Portrait of Canadian ethnobotanist Wade Davis

Photo by Nik West

Canadian anthropologist Wade Davis is considered the most influential western advocate for the world’s indigenous cultures. A professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and a longtime National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, Davis frequently travels among people in remote places, documenting their culture in books, photographs, and films.

Though constantly drawn to foreign locales, Davis spends summers at his home in a stunning and far-flung wilderness region in northern British Columbia, Canada. That area, home to the Tahltan people, is known as “The Sacred Headwaters.” It is a place where rivers are born, one held in reverence by B.C.’s First Nations as an area of cosmological genesis.

After decades of speaking out for threatened cultures abroad, Davis now finds himself front and center in the effort to protect this paradise in his own backyard. Several companies have been jostling, and in some cases readying, to extract minerals from sensitive sites in the Headwaters — against the wishes of the local population. One such project, the Red Chris open pit copper and gold mine run by Imperial Metals, is located just a few kilometres from Davis’s home.

This interview was held in Spatsizi Plateau Wilderness Provincial Park, near the Sacred Headwaters. The Q&A took place just days before the tailings pond at another Imperial Metals mine in British Columbia collapsed, releasing millions of cubic metres of sludge into the local lake and river system.


JOHN ZADA: What is the Sacred Headwaters?

WADE DAVIS: The Sacred Headwaters is a consequence of a wonder of geography whereby three of the great salmon rivers of British Columbia — the Skeena, the Stikine and the Nass — are born within remarkably close proximity to each other. Each of those rivers is associated with a traditional First Nation in a very deep way.

There are other places in the world where great rivers find their headwaters somewhat close to one another, but this is just a wonderful moment in geography. There’s a pond in the Headwaters where if a leaf falls into it and the wind blows one way, it winds up in the Stikine River and flows to Wrangle, Alaska. And if the leaf goes the other way, it ends up in the Skeena and arrives at Prince Rupert.

It’s also a region that’s hugely important to the Tahltan people. In addition to being a source of food, it was also a traditional route to the interior. It’s a place where people are buried. It’s a place where the Tahltan continue to go every summer to hunt and reconnect with the land.

 What’s your connection to this place?

I was working as a foreman of a logging crew on what’s now called Haida Gwaii. Back then it was called the Queen Charlotte Islands. I’d heard about this place called Spatsizi. They were going to make a road-less park out of it in 1975. And it captured my imagination.

At the time, my boss wanted me to work another season on Haida Gwaii. I didn’t really want to, but I promised him I would on the condition that he would let me have the first job as a park ranger at Spatsizi when it opened up. He was a good man, and he fulfilled his promise. So, I became part of the first park ranger team in Spatsizi Wilderness Plateau Provincial Park.

What did you do there?

My job title was deliciously vague: “Wilderness Assessment and Public Relations”. And in two 4-month seasons we saw less than a dozen visitors to the park. There was no one to relate to publicly. And “Wilderness Assessment” was just license to ramble. Really our mandate was to walk everywhere, climb every mountain and go down every river vaguely navigable to report on where the best campsites, portages and game trails were.

You’ve seen much of Canada, and the world. Why are you so enamored with this particular area?

When I first came up here, there was still a strong sense of going north. The Stewart-Cassiar Highway had just been completed. It was still a very rough track. The journey was measured in wheels and axels worn out by the effort. And there was a sense of a passage. You didn’t bomb up and down that highway, as people do today. You came north in the spring or early summer, and went south in the fall. And there was a sense of going to another world.

There’s a great sense of wildness here. When you’re walking along a trail you’re following the tracks of a horse, or a moose perhaps. But the horse trails were once native trails, which, prior to that, were game trails. Most of these valleys only have game trails. Wolf sightings are not common because they’re never common. But they’re also not exceptional. Grizzly bear sightings are common. I saw two grizzlies in the last three days.

Just by comparison: in the Lower 48 states of the U.S. the farthest you can get away from a maintained road anywhere is just 20 miles. Here in the northwest quadrant of B.C., an area the size of Oregon, there’s essentially one road — the Stewart-Cassiar Highway. Yet within a 100 km radius of Tatogga Lake, you’ll find the Spectrum Range, you’ll find Mount Edziza, and Canada’s greatest canyon — the Grand Canyon of the Stikine.

And yet so few visitors seem to come here.

This area represents a destination of global significance. As Canadians we don’t appreciate what we have. We love the idea of the north but we never go there. And I think this is part of the Canadian psychosis: we herald “the other”, but somehow don’t recognize that we ourselves are a world-class destination.

How important was the time you spent here in your personal development?

We all have fond memories of places that impressed us in our youth. People often focus on the years I spent at Harvard, or the exotic travels I’ve done as an Explorer-in-Residence at National Geographic. Or on my work with voodoo, zombies and shamanism. But all of that was just part of a process of coming-of-age. We live in a society and culture that’s bereft of initiation rites for young people — men in particular. And, in a way, a lot of us end up going off to find those rites of passage in the experience of being alive.

There’s no question that the time I spent in a logging camp on Haida Gwaii which then spilled over into the two seasons at Spatsizi, was very much a part of my coming-of-age. In addition to other things, I learned to be not just comfortable in the bush, but truly competent in the bush.

Spatsizi is a place, where, in a sense I became a man. A big part of that were the men that I met. I’ve always been blessed with incredible mentors. The public tends to think of the legendary professors I’ve had: people like Richard Evans Schultes or David Maybury Lewis — incredible scholars that guided my way. But I’ve never drawn any distinction whatsoever between those individuals as mentors and people like Alec Jack, the Gitxsan chief that I was fortunate to spend so much time here with. Or with Charlie Abou, the great Tsek’ene hunter, Alec’s protégé from Fort Ware.

The area’s remoteness must have also drawn you.

Yes. And very few people realize just how remote this place is. We all get excited about the far-flung nature of the Amazon. But the Amazon River has been traveled for almost 400 years. Montreal was going into its third century, and the Amazon had been traveled for that long, when this very region was still un-contacted.

The singular fact about the Northwest Coast of British Columbia is that until the building of the Panama Canal, this was as far from Europe that you could get. You had a few of the earliest explorers in this country. But until the gold rush there was no sustained contact.

You mentioned Canadians paying lip service to the north, but not going there. Why do you think that is?

I think demographically we’ve become one of the most urban societies on earth. The human species in general is becoming an urban species, which could be a good thing. It might free up quite a lot of landscape for regeneration.

Don’t forget, too, that half the people who live in Toronto, for example, were born outside of Canada. I’m the biggest supporter of the liberal immigration policy. I think it’s made for a more interesting country. But, that said, how could you possibly expect someone who’s come from a city in India or China, for example, to have an appreciation of this daunting hinterland — when they’ve come from a totally urban world?

That’s actually a challenge for Canada because these immigrants tend to be very entrepreneurial, business-oriented and very much in favour of any economic activity that generates wealth. That’s part of the ethos and zeal of all immigrants, in all cultures, in all times: to succeed in their adopted land. If they don’t they’ll be in trouble.

I respect that, but it also means that the kind of reflexive love of nature that was in my blood, and in the blood of all the people I grew up with isn’t necessarily there.

And with government budget cuts to parks and research in the natural sciences, there seems to be fewer opportunities in the hinterland. That probably translates to fewer outsiders venturing there.

Right. The opportunities that existed for me in my youth don’t anymore. When I was a kid, the economy wasn’t particularly strong. But virtually anybody who came out of a college, or even high school, could find a job in the bush in the summertime. It could be at a logging camp, or on a fishing boat, or at a park as a ranger or worker. Every summer there was a migration to the parks, to the hinterland, from places like Vancouver. It became the ethos of our generation. If you look at all the great naturalists, people like Nancy Turner the ethnobotanist, the Cannings Brothers who wrote The Natural History of B.C., or the people who started the rafting companies — all of these characters, from every walk of life, had some connection to the parks.

In 2011, you published The Sacred Headwaters. The book documents this area in writing and photos, and chronicles the Tahltan protests against industry that began over a decade ago. The term “Sacred Headwaters” wasn’t well known before the book came out. What is the genesis of that name?

The concept of “the Sacred Headwaters” really began in a marvelous way, emerging from the community. It’s not like the Tahltan in the 1920s were calling this place The Sacred Headwaters. It’s a very new concept. Back then, as a native, you didn’t separate one part of the landscape from another. Often if you ask an elder today to name his or her favorite place, they’ll say: “Spatsizi. I’ve got a lot of moose there.” At one level it’s a very utilitarian perspective on the land, which is quite normal for a people for whom the land was their grocery store. On the other hand the reverence for landscape in general knew no boundaries.

This particular area became a focal point, not simply because of the industrial initiatives that were proposed, but because the Tahltan women, in opposing those initiatives, participated in a blockade that was a considerable sacrifice for them — financially and personally. None of them had ever done anything like that before. In that sense their sacrifice made that land sacred. When they decided to use that term, “The Sacred Headwaters”, it became an organizing principle. In a sense their sacrifice made it much more than a slogan — it made it a place. The word sacrifice is derived from the Latin, meaning “to make sacred”.

The movement that came together around the idea of respect and protection of a particular piece of geography also had huge ramifications in terms of the well being of the Tahltan community of Iskut. There was the political transformation. But there was also a social transformation that really empowered the women. The late chief’s three sisters and wife were all arrested on that blockade. And to my mind that transformed them. It made them more powerful than they’d ever been. That’s the genesis of the idea of The Sacred Headwaters.

Where do things stand today?

There’s a lot of concern right now about this Red Chris Mine owned by Imperial Metals. That’s not because it’s another mine. No one here is against industrial development under the right circumstances.

This issue is the placement of that mine, with its tailings pond, at the very epicenter of the Headwaters on Todigan Mountain. It’s a mountain that’s home to the world’s largest population of a charismatic ungulate species: the Stone sheep. To put a mine in the Headwaters is like drilling for oil in the Sistine Chapel. And not only are we putting a mine in there, we’re doing so with complete public subsidy.

How so?

The provincial government of British Columbia without seeking any public input in the process, and pressured by the mining industry, has elected to build a power line to this site — to the tune of close to a billion dollars. It’s basically a power line to nowhere.

A hundred and thirty million dollars of that budget has come from a green energy fund put aside by the federal government, on the rationale that the power line will get 350 native people in the town of Iskut off diesel generation and lower their carbon footprint. The people who set that green fund aside certainly did not intend for it to go into subsidizing a power line that would enable a small mining company to dismantle an iconic mountain.

This may not be called a subsidy, but it sure looks like one to me. And this certainly looks like a billion dollars of public expense to build infrastructure to support this one mine. This is a mine that was not able to raise money on venture markets, and not able to raise money from the banks. It’s only going ahead because one individual, Murray Edwards, has enough wealth to underwrite the project himself, provided the mine receive subsidized power.

Many people who have no connection to this area might say, “This is just another localized resource conflict in some far away place. Why should I care?”

Well, first, this is not like any other place. I travel sometimes to 30 or 40 countries a year for the National Geographic Society. I’ve been fortunate enough to see some of the most wondrous places on Earth. One of the things that you notice is that they’re increasingly wearing out. Yosemite, for example, each year sees something in the order of 8,000 people camping out in that seven square mile valley on a busy summer night. There are hundreds of car accidents in the valley, and thousands of criminal events, recorded in the park every year.

Take the Grand Canyon of the Colorado. Technicians at a dozen dams control the river’s flow. Each year some 27,000 people float between the dams. By the time it reaches the sea it is a river only in name, a shadow in the sand, a toxic trickle that’s been completely cannibalized by irrigation and other diversions.

You can add to those, places like Angkor Wat in Cambodia, surrounded by a sea of cheap hotels and discotheques. Or the Taj Mahal in India – a beautiful jewel of a memorial site enshrouded in the bitter fumes of an industrial city. Macchu Pichu remains beautiful. But nearby Cuzco is about to be compromised by an industrial airport, which will bring 5 million people annually into an area that today has never seen more than a million visitors a year.

There aren’t many places that remain utterly pristine with such values as you have up here. This area, amongst other things is home to the largest canyon in Canada. It’s one that no raft has ever managed to make it through; a canyon that only a mere handful of world class kayakers have ever successfully traversed. You’re talking about the Coast Mountains and the Lower Stikine Valley, which John Muir, in 1879, called “a Yosemite 120 miles long.” Today you’ll see less traffic on that river than you would have in the days of John Muir.

What would you say to British Columbians, and to Canadians, about these issues?

There’s just no excuse whatsoever for this province to still be a resource driven economy. Tourism is bigger in B.C. than mining, forestry and commercial fishing put together. In the Lower Mainland where most of our citizens live, I.T. is the biggest source of revenue and employment. We are making the transition to a knowledge-based society, which is something we should have done a long time ago.

Here we are with a small population, an enormous land base and we have the best university system of any jurisdiction, in any state or province, in the world. And yet we continue to say that we need to cut down all of our forests and plough down our mountains to make a living. It’s not a dearth of economic opportunity that fuels this. It’s a lack of imagination on the part of the politicians we elect.

This interview ran in the Los Angeles Review of Books on January 30th, 2015. 

The above portrait of Wade Davis was photographed by Nik West.