An older Indigenous man weaving cedar strands in his workshop

The Story Behind ‘Keepers of the Land’

The audio version of this story begins with a solitary male voice raised in a seemingly ageless First Nations chant. Then Doug Neasloss, elected chief counselor of the Kitasoo Xai’xais First Nation, states, “We’ve always had the responsibility to steward, that’s what we are doing.” 

The clip was taken from Deirdre Leowinata and Tavish Campbell’s documentary ‘Keepers of the Land.’ They spent two years working with the Kitasoo Xai’ Xais in Klemtu, more than 350 miles north of Cortes and Quadra Islands.

Deirdre Leowinata explained, “It’s one of these really magical places where they still  have some resources that they have historically used for a lot of their cultural practices, and  for the food that sustains their community. They’re a remote community  of 350 people right now, and they’re  pretty isolated from the rest of the world. They really heavily rely on the natural resources around them to survive and to continue their cultural traditions.” 

In another clip, Vern Brown, a Kitasoo Xai’xais First Nation youth leader, stated,  “We really have to start advancing everything that we do. We need to do it better. We need to manage salmon better. We need to manage fisheries better. We need to manage the forest better. This is my home and this is my backyard. We have a community full of Kitasoo and Xia’xias people. Every one of those families within the community have particular chiefs and title all throughout the territory.” 

“There’s a lot of things in the past  that my grandparents couldn’t have imagined today.  There’s a lot of steps that we’ve taken, as far as being a little First Nations community in Canada. There’s a lot of things that we’ve achieved by working together. That’s one great thing about this community is that we can work together.”  

‘Keepers of the Land’ was a finalist at the Jackson Wild Media Awards and was given a Special Jury Mention at the 2023 Banff Mountain Film Festival.  

The Cortes Island Academy hosted a virtual screening on January 19, after which Manda Aufochs Gillespie emailed Cortes Currents:

“‘Keepers of the Land’ was incredible. The videography was beautiful and prescient, and seemed so close that it felt as if I could reach out and touch the Spirit Bear, or the salmon swimming upstream. To think these incredible film makers are in our very own backyard, makes the story of their triumph even more spectacular.”

Deirdre Leowinata:  “I’ve lived on Sonora Island since 2020, but my partner, Tavish, who is our cinematographer, has lived on Sonora almost his whole life. That’s why I ended up here. “

Manda Aufochs Gillespie email: “They also shared how each of them had their start in film making.  Tavish, like many small islanders, found his way into it very non-traditionally by starting as a commercial boat driver who got to know these lands and waters and people by living in and among them. Deirdre studied film/communications and ecology in university and it instilled in her a passion for storytelling. It was meaningful for the Cortes Island Academy students to see different pathways into this career and to see the very skills they are learning put to work in such a powerful documentary.”

This film is one of Sierra Quadra’s winter 2023/2024 offerings and will be shown at the Quadra Community Centre at 7:00 PM on Saturday, February 3, 2024. (The doors open at 7:00.) Deirdre Leowinata and Tavish Campbell will be there to talk about their experience working with the Kitasoo Xai’xais First Nation, and answer questions.

Cortes Currents: How did this film come into being? 

Deirdre Leowinata: “This is a really special project for us and for my co-director Doug Neasloss, who’s the elected chief counselor of the Kittisoo Xia Xias Nation up on the central coast in Klemtu.  He approached us in early 2021, late 2020 saying that he was looking for a filmmaker to help him tell a story. I asked if we could do it and he said yes.”

“He was looking for  a film about stewardship and about the work that they’re doing, which is really incredible. He was also looking for a film about the weight of the hereditary system, about youth and a whole bunch of things.”

“Over the course of two years, we came up with this film. It started as seven minutes  and now it’s about half an hour.”

“The film covers some of the forest aspects, some of the fisheries, some of the terrestrial conserved areas and the species that make that area so special.  We really tried to weave that connection to the land into the story. Their lives are completely intertwined with the seasons and with the species that are really iconic in those seasons,  and the species that they still have in a fair abundance up on the central coast in what’s now called the Great Bear Rainforest area.” 

“The Kitasoo Nation has done a lot of work on the policy side, as well as in their local traditional stewardship side to protect those areas that are so important to them, including creating these protected and conserved areas on land as part of the Great Bear Rainforest Agreement, but also creating marine protected areas, despite big, long processes with the provincial and federal governments that often don’t really result in very productive  or efficient land use planning or marine use planning.”  

CC: When I hear the name Klemtu, the first thing I think of is the fish farm and I know that Tavish has been very active in exposing fish farms. How did that work out?

Deirdre Leowinata: “That’s a really great question and it’s a really interesting  case study in Klemtu.”

“The crux of the fish farm issue for these remote communities is there aren’t a lot of options in terms of employment or economic development for the community.  In the early days of fish farms, they offered something that no one else was giving this community and it was stable work.  That has carried forward to today, where they’re still in this remote place.” 

“They’ve done a lot of work  to increase opportunities and they’ve built this entire amazing stewardship economy and conservation based economy based on tourism.  Since their stewardship office started in 2011,  they’ve  employed more and more people.” 

In the film, stewardship seems to be associated with the hereditary chiefs. 

Doug Neasloss: “Hereditary chiefs had a responsibility to steward these areas and so trying to formalize that in the stewardship office, I think, was extremely important.”

Ernest Mason Jr, Hereditary Chief (in picture at top of page): “These are the kind of things that have now become important to us as Hereditary Chiefs.  The Chiefs are on top in every community along the coast,  they are the keepers of the land. They and their families grew up in these different territories. So it’s our responsibility to look after what we have. We have to make those changes.” 

Deirdre Leowinata: “They’re really moving towards a conservation based and stewardship economy. Fish farms came in a lot earlier than that stuff.  It’s  a  legacy that still employs  quite a few people  in their territory and in their town. So it’s a pretty tough issue up there and  it’s pretty classic for these rural communities to be the ones that have to make these tough decisions, but it’s totally  a jobs issue.”  

CC: There were several references to disappearing species in the film, tell me more about this. 

Deirdre Leowinata: “Doug, my co-director, talks about how  it was insane on the coast leading up to the 90s, with incredible abundance and incredible extraction because of that abundance and that happened in fisheries up and down the coast. I think the central coast was  this untouched area  that people were really taking advantage of because there was no enforcement or regulation.  He just talks about incredible resource extraction: forests, fisheries and probably terrestrial wildlife as well.” 

“I think forests and fisheries were the big ones that ignited Doug to start thinking about how they could actually protect these areas.  They formally started stewardship in 2011, but they’ve been working towards it for a long time before that. Now, especially with programs like the Guardian Watchman Program which just received Parks Authority from the provincial government, they’ve come a long way in being able to enforce that. Poaching is zero.”

“With the provincial government they just banned black bear hunting as well as the grizzly bear hunt.  They’ve managed to create food areas for their community for crab, just to prevent commercial and recreational crabbers from  totally exploiting the area. They’ve come a long way since the 90s. Even just in the last 10 years, they’ve come a huge way.” 

CC: There were a lot of harvesting pictures in the film, was that for commercial purposes? Or domestic? 

Deirdre Leowinata: “For both the herring roe harvest and the seaweed harvest, they just harvest for food  social and ceremonial.  The main character in the film, Ernest Mason, Jr., the hereditary chief,  has this role in the community because of his hereditary name,  where he’s supposed to provide for the community.  So he harvests enough seaweed for a lot of people and enough roe and kelp for a lot of people, but it’s just for the village.”

CC: There was a scene where Vern Brown was in the forest, talking about teaching youth: if you can show them that this creek belongs to them; or these ancient big house remains belong to them; this whole shoreline, mountaintops to ocean floor belongs to them: there is absolutely nobody in this world who can take that away from them.”  

(The scene changed, he was suddenly on a beach, addressing a group of youth) 

Vern Brown: “This whole area, this is the Kitasoo homeland. All of us are Kitasoos, this is our old homeland.  The land that you’re standing on belongs to you guys. If you guys want this area protected, we can protect this area. It doesn’t belong to that helicopter, the forestry companies, or the government.” 

Deirdre Leowinata: “The young man who’s speaking  is Vern Brown. He  is going to come into his leadership role, as a hereditary chief, moving forward into the future. He is in charge of the SEAS (Supporting Emerging Aboriginal Stewards) program, which is their youth stewardship program in town. He does a really amazing job of trying to instill in the youth this sense of ownership of their land and the sense that they are the stewards of this land.”

“That sense of stewardship is a lot stronger than this western idea that you move to a place, and if it doesn’t work for you, you can move somewhere else. That’s something that we can really learn from all of these Indigenous communities. They take the approach that we’re going to be here forever. So we need to make this work for people and the things that we need in this territory, and we need to sustain this territory, so that  we can be here forever. It takes being in a community like that to really understand it, but they’re not leaving Klemtu. They’re going to be there no matter what happens.” 

CC: Can you talk a little bit more about this ‘sense of place.’ I know that a lot of western genealogies can be traced much further back than First Nations genealogies, but they often lack the strong connection to specific villages or geographic locations for many generations.

Deirdre Leowinata: “I wish I had someone  here with me from Klemtu who could help, but I can talk about my experience in the community.  We can trace our origins back because of western society’s development  of written history,  but I think  we often make the mistake of thinking  that recorded history means something more than the oral history and the oral traditions  of the First Peoples.  I think we can learn a lot from that oral history and there’s so much that may not be written down, but somehow they’ve managed to pass knowledge through generations for thousands of years. Whereas if something for us isn’t written down, it disappears.”  

“I think that’s something that we can learn from in our management systems, as well as our families,  that way of passing knowledge on to the next generation.”  

“Even with the issue of shifting baselines in resource management. If a new manager comes into fisheries or into any sort of natural resource management, they have a new idea of what the baseline is.  Somehow that knowledge of what the baseline was isn’t getting transferred, but it is getting transferred in these Indigenous communities.”  

“Doug says, they still have stories of when the salmon were so thick that you could walk across them in the bay.”  

Doug Neasloss: “I remember the salmon in the bay.  They were so thick that you’d throw a rock and they would boil all across the bay and then they would boil all the way back again.”

Deirdre Leowinata: “I think that’s huge and it’s something missing in our own western societies.  I think their connection to place and  the history that they have is passed on through an oral tradition that is just as important as our written genealogical records. They know where their grandparents were born. Usually in an inlet not too far from where they’re living now,  50 miles or something, whereas we trace our genes back  to wars, Europe and all over the world. That history in one spot really drives that connection to their home, and their motivation to protect it.”

CC: What was your biggest personal takeaway from this film? 

Deirdre Leowinata: “Wow, that’s a big question. I don’t know if there was one biggest takeaway. One thing really important to me is just really learning about our systems, and how much we can learn  from these people who  think in such a different way. I’ve just been so honoured to spend time with people who have a totally different perspective  on life and on the world.”  

“I sat on a panel with Doug and a few other  amazing Indigenous leaders in Jackson, Wyoming last year, and  the conversation was just so different  from a panel of people like me who have a history of migration and immigration.” 

“I think that’s probably one of my biggest takeaways is that the English language only has  so many tools that we can use for conservation, and we’re really limited in our language in how that allows us to talk about the world and talk about how we can protect it.  We need diverse voices in policy and in our government, because Indigenous folks like the Kitasoo have a totally different way of thinking about home and thinking about place.”

“I remember Giselle Martin,  she’s Tla-o-qui-aht,  and she was talking about their word for the environment.  They don’t really have a word for wilderness.  The idea of ‘wilderness’  is strange to them, and the closest word they have is their word for home.” 

“That to me really spoke so beautifully to our inability in western society to deal with these things because we just don’t have the language for it. I think that’s something that’s really underrated, under discussed and I think that’s something that we really need to talk about more.  That’s a huge reason why we need to bring Indigenous people into these  policy discussions and governance discussions in the wider world of Canada and British Columbia.”

Ernest Mason Jr: “It’s up to you to learn your history. Use your background, use your chieftainship to help protect what we have. A lot of that is where stewardship comes in. Be keepers of your land.”

Links of Interest:

Top image credit: Ernest Mason Jr, Hereditary Chief of the Kitasoo Xai’xais Nation – Photo by Deirdre Leowinata

Sign-up for Cortes Currents email-out:

To receive an emailed catalogue of articles on Cortes Currents, send a (blank) email to subscribe to your desired frequency: