“I think the inspiration to do these things comes down to love. Love of the land, and love of the people – and that’s the basis of all of it.”
Helen Knott is an activist and poet-writer working for Indigenous land rights in Canada. She has participated in the Treaty 8 Caravan across Canada — a cross country caravan for justice and peace that stopped in major cities to talk about stopping the Site C Dam in British Colombia — and writes about the relationship between resource extraction and violence against Indigenous women. Helen is Dane Zaa and Nehiyawak from the Prophet River First Nation in British Colombia.
Tell me how you got started in your work against the Site C Dam and for climate justice through protecting the Peace River.
I call myself an “accidental activist” because sometimes I’m not even sure how I got here! I started on the grassroots resistance piece just over four years ago with an indigenous grassroots camp. Recently we did the Treaty 8 Caravan across the country. So far all of the court cases for Site C have happened far from the territory, so it was important for us to go across Canada and be a tangible presence of those whose rights are being violated by this project. I am motivated because I am a mom and I know things need to be changed for the future. Being in the communities and seeing the young people, I know that they deserve better. I plan on living and dying in this territory because this is where my people are from.
What makes the land and water so important for you?
The importance of the land and the water came from my healing journey. I have been through a lot of trauma in my life. The land can heal people. I was told to go down to the water and leave my grief there. I spent so much time by the river in prayer, learning about myself as a Dane Zaa woman and working to understand my relationship to the land and water.
You write about the correlation between resource extraction—and the industry itself— and violence against indigenous women. Can you talk about that?
I know these changes – large populations of industry workers moving in – have caused an increase in violence. I, myself, have suffered from violence related to it. I lived through a really brutal assault that came from workers within the territory and I know how hard it was for me to be able to heal from that. When I hear those stories, I know that they are real. There are stereotypes and prejudices and beliefs surrounding indigenous women bodies. Not just in this community, but at the larger Canadian level. It is something that has really moved me and pushed me forward in my work.
What inspired your poem “Your Eyes They Curve Around Me?”
A friend’s sister had disappeared and I remember an article coming out saying that she lived a “risky lifestyle,” and then two weeks later they found her body. I remember being so outraged, having witnessed and experience a lot of those same stereotypes being projected onto other Indigenous women. I was trying to make sense of that. I wanted to let the outside world know. I wrote it to create a shift.
What has been your proudest moment in your work?
After I wrote Your Eyes They Curve Around Me, I wrote The Things We Taught Our Daughters, a spoken word poem. It was made into a short video. I wanted to pull the focus away from always battling everything around me, and look at changing and healing within the indigenous community through sharing and story-telling. I wanted to address the violence that has trickled down from a colonial legacy and bring it back full circle into this place of healing. Hearing how that video helped women heal and move forward, that’s my proudest moment. I feel like we are always trying to stick up for rights and to change things in the communities. Struggling for our rights and the fight for clean water really pulls us away from being able to focus on healing and moving forward as a people. Being able to contribute to that healing in a good way felt amazing.
Visit the Treaty 8 Caravan's Facebook page.
Watch Helen's poem on missing and murdered Indigenous women, "Your Eyes They Curve Around Me".
Watch Helen's poem on intergenerational trauma, "The Things We Taught Our Daughters".
Read Helen's blog, Dancing With Decolonization.