about the progress of the burrowing owl reintegration program, or maybe a truckload of garbage being hauled from a sensitive area. Often you’ll see the recovery of abandoned or stolen vehicles, alongside documented findings of a plant shifting through its life cycles in an atypical way. Posts often end with the sign-off, “way’ good day on the land.”
In syilx Homelands the structure of governance is egalitarian, with deep ties to the teachings of voice equity on things that impact land and life. That’s one reason why the Guardians have focused on transparency, sharing daily updates on Facebook.
Pepper says initially, the page was private, but making it public has garnered a lot of support and engagement from the local area. It has just shy of 1,000 followers, a group that includes Penticton Indian Band members as well as the non-Indigenous community.
“People [will] say, ‘Hey, I saw someone going up this hill with a truck full of garbage,’ and stuff like that,” Pepper says. “I’d say I probably get 35 messages a week even from non-members, just from the public telling us about stuff they see.”
He stresses that the Guardians do more than just post to Facebook; they also meet with Elders and Knowledge Keepers, and host in-person community meetings.
But Facebook allows them to share images of the land for those who aren’t able to access it.
“A lot of our people who don’t get to go out on the land follow our Facebook and look at our pictures. I think it’s very encouraging for them. And then getting feedback from them, it helps a lot for our people,” says Lezard.
When the territorial team heads out early in the morning, they set off to the highest points of the lands. Binoculars in hand, they keep sight on the Homelands in all directions.
Lezard and Roberds know our Homelands intimately. Along our drive, they stop to track the wildlife moving through the area, and point out to me where they have already documented garbage, cultural markings or illegally poached animals. Their memories for the movements happening on the land intertwine with the syilx teachings, which tell us to know your land like you know your own skin.
As we drive by a large mining truck tire that appears to be abandoned on the side of a mountain road, they point out the smallest details. They’ve left it on the hillscape, they explain, because life has taken root around it and removing it will cause more damage. But they will know if that one tire has moved, changed or shifted since they last saw it.
This attention to detail is part of the practice of Indigenous science, which is based on traditional ecological knowledge and accumulated over generations. This knowledge is highly specific to place-based environments and ecosystems, and often encompasses sustainable resource management practices that are critical for the health of ecosystems. Being out on their Homelands each day and documenting each change, no matter how tiny, is a critical form of data sovereignty.
“It’s intellectual property,” Lezard says. By collecting and maintaining data sovereignty, or control over the information they collect and store about the land, the Guardians continue to add to the traditional ecological knowledge of the syilx Peoples.
“For the territory Guardians it’s all about people knowing we are out on the land, that we’re making tracks on our own land, enacting Title and Rights, and building that up with ensuring everything we do is documented, digitized and tracked,” Lezard says. This ultimately informs and supports sustainable resource use and conservation for their people, now and in the future.
But it’s equally important to the Guardians that the sqilx’w people in their community are checked on, in the same way the land is.
“We really check on the people who mostly live on the edge of the reserve. We call them up and ask them, ‘Is anyone bothering you? Has anyone been trespassing?’ ” Lezard says. “I do that usually once a month, give them a call, and they really appreciate people taking time for them and asking how they’re doing.”
“They call me now too,” he says.
As the territorial team, who range beyond the edge of the reserve, Lezard and Roberds engage with different people: often hunters, hikers, tourists and sometimes people living in the backcountry.
syilx teachings tell us that every member of a community should have equitable access to life’s essentials, and those essentials include joy and happiness. One of the responsibilities of the on-reserve team, Lezard says, is connecting unhoused community members with help and support.
“We worked with the Brain Injury Society, and they have these books called Little Red Book. It’s a handbook you give them so if they have any problems [it lists] people that can help you see, the social services for mental health or addiction issues, food, like soup kitchens and everything like that,” Lezard explains.
While driving through the mountains above sn’pink’tn, Lezard points out an area where he found a father and son who were living out of their vehicle, and reflects on how compassion is central to his work out on the land.
“Some of those people with mental health issues, they don’t drink or do drugs. It’s just that they have nobody to care for them wherever they’re from, or their family or their split apart from their family. You have to be compassionate. We always try to understand where they’re coming from.”
Dean Schreiber, one-half of the on-reserve Guardians team, embraces his daily responsibility of caring for both the land and its people with honour. Each morning, he wakes up with a sense of purpose, preparing to venture into the lands of his own community.
Schreiber swiftly jumps from his truck to open the gate along the Penticton River Channel, an area under his care. After passing through the gate, he nimbly leaps out again to close it. His passion for making a positive impact is evident.
As he heads down to the channel for his first patrol of the day, he’s reflective. “I just love making a difference. And we hear it from the people on the channel. ‘Gosh, you guys do such a good job.’ We pick up garbage as we go, and we’re not garbagemen, but we do a little bit every day. If everybody did that, the whole world would be that much better, that much cleaner, right?”
In the summer, the Penticton Channel is one of the liveliest places in the area, and it’s always Schreiber’s first stop of the day. Connecting kɬúsx̌nítkʷ (Okanagan Lake) and Skaha Lake, the channel attracts thousands of annual visitors who come to tube its shallow length. Often the crowd is made up of local families and tourists.
During the summer, littering by both folks who live unhoused and visitors along the channel is rampant. People will abandon their belongings, floats and garbage on Penticton Indian Band land, creating unsafe conditions. Schreiber tells me he’s found sleeping bags, clothes and once even a hundred needles in a single area. Still, he loves patrolling the area because it gives him a chance to build relationships.
“I love it on the channel because when I see people, white people too, I’ll say, ‘way’’ (greetings). And so now they say it to me first, you know, ‘way’! Or we’ll say, ‘way’ slaxt’, (hello friend,) ‘xast xusalt,’ (good day!)”
“Now that’s reconciliation, when they are trying to learn our language. It doesn’t get any better than that,” he says.
As dust fills the road behind us, Schreiber points the truck toward the Penticton Indian Band sacred sites. We rumble up the road, as he recalls how one day, a man brushed off his greeting, grumbling, “Ah, I don’t speak Indian.” Schreiber, who often sees this man on his patrols, didn’t take offence. Instead, he says, he turned the moment around and made a joke. “Luckily I have thick skin, and I said some little smartass comment back because we have that kind of relationship,” Schreiber says. “And I see him the next day, and the same guy says, ‘way.’ And oh, that got me. I said, back to him, ‘way’ limtlemt’ (hello, thank you.)”
“And you know, it doesn’t take much to change people’s mindsets,” he adds. “People just want to be heard, is all.”
Each conversation he has is a chance to teach someone about the land they’re on — an interaction that might prompt them to consider their own responsibilities, or at least to think twice before leaving their trash behind.
As the sun rises higher, we leave the channel and drive through the dusty backroads of the reserve, where pine trees and sacred spaces lay undetected, thanks to the work of the Guardians.
syilx Peoples understand the land to be a kin. It’s important that we visit our land, especially in our sacred places so that the spirit of those places, known as tmixʷ, don’t get lonely. And in our visits, we are reminded through place that we must honour the land like our own skin, because in many translations of nsyilxcen the land and our bodies are tied.
For Schreiber that’s something that his work embodies.
We slow down as our truck approaches barbed-wire strewn about on the road. Stepping out of the vehicle, Schreiber puts on his gloves and begins to roll up the barbed-wire. He does this several times while talking about his responsibilities to the animals.
“Part of what I like to do is get rid of this barbed wire that is laying around. Our horses have to come through here, and the moose and the deer, and they cut themselves especially in the wintertime. So I get my wire cutters and wind it up and hang it on a tree,” he explains as he expertly rolls up the wire.
“I love the land and the land loves me” is a syilx saying that holds so many nuances and layers of teachings. It is said that when syilx Peoples come together on the land to share love, laugh and joy, the land is happy, and it reciprocates that love through its offerings. And when you have to turn to the land in times of grief or despair, it has plenty of space to hold that for you too.
As the sun begins to sink toward the horizon, Schreiber and I jump out of the truck into the pine-scented air, and he shows me different types of culturally modified trees. They tell the story of how this one area has been used by our people.
When the Guardians wrap up another day on the land, they step into the other roles that they play in their family and community. That might be going to the council chambers for a meeting for Lezard, who also serves as a band councillor. Or maybe they bring their dogs out for a long walk like Schreiber, or head home to spend time with their loved ones like Roberds.
Either way, they go home feeling fulfilled in the work they do. Knowing it’s making a difference. Knowing they are living out what it means to be sqilx’w.
As for the future of the work, they remain open and engaged with other communities through syilx Homelands, strengthening kinships and sharing knowledge.
Lezard dreams of the day that the people and land will reunite, and reconcile their bond.
“I hope we don’t need to have land Guardians,” he says. “I hope we have more people who are wanting to be on the land, I hope we have more people communicating to one another and I hope we have more people being brought up to take care of the land.”
Reporter’s note: According to some n̓syilxčn̓ language keepers, there are no capitalizations in the spellings of any n̓syilxčn̓ words. In an egalitarian society, capitalization insinuates there is something that holds more importance over another, and that does not fall in line with syilx ethics.
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