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When ’Cúagilákv, Jess H̓áust̓i, began community organizing and activism as a young adult, they were filled with an urgency to defend their Haíłzaqv (Heiltsuk) homelands, taking a stand against trophy hunts and the controversial Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline.
A lot of their drive came from fear. They fed off that fear for years until, eventually, it was unsustainable.
“I didn’t know how to have a sense of hope. No matter how hard you campaigned and built momentum around things and tried to protect the things you cared about, there were these variables that you couldn’t control.”
They had to simplify their life in order to feel hope and joy, so they could maintain their roles in community, where they write, parent two children and work as executive director of the non-profit Qqs (Eyes) Projects Society. They had to prioritize the things that made them feel whole, not torn apart. And a big part of that groundedness, for them, comes through poetry.
“I kept telling myself that poetry was a luxury, and I didn’t have time for luxuries,” they said. But not only does it bring them personal healing, they hope it contributes to the tradition of storytelling.
“It feels so important to me to create some record of what is here now, and what we know was there from the things that our ancestors have passed down,” H̓áust̓i said.
The Narwhal caught up with H̓áust̓i about their new poetry book, Crushed Wild Mint, released on Oct. 14 — and how the words on paper are connected with H̓áust̓i’s ability to protect the land and water around them.
I started writing poetry when I was really young. It happened through my relationship with my dad. We had a cabin at a place called Ellerslie Lake, where we would go at every possible opportunity. Our practice in that sacred lake was that we would write poems back and forth to each other — and they’re all still captured in this old, damp notebook that’s tucked in the cabin. That’s really where it came from, that wellspring of land, love and connection with my dad that I got to share.
I stopped writing for a really long time in my 20s and into my early 30s, because it felt like it wasn’t the most important thing I could be doing. I felt like I had to do urgent, productive things, particularly around the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline, and so many big environmental and social fights and campaigns. I kept telling myself that poetry was a luxury, and I didn’t have time for luxuries.
And I really believe that was a big contributing factor to the deep burnout that eventually happened — that I didn’t have the grounding practice that writing poetry has become for me.
They’re not things that I can even really separate anymore. A lot of that early time in my life doing community organizing work was so rooted in fear, which showed up as anger when it was outward facing. That all felt very isolating. The work felt isolated and compartmentalized from the rest of my life. So, as I was working through the burnout, it felt really clear to me that I needed to have a much more holistic way of being in relationship with my community and my territory — to be grounded more in love than in fear. To really accept that my community and my homeland deserve abundance, and that I want to be a conduit for that.
For me, writing is one way for me to externalize the wellspring of love that’s just bubbling over for me all the time — love for my culture, people, territory, identity and family.
That sort of fear mentality for me really started creeping in in the early days of the Enbridge pipeline, which was the first time I stepped into a community organizing role. The second I heard about that project, I felt this crushing weight. An entity or corporation which had nothing to do with the territory, and was completely external to everything that I experienced, had the power to destroy everything I cared about.
Looking back now, I was in my early 20s — I was a baby. I had no idea what I was doing. I made so many mistakes, and they were so devastating for me every time I made them, because I cared so deeply. I didn’t know how to engage people, I didn’t know how to meet the community where they were at. I hadn’t been doing that kind of work in community long enough to build trust.
There have been lots more fear-based moments since then — conflicts and campaigns that brought fear, anger and frustration. I am relatively introverted, I don’t like being in the limelight. But I eventually stepped into an elected role with our tribal council for a couple terms.
It really peaked for me in 2016 with the Nathan E. Stewart oil spill [in which Kirby Offshore Marine Corp. spilled 110,000 litres of heavy oils and diesel in Heiltsuk fishing waters], that was devastating to me — even though it wasn’t my fault, that it was happening on my watch, and that there was nothing I could do to intervene.
I was appointed as incident commander for tribal council during the spill response, which was really stressful, really traumatic and ultimately felt pretty futile. When we emerged from the other side of the emergency phase, I was coming off 40 straight days of working 12, 15, 18 hour days. I had a baby then and he weaned himself because I wasn’t home to nurse him.
And all of a sudden it was over, and the hundreds of people that had come into the community to participate in the response left. And I just had this deep feeling that people can come in here, and they can fuck everything up, and then they can just leave, and we’re still here.
I struggled really hard for a couple of years after this spill happened, trying to figure out how to be a good community member, how to be a good steward of the territory. How to have hope and love in my heart again.
I recognized at a certain point that a really big component for me was the loss of control over our food systems. That led into the food sovereignty work we’re doing in the community. I truly needed something as simple as, I’m gonna take a seed, I’m going to plant it in the soil, a plant will grow, I will harvest it and I will give it to somebody to eat.
In 2017 I conceived my second child, and I really struggled with knowing whether I was going to be able to be a good parent to my child and offer my children connections to places that had been special to me, if I didn’t have the ability to protect those places.
Ultimately, it was the love and patience of my kids and my family, and the really simple acts that I brought back to my life, like working with the soil, that helped me through the burnout. I truly believe that the land saved my life in that instance. It’s really been important for me to be more present with the land, to let myself feel all of that more deeply and to give myself space and permission to capture it in the ways that feel good for me — and so that’s also the time that I really came back to writing.
That’s definitely a huge element of it. There’s a series of poems at the end of the book about mountains in the territory, and it’s really centered around the flood story. I felt really compelled to share that story of the flood — not as a teller of that story, but just understanding the space that it holds in my life and my psyche, and how it compelled me to develop a relationship with those mountains and understand them as kin. It feels really important for me to practice that, and insist on people, especially outside the community, that our stories are real, and they are core markers of our identity and really deeply inform who we are and how we show up in the world.
In terms of sharing, one of the things that’s been really beautiful for me as I’ve been doing events outside my community is realizing how many urban Indigenous people are really excited to commune with me and others at the readings. For Indigenous people who are displaced or choosing to be away from their homelands, they’re reflecting on all the ways they give themselves permission to develop an identity that is very rooted in land love, oral practices and building community, which show up really differently in urban areas.
I feel really grateful and moved that young, urban Indigenous youth that I’ve connected with have generously shared with me just how excited they are to have my poems as one of many points of connection for them to their sense of identity.
Things are so different even from my childhood, let alone the stories that my parents and my grandparents’ generation have told me. I think about how precarious so many aspects of our relationship to the land are in the face of escalating climate change impacts and it scares me. I’ve made a really strong practice for myself of trying to be based in love and hope. But when it comes to climate change, it’s so hard to feel based in love and hope, and not in anger, fear and grief.
But if there’s one small thing that I can do, I hope it’s recording the amazing abundance and resilience that is there now, and upholding the accounts that I’ve heard from my relatives, recent ancestors and oral history of what was there — and insisting on the deep, inherent value and power of those things. That won’t necessarily stop it from being lost. But I hope that, if we can create that record and share it with the world, people will become more awake to their responsibility to be in relationship with place and stand up for it.
What does it mean to feel grounded?
Imagine blunt roots, grown roots,
reaching outward from your palms
How is it you’ve become unshakeable?
Another piece of erasure I want to address is that even amongst really well-intentioned environmentalists and conservationists, there’s this idea that if you want to present land as being worthy of protecting then you call it pristine and untouched. You erase the human presence there to make it new, unspoiled. And I hate that language so much. Everything around me in my homeland is deeply touched by my ancestors, physically and spiritually.
It’s so rooted in white supremacy culture that, in order to present something as worthy, you are erasing Indigenous people from it. You’re just deleting us from the places that we’ve helped to thrive and that we’ve mutually thrived with because of our deep relationships and reciprocity. I actually find it quite disgusting that that is the narrative people use to push conservation agendas. In my writing, I hope I can help people understand the deep interrelationship between Indigenous Peoples and lands is intrinsic to the need to protect them, and how we protect them.
I think the most obvious one is the series of mountain volumes, and sharing that really important ritual of climbing, and that I literally go and sit with the bones of one of my ancestors. He was buried across the inlet from where I started my hike, and at some point a hand logger, who knows who, robbed his grave and his bones are scattered. But his skull is resting in the moss, just looking out over the inlet. And if it’s not physically in front of you, it’s in the stories that talk about our relationships with all of those places.
I’ve spent so much of my life feeling like my agency has been taken away from me by patriarchy, and capitalism and supremacy. And the space where I feel like I have the most agency over myself is absolutely when I’m out on the lands and waters in my territory, where I feel like a whole, unapologetic person that can just be in the whole of my physical and spiritual being. I had a lot of frustration around a lack of bodily autonomy, particularly when I was pregnant with my kids. I was born in Bella Bella, but sometimes in my childhood, a policy was put into place that the hospital in Bella Bella wouldn’t deliver babies anymore. And I really wanted my children to be born in their homeland. Elders in the community remembered generations of babies being born there. There was this really deep sadness that lots of people felt that as a community, people can die at home, they can’t be born at home.
It really made me reflect on how much of my sense of well-being is derived from a sense of control over myself and my body and identity, and how deeply disrupted that sense of self and well-being is when I’m in colonial spaces, versus how whole and capable and loved and safe and held I feel when I’m in the territory. The themes of land sovereignty and body sovereignty are both just inextricable parts of my identity that really informed the themes that I was exploring, and the images that made their way into my poems.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
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