Guided by her culture, Gitxsan scientist looks to old ways for climate resilience

Janna Wale, who is also Cree-Métis, grew up fishing for salmon — now, the UBCO grad wants to get to the root of why they’re disappearing
Janna Wale, who is Gitxsan and Cree-Métis, now resides in Snuneymuxw territories where her research focuses on climate change solutions. Photo by Philip McLachlan

Whether harvesting salmon or simply spending quality time with her grandfather and uncles, Janna Wale has no shortage of stories about being on the water with her family.

She moved around a bit growing up, but can vividly recall different memories from her early years fishing in her Gitxsan homelands — there were “tons of fish everywhere” at the unceded confluence of the Skeena and Bulkley rivers near the village of “Hazelton, B.C.”

“Our culture is totally built around salmon. We have different roles for salmon in the feast hall. It’s a large food supply for a lot of people, especially in the winter,” said Wale, who is from the Gitanmaax First Nation and is Cree-Métis on her mother’s side.

“They’re so important — they’re featured a lot in our traditional stories.”

Growing up, harvesting salmon and berry-picking were activities that allowed her to stay connected to her culture and to the land. She spoke with pride when noting that the Gitxsan people have occupied their homelands for more than 14,000 years, highlighting that Gitanmaax actually translates to: “People who harvest salmon using torches.” 

“The fact that we’ve been able to maintain that relationship to those territories this whole time, and we’re still here, is part of who I am as well,” she said.

Janna Wale, who is Gitxsan and Cree-Métis, now resides in Snuneymuxw territories where her research focuses on climate change solutions. Photo by Philip McLachlan

One memorable fishing moment that comes to mind for her is when she was learning how to fish with a pole at the age of six. She recalled with a chuckle how she ended up yanking a hooked fish so far back that it landed right at the feet of her grandfather.

“My grandfather, he’s pretty serious and he started laughing really hard. That’s a good memory that I have of him,” she said.

“Just learning how to fish and knowing that’s a part of who we are, even if you have to learn those things. Just part of the practice, I guess.”

But there’s one fishing memory in particular from her early years that sticks out to her, a harrowing experience that opened her eyes to the disturbing reality of climate change and its effects on the salmon population.

It happened one summer when she was still a teenager — her dad and her uncles were out fishing for salmon, but there weren’t enough fish for them to harvest and feed their families. 

“They ended up having to sleep at the rocks. There are grizzlies out there, and they were there overnight trying to get enough for us,” she said.

“I just remember getting taken back into town by one of my uncles, and my dad and my other uncle were staying out to try and get enough fish. I remember thinking, ‘This is serious. There is not enough fish.’”

Now in her mid-20s, the decline of the salmon population every year in her homelands is something Wale said she’s been observing her entire life.

In university, Janna Wale’s research was guided by the question: “Where have the salmon gone?” after noticing changes in the population within her lifetime. Photo by Philip McLachlan

“For me to see those changes on the land that fast is pretty frightening, especially being a salmon people,” she said. 

“It’s not just us noticing that. If you hang around town, you’ll hear different people talking … It’s a very common thread that people are worried.”

It was her deep connection to home, and her observations of climate change’s impact on the salmon and the land, that defined the academic direction she later took in life — one that is grounded in learning how Indigenous people can be resilient in the face of climate change.

“We have these aspects of our culture that uphold that relationship [to the land] as well, bringing that into my education and knowing that no matter where I go, it’s still rooting to that place,” she said.

Guided by the question, “Where have the salmon gone?,” Wale earned a bachelor’s degree in natural resources science from Thompson Rivers University in Tk’emlúps (Kamloops) in Secwepemcúl’ecw. 

There are a number of reasons why salmon populations in her homelands are depleting, she said. She listed decreasing river levels, high water temperatures, changes to acidity and sediment as some of the major reasons.

“That’s a huge source of protein for a lot of people. It’s just hard to replace that. You have moose, but if there’s no salmon, there’s no bears,” she said. 

“And if there’s no bears, you’re gonna have totally different impacts on all of the different animals living in the area.”

Janna Wale, who is Gitxsan and Cree-Métis, cradles her cedar headband. Photo by Philip McLachlan

Wale pursued further education at the University of British Columbia Okanagan (UBCO) in syilx homelands, and graduated in 2022 with a master’s degree in sustainability. 

In her master’s thesis, Climate Rez-ilience: Building Transformative Climate Resilience in Indigenous Communities, she explored Indigenous Peoples’ understanding and relationship with the land, specifically assessing the Gitxsan Nation and the Secwépemc Nation’s community resilience to climate change by using their traditional seasonal round of activities, which are land-based activities carried out within specific seasonal cycles.

“The way that we live seasonally is so important, and I think that’s such a big staple in a lot of our cultures. Everybody had a different way of doing things on the land, but the common thread is that we all have different seasonal use of place, seasonal practices,” she said.

“I think going back to that would be healthier for people, because it gives people a chance to rest in the winter and undertake different things in the spring, so there’s that. Those changes are reflected on the land.”

Climate resilience and climate adaptation, she said, can be learned from Indigenous teachings and systems from the past.

“Those aspects — respect of the land, respect of the water, being in a relationship and having a caretakership role, having that sense of responsibility — is what I see as climate adaptation, which is not anywhere in the Western definition,” she said.

Her research found that there are four pillars that inform Indigenous community resilience: integrity/adaptation of the seasonal round; relationship to land; strength of the people; and interconnectedness.

Janna Wale, who is Gitxsan and Cree-Métis, now resides in Snuneymuxw territories where her research focuses on climate change solutions. Photo by Philip McLachlan

“The Indigenous worldview is more about connectedness, balance, wellness. It’s just totally different ways of seeing the world, and I think you really see that in climate outcomes,” she said.

On the other hand, the colonial, Western approach to climate resilience and adaptation, she said, is fixated more on productivity and output over caretakership and having a relationship with the land.

“I think the differences are in that sense of responsibility and having that root to place. I think it’s really easy for governments to only look at the value of resources as dollars and cents,” she said. 

She noted that from her observations, Western governments’ approach to climate adaptation is focused on boosting infrastructure, roads and power supplies. While these things are all important, she highlighted that adaptation needs to be looked at more holistically. 

“It’s talking about those more tangible pieces, but it’s not talking about what it’s doing to us as people, and how we relate and take those back to our communities,” she said. 

In a recent publication with the Yellowhead Institute, Wale further asserts that the more Indigenous peoples are included in climate planning and adaptation, the stronger those climate plans will be. 

As a research associate with the Canadian Climate Institute, she’s building on her university research and education, where she’s helping to find and develop both actions and policies that will allow “Canada” to adapt to the changing climate.

“Figuring out how to be in good relationship with the land. Like any relationship, you need to work at it and you need to figure out what your place is, and how you can contribute to being in a good relationship,” she said. 

“Any relationship takes work. I think that’s what it’s going to take.”

In university, Janna Wale’s research was guided by the question: “Where have the salmon gone?” after noticing changes in the population within her lifetime. Photo by Philip McLachlan

Reporting for this story was made possible in part through a grant from the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the territories near Hazelton, B.C., were located at the confluence of the Skeena, Nass and Bulkley rivers. In fact it is only the Skeena and Bulkley rivers. We apologize for the error.


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