Lessons from Unist’ot’en Camp: Is Your Integrity Intact?

Many thanks to San Diego Free Press, who first published this manuscript. 

Will Falk, Deep Green Resistance Southwest Coalition

Will-Falk-Integrity

Resistance is often lonely.

I learn about loneliness waking up on a cold, hard storage room floor at 3 AM in a new friend’s house after a nightmare involving confronting all my old co-workers in the Kenosha, Wisconsin State Public Defender’s Office, hanging my head again in defeat and shame as I explain that I will never come back to work there. I stare at the ceiling asking myself just how in the hell I ended up in Victoria, British Columbia to stop the spread of fossil fuels in Canada.

I learn about loneliness watching the supply of my daily anti-depressants dwindle in the bottom of the orange pill bottle. I’m too embarrassed to ask how I would go about refilling my prescription. I’m confused about whether I even want to re-fill it after forgetting to take my medications for a few days and feeling the welcome return of swift, spontaneous emotions welling up to heat my body like a touch of whiskey on a winter day.

I learn about loneliness when I unexpectedly run into the ex-partner I left in San Diego to come to Unist’ot’en Camp after close to 3 years together while  making my bus transfer in downtown Victoria. The unlikeliness of this encounter sinks in and I look around for friends who understood the relationship to help me laugh about it. Obviously, those friends are not here.

I learn about loneliness sitting in a living room on a foggy, rainy night with people I just met gazing across the Salish Sea south from Vancouver Island. Two beautiful American women are singing American folk songs while I look at America from Canada and ponder the meaning of home. There’s a mandolin hanging on the wall next to me that reads “Made in Kentucky” and I think of my Kentucky-born, Kentucky-raised mother. I miss her. I miss hearing southern accents. I think of my father teasing my mother about her accent all while developing his own southern accent from decades of loving my mother. I miss my father.

I learn about loneliness as I realize that spending too much time pitying myself for my loneliness while the world burns is a luxury the world cannot afford. Then, I learn I’m lonely for a world where I can sit with my melancholia for as long as I wish.

I’m lonely for a world that isn’t burning.

***
A few nights ago, I sat in a crowd gathered for a Unist’ot’en Camp fundraiser in the Fernwood neighborhood of Victoria listening to Unist’ot’en spokesperson Freda Huson and her husband, a Wet’suwet’en hereditary chief, Toghestiy speak about the mission of the Camp.

I spent the few days before helping to prepare for the fundraiser. I was tired from moving tables, loading vans, and riding my loaner bike all over Victoria hanging posters on telephone poles and in coffee shops. As so often happens to me in large gatherings of people who seem to all know each other, but who don’t know me, I was feeling very lonely. I wanted to share hugs with people I’d hugged before. I wanted to talk about football – American football in this time of the World Cup – with someone, anyone.

It was in this emotional place that Toghestiy’s words found me. He talked about the Camp volunteers who had turned their back on mainstream middle-class lifestyles to make their way off-the-grid to Unist’ot’en Camp. He explained how recently Camp volunteers woke in the early morning before dawn to the sound of a low-flying helicopter. Helicopters often try to land equipment and men on Wet’suwet’en land to establish work camps to begin pipeline construction. They jumped in a pick-up and took off down a forestry road to chase the helicopter off.

Toghestiy told a story about an indigenous friend who was called to the offices of a pipeline corporation so they could offer her a job and ask her to encourage support for the projects with her people. The woman took a drum to the office and beat it every time a pipeline executive tried to speak until they realized her answer was, “No.”

Toghestiy then told the story of his grandfather. Toghestiy was raised on the cultural lessons of his late grandparents – Madeek and Sa’itne. Toghestiy’s grandfather – also a hereditary chief – held an illegal open-air feast for his people. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police arrested Toghestiy’s grandfather in the middle of the feast and held him in jail for several months. As soon as Toghestiy’s grandfather was released from jail, he gathered his people together to finish the feast. It was through actions and stories like these that Toghestiy was taught that a hereditary chief has a responsibility to ensure there is always something for his people and their future generations.

Finally, Toghestiy described the genocidal processes that are destroying First Nations. What began with murder and rape at the time of European first contact and carried on through the forcible removal of indigenous children from their families to residential schools for cultural whitewashing is perpetuated by the continual dispossession of First Nations land, the slashing of government aid programs, and a nearly complete unemployment rate in many First Nations communities. Unist’ot’en Camp stands in resistance to genocide. The Camp offers indigenous people and the world a glimpse into the power and humility of traditional Wet’suwet’en ways of living while physically blocking the spread of destructive fossil fuels.

Then, Toghestiy said, “These stories are about integrity. Corporations and the government think they can buy our integrity with the right price, but my integrity cannot be bought or sold. I want to ask everyone who is not resisting, ‘Is your integrity intact?’”
***

Is your integrity intact?

It is a simple and direct question. Integrity means being honest and having strong moral principles. In a world where many of us claim to be concerned for the future of our children, it means stopping the forces that will make their future a living hell. In a world where most of us claim to love life and at least some other living beings, it means protecting what we love. In a world threatened with annihilation by economic development and colonialism, it means everything.

We all must answer Toghestiy’s question for ourselves. First, each one of us must decide what to base our moral foundation upon. I encourage you to base your morality on the natural world because without the natural world nothing is possible. The most delicious food you’ve ever tasted comes from a functioning soil system. The most enjoyable learning experience you’ve ever gone through is only possible because your brain is housed in natural minerals (your skull) and nourished with physical nutrients (remember that delicious food?). The best glass of wine you’ve ever had starts with clean water. The most incredible sex you’ve ever experienced would never have happened without the clean air you and your partner shared in those magical moments.

Choosing to base our morality on reality is not enough, though. Regardless of what we say or think or say we think, integrity is demonstrated by action. It’s as simple as my father’s favorite adage, “It’s not what you say. It’s what you do.” Honesty is only proven through honest actions. You honestly love trees? Stop them from being deforested. You honestly love salmon? Knock down the dams keeping them from reaching their spawning beds. You honestly love your children? Ensure that they have a livable future.

This is what integrity looks like.

***
Answering Toghestiy’s question myself has given me the strength I need to overcome the loneliness that so often accompanies resistance because it gives me the articulation I need to remember why I am willing to face loneliness to keep resisting.

Why am I willing to feel loneliness? To keep my integrity intact.

The dominant culture works very hard and very well at nullifying resistance. It pushes capitalism on us to force us to work most of our waking hours to buy food and shelter. It pushes colonialism on indigenous peoples because the dominant culture simply cannot tolerate that there are – and always have been – better ways to live. It offers us money, alcohol, drugs, pornography, television, meaningless vacations, and so-called “security” to encourage us to accept or ignore or deny these terrible arrangements of power.

I could sell my integrity, of course. You could, too. They’re offering some very attractive signing bonuses. I could give up on the pipelines resistance up here and come back to friends and family to alleviate my loneliness. I could use my law degree and legal experience to make a more than comfortable living to salve the feelings of financial insecurity I often feel. I could allow myself to be seduced by the smiling face and feel good ethic of a bourgeois existence that says that being nice, maximizing personal happiness, and spending quality time with friends and family is the ultimate goal of life.

But, I won’t and I hope you won’t, either. My integrity is not for sale. I want my integrity to be intact.

Browse Will Falk’s Unis’tot’en Camp series at the Deep Green Resistance Blog

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