Defending the Sacred: Indigenous Communities Battle Climate Crisis to Preserve Cultural Heritage

When floodwaters silently rose in the homes of the Halalt First Nation on Vancouver Island in November 2021, the devastation went beyond just property damage. For Nicole Norris, an Indigenous planning officer, the loss of invaluable cultural artifacts also struck a deep blow. As climate change exacerbates the frequency and intensity of disasters like floods and fires, the need to protect and restore these precious artifacts becomes even more urgent.

A new initiative in the Strathcona Regional District aims to address this issue. The district has received $250,000 from BC’s Community Emergency Preparedness Fund for Indigenous cultural safety training. Workshops will provide First Nations communities from across Vancouver Island and the central coast with the skills needed to care for their sacred items themselves.

Many First Nations homes contain regalia, sacred objects, or traditional artwork passed down through generations. These artifacts often go unacknowledged and uninsured, leaving communities to grieve their loss after disasters. The goal of the funding is to develop a pilot training program that offers hands-on skills for preserving, recovering, salvaging, and restoring valuable artifacts.

The initiative will bring together First Nations regalia makers, cultural workers, emergency response personnel, and the BC Heritage Emergency Response Network (BCHERN) to create guidance documents for the respectful handling of culturally significant items. The ultimate goal is to train a core group of First Nations responders to act as a “sacred cultural item salvage strike team.”

Preserving cultural heritage is not only important for local communities impacted by climate disasters but also for those working to repatriate artifacts from museums. As climate change continues to threaten sacred sites and culturally significant locations, protecting and restoring important objects becomes vital to rebuilding and safeguarding First Nations culture after years of colonial erasure.

As communities come together to preserve their stories and heritage, they demonstrate resilience and determination in the face of the climate crisis.