Why wilderness is a myth: Tribal Parks Guardians and the language of respect

Annika Rautiola

2 April 2024

“Taaquuqḥłiʔin. Let us speak truthfully and act honourably. Let us learn the history of this place and its people, correcting colonial narratives like the myth of wilderness.” – Gisele Martin



For years, the travel industry has portrayed ‘wilderness’ as an untouched paradise for adventurous souls. But what if this concept is merely a myth?

In our latest episode, we engage with two Tla-o-qui-aht leaders, Gisele Martin and Joe Martin, who share their culture’s profound reverence for the environment. Together, we look at why many Indigenous languages lack a word for wilderness and how the conventional understanding of wilderness can be misleading.

Central to our conversation is the ʔiisaak Pledge, which both welcomes visitors and sets expectations for their behaviour. Introduced by the Tribal Parks program, the ʔiisaak Pledge encourages responsible conduct. Joe Martin, Tla-o-qui-aht Elder and canoe carver, illuminates how this pledge draws from millennia-old traditions rooted in respect and stewardship.

Through the lens of Indigenous languages, Gisele Martin, Tribal Parks Guardian and artist, reveals wisdom encoded within words, offering insights for contemporary conservation efforts and fostering new perspectives. 

In this episode of Travel Beyond, you’ll learn:

  • How the Tribal Parks near Tofino are a crucial part of mitigating the harms that tourism can cause, and why the program needs support from all local businesses.
  • What expectations the Tribal Parks Guardians and Allies have of visitors, expressed through the ʔiisaak Pledge.
  • What it means to “commit to the place like our ancestors did.” 
  • Why many Indigenous languages have no word for “wilderness,” and how studying language can unlock new ways of thinking about travel.
  • About what it might mean to “re-indigenize” Tofino.


 “Our ancestors adhered to natural law and our teachings, which is to leave the place better than before you came.” – Joe Martin



Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favourite podcast player to join us on this journey.

With thanks to Tourism Tofino for sponsoring this podcast season, and to the many community members, including leaders and Elders from Tla-o-qui-aht and Ahousaht First Nations, for entrusting us with their stories. 


Show notes

The Travel Beyond video trailer for the Načiks (Tofino) season

ʔiisaak Pledge –  A pledge for travellers created by the Tribal Parks Guardians.

Tribal Parks Guardians – A program created to protect the Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Parks.

Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation – An Indigenous nation with territory located on the west coast of Vancouver Island, within and surrounding modern-day Tofino. 

War of the Woods – Starting in the 1980s, the Nuu-chah-nulth people led Canada’s first major logging blockade to protect old-growth forests, which led to a landmark victory to preserve Meares Island in 1984.


Episode transcript

David Archer: Hello and welcome to Travel Beyond, where we partner with leading destinations to bring you inspiring solutions to the greatest challenges facing communities and the planet. I’m David Archer from Destination Think, and I’m recording from Daajing Giids, British Columbia, a village in Haida Gwaii, the territory of the Haida Nation.

Tyler Robinson: And I’m Tyler Robinson, Climate Strategist at Destination Think. I’m recording from Toronto, the traditional territory of many nations, including the Mississauga of the Credit, the Anishinaabe, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee, and the Wendat peoples.

On this show, we look at the role of travel and highlight destinations that are global leaders. We talk to the changemakers who are addressing regenerative travel through their action in communities, often from the bottom up.

David Archer: And we’re actively looking for the best examples of efforts to regenerate economies, communities, and ecosystems, so be sure to reach out if you have a story to share with us.

Tyler Robinson: Last episode featured Saya Masso, Lands and Resource Director at Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation, and we talked about coalition building in the Tribal Parks Allies Program.

Today, we’re going to learn more about Tribal Parks, travel, and Tla-o-qui-aht culture from Gisele and Joe Martin. Gisele is a Tribal Parks Guardian and artist, and Joe Martin, her father, is a Tla-o-qui-aht elder and canoe carver. Together, they are strong advocates for Tla-o-qui-aht culture and for the ongoing restoration of Tla-o-qui-aht lands, among other issues.

David Archer: Yeah, this is such a great interview coming up. And I don’t know if you’re a Talking Heads fan, Tyler, but throughout the season I’ve found myself kind of thinking about that line, “And you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?” And I’m discovering that a big part of the answer, for me as a settler living in Canada, and for the travel industry at large, is that Indigenous nations like the Tla-o-qui-aht and the Ahousaht have protected the lands we live on and the places we visit in ways that a lot of us are only just beginning to understand now.

And one of those “how did we get here?” kinds of ideas is the concept of wilderness. Fantasies of visiting the wilderness underpin a lot of travel activity, and that idea has really affected the way travel business is done. And I found this to be one of the most inspiring interviews we’ve had yet on this podcast, because we get to deconstruct that idea and then see how the myth of wilderness is being slowly overturned through acts of restoration and protection.

And I find that extremely hopeful, which brings us to one of the core points from this interview, which is about unlearning colonial ideas, not only as individuals, but as a travel industry, and then how that turns into action. And in this interview, Gisele tells us that the Tla-o-qui-aht have no word for wilderness, and how that’s the same for many Indigenous groups because the idea of wilderness as land that is somehow untouched or unimproved is a colonial myth used to justify the taking of territory.

Tyler Robinson: Yeah, I think it’s really important to just even pause on that last point you just made, that’s, it’s a myth used to justify the taking of territory. This concept of wilderness, as we consider it in Western culture, really does make it feel either consciously or subconsciously less nefarious to carry out some of the actions of colonialism.

And the Tla-o-qui-aht are explicitly trying to overturn this myth by teaching visitors about it through a pledge. Tribal Parks has created the ʔiisaak Pledge to encourage respectful behaviour.

Many places are using pledges to encourage respectful behaviour, but this pledge calling out colonial myths is a little bit of a unique characteristic that makes it stand apart from other pledges.

David Archer: Yeah, I hadn’t seen one quite like it before. We also learned from Gisele and Joe about some of the tangible things happening on the ground, including the Tribal Parks Guardians, the impact of that program, and how that relates to the area’s history. Part of the work of the Tribal Parks Guardians involves mitigating various tourism impacts to nature.

So, Tyler, I was wondering if you can talk a little bit about best practices for destinations, mitigating those negative impacts, or even mitigating climate risks.

Tyler Robinson: Sure, it starts with recognizing the negative impacts that travel has on the natural environment and its contribution to the climate crisis. This can be in the form of emissions caused by transportation or water usage or stress on waste systems. It can come in a number of different forms. The point is, it takes honesty and courage to really sit with these impacts and take accountability for them.

And then the question becomes, how can we create system change to mitigate and undo some of the negative impacts that we’re creating through travel? And I want to emphasize that system change is very different than incremental changes that make tweaks around the edges while maintaining the status quo.

And unfortunately, a lot of the initiatives that are ongoing today in travel and tourism often will fall into the camp of incremental change, even though they’re well-meaning. And I’ll give you some examples. This can be things like adding more trash cans to reduce litter or even measuring trash, putting up educational signage to ask people to tread lightly or buying carbon offsets, just to name a few.

And what I mean by system change is leveraging your voice to demand climate action. Supporting or helping push forward policy or other regulations that can have a systemic impact on the place, or implementing funding mechanisms to resource change. And this is why I love what the Tribal Parks Guardians are doing so much because this is exactly what they’ve done in terms of putting in place a funding mechanism to resource change.

They’ve put in place a meaningful initiative that redirects resources to critical environmental initiatives and/or infrastructure needs. And this fundamentally changes the way the visitor economy system works, because it allows visitors and their activity to drive solutions for critical community needs.

David Archer: Yeah. So, and Tyler, I have to point out that here again, we have some proof that you aren’t the only one thinking about tourism fees, like we were talking about the other day. Joe Martin is talking about those as well. And he gives us an example of travelling to the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania and paying $100 per day to be there.

So this isn’t a unique idea by any means, but the way it’s being implemented here is specific to Tribal Parks. Is there anything else you want to add?

Tyler Robinson: Yeah, I just say that it’s really nice to see other examples of this tactic in action. I’m grateful that it’s becoming less unique to roll out programs like this. It really feels like people are seeing that the system is broken and are taking action themselves to fix it. And what I mean by that is that the current price we pay for things doesn’t account for the full impact.

 And travel is not excluded from that. People are seeing the issue of unaddressed externalities in our current form of capitalism and are sick of waiting for solutions to be rolled out on a macro scale. So it’s encouraging to follow these success stories that are being implemented at a community level, and my hope is that they’ll pave the way for more large-scale change.

David Archer: Yeah, and those are the kinds of bottom-up success stories that we’re all about here at Travel Beyond. So let’s go now to Gisele Martin, Tribal Park Guardian and Artist, and Joe Martin, Tla-o-qui-aht Elder and canoe carver. They sat down with Destination Think CEO, Rodney Payne.


Gisele Martin: I’m Giselle Maria Martin, and I am a Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Park Guardian.

Joe Martin: And I am Joe Martin and I’m Tla-o-qui-aht, and I’m a teacher of canoe making and history of our tribes, and so on.

Rodney Payne: And how do you two know each other?

Gisele Martin: That’s my dad.

Rodney Payne: And can you tell me about your connection to this place?

Joe Martin: Well, I’ve been born here and I come from an ancient village called Opitsaht. That’s just across the water here from Tofino. And Opitsaht is one of the oldest villages on Vancouver Island and it’s believed to be about 10,000 years old. So this is where we come from. I come from here. My mother is from [Tla-o-qui-aht name], and her mother is from [Tla-o-qui-aht name]. 

Gisele Martin: Our family, which is quite large and includes many people from different Nuu-chah-nulth Nations, including Tla-o-qui-aht Nation, have been in an intergenerational relationship with this place for many thousands of years. 

Rodney Payne: Joe, do you have any favourite memories of Giselle when she was growing up? 

Joe Martin: Hmm. We were camping one time, it was a little, it was really sunny out, but it was cold. And she said, Dad, make a fire and warm up the sun.

Rodney Payne: Ha ha ha.

Joe Martin: Okay. Ha ha.

Rodney Payne: And, and did you do it?

Joe Martin: Yep.


Rodney Payne: What makes this place so special?

Joe Martin: We have been here a long time, like the ancient village I just explained earlier. It’s about 10,000 years. So I’m deeply rooted here. Me and my family, my daughters, all my siblings are deeply rooted in this place, and it’s what makes it special, the names and our song ceremonies are, they have been, created in the mountains and in this land, and so we do have a very deep connection to it.

And so a lot of the songs and dances, my dad would point out to the mountains way back there and say that’s where our songs were conceived and made, and the dances and ceremonies that go with them. And so that is why many of them have specific names. And this one that’s right close here to Tofino, you might be like, oh, you can’t see it right now. There’s a cloud there. 

It’s [Tla-o-qui-aht word], means far away. From far away, it looks like the mountains floating on the air. And our people used to be out on the ocean, whale hunting. Way out there, and that’s why they would call it like that. It was used for a landmark for whale hunting. 

Gisele Martin: There have been visitors coming from all over the world here. Especially since this place became famous during the logging blockades. And, you know, we hear people talking about how beautiful the beaches are, and how beautiful the forests are. I just saw a video this morning of some kids in San Francisco looking at this pier that lifts at the Exploratorium to see what lives underwater. And there’s just a few barnacles, and I felt sorry for them really, cause there’s so much biodiversity here. And when our youth went out and worked on clam garden restorations and building clam gardens, there’s so much life out there still, but that life is there because our ancestors adhered to natural law and our teachings, which is to leave the place better than before you came. 

And that’s gone on for generations and generations and has created this wealth and this biomass. And the spirit of this place is huge because of it. Even though there has been a lot of decimation, there’s been a lot of logging, there’s been elk herds wiped out, there’s not as many crabs, you know, everything is impacted, but still relatively to many places in the rest of the world, there’s still a lot of life here. It’s very special.

Rodney Payne: What’s threatening the life here, and why is it so important that we protect it?

Gisele Martin: I think the biggest threat is capitalism and human supremacy. So as long as that exists, you know, we still have to continuously work to protect it.

Joe Martin: And, the world economy. Like, I really feel it should stop, because every day you can see ships going out. If you were living in Victoria, you’d see those ships loaded with logs going out of here all year long. And it’s crazy that our forests have to be cut for those things. And it’s leaving a huge, impact in the ecosystems here.

The continuing of clearcuts. They don’t call it like that anymore, but they are smaller clearcuts, but they’re still infecting. And so, you know, when we look at the past history, recent history here, particularly in British Columbia and in Northwest Territories this past summer, with these huge fires.

And so, you know, we really need to be careful about what we’re doing with the ecosystems. And, you know, in regards to the forest industry and the governments, you know, where people have always stewarded these lands here, and in my opinion, the forest companies, those tree farm licenses, they call it a tree farm license, they did not plant any of those trees.

So those things have been growing for hundreds of years before anybody ever knew we were here.

Rodney Payne: There’s a history of stewardship here and in recent history, really standing up to fight against extractive logging. How does your work now build off that history?

Joe Martin: When I was very young, my father did not leave me a choice to go or not. Hunting, fishing, trapping, or canoe building. And it wasn’t, do you want to come? It was not like, I said, get ready, we’re going. And so basically, I feel that’s how everyone had to learn anything they needed to learn in this land.

The boys would go with their fathers and grandfathers and the girls would go with their mothers and grandmothers and aunts off into the forest to harvest and get whatever we needed. Especially get drinking water, because the forest provided some amazing drinking water here. And it was always clean. 

Gisele Martin: There have been ecological roles upheld in our nations over thousands of years. There are forest guardians and stream guardians and beach keepers, among many other things. And a lot of that has been disrupted since early contact with colonialism. It’s only very recently, in the 1980s, that this area, the Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Parks, was declared, and that is just a continuation of what we’ve always done.

So we have to use English language to try and communicate to the rest of the world, but it’s not over at all, and we’re still here, and we’re still working to uphold those things.

Rodney Payne: It’s a, I really like the way you reframe those concepts. I think it’s important.

What would you consider to be our modern day war on the woods?

Gisele Martin: I think the Indigenous land guardians in the Amazon who are getting kidnapped and murdered, that is a true war in the woods. I know “War in the Woods” was talked about a lot in the 1990s here, but we didn’t get killed, we didn’t get attacked with guns, so I just really want to honour those other Indigenous people who are facing that today.

Rodney Payne: And not just there, but in many places. How do you think it gets resolved?

Gisele Martin: I don’t know.

Joe Martin: It is a difficult question to answer because here, like on the coast here, a lot of people who have had jobs in the forest industry, they’ll cry about the jobs and stuff. But, you know, we have had our lives here all year, and, you know, anybody that can move here, they can do that, work here for a bit, then they can move away, to Ontario or Quebec or somewhere else, and then leave us with the problem.

And they’re not really understanding those things, so. What has really changed, and I see, for myself, I have seen this place when it was in its richest part still when I was very young. It was coming to the beginning of the end of that because of the encroachment of the forest industry and how the fishing industry had increased with technology and so on.

And so, yeah, I’ve seen it change a lot. The Kennedy River used to have a huge run of sockeye salmon going in there. And now, because of the logging that has taken place along the perimeter of the lake and all along the river, many parts of it have been disrupted because of the logging. 

One of these things that people do not understand about the logging industry is you have a forest growing there. And we cut that forest down, and those fish used to come in that stream. But what’s happening after the, after the forest’s gone in the summertime, that place is dry. It’s a dry creek bed. So it takes, um, four to six years to feel the effects of it, because we still have the returning cycles of salmon that are coming back.

So after the fourth year, no more. No more fish. So that’s what’s happened over this whole part of Vancouver Island at least, and I think that’s what’s happened over the whole coast. It has really disrupted this ecosystem on the whole coast. So we have very few salmon coming into the, uh, Kennedy Lake watershed.

This past winter, this past fall, actually this, like recently, a month or two ago, there was only one Chinook salmon. One male Chinook salmon made it back.

Gisele Martin: Yeah, I think the disconnect needs to be addressed. And I think there’s a lot of wisdom in Indigenous languages, which are also very endangered. One of the most meaningful things I’ve ever done was begin to learn our language and one word that really helped me understand some things was [pish-mupt] and [tlooth-mupt]. 

When I started learning language, I learned all these plant names because, I love plants, and I love learning and eating plants and berries and medicines. So I learned a bunch of plant names and they end with the suffix “mupt.” So I thought that must meant plants. You know, there’s [yap-mupt] and [shek-mupt] and all kinds of mupt.

But I found this word in the dictionary and it said [pish-mupt] and the description was “a bad, misbehaving little child.” I said, that’s not a plant. What the hell? Where’s the rules in this language? I don’t get it. 

And it wasn’t until a few years later, I was doing mentor-apprentice where I was spending many hours a day in immersion with Levi Martin, one of our grandfathers, and he said to me, [tlooth-mupt itsk]. And we were driving, he said, [tlooth-mupt itsk]. And I said, okay, tlooth means good, nice, pretty. Mupt, I thought meant plant, itsk is you are, is he saying that I’m a good plant? What is he saying? 

And I couldn’t switch to English till the end of the day and then when we did I was like, hey what was that word, [tlooth-mopt], what does that mean? Oh, [tlooth-mupt] means you’re well connected to the haḥuułii, to the territory. You’ve been well educated by your family. 

And when we talk about family in our language and in a broader sense, it’s not just the human family that we’re connected to, it’s the family of all life from that territory that we’re in a relationship with.

So I thought, wow, that’s the cool word, [tlooth-mopt]t. Is that the opposite of [pish-mupt]? Pish, because I know pish is kind of like bad, rotten, no good or something you, you throw away or you recycle kind of [pish-mupt]. I said, yeah, yeah. So I was like, oh, so it’s not just like a badly misbehaving little child.

Literally, it’s a disconnected person. Because [mupt] is like a well-rooted living being. So a well-rooted being is like [tlooth-mopt]and [pish-mupt], a badly rooted being. 

And I thought, wow, well, that’s what’s happened. We’ve been forcefully disconnected from the land, disconnected from our teachings, forced to speak ecologically illiterate languages, and have a whole different system of thinking and ideology on the world, which includes human supremacy and capitalism and sexism, misogyny.

And so there’s a lot of big [pish-mupt] populations. And we need to connect to the world. And we’re not going to resolve that by continuing to move forward as if we’re Roman centuries, always fixed on moving forward and move forward to another planet. You know, why would we go and find some poor planet and try to recreate Earth when there’s a beautiful Earth right here?

I think we need to commit to a place like our ancestors did.

Rodney Payne: I love that concept of committing to place. 

What do you think the best lesson you’ve had from the previous generation is?

Gisele Martin: Uphold our cultural values over, you know, this hierarchy of colonial values. Because those are, those hierarchy ones are very short-sighted and short-lived. It’s a boom-and-bust industry. And, Yeah, I really appreciate my dad for, uh, quitting his job logging and bringing us to the blockade front.

Rodney Payne: How do you want visitors to interact when they’re here? 

Joe Martin: I think that the education system in this country has been changing a bit. I think it’s getting better now, but it’s still, of course, a lot of work to do in that regard. For example, we have had the… Gisele’s been living at Long Beach for a long time, and people would be walking down there and just, kind of, say some dumb things to us about why we’re living on the beach.

And say, who gave you this land? Our ancestors had it all the time. So, you know, people just don’t know. A lot of people just don’t know. I think a lot of people are beginning to be better educated in that regard. As to Indigenous peoples and their rights. And it hasn’t been easy. You know, it’s been really tough.

Because of the fact that, you know, a lot of missing, murdered, Indigenous women and guys have never ever had resolution to those things. So, it’s been tough on many communities.

Gisele Martin: We’ve had international visitors here for thousands of years. And when I’m talking international, I don’t just mean by default Canada and USA and South Africa and Britain. I mean, international, inter-First Nation. There’ve been people travelling from other nations here for a long, long, long time.

And when we go to other Nations’ territories, the protocol is to go and announce yourself to the village site. First, we wouldn’t just meander into the back estuaries and the beaches and start eating their clams out of their gardens and eating the berries out of their berry bush areas. We would go to the village, announce who we are, ask for permission to land, go through the protocols of being welcomed.

And then when you are welcomed, there’s an expectation and an understanding that you will live according to those people’s laws while you are in their lands and waters. And a lot of those laws are inscribed within our totem poles. And today, with Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Parks, there is an ʔiisaak Pledge that we’re asking visitors and people who are residing within Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Parks to strive to live by.

Čaamaapiłsiinhiʔin The ʔiisaak Pledge. So the first one is ʔiisaaksinḥiʔin, which is Let us be respectful of natural law. Let us observe, appreciate, and act accordingly. 

Then there’s Yuucḥapsiinḥiʔin. Let us behave with honour, dignity, respect, and humility in the home of Tla-o-qui-aht Nation. You taught this one word. It means walk slowly, carefully, with dignity, honour, and respect. So, you know, when you’re walking through the forest, try not to step on a banana slug. They have important work to do.  Be respectful.

The next one is Qʷaasiinḥapin. That means, let us leave things as they are. So refrain from disturbing, destroying, removing the habitats and elements of this place. So don’t take all the seashells off the beach. There’s hermit crabs that need those. Don’t let your dog chase birds away. They have important places to go and things to feed on while they migrate. Don’t mine. No mining in Tla-o-qui-aht territory, and things like that. 

Tiičsiinḥiʔin is another one. Let us protect life by staying safe, being prepared, and by supporting the continuation of life for generations to come. So, that one, you know, tiičsiinḥiʔin, There’s no word in Tla-o-qui-aht meaning the direct translation of what people call the environment. The closest translation is [Tla-o-qui-aht word], which is really the stuff that keeps us alive. It’s our life force, and that’s also the word we have for biodiversity. So, do what we can to protect that but also protect ourselves. You know, go out, be prepared, wear a life jacket. 

Another one is,Taaquuqḥłiʔin, let us speak truthfully and act honourably, let us learn the history of this place and its people, correcting colonial narratives like the myth of wilderness. So there have been a lot of narratives that have been superimposed on this place, a lot of racist narratives, one-sided colonial narratives, which are wrong. Wilderness is a word, an example. A lot of people come to this land and they say, it’s the beautiful, pristine wilderness, untouched by man. And it is beautiful, but it’s definitely not untouched.

It has been upheld, it has been protected, it has been given energy by our families for thousands of years. It’s been that way. And that’s why it’s that way. And if you google the definition of wilderness, usually it’ll come and say, uh, it’s a wild or desolate wasteland, a place that humans might visit, but do not live in. They do not take care of it. They don’t garden there and they don’t farm there. So according to that definition, the definitions of wilderness online, there is no wilderness here. It doesn’t exist. These lands are rich and wealthy because we have been here and taking care of them. 

Another one is, Łaayaksiinḥiʔin, Let us be generous and helpful. There is no end to the work of building community. So, also speaks to capitalism and generosity. So we are asking Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Park Allies to donate generously to our nation so that we can continue the work that needs to be done to guard this place. But also speaks about the system of wealth that we share.

You know, formerly we had almost like the opposite of capitalism here where we had an economy that was a gift-giving economy, where when there was a It was a special occasion with our Nations, our family. When there was something that needed to be acknowledged publicly, our Chiefs and the families gave to all of the witnesses.

And because different families had a wealth of different things, it was really a redistribution system. And the ideology around that is still today, the more you give away, the richer you are. So families would almost out-compete one another to try and give away more than the last potlatch. That’s the opposite of capitalism. And today, you know, everyone’s just like hoarding and hoarding and hoarding. So that’s łaayaksiinḥiʔin.

And the last one is Čaamaapiłsiinḥiʔin. Let us stand in dignity, honour, respect, and humility, practicing all the above. So to be Čaamaapiłsiinḥiʔin we need to do all the other ones. And it is a task, you know, like we’re not going to live up to it, but we can strive for it. I think that’s a start.

Rodney Payne: I think there’s some really important lessons in there. 

You talk about decolonization. Can you explain what that means? 

Gisele Martin: I don’t know if we can decolonize. It’s kind of weird. It’s kind of a weird word. It’s like, how do you de-rape or de-hostagize -somebody? Like, it’s, I don’t know. But we can maybe re-indigenize.

We can change the words that we’re using. We can become more aware of things that are said casually all the time, like wilderness, and change that. It’s hard. There’s a lot of people that are very attached to the word wilderness. They’re like, it’s such a nice, romantic word. What am I going to say instead?

I don’t know, let’s find something, let’s work on it. But yeah, there’s lots of changes. 

Rodney Payne: It’s the importance of semantics and language. 

Gisele Martin: Yeah. Yeah, just like there’s a lot of talk about “land use planning” right now throughout the world, but learning our language, I realized we didn’t practice land use planning.

We did land care planning and it shouldn’t be just about using. It’s not use-centric, because it’s not our own stories. And our origin stories don’t have to do with Adam and Eve coming out of the garden and being given a command to go out and use and dominate the world. We are here as part of an extended family of life that we’re in responsibility to.

Joe Martin: This land here where we currently are when the first Europeans arrived here, the population of our tribe alone, Tla-o-qui-aht alone, was about 10,000 people. But in 1900, there was only about 122 of us left. So they thought we were going to disappear. So when the Europeans arrived, certainly we couldn’t read this stuff.

We were illiterate. But so were they, when they’d seen our totem poles. They had no idea what those things are. And so all these things that Gisele just spoke of were actually all teachings that were relating to many of the different crests on a totem pole. And so the top crest and the bottom ones are the most important ones.

The top ones can be the crest of the sun or the moon or the thunderbird. The male is representing the male if the wings open. And the one representing the females was the wings closed. So, uh, always on the chest of the thunderbirds depicted the crest of the sun or the moon, because it is for the first teaching and the first law.

That was about respect. 

 And so, you know, we have had all these teachings that, you know, take only what we need. And we were to fall a tree, that was only done in the fall and the wintertime. I learned that from my father and my grandfather as they took me out to carve canoes. We’re not allowed to cut trees down in the spring and the summertime, because the birds are there nesting.

And so it was, it was taboo to do that. It was, you’re not allowed to do it.


Rodney Payne: Do you think tourism can help us to re-indigenize?

Joe Martin: Well, I think that’s a possibility. I think that these talks have been very important. We’re not even allowed to talk like this years ago. We’re not even allowed to hire a lawyer. That was against the law until, what’s that, 1960? Something like that. That was not that long ago, actually. So yeah, things are changing, and certainly. Yeah, we had the Meares Island blockade, and it, it was a catalyst for many other, uh, Indigenous groups in Canada to assert their own rights.

And so here we are as well. So, and it’s still going on. People are still asserting their own rights, because we’ve been left thinking that we don’t own anything. You know, that we only have a reservation. But I don’t like to call our villages that because that’s not our word. It’s a word from the Indian Act.

Our village has existed a lot longer than the Indian Act. Thousands of years more. 

Rodney Payne: I’ll ask you that question too.

Gisele Martin: About tourism?

Rodney Payne: Yeah, do you think the chance to show visitors and talk to visitors has a chance that it can help to re-indigenise?

Gisele Martin: I think tourism, and I see tourism, can be incredibly destructive, really destructive. Resource extraction was the main economy here when I was a small child, and it quickly transferred over to tourism here. 

And there are some great things that came out of tourism, and I’ve met amazing people from around the world. I myself had a tourism business for over a decade, and got to meet a lot of people, got to educate them and introduce them to this place. 

But it can also feel kind of like an endless effort, because there’s so many people in the world. And personally, I don’t think it’s sustainable for us to expect that we should just all be travelling all over the place all the time, flying in jets and doing that kind of tourism.

It’s very exploitative. There are ways maybe that tourism and the damages that it can cause can be mitigated, and there’s ways that maybe we can work to be more helpful when we’re travelling to a place and not leave it in shambles.

Joe Martin: It is true. You know, and I think that, you know, people that do visit here can contribute to the keeping of this place in its healthy state. I have travelled to Tanzania and the Serengeti National Park. And I think it’s over a hundred dollars a day for you just to go into the park. They’ll take your passport and record all your information on a great big piece of paper, then they give you a ticket that says you have to be out by 5 p.m. And when people travel all that way to go over there, they don’t mind paying $120 a day for it, just to be in the park. And that’s not even including your vehicle that you ride in, or your hotel, or your food, that’s all on top of all that stuff.

So here, on the coast here, you know, we have a lot of visitors that come here. Many of them are local, and many of them are international. And so I feel that we need to be able to develop the infrastructure inside of our Tribal Park to have a bit more funding. We’ve always had to be begging from the governments for funding of any kind. And so, we have not had much of it, so what has happened, even up in the inlets here, and in all other parts of our land, we have people just coming there and squatting.

And then when they build a little cabin in the forest, and then they’re gone, leave a huge mess there. So it’s really annoying. So we need to have some cooperation from tourist businesses that begin to work here.

Rodney Payne: Can you tell me a little bit more about the Tribal Parks Program and how you hope it expands and grows?

Gisele Martin: Well, there’s a lot of work to do within our territory. There’s, it’s a beautiful place. There’s a lot of beaches. There’s a lot of estuaries. There’s some of the biggest tracts left of old-growth coastal temperate rainforest ancestral gardens on Vancouver Island in this part of the world. We need guardians out there on the land.

There’s a small part of Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Park that overlaps with the National Park Reserve, Parks Canada. And I don’t know how many employees they have, but they have a lot of employees for that tiny little area. And meanwhile, you know, Tla-o-qui-aht Travel Parks encompasses this very large area. We have very little funding comparatively and few guardians. So we need to build on capacity and we need our work to be supported.

Rodney Payne: What do you think other places can learn from the program?

Gisele Martin: Yeah, there’s been a lot of work and opportunity for people to learn, and other Nations as well. The court case, the Meares Island court case, which, you know, started when we declared Meares Island Tribal Park, has been built upon by other Nations. There’s other Nations in so-called British Columbia that have one title to all of their territory. So it is an ongoing thing. 

And there’s also other Nations now who have declared their own Indigenous protected areas as well, including marine protected areas and Tribal Parks. So there’s an increase in Indigenous land guardians across Canada and in some parts of the U.S. as well, in other parts of the world, in Africa, different countries in Africa.

So that’s really exciting to see. 

Rodney Payne: Joe, how does it make you feel knowing that this work is happening?

Joe Martin: Well, it’s been a long time in, in the works and it certainly has been, uh, quite a struggle for many of us. As I was pointing out earlier about people just coming in squatting, because we do not have enough Tribal Park Guardians to go all the way and then see all of territories and people come in there and it’s been a lot of work, and at times very frustrating, because we can’t be everywhere.

And certainly, this past summer was the driest I have ever seen this place in my entire life. And I’ve been here for 70 years, and that’s the driest I ever saw. You know, I walked across the Kennedy River and in these shoes this is the only foot that got wet, walking across that river in these shoes.

So, you know, in regards to next summer, we really don’t know what is going to be going on. We don’t, we have no idea. And so we have to be developing more infrastructure inside of Tribal Parks, and I think that, you know, we need all that funding that could come from all of the businesses gathering a one percent to pay and help us to do that. And then, of course, other ideas about having other funds come from different areas of tourism.

And because we all have to live together in this land, and Tofino will still need its water from the mountains that we saved. 

Rodney Payne: Are you worried about climate change?

Gisele Martin: What was the question? Climate change?

Rodney Payne: It was the climate change question.

Gisele Martin: Am I worried about climate change? Yeah, I mean, am I worried about the extreme temperature fluctuations that are taking place, and the storm strength that is happening, definitely is worrisome. Wintertime, winter solstice, it’s called [Tla-o-qui-aht word]. And some people could translate that and just say, oh, it means winter.

But when we look at the meaning of the word inside of it, it really means, like, the cleansing time. The cleansing time of the year. So it is normal for there to be strong storms and for things to get broken away and cleansed away and washed away so that the world will renew when the spring comes again.

And there’s teachings that say, you know, as long as we’re abusing our place in the world, as long as we’re abusing nature, there’s going to be increased. So it’s going to get stronger and stronger and stronger. And we see that now with the amount of forest fires and the heat being turned up and the extremity of the winds.

And it is worrisome. You know, when it’s so hot out in the summer, and there’s a great big low tide, and it’s so hot that there’s massive die-offs of intertidal species because they can’t bear the heat. That is not normal. It is worrisome. You know, when I go to the lake this last summer and I saw bushes and plants completely brown and desiccated.

I’ve never seen that in my life. It is worrisome when the sky is, get filled with smoke and it’s hard for people to breathe and I’m worrying about the insects. That’s their breeding time or about the birds that have to fly in that, you know, they’re athletes. They need to be able to breathe. We’re connected to all of them.

And um, yeah, it’s it’s major. It’s a major thing.

Rodney Payne: What gives you hope?

Gisele Martin: The stars. And you know, sometimes people say humans are horrible. We’re vermin. We should be wiped off the face of the earth. We’re ruining everything. And there was a period when I was younger, when I joined the voluntary human extinction movement, like live long and die peacefully. We suck. But as I learned our language too, I realized actually, no, we don’t suck.

And I went to a Wild Ten Congress. Or was it Wild Ten? I went to a conference in Spain. And I ended up on a panel. It was, it was a Wild Congress. I ended up on a panel with nine other Indigenous men from around the world. And the whole conference was dominated by, you know, non-Native NGOs and governments and stuff.

But we were each given three to five minutes to speak about what wilderness meant to us. So I’m with all these Indigenous men on this panel, and I had gone prepared to say, there’s no word for wilderness in our language. Our Elders debated this word for three days, and when they came back, they said, the closest translation we have for wilderness is [wa-thiw], and that means home.

And also, there’s no such thing as wilderness in our territory, because of the definition of wilderness. We’ve been here, and we’ve been taking care of our territory for thousands of years. We didn’t just live sustainably. That sounds like keeping nature on life support while taking as much as you can.

We lived abundantly. Make the place better for the next generation and the next season. And so I went there to say that, and, lo and behold, every other person on that panel said the same thing as me. And they were from completely different habitats and places in the world, completely different species and forests and reefs and mountains and deserts, but they all had the same thing to say.

And I thought, wow, like here’s examples of Indigenous people from around the world. We all have the same thing to say. It’s not humans that suck. It’s this disease of capitalism and this human supremacy that sucks. And so if we can return back to living in balance with our homes, that would be good. 

Rodney Payne: So if you had a magic wand, is that what you’d do with it?

Gisele Martin: I think we do have a magic wand, and that is the power of our mind and our vision. Every animal and every plant has something to contribute to who we are and how we live together in this world. All the animals have teachings, you know, connected to them, and examples about how to live and how to navigate life.

And humans are not exempt from that. And our power is in manifestation. So what we hold in our minds and our hearts can become real. And we’ve, achieved amazing things, things that are unexplainable as well. Even this modern generation, how do you explain TikTok and the internet? Like, who thought that would have been invented, you know? Like, it’s amazing what we can do. So what are we holding in our minds and hearts? Like, what are we focusing on?

Rodney Payne: Joe, what gives you hope?

Joe Martin: The world understanding each other, but it seems that it’s, uh, really crazy. Look at the war in Palestine at the moment. It’s crazy. How come we’re still doing that stuff? And Russia and Ukraine. How come we’re still doing that? Bombing each other. Selling arms to them. Some of those explosions in Palestine were made right here in Canada.

What the hell? What the hell are we doing? 

Well, I guess there’s hope. We have to learn to live with each other. Yeah, and take care of the land. The land is going to be what saves us all. We all need water. If we didn’t save the forest of Meares Island, Tofino wouldn’t have all this.

It wouldn’t. It wouldn’t have it. Water’s important. We have to take care of it. There’s hope, you know, when people begin to understand it and travel here and, uh, yeah. I’m hoping that could be sooner than later.

Rodney Payne: It’s a good note.

Gisele Martin: Taking care of the land is very, very important, even if it’s just a small piece of land, if it can just be a little patch of plants somewhere. There’s a trail that used to be near my house that was pretty popular and had a lot of tourists coming through for years. And it got more and more popular, to the point where at 10 a.m. on the dot, there’d be hundreds of people suddenly coming out of this trail into the beach. And they would spend all day down there, and it was beautiful, and they were displacing birds, and they didn’t know it. And they were displacing minks, and otters, and deer from doing their thing, and bears. They didn’t know it, but they were enjoying the place.

But there was no bathroom down there, and they didn’t want to hike all the way back to the parking lot to pee and poo. So, by the beginning of July, the entire shoreline of bushes have human feces throughout it. And then a big windstorm came, an unusually strong storm, which is seeing more and more of that now.

And it blew over a bunch of trees and smashed that trail to pieces. And so suddenly the trail was closed, and then after that it was COVID, and there was closures, so there was barely any people coming to that beach from other places. And I noticed that there was no more human feces lining the entire bush line.

And then I noticed that the frogs were coming out of the forest and crossing that bush line at night, and they would come right onto the beach in the open after sunset, and they would sit there and sing. And that was so cool. 

And one day I was walking and I was feeling really hopeless and I was feeling, like, really depressed about the state of the world. I was feeling very upset. About the murder of people, and the Black Lives Matter marches were going on at that time. And I thought, what’s the use? What’s the use of doing anything? It feels, you know, I felt really hopeless, and I was coming back, and I was like, ah. I was going back to my house and I walked lower down on the beach, because I didn’t want to disturb these frogs that were singing, and they’re like, Waaah! Waaah! 

And I was like, You know what? That frog there is doing their best. They’re doing their best and they’re doing their frog job. Whatever else is going on in the world, they’re doing what they need to do, right there. And that’s what we need to do. We need to find what we can do, wherever we are, and do our best.

Rodney Payne: It’s a terrific note to end on. Thank you both for the words of wisdom.

David Archer: This has been Travel Beyond presented by Destination Think, and that was Rodney Payne speaking with Gisele Martin and Joe Martin from Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation. For more resources about this episode, visit the blog at DestinationThink.com. This episode was produced and has theme music composed by me, David Archer.

My co-host is Tyler Robinson. My co-producer is Sara Raymond de Booy. Lindsay Payne, Annika Rautiola, and Katie Shriner provided production support. If you like what you hear, please take a moment to give us a five-star rating on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. It really does help. And we would like to thank Tourism Tofino for sponsoring this season of Travel Beyond.

And we want to thank the many local community members, including leaders from the Tla-o-qui-aht and Ahousaht First Nations, for entrusting us with their stories. Next time, we’ll hear from a settler perspective and learn about a model of allyship among tourism businesses that has the potential to spread to other places.

We’ll see you then.


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