"You don't want to know," she said.
"Oh, yes --" I assured her "I really do".
The answer which Chief Diane Bailey of the Katzie people gave me brought tears to my eyes for reasons I could not quite consciously grasp in the moment.
I was talking to Chief Bailey at the morning press conference where the BC Government had announced the preservation of about 38,000 hectares of forest land in the area of Burke mountain as a new provincial park. Chief Bailey had been on the podium for that announcement. Premier Mike Harcourt and various other politicians and environmental leaders came to the microphone to speak of the joy of being able to announce the park, and how, for once, it was (almost) everything that the environmentalists has wanted.
It had seemed like such a wonderful gracious awe-inspiring announcement, and Chief Bailey had been there to sign an agreement with the government to enable the park to be created without the threat of a land-claims agreement to raise questions about it's future. Through it all she had been strangely silent, and a little tense as if she was apprehensive about signing the agreement. That is why I went to talk to her.
Chief Bailey and another of her people talked to me of why they didn't like the moniker "park" being attached to the area being preserved, because it implied to them that it might limit their access to the land. They talked to me of how they had a much smaller traditional area than most other bands.
They talked to me of some of the traditional principles of naming in their language. They described how they intended to name the park after one of their primary villages which was situated in what will now be the park. They mentioned that their older elders -- who new the exact village location are all now dead. It was mentioned as a side point that the probable village sites have been scarred by logging activities which will probably make finding their people's ancient homes even more difficult.
They told me how they hoped that, this time, the white government could be trusted to abide by it's agreements. They made it very clear to me that the only reason they were signing away the land was that it seemed the only way that they could have any hope of preserving it for the future.
I recognized, almost implicitly, that in signing away the Burke Mountain area they had effectively given away a large proportion of their ancestral homeland -- that they had given away the jewel of their bargaining chips for future land claims negotiations -- including most of the crown land left in their traditional territory.
When I spoke in reply, I was listening to my words for a clue to the strong emotions I was feeling. I talked of how I understood that our governments had ignored our own laws in denying their people and their ancestors access to the land. I offered possibilities that might allow her people to still express their culture within the framework of their agreement with the government.
My words, though sincere, did not quite touch upon the reasons for my feelings.
She heard something in what I was saying, and we agreed to talk again. As we parted ways, there was still something tugging at my mind and my heart. I let it be, and late that evening it came into my conscious mind: I had witnesses an act of sacrifice; an act of desperation. Chief Bailey and her people, however, had recognized that to speak from that place, at the press conference, would have diminished the power of what they were doing. It would have also diminished the joy of allies who had fought long and hard for the land's preservation.
It was rather like a mother putting her children in a leaky lifeboat and sending it off, knowing that if she had insisted on climbing into it herself, it would almost certainly sink.
I had witnessed an act of love.
They so love the land -- It is so much a part of who they are that to preserve it, they are willing to give it away.