The following is the established format for referencing this article:Popken, L. R., P. J. Griffin, C. Coté, and E. Angel. 2023. Indigenous food sovereignty through resurgent self-governance: centering Nuu-chah-nulth principles in sea otter management in Canada. Ecology and Society 28(2):12.
Although North American settler governments face scrutiny over the ecological, social, and ethical shortcomings of environmental policy, many Indigenous Nations are pursuing a resurgence of environmental self-governance according to ancestral principles and practices. On the west coast of Vancouver Island, the reintroduction and prioritized conservation of sea otters by Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) actively impedes the harvest of culturally and nutritionally significant shellfish species by Nuu-chah-nulth Nations. Integrating a range of qualitative methods, we argue that structural inequities, divergent normative and material priorities, and ontological differences animate a divide between Nuu-chah-nulth and Canadian state governing bodies in sea otter management. The DFO’s unwillingness to accommodate Indigenous knowledge, principles, and priorities in its sea otter management scheme reproduces the unequal power relations of settler colonialism to the detriment of Indigenous food sovereignty and security. We propose to reframe sea otter governance around the Nuu-chah-nulth principles of hišukʔiš c̓awaak (everything is one), ʔiisaak (respect with caring), and ʔuʔaałuk (taking care of). This reorientation is in alignment with the efforts of Indigenous peoples throughout Canada and globally to enact multi-species caretaking through the resurgence of self-governance rooted in ancestral knowledge and wisdom. Ultimately, we argue that a sea otter governance structure centering Nuu-chah-nulth principles, ecological knowledge, and leadership would be well-positioned to lead collaborations and respectful engagement between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Nations.
In July of 2020, a Vancouver Island beach goer came across a newborn sea otter (Enhydra lutris) crying in the sand beside its deceased mother. The distressed pup was sent to the Marine Mammal Rescue Center at the Vancouver Aquarium, which quickly rehabilitated, adopted, and named him. “Joey” went viral, capturing hearts across Canada and the United States amid a cycle of COVID-19 quarantines and lockdowns. In four short months, the otter’s online viewing cam raised more than CDN$200,000 in donations and helped the aquarium weather the financial impact of the pandemic (Dhopade 2020). Joey’s rise to stardom demonstrates the power of charismatic species to shape perceptions of complex ecosystems, and specifically the outsized role sea otters play as icons of Pacific Northwest coastal ecologies.
The global fascination with Joey also mirrors a dominant consensus among Canada’s settler institutions: that the expanding presence of sea otters is an inherent good and unmitigated conservation success story. But this perspective elides the ongoing controversy over the species’ reintroduction to Nuu-chah-nulth waters by the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) some 50 years ago. Joey was found within the territorial waters of qaay̓uuk̓ʷtḥ/č̓iiqƛisitḥ, which is the northernmost of 15 Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations currently facing a food security crisis driven in part by the sea otter’s ravenous appetite for shellfish (Salomon et al. 2015, Burt et al. 2018, 2020, Pinkerton et al. 2019). In this paper we offer a qualitative analysis of DFO sea otter management in relation to Nuu-chah-nulth principles, priorities, and ongoing political resurgence.
Before colonial contact, Nuu-chah-nulth management practices established clearly defined relations that enabled people and otters to flourish alongside one another, each enjoying the ocean’s bounty. Nuu-chah-nulth ḥaw̓iiḥ (chiefs; see Table A1.1 for a glossary of Nuu-chah-nulth words) and fishers demarcated key seafood collection sites by selectively hunting individual sea otters. This practice warded off sea otter intrusion by sending a message to the animals not to consume shellfish from that specific area (Salomon et al. 2015). It was a system that supported both Nuu-chah-nulth and sea otter food security (Salomon et al. 2015, 2020) and enabled interspecies co-existence for thousands of years. Today however, the DFO manages sea otters as a species of “Special Concern” under Canada’s Species at Risk Act, to the detriment of Nuu-chah-nulth food sovereignty. With hunting severely limited (Burt et al. 2020) the continued expansion of sea otter populations is undermining access to nutritionally and culturally critical shellfish (Salomon et al. 2020).
Historically in Nuu-chah-nulth society, sea otter pelts were worn by high-ranking ḥaw̓iiḥ and traded within and between Nuu-chah-nulth Nations as a symbol of prestige. They were also among the items gifted at coastal potlatches to reinforce reciprocity, uphold social obligations, and strengthen familial ties and community alliances (Coté 2022). As a critical component of social life, sea otter hunting helped to uphold the norms and structures of Nuu-chah-nulth governance, which emphasized the collective care of humans and non-humans within their ḥaḥuułi (ancestral homelands) and ecosystem (Atleo 2004). Otter hunting was carefully governed through principle of ʔiisaak, requiring respect for all things.
In 1778, British naval Captain James Cook entered Nuu-chah-nulth territory and traded animal pelts with ḥaw̓iiḥ, initiating a global maritime fur trade in which sea otter pelts were the prized commodity. Indigenous leaders throughout the Northwest Coast participated in the fur trade, which had significant unforeseen consequences for Northwest Coastal societies and ecologies alike (Coté 2010). These included the rapid reduction of sea otter populations and collapse of the trade in the early 19th century. In the absence of sea otter predation, shellfish populations flourished and many First Nations communities adapted their cultural and economic livelihoods in relation to these ecosystem shifts.
From 1969 to 1972, however, without consent from Canadian First Nations and Alaska Natives, the Canadian and United States Governments began a transboundary effort to reintroduce sea otters (Salomon et al. 2015). Under strict conservation protections sea otter populations grew rapidly in Canada, along with their consumption of shellfish, intrusion upon Nuu-chah-nulth and other First Nations harvests, and contribution to food insecurity across many communities (Pinkerton et al. 2019). In the decades since Canada’s unilateral sea otter reintroduction, Nuu-chah-nulth communities have worked to strengthen ancestral ties to their waterways and to restore traditional sea otter harvesting and management practices.
The reintroduction and ongoing management of sea otters without First Nations’ consultation or consent is an example of how settler-led conservation practices often contribute to the disruption of Indigenous lifeways and economies (Sandlos 2001, Binnema and Niemi 2006, Coté 2010, 2022, Purdy 2015), to the detriment of Indigenous food sovereignty and well-being (Schmidt and Peterson 2009, Herriman 2017). In pursuing exclusionary control of Indigenous land and waters, such projects perpetuate “settler colonialism” (Wolfe 2006) through the ongoing “dispossession of Indigenous peoples of their lands and self-determining authority” (Coulthard 2014:7, emphasis in original). Globally, and within Canada, efforts to create more accountable conservation policies have emphasized collaboration, consultation, and co-management between Indigenous and non-Indigenous institutions (Alcorn 2010, Bennett and Ramos Castillo 2019). However, such schemes have been challenged for reproducing colonial power relations (Nadasdy 2003a, 2003b, Schreiber 2006, Youdelis 2016).
Beyond these models, scholars and practitioners increasingly recognize the critical importance of “Indigenous resurgence,” or the re-centering of Indigenous governance systems, for “the management, restoration, and conservation of marine and coastal ecosystems around the world” (von der Porten et al. 2019:527, see also Augustine and Dearden 2014, Atlas et al. 2021, Middleton Manning et al. 2023). Yet such efforts require significant political and institutional change. Although “biodiversity conservation and resurgence of Indigenous autonomies are mutually compatible aims,” write M’sɨt No’kmaq et al. (2021:839), “work[ing] towards these aims requires significant transformation in conservation and re-Indigenization.” For Nishnaabeg scholar Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, “resurgence” is a political project rooted in revitalization of Indigenous intellectual systems and the “reclamation” of the land-based relationships and practices that provide “context” for such systems. For Simpson, Indigenous resurgence ultimately moves beyond any effort to indigenize existing colonial institutions (Simpson 2014a).
Indigenous resurgence efforts resonate with the global “food sovereignty” movement (Nyéléni International Steering Committee 2007), which for many Indigenous Nations understands territorial self-governance to be a precondition for food security (Inuit Circumpolar Council Alaska 2020). Utilizing a food sovereignty framework, Indigenous peoples around the world are defining strategies to address food insecurity and community wellness, while developing policies that reflect their own cultural values around producing, consuming, and distributing food (Coté 2016). c̓išaaʔatḥ (Tseshaht)/Nuu-chah-nulth scholar Charlotte Coté maintains that realizing food sovereignty requires “revitalizing Indigenous foods systems and practices through the reaffirmation of spiritual, emotional and physical relationships to the lands, waters, plants, and all living things that have sustained Indigenous communities and cultures” (2016:2).
Indigenous studies scholars affirm a deep correlation between Indigenous food sovereignty, cultural resurgence, and the restoration of eco-social relationships. For Coté, food sovereignty stresses the need for collective relationships between humans and the natural world grounded in kinship, reciprocity, and respect, all of which emphasize how humans and the natural world care for and rely upon one another (Coté 2022). Potawatomi philosopher Kyle Whyte (2018) understands food sovereignty as rooted in relationships between human institutions and food systems, which are central to Indigenous communities’ “collective continuance,” or their “overall capacity to adapt to social and environmental changes, or resilience” (351). For Nuu-chah-nulth and many other Indigenous peoples, responsibility, obligation, and care of both human and non-human relationships is a core dynamic at the heart of food sovereignty (Jurisdiction and Governance Mandate Working Group 1999, Griffin 2020).
In this paper we identify and evaluate the contemporary dynamics of sea otter management on Vancouver Island in light of the normative concerns and commitments of key Nuu-chah-nulth and non-Nuu-chah-nulth actors and institutions. We critically evaluate current DFO sea otter management with respect to Indigenous food sovereignty and ultimately propose a reorientation of sea otter governance that centers resurgent Nuu-chah-nulth principles, knowledges, and leadership.
We integrated a diverse set of methods, sources, and types of knowledge represented by our author team, which is composed of both Nuu-chah-nulth and settler scholars, and at the time of submission included staff from Uu-a-thluk-the fisheries organization of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council (NTC). Together our team brings a lifetime of Nuu-chah-nulth cultural experience, five years of participant-observation within fisheries management, and a set of semi-structured interviews conducted between August 2020 and March 2021, with representatives from relevant institutions. These include Nuu-chah-nulth Nations, NTC fisheries staff, a prominent conservation NGO, and the Canadian DFO. We also used critical discourse analysis (Nonhoff 2017) to assess documents and websites related to Nuu-chah-nulth and Canadian sea otter management programs and the experiences of people living alongside sea otters. Interview participants are identified by name with permission; pseudonyms are used when anonymity was requested.
RESULTS AND DISCUSSION
In its 2014 Sea Otter Management Plan, DFO explicates the importance of “establish[ing] and maintain[ing] communication with First Nations, stakeholders, coastal communities, and the public about sea otter conservation and research” and “promot[ing]... community involvement in stewardship and research” (p. 32), however Nuu-chah-nulth people continue to be excluded from this process. DFO-led sea otter management currently disregards Nuu-chah-nulth perspectives and priorities because of a combination of structural, normative, and ontological factors. In the context of ongoing settler colonialism these factors combine to undermine Nuu-chah-nulth self-determination and food sovereignty. Ultimately we argue that the care-centered ecological practices at the core of Nuu-chah-nulth knowledge, values, and leadership would be effective and ethical ecological governance structures to support human and non-human well-being and ecosystem health.
They say that our knowledge is valuable, but they never use any of it, it goes nowhere ... Joshua Charleson
One theme to emerge in our conversations with both Nuu-chah-nulth leaders and DFO staff is the extent to which the DFO’s organizational structure struggles to accommodate sea otter management priorities of Nuu-chah-nulth communities. The DFO was established as a ministerial department in 1979 with a dual role of economic growth and ecosystem health for Canadian fisheries. Based in Ottawa, the DFO exhibits a hierarchical and centralized structure (Soomai 2017) with a top-down approach to decision making despite the existence of regional offices across Canada (Government of Canada 2021).
Joshua Charleson, who, when we spoke with him was the elected Chief Councilor for the ḥiškʷii Nuu-chah-nulth Nation and a member of the NTC Board of Directors, describes the general lack of accountability within the DFO’s approach to management: “Somebody sitting in Ottawa is making decisions that affect Hesquiaht without talking to Hesquiaht.” Although Joshua noted that he has interacted with individuals from the DFO’s regional office who wanted to help his nation, they were largely constrained without the authority of the DFO’s headquarters in Ottawa, where sea otter policy is established without attention to local contexts.
The limits of DFO’s centralization of sea otter management is especially evident in disparate experiences of annual sea otter counts conducted by the DFO and several Nuu-chah-nulth Nations, including Hesquiaht, along Vancouver Island’s coastline. Pat Harris is a high level DFO staffer working closely with the sea otter program. Pat described population counts as “the backbone for sea otter work” and described a “painstaking” process requiring “enormous dedication to... collect good data.” Although Pat acknowledged the absence of a “working relationship with the Nuu-chah-nulth,” they viewed DFO population counts as ripe for community engagement and a potential foundation for collaboration. “From my perspective,” Pat said, “there could possibly be more coordination of surveys ... probably doing them together would make the most sense.”
Although the DFO claims to utilize population data gathered by Nuu-chah-nulth Nations to help inform sea otter management (DFO 2014), many First Nations leaders have had a completely different experience. “I’m really unsure of what DFO even does with our survey numbers,” Joshua explained, “because they don’t seem to educate the public about how many sea otters are out there.” He attributes this gap, at least in part, to the structural remoteness and centralization of the DFO:
It’s not like any DFO officers ever go up to Hesquiaht, they don’t go check on these things; they rely on us and our data to go up and [get sea otter counts] every year. I don’t know what they’re doing with that data to try and help our territory and our people.
As Joshua attests, even the most empirical forms of environmental knowledge, including species population assessments, are produced in relation to their own situated standpoints (Haraway 1988). Within conservation science, a host of power-laden considerations, from institutional structures and management priorities, to popular discourses, literally “shape the kind of ‘environments’ that are produced and promoted” (Goldman and Turner 2010:2-3). Without accounting for this reality, and given the DFO’s centralized structure, Canadian sea otter management actively promotes the normative priorities of the DFO over the priorities of Nuu-chah-nulth communities. Such exclusion and erasure of Indigenous knowledge in environmental governance extends settler colonialism by undermining Indigenous self-determination over territorial lands and waters.
You can see the imbalance ... something needs to happen with all of these big marine mammals, because it’s too much of an imbalance to all be in one place. Joshua Charleson
Within conservation science, a range of theories and methods guide how managers prioritize species, habitats, and ecosystems at various scales. DFO approaches to sea otter management reflect a major tension that exists within the field between “ecosystem-based” (Delacámara et al. 2020) and single species-based approaches to management (Washington et al. 2015). A 2007 DFO document, for example, outlines the agency’s realignment of “the DFO Science program to support an ecosystem approach to management ...” (p. 1), yet in actual practice, Canadian sea otter management follows a single species-level approach (DFO 2014).
Considered a species of “Special Concern” under Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA; Canada Gazette 2009), sea otters are managed with the objective to “conserve abundance and distribution in Canada... and [to] promote the continued population growth and expansion into formerly occupied regions such as Haida Gwaii, Barkley Sound, and north mainland British Columbia coast” (DFO 2014:27). But this species-centric approach carries a great deal of uncertainty over long-term impacts of otter reintroduction and conservation on Indigenous communities. As Pat attested: “I don’t think there is a well formulated vision for what we do once [species] are recovered or what are the implications [of recovery].”
Joshua also questioned the DFO’s preparedness to manage a “successfully” reintroduced species over the long term:
Sea otters have not plateaued like DFO keeps saying ... they keep growing. The DFO just doesn’t know; they are playing God. They transported sea otters ... to the west coast [of Vancouver Island] and said ‘oh, let’s just see what happens.’ It’s not like there’s any science behind it.
With harvesting quotas severely limited (Burt et al. 2020), the continued expansion of sea otter populations has significantly reduced shellfish availability for Nuu-chah-nulth communities (Salomon et al. 2020). Joshua explains:
In the 90’s, when [otters] first showed up on Hesquiaht Harbor, our entire shoreline was white with clam shells; there is no more clam harvest and [it’s been] about two decades [since] we’ve been able to harvest enough clams to even feed ourselves, never mind having a commercial clam fishery where we could make a bit of money for our community. That’s all due to the sea otter population.
Ensuring there are adequate quantities to provide community members with culturally and economically important foods, like clams and urchins, remains a priority for Nuu-chah-nulth Nations. For Joshua, increasing sea otter harvests is one way to restore Nuu-chah-nulth Nations’ access to valuable food sources:
The complete loss of entire clam beaches and crab baskets, it takes a toll on you, and Hesquiaht wants to figure out a way to get that back. The only way to do that is to do some meaningful harvests of sea otter populations.
Joshua’s perspective is shared widely across Nuu-chah-nulth communities, as Chief Waakitaam Peter Hanson of qaay̓uuk̓ʷ/č̓iiqƛis told the Coastal Voices Project. “The way our people did in the past, is that they kept [sea otters] away from where we were ... They hunted them there and kept them off sea urchin beds so they didn’t take everything. It could be done again” (Salomon et al. 2020:13).
Although Nuu-chah-nulth Nations do not harvest sea otters as a source of food, strategically hunting sea otters to protect Nuu-chah-nulth shellfish harvests should be understood as an expression of food sovereignty. As a resurgent practice, increased sea otter harvesting would support the revitalization of historically important social and ecological relationships, while restoring ecosystem balance and health. Furthermore, Nuu-chah-nulth access to traditional foods is crucial beyond bodily nutrition. Community practices associated with shellfish harvesting translates to time spent on the water, supporting intergenerational knowledge transfer and enactments of self-determination. These resurgent practices support the revitalization of core relationships that have been disrupted through colonialism, promote both food sovereignty, and uphold “collective continuance” (Whyte 2018). “People have to understand how valuable the sea otter is to our people,” ʕaaḥuus Elder Tsah-seets Stanley Sam told Coastal Voices. “We have been with them for ... thousands of years. Big chiefs use sea otters to recognize a great chief amongst our people. The sea otter can bring back all the histories of people before” (Salomon et al. 2020:5).
Divergence in ontological standpoints
hišukʔiš c̓awaak ... means everything is connected. You can’t have healthy populations of one thing without another; everything is codependent. Joshua Charleson
Jenn Burt is the British Columbia Marine Program Lead for Nature United, the Canadian affiliate of The Nature Conservancy. Having worked closely as a researcher and collaborator with Indigenous and non-Indigenous actors, she traces controversies surrounding sea otter conservation on Vancouver Island in large part to the “colonial roots” of conservation practice. Even when conservation organizations may “work to decolonize,” she noted, it can be difficult to move beyond the ontological underpinnings of the conservation movement:
Ultimately, a lot of conservation work comes from the idea of separating people and nature. Protecting nature, and not caring so much about the people, including historically, displacing Indigenous people from the land for the purposes of protection.
Although Jenn’s observations are primarily directed toward professional conservation organizations and practitioners, they are also profoundly relevant to settler governments who determine and administer environmental policies that affect the rights, livelihoods, and well-being of Indigenous Nations vis à vis their homeland territories (Eckert et al. 2018).
As an institution rooted in this conservation tradition, DFO management decisions often reflect the ontological foundation of the “human-nature dichotomy” (Caillon et al. 2017) Jenn describes. On Vancouver Island, the DFO continues to prioritize sea otter conservation over Nuu-chah-nulth food sovereignty, and environmental self-determination. Such single-species approaches, as addressed above, can be understood as extreme manifestations of the human-nature dichotomy where the personification of nature, in the figure of a single (often charismatic) species, overdetermines environmental policy to the detriment of politically marginalized human communities. What’s more, the empirical basis for single-species management approaches is not always well established.
Described as an “umbrella” or “keystone” species in literature and governmental assessments (COSEWIC 2007, Mayer et al. 2019), sea otters are granted priority conservation status by the DFO under the expectation that their protection may have wide-ranging, positive repercussions for many other species. The otter’s keystone status comes in part from its presumed maintenance of kelp beds through urchin consumption (Estes 2015), but Joshua and others cast doubt on this view. “There’s this whole myth about people saying: you get more sea otters, you get more kelp,” he explained, “[but] we’ve actually lost a lot of our kelp since the sea otters have come around. It’s not that simple.” When it comes to sea otters’ role in coastal ecosystems, as with population assessments, the DFO prioritizes contributions from “cosmopolitan science” (González 2001) professionals, over the local science of Nuu-chah-nulth fishers and knowledge holders.
Environmental management institutions that make decisions, at least in part, using data produced through the methods of cosmopolitan science, often presume their knowledge to be value-neutral, objective, or incorruptible by the situated conditions of its production (Haraway 1988). This problem is compounded in bureaucracies like the DFO, where staff are siloed based on disciplinary training and knowledge production is walled off from decision making (Soomai 2017, see also Balietti et al. 2015). Pat, for example, was reluctant to discuss the potential impact of hunting on the overall viability of the sea otters, noting that such things “aren’t really in my purview to worry about, because I’m in science.” When asked about the potential for co-management of sea otters with Nuu-Chah-nulth organizations, they replied: “I’m only in science. I’m not in the management section of DFO, so management may have another conversation ...”
Ecological management institutions that view cosmopolitan science as “objective” and compartmentalize knowledge (Nadasdy 1999) from value-laden decision making, fail to acknowledge the normative ontological commitments that underlie their own decision making. The dichotomous understanding of human and non-human entities manifested in DFO management is a sharp divergence from holistic and care-based ecological governance norms implicit in Nuu-chah-nulth ontologies and explicit in Nuu-chah-nulth concepts.
Re-centering Nuu-chah-nulth governance
Charlotte Coté identifies three philosophical principles as central to framing food sovereignty in accordance with Tseshaht/Nuu-chah-nulth ontology: ʔiisaak (respect with caring), ʔuʔaałuk (taking care of), and hišukʔiš c̓awaak (everything is one) (2022:8–9). Similarly, our conversations with Nuu-chah-nulth leaders and allies also suggest these three concepts as potential guideposts for an Indigenous resurgence in sea otter governance.
ʔiisaak and ʔuʔaałuk
The principle of ʔiisaak, or “respect with caring,” is a core component of Nuu-chah-nulth ontology with normative implications for sea otter management. Respect for all living and non-living beings is a principle of Nuu-chah-nulth governance that has sustained communities for generations (Jurisdiction and Governance Mandate Working Group 1999). Guided by ʔiisaak, Joshua envisions a balanced approach to increased sea otter hunting. Reducing the sea otter population would not only protect critical food sources but also support Nuu-chah-nulth enactments of ʔiisaak through the time and attention required to appropriately work a pelt.
We don’t want to go out and kill [a lot of otters]; none of us want to be wasteful. We don’t want to go out there and kill 500 otters and leave them floating. We want to make sure they’re used, and it takes several days to do a hide, so you have to be really committed.
Revitalizing the Nuu-chah-nulth sea otter harvest would support the continuation of significant cultural practices and limit encroachments to critical food sources, while also allowing otters to flourish in their own territories. ʔiisaak affords the opportunity to reorient sea otter management around respect for otters and Nuu-chah-nulth food sovereignty alike.
ʔuʔaałuk, or “taking care of,” is a related principle and affirms the critical relationships of responsibility, sustainability, and care between humans and nonhumans for Nuu-chah-nulth Nations (Jurisdiction and Governance Mandate Working Group 1999). It is a core governance concept and the name of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council Fisheries department. Joshua defines ʔuʔaałuk as:
[L]iving and being connected with our natural environment and not trying to “conquer wilderness.” Living in a way that does not disrupt the natural order of all living things. Never taking more than you need and never letting anything go to waste. Respecting the environment, the same way that you would respect the person you love most.
ʔuʔaałuk offers a sharp distinction from the view that “nature” is radically separate from humans, and those practices that are ordained by this view, whether commodification and extraction, or single-species focused conservation. Nuu-chah-nulth Nations have the responsibility to take care of sea otters, which includes selectively harvesting and honoring them through the respectful preparation of their pelts.
Management practices centered around Nuu-chah-nulth principles, would respect sea otters both for their existence as living beings and for their cultural importance (Salomon et al. 2020). The principles of ʔiisaak and ʔuʔaałuk offer a path for managing sea otter populations through increased harvesting in accordance with the customary practices of care. As governance principles, ʔiisaak and ʔuʔaałuk support Indigenous food sovereignty while respecting sea otters, through attention to the well-being of both human and nonhuman communities.
Nuu-chah-nulth scholar and Hereditary Chief Richard Atleo describes hišukʔiš c̓awaak as recognizing the universe as “unified, interconnected, and interrelated” (2004:xix). Encoded in Nuu-chah-nulth origin stories, hišukʔiš c̓awaak includes “all reality, both physical and metaphysical” (Atleo 2004:xi). For Atleo, “there is a unity, or meaningful interrelationship, between all the variables of existence, whereas the dominant scientific methodology assumes that variables are not significantly related unless proved otherwise” (2004:125). In contrast to the human-nature dichotomy at the heart of species-centric conservation practices, hišukʔiš c̓awaak presumes a deep, dynamic interrelationship at the core of reality. For Coté hišukʔiš c̓awaak is “an overarching philosophy” in which the principles of ʔiisaak and ʔuʔaałuk are embedded (2022:9).
Although hišukʔiš c̓awaak can be understood as a critique of those reductive aspects of cosmopolitan science that too often guide ecosystem management, there are traditions within conservation practice that also affirm ecological balance as a core principle. As Jenn notes, “If you take out all the sea otters you dramatically change the system. If you don’t harvest any sea otters, you dramatically change the system. There is a balance there that needs restoring.” Such are the “codependent” relations Joshua attributes to hišukʔiš c̓awaak.
Jenn and Joshua’s mutual understanding of a holistic ecological balance shows the potential for a productive affinity between Nuu-chah-nulth ontologies and non-Nuu-chah-nulth allies in the conservation sector. Grounding ecosystem management in Nuu-chah-nulth ecological principles and resurgent governance norms has the potential to create a new management system based on this mutual understanding. In light of the historical extremes of Euro-American sea otter management, which have oscillated from commodification to single species conservation, the principle of hišukʔiš c̓awaak offers a holistic approach to ecological governance as an interconnected system, inclusive of human communities.
Five decades into Canada’s sea otter management scheme, Nuu-chah-nulth Nations continue to face food insecurity as their values, priorities, and ecological knowledge are ignored by the DFO. Ultimately, the DFO claims its authority to manage sea otters and other marine species from a legal fiction: Canada’s claim of sovereignty over Nuu-chah-nulth territories and resources. Although future co-management of sea otters could represent a positive step for Canadian recognition of Nuu-chah-nulth self-determination, Coulthard argues that such forms of recognition will only tolerate Indigenous lifeways in so far as they do not “throw into question the background legal, political and economic framework of the [colonial] relationship itself” (2007:451).
In March 2021 several Northwest Coast First Nations took a significant step in enacting their own priorities for sea otter management. Bringing together representatives from several Nuu-chah-nulth Nations, the Council of the Haida Nation, the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council’s Uu-a-thluk (Fisheries) Department, and the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, the “Oceans Dialogue Forum: Sea Otter Workshop” was a virtual gathering to foster dialogue, share knowledge, and identify collaborative responses to food insecurity. In the Draft Final Report from the workshop, participants identified a range of priority next steps (see Table A2.1) to recenter hereditary law and governance, international partnerships (between Indigenous Nations), and food sovereignty in the renewed Indigenous governance of the coastal territories. Accordingly, the DFO, the federal agency overseeing Canada’s sea otter management, was not invited to the table.
In pursuing these priorities without DFO facilitation or participation, the Oceans Dialogue Forum can be viewed as an act of “refusal” (Simpson 2014b:1) to work within the politics of recognition and as a challenge to the DFO’s settler colonial mentality and fictional legitimacy to determine management structures and priorities without First Nations’ consent. The representatives from the coastal Indigenous Nations who gathered in March 2021 are pursuing food sovereignty through the resurgence of Indigenous governance and collaboration. Continuing the path charted at the Oceans Dialogue Forum, representatives from the Nuu-chah-nulth and Haida Nations have established a working group and are actively creating their own sea otter action plan, to reclaim territorial self-governance and food sovereignty through sea otter management.
Indigenous food sovereignty movements are positioned within Indigenous struggles for decolonization and self-determination. For Coté, enacting food sovereignty integrates the rights to culture and health, self-definition of food systems, and of course, the access to traditional territories (2022:20). Centering the principles of hišukʔiš c̓awaak, ʔiisaak, and ʔuʔaałuk in sea otter management will support Indigenous food sovereignty by nurturing healthy ecosystems where shellfish and other culturally significant foods can thrive. Nuu-chah-nulth practices of strategic otter harvesting can better manage shellfish populations in key areas, while also strengthening self-governance systems under guidance from ḥaw̓iiḥ, knowledge holders, advisors, and community members. Such relations can foster accountability to all beings through the sharing of knowledge (Jurisdiction and Governance Mandate Working Group 1999) and accountability has the potential to draw in Indigenous and non-Indigenous entities alike (Whyte 2013).
Reflecting on the reciprocal, care-based relationship between Nuu-chah-nulth and sea otters, the late Hiišiiqwth Natalie Jack, of qaay̓uuk̓ʷ/č̓iiqƛis told Coastal Voices:
I would like to believe that the federal government will be open to negotiations ... and that if we use the information that our Elders know of ... hopefully the powers that be would work with us and come up with a plan that is going to be sustainable for people and sea otters (Salomon et al. 2020:24).
Nuu-chah-nulth ecological principles also have the potential to guide mutual management goals among Nuu-chah-nulth and other Indigenous Nations, and the Canadian DFO. An ecological governance structure rooted in Nuu-chah-nulth knowledge, values, principles, and leadership has the potential to reframe sea otter management on Vancouver Island from a colonial conservation regime, to a system of collaborative caretaking.
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Funding was provided by Nippon Foundation Ocean Nexus Center at EarthLab, University of Washington.
Data available on request as subject to privacy/ethical restrictions.
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