Members of the Lytton First Nation who were scattered across British Columbia last month when a wildfire raged across their territory are eager to return to their ancestral lands, according to an elected representative.
Council member John Haugen says most people in his community want to rebuild, although he acknowledges that people in the area will need to adapt to the ongoing risk of climate change and wildfires.
“I think it’s going to make us stronger,” Haugen said over the phone from Merritt, B.C., on Thursday.
On June 30 a fire destroyed most of the Village of Lytton, where about 250 people live. Outside those municipal boundaries hundreds of members of the Lytton First Nation live on its 56 reserves spread along the Fraser River.
‘A very powerful place’
The Lytton First Nation is a member of the Nlaka’pamux Tribal Council, which includes the Snepa, Nteq’em, Lytton, Skuppah and Boothroyd First Nations, and has about 2,000 members.
“I describe it as a very powerful place,” Haugen said, noting Lytton’s location at the confluence of the Fraser and Thompson rivers.
Haugen says about 900 members live on reserve and roughly 70 in the Village of Lytton. Others live off reserve, including about 300 members in the U.S.
Now the Lytton First Nation is spread even further, Haugen says, as people still under evacuation order or alert seek refuge with family and friends from Vancouver Island to the Okanagan and further north. The nation is still under a local state of emergency, Haugen says. Some of the reserves were hit harder than others, he says.
The nation’s band office, located in the Village of Lytton proper, was destroyed in the fire on June 30. Haugen’s home is also gone, as are the homes of his four siblings. He hopes to temporarily relocate to Boston Bar so he can be closer to his office in the Lytton area, which is still standing.
But like many people in Lytton, Haugen’s not sure when he’ll be able to settle back home. One thing he is certain about is that his people, who have lived in the area for about 10,000 years, will continue living on their ancestral lands.
“In the short term, we’re going to be displaced. And in the short term, we’re going to be having to make a lot of decisions about how to go forward as a strong community and as a strong nation,” he said.
“But in the long term, we know our people want to return home because they love that place.”
An essential role
Jeanette Armstrong, associate professor at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus and the Indigenous Studies Canada Research Chair, says many tribes in B.C.’s Interior know Lytton as a sacred site.
“They played such an essential role in terms of the economics and trade between the interior tribes and the coastal tribes, because they were essentially in the middle,” Armstrong said.
Lytton was one of the places where large gatherings would take place, Armstrong says, and nations would trade food, medicine and knowledge.
Armstrong says the fire has been all the more devastating because of the nation’s role in the work she does with UBC’s bachelor’s degree in Indigenous language fluency.
The program currently focuses on Nsyilxcn, an endangered language spoken among the peoples of the Okanagan Nation. But in the past year, UBC has been working with the Nlaka’pamux to create a degree for their language as well. The Lytton band office was a key part of that initiative.
“The loss is just immeasurable in terms of how that’s going to impact that work,” Armstrong said.
Despite the huge obstacles the Lytton First Nation faces, Armstrong is confident that work will continue, and the band will rebuild.
“I see them getting much stronger in their resolve and in their unity,” she said.
‘We have to be ready’
He says the heatwave that preceded the fire will have a lasting impact, especially if extreme high temperatures become increasingly normal.
“We have to be ready for that,” he said. “We have to incorporate some technology that’s going to keep us cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter.”
Haugen would like to see all British Columbians become more aware of how they use water, and how to harness wind, water and solar energy as part of efforts to slow climate change.
He also wants people to find ways to work together more closely.
“What makes the community strong is when you work together as a team,” he said.