Makochi Nibi ihoniach (The Land is Close to Death) by Solomon Chiniquay: Text
by nicole kelly westman
On the first page of this issue, Soloman Chiniquay shows a ’70s-era mattress, resting upon a Forest Service Road, lit by the high contrast of midday sun, with a haphazardly folded piece of fabric interrupting a bold red text proclaiming “STOP.” Many Indigenous folks have an embodied understanding of the longstanding history of the government denying sovereign Nations their right to self-determination. Transcending linear time while fighting on the front lines, Indigenous activists portal through resistance movements of the ’90s like the Oka Crisis (1990), the War in the Woods (1993), and the Gustafsen Lake Standoff (1995). All of those resistances were met with intense militarized response. Before the RCMP, there was the North West Mounted Police, who were established in 1870 to control Indigenous people as the “possession” of this land was transferred from the Hudson’s Bay Company to Canada. Within 15 years of being established, the police would wage a war against Louis Riel’s Rebellion in 1885, after he seized Batoche. The police’s immiseration of Indigenous people is seeded into this nation’s foundation.
The Ada’itsx/Fairy Creek Blockade, which started in the summer of 2020 and seeks to protect the many old-growth trees that meet British Columbia’s regulated threshold of being a minimum of 250 years old,1 has been no different. This action of civil unrest, now the most long- standing in this country, is situated in the ḥahahuułi which have been tended to by the Ditidaht, Huu-ay-aht, and Pacheedaht peoples  who have harvested in respectful, considerate, and reciprocal ways for as long as can be remembered. This knowledge is now guided by elders and cultural keepers who abide by the ancestral protocols of the nism̓ a. This watershed is entirely intact, but under threat by private timber harvesting and lumber manufacturing company Teal-Jones, leading to immense outcry from many who have gone on to volunteer their time to protect this sacred forest— these Douglas firs, western red cedars, and Sitka spruces—which in turn protects us from an increasingly unwieldy climate.
Chiniquay is a photographer and filmmaker living between xʷməθkʷəy̓ əm, Sḵwx̱ wú7mesh, and səl̓ ilwətaɁɬ territories and his Îyârhe Nakoda homelands in Treaty 7 territory. He’s a founding member of The Stoney Nakoda AV Club, now known as the Nakoda AV Club, which is described as a “storytelling society, an arts collective, and a group of emerging and established artists [… who] follow the guidance of Elders, and of [their] own hearts.”3 The artist has an energy like that of an older cousin, one that uses gentle teasing as their methodology for teaching, a strong stark silence to convey disappointment, a squinched eyebrow as a rebuttal to youthful ridicule, and a consistent thoughtfulness that reminds young folks of their worthiness. In the summer of 2021, he stood among many others braced in refusal against the impending colossal disruption of Ada’itsx and collected photographs on these front lines, foregrounded with ethics of empathy.
In the late 1800s, the eradication of the plains bison was debilitating for Îyârhe Nakoda, who have always been culturally and spiritually tethered to these bovines.  Chiniquay tells me of a sun-faded newspaper clipping found in his grandmother’s home with the heading “Who Are We Without the Buffalo?” collaboratively authored by several elders many decades ago. The weight of this question was enough to embolden him to fight alongside Indigenous resisters defending their territories against this century’s capitalistic ultimatums. A foreboding, imminent threat of destruction runs through this series. It seems to surrender to sorrow—or maybe to a sentiment somewhat sweet in its attempt to encapsulate that which once was and is still being fought for. In chorus, these images provide a tonal synopsis of grief—potential, assumed, and actual— subsumed in the body from witnessing the shameless looting of sacred land.
Many photographers and photojournalists act like hunters, focused on finding an image that precisely encapsulates complexities that are too challenging to succinctly summarize. Chiniquay actively works against this stylistic lineage, consciously prioritizing the peripheries as opposed to capturing sensationalized scenes of combative conflict. He forwent the privileges tethered to a press pass in favour of embracing a fullness of presence on the front lines and, with technical diligence, maintains the anonymity of fellow activists. His choice not to capture “decisive moments” reveals to us, in a delicate way, a set of boundaries that are considerately navigated. After all, not everything is for the taking.
On pages two and four, misty clouds caress coniferous treetops cascading down hillsides scarred by cut back roads. Splintered wood in an orange hue suggests conifers’ death, and expansive bald patches in various states of reclamation “heal” over in a blanketed blur of industrially planted monocrop commodities. Each tree is on layaway living as a voucher for future profits. These are not photographs that speak a thousand words, but rather, they whisper tangents of billowing thought, interlaced with nuance. Just outside each frame hovers a murky doom lingering alongside the heavy machinery, deployed to satisfy Teal-Jones’s bottom lines. We can nearly hear the roaring engines revved up by the cohort of labourers barraging the watershed and its interdependent woods as confused pollinators and animals are displaced by the commotion.
Violence edges even closer on page three; a pair of fully armoured cops conveniently camouflaged behind ball caps, sunglasses, and COVID masks are blurred as they creep across the front of the frame. Behind them are more cops in matching blue garb, and beyond them is a grouping of police suited up in beige military fatigues, carrying guns. These pensioned employees have their attention drawn in varying directions, their leisureliness proof of the disproportionate advantages for extractive industry that strikes promises with the government to sustain and create jobs. Within shift-work schedules used by the state is a strategy of respite that replaces fatigued officers and militarized police with freshly revived personnel who have had the luxury of unencumbered rest.  By contrast, Chiniquay and other resisters would hike the mountain, a journey that took the better part of a day, hauling not only the necessities for camp-based survival but materials like concrete or communal food needed for sustaining the resistance. Inclement weather in the rainforest created muddy conditions for hiking in the wet season, and during the summer, the area was blasted by a historic heat dome.
As the police presence increased, so did the expectations of the various leaders directing actions and calling upon peers to tend to the divergent needs of the protest. Of course, with so many folks present, intentions within the group grew more askew.  In contradiction to the position of the many abolitionists, there were also self-proclaimed peacekeepers who felt a need to offer kindness to police enforcing the court-ordered civil injunction regarding Tree Farm License 46.  There were also those that felt more attached to the virtues of protecting a forest than the political imperatives of resisting the police, military, and their industrial allies and others geared up in designer activewear whose bodies had been unaffected by the harms of societal oppression. The bottom image on page three captures this unsettling confusion; two large tarps are caught suspended in a breeze, the scatterings of a camp tucked beneath them. Atop a felled tree is a folded towel, a flannel shirt, water bottles, firewood, a laundry basket, a box of granola bars. On the road behind are trash bins, buckets, and a tent. Above this camp, perched upon interlocking skinned logs, is a forest protector; we cannot see if they are agitated, confident, fearful, pleased, or otherwise as their facial expressions are concealed behind a teal scarf. The photograph has an uncomfortable weightlessness, lacks an anchor of stability—a condition familiar to those on the front lines, where moral compasses wobble at the need to compromise individually held values to make way for consensus. If we look closely, there is another arrangement of cops interacting with others on the ground. In all these differing desires, an emotional fatigue engorged the spirit of the already physically exhausted camp.
There is a callousness to the reckless expenditure of resources in a war raged against peaceful people fighting to preserve humanity amid a climate catastrophe—especially in light of public outcry against bulging police budgets. As of the end of December 2021, the RCMP had spent a total of $10,060,583  on direct costs related to enforcing this injunction alone. Chiniquay captures a sign from the front line proclaiming “WE SERVE AND PROTECT MOTHER EARTH,” written in black, white, and blue duct tape on a grey tarp—an ingenious display of economical, recycled items that riffs on the RCMP’s motto. Based on their physical violence, their arrests and arbitrary detentions, and their deployment of chemical weapons  in defense of industrial assets, this service and protection is clearly unevenly distributed.
As the Fairy Creek demonstration raged on, several other simultaneous infringements upon Indigenous rights were occurring. On the East Coast, the Sipekne’katik fishery continues their plight against violent racism for their fisherpeople to have their treaty rights of moderate livelihood protected. In Ontario, police enforced cruel punishment against resisters at 1492 Land Back Lane where developers are looking to convert Indigenous land into another sprawling suburb.10 And in “British Columbia,” Verene Shepherd, chair of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, penned a letter  of criticism to the Canadian government for an investigation into the RCMP’s violations of international human rights and Indigenous rights against Secwepemc women (Tiny House Warriors) and Wet’suwet’en land defenders (Gidimt’en Access Point) leaders.  The pressures of these simultaneous fights weigh heaviest upon those who have already endured the embodied or inherited struggle against colonization.
31 bison were released in Panther Valley to freely roam in Banff National Park on July 29, 2018, after being exiled from the preserved and monitored park for over a century.  Chiniquay and his relatives were involved throughout the process of reintroduction and he is currently developing a film tentatively titled Tâtangâ Ûhpé about the reunification of tatâga (bison) with the Mînî Rhpa Mâkoche (Banff). The film will engage many of Chiniquay’s relatives, community members, and Elders as creative collaborators and researchers. Although their community is situated in proximity to opulent arts and cultural resources, it takes the clever initiative, technical wherewithal, and sustained humility of a group of caring Nakoda youth to bring conscious creative practice to their community. The work of repairing and restoring the ecosystem is best led by those that have always loved and cared for it; this is the root of the LANDBACK movement. Chiniquay shares with me that he was first drawn to these front lines in the West Coast, far from his home territories, so he could feel what his ancestors felt when their tatâga were disappeared by the ruthless efforts of settlers to clear and conquer the grasslands. He succinctly says, “A lot of who I am is because of my grandma.”
We wander, with Chiniquay’s photos, in morose curiosity, sensing the desperation that would accompany such a violently enforced eviction of the forest. Cautiously avoiding fixed forms of narrativization, we still dread the inevitable and begin to question how long until this exquisitely lush watershed is rendered lifeless for monetary gain. Regarding the bottom image on page two, Chiniquay tells me his dendrologist friend shared with him that by living fast and falling hard, hemlocks support cedars. With average lifespans of less than 80 years, their decomposing remains nurse the soil and its interconnected critters living in the darkest creases of the forest floor. Chiniquay was drawn to document these hemlocks because old-growth logging companies like Teal-Jones designate them as waste, tossing them into piles that dry out into gigantic bundles of kindling ripe for forest fires. Everything within this photo is dewy, every layer lush in a variety of livingness. I’m reminded of an APTN article about the AV Club’s collectively authored “Ahomapénî; Relations and Rez Dogs” (2018); in it, Jarrett Tymen explains that “Ahomapénî is a Nakoda word acknowledging a being’s right to exist in its own way.”  Among many things, this series serves to honour this landscape before the pillaging renders it unrecognizable; in that way, it holds the tone of a eulogy.