Like most good stories, the Nawalakw story begins with a dream. In 2017, K’odi Nelson was guiding a group of youth from the village of Guilford, organized by Sea to Cedar’s Youth Leadership Paddle Program. When they stopped at the Hada River Estuary—a place sacred to his community—K’odi shared his vision with the Musga’makw Dzawada’enuxw people, asking them to imagine, among other things, an eco-lodge and language revitalization centre.
“I was just dreaming,” K’odi says. “Planting seeds in these young people’s minds about what’s possible. We are stewards of this land. We need to get back out there.”
For K’odi, the urgency of the need to return to the land was heightened by the upsetting arrival of a heli-logging operation on Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw territories that are sites of “critical importance to their history, culture, and being.” Of course, these sacred sites are seen as inconsequential by industry. But K’odi realized that the logging wouldn’t be happening if there were some sort of more subtantial structure on the land. He started thinking about what that structure could be. His vision began with a simple cabin, and grew from there. By the time he was sharing his vision with the young paddlers, it had evolved into a language and culture revitalization centre, which would be funded by an eco-lodge. Through his experiences guiding with Sea Wolf Adventures Tours, K’odi knew that European travellers were willing to pay lots of money for authentic cultural experiences in coastal BC. Why not use the proceeds from tourism to fund language and culture revitalization programming?
Months later, K’odi received a call from Sea to Cedar Program Director Scott Rogers, who had been there the day K’odi shared his vision. She invited him to an upcoming event at Nimmo Bay, and told him that while she couldn’t promise anything, she knew there would be people there who would be interested in hearing about K’odi’s ideas. K’odi accepted the invitation.
By the time he arrived at Nimmo Bay in spring 2018, he had had a feasability study drawn up, as well as some initial designs. He was given the opportunity to share his pitch with a series of groups. While speaking to the first cohort, he noticed a man who looked vaguely familiar frantically scribbling notes.
Eventually, K’odi realized who the man was. K’odi had met him years prior, when he was a schoolteacher. He had brought a group of students to their traditional territory at Blunden Harbour; they were preparing to leave when a boat pulled up. Aboard was Fraser Murray of Nimmo Bay Resort, and Power to Give founder Tim Cormode. Fraser asked K’odi to show Tim around.
In their few minutes together, K’odi shared what he calls “the harsh history” of his people and their village—how in 1964 government officials removed families from their homes and took them to Port Hardy, burning the village behind them. K’odi showed Tim the charred remains of their Big House’s cedar beams. Tim asked how he could help, and K’odi pointed to the garbage bags full of the kids’ adventure gear. Two weeks later, a cheque arrived from Power to Give, intended to buy adventure gear for K’odi’s outdoor education program … The cheques continued to arrive each year thereafter.
Now, at Nimmo Bay, Tim was offering K’odi a much bigger cheque—enough to begin turning Nawalakw from dream into reality.
“People use the word ‘fluke’, but I don’t believe in that,” says K’odi. “I believe we created our own energy around it, and that energy brought us together. I believe in putting it out into the universe, like I did that day with the youth. In the beginning, I didn’t know how it was going to get done, I just knew it was going to get done.”
Preserving Land and Language
For K’odi, turning his vision into reality was urgent on two fronts: first, he wanted to protect his people’s sacred land from a logging industry getting increasingly desparate for lumber. Second, it was critically important to him—and many other Kwakwaka’wakw cultural leaders—to preserve the Kwak’wala language, which was at real risk of dying out. At last count, there were only 75 fluent speakers remaining. Preservation of both land and language—which he sees as inextricably linked—has been central to the Nawalakw vision from the start.
“Our language is identity. We were getting attacked on many fronts for decades, for generations. We weren’t allowed to practice our culture. The fact that there are still people who speak our language, in spite of our government’s efforts to eradicate First Nations culture in Canada, we have to preserve it before it’s too late.”
“Once you take that language out, I fear for our future because we lose our identity. We lose a perspective on how we see and view the world.”
K’odi says he was blessed to grow up with a strong cultural foundation, surrounded by elders who spoke the language, and was motivated from a young age to carry on the culture.
“Going to high school in a city, travelling the world…I think if I hadn’t been so culturally grounded, I probably would have experienced racism on a greater level. There’s something about your aura when you are strong in who you are. You can look people in the eye rather than at the ground.”
K’odi knows many Indigenous youth are not as blessed with opportunities to connect to their culture. Throughout his teaching career and his experiences as a guide, he has “tried to pass that spirit of strength in who we are to the next generation.” He’s found that the best way to inspire cultural pride in young people is to get them back on their territory. And that pride often evolves into a desire to preserve and protect.
“If we don’t get back to the land, generations may go by where our people don’t feel like they need to be stewards of the land anymore. We want to educate the world in how to preserve nature, not destroy it. So to get kids in nature, on the land, to help them feel that sense of stewardship, it might mean that when industry comes in, we have more people who will act to preserve it.”
Despite the coronavirus pandemic and the struggles of building in a remote area, K’odi and his team successfully pushed construction of the Culture Camp forward, stressing its urgency given the age of the elders who will be central to the language revitalization work. K’odi is proud that the facility was built in spite of the considerable challenges they faced. “This past year, we have created just over 40 new jobs for locals, none of which would have been possible without the funding. We’ve been able to successfully get people back from the cities to our communities. We have created a sense of excitement in our communities. And other entrepreneurs are getting inspired on how they could get their own businesses up and running.”
The Nawalakw Culture Camp will welcome its first groups in early June 2021. Phase 2 of the project, including the eco-tourism destination that will fund cultural programming, will follow in the years to come. K’odi continues to seek funding for the project.
To learn more about the project, visit www.nawalakw.com.