A conversation with Mark Worthing and Rande Cook
conducted in both Kwakwaka'wakw and Lekwungen territory
What follows is an interview between K’alapa (Rande Cook) and Mark Worthing on culture, relationships and environmentalism.
Rande is a father of 3, Ma’amtaglia hereditary chief, artist and a central character in the upcoming ecologyst film - Before They Fall. Mark Worthing is an activist and Coastal Projects Lead at Sierra Club BC; while in a role behind-the-scenes, his “boots on the ground” knowledge and support guided the films’ story too. We’re honoured to share their wisdom and vision for a collaborative and better future.
In April 2021, the Ma’amtagila launched a legal challenge to stop the illegal treaty negotiations currently taking place on their territory. They have already taken steps to assert their jurisdiction according to Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw Potlatch Law. This legal challenge comes with significant costs. Rande, Sierra Club and Ecologyst are collaborating on a fundraiser to help cover these fees.
MW: I’m wondering if you can talk about those responsibilities — giving us a brief insight into Maya’xala; how it relates to land, rivers, the ocean.
RC: Maya’xala: respect the land, the sea, the air; all living things. This is deeply embedded in us as Kwakwaka'wakw people. Essentially coming from our creation stories, and that’s what’s so important to us as Kwakwaka’wakw people identifying ourselves. I keep asking myself as I get older: what does it mean to have an origin story? I’m realizing I'm a human being, I'm born, I live, I’m going to die one day. It’s a cycle of life we’re surrounded by, it’s the connection to the land of our origin story — everything essentially comes from that; that early connection. Our stories are important because they teach us little things about relationships, the relationship with land, salmon, trees, plants, wolves, bears; all of it. Those relationships are just as equally important as those we keep between human existence. We need those relationships, they’re societies; living societies we’re learning from all the time. We were always taught to protect those.
These stories place responsibility to always be learning, and in turn to protect and nurture. I think we learn from those societies in how we actually raise our own children — an environment that’s existed for millennia has taught us how to build our clans (from wolves), our societies (from orcas); how systems live and work together.
There’s a responsibility from those early teachings of how to find balance, in yourself, in life, between life-death, between negative-positive, all of that. We are very fortunate as Kwakwaka'wakw People: we come with a reset button, we always knew what balance was. Society’s lost that — it’s imbalanced; plugged into a machine that’s sucking you dry; losing meaning in life. As Kwakwaka’wakw People, it was always simple to pull the plug, go into nature, wash and bathe, let go, find enlightenment and understand you really are in control, in any given moment, and you can find your own meaning. It really comes down to a simple concept: it’s choice. All those early stories… they all come with that philosophy: do good unto others, live life to the fullest — but your fullest, not others’. In a nutshell.
MW: The semantics: you’re talking about respect and balance, and relationship; that comes through loud and clear. We have a toxic and abusive relationship with the land right now, and that needs to change immediately. A lot of the work I do is to restore relationships with the land, especially as non-indigenous people, but as Indigenous Peoples too. It’s changed the way as an environmentalist I think about advocacy or activism, in thinking about red cedar, about wild salmon, and those threats and risks, and putting on a cultural lens. I borrow your eye for a minute, Rande, to see the world a little bit through your Indigenous perspective. The story of the red cedar bark jumps out, how red cedar is the tree of life and how it’s significant especially for Kwakwaka'wakw People.
RC: Now we’re getting into ceremonies and why they’re important. The red cedar bark ceremony is about the gifts we get from the cedar tree, about pulling the bark and the relationship we create in kinship with the tree, understanding there’s a spirit in that tree, and that tree is going to outlive you. It’s going to stand and be a symbol for future generations as proof that we’ve formed those relationships. We pull the bark, and we wear it in many different ways — to protect us from all of those things when we talk about imbalance. So, having the ability to have a reset button is the ability to put that cedar bark on, and realize nothing else in the world in regards to materialism, all these things we’re consumed by in society don’t matter… it’s all in those moments. We can’t do any of that work if we don’t have trees. And that’s what my work is, why I find it important. I can’t do the artwork and share these stories, if I can’t share where these stories come from. All of these stories, the masks, all you see in museums, all came from one simple moment: where someone would go and connect with a tree, and fast, and bathe, and meditate, and find their own answer. That’s a big part of my own teachings, from my grandmother: just because you’re living in a city doesn’t mean you can’t connect with your spirit and the natural environment.
MW: I’m always struck with how efficient and clever a lot of Indigenous relationships with trees and forests are. In modern forestry practices, the bark is just garbage, it’s waste. But bark is one of the single most important fibres to an entire culture. What parts of Western Science do you actually have hope for?
RC: Holistic science. I have so much respect for, say Suzanne Simard. She’s bringing back the honesty and the truth — that it’s still investigation and learning, there should never be an end. In regards to collecting and examining, that’s exactly what we were doing as Indigenous Peoples. We were realizing we still had a long way to go, and so needed to protect it for future generations. We’re not going to learn everything in this one lifetime and that’s okay. Bringing awareness to the world through scientific language, it’s starting to pull people on board. Everyone’s getting excited by mycelium, that trees communicate. It’s starting to shift… how people are thinking about their relationship, it’s bringing empathy, compassion for trees, for forests. We all have to start somewhere. And going back to my gran, she said don’t look down on others… it’s important to be patient, to be nurturing, we’re all learning at our own capacity. It comes back to our responsibility, what we can do in our own moment, our relationship with the environment, how we raise our kids. We’ve come to this place where we think we’re so powerful and dominant as human beings — we neglect that there’s an entire life force beyond us. We’re so negligent to that. Those “little things” I call them, but they’re actually the big things.
MW: Industrial forestry is the single, biggest land-based experiment that’s ever happened on turtle island; frankly. We’ve impacted almost every single watershed in a vast area. Our fingerprints, our extraction has gone through every landscape here. What we do in the upper watershed impacts salmon, water temperatures, rivers, culturally safe access to food..
RC: Yes, the destruction of these forests, our watersheds, is destroying salmon returns. Culturally, our macrobiotic diet of seafood and seaweed made us so completely strong and healthy — travelling by sea for whole winters. Without the forests and the returns, we are the ones who suffer.
If we don’t protect the trees, there isn’t going to be a you or an us. We’re on the wrong path and it's moving fast. We have to put our attention back to planet, sustainability — how we define that; even that is shifting.
MW: What might you envision for the future?
RC: Historically, we were people of the land. In the face of capitalism, mass population, and the value being placed on tiny pockets of land, it's about building communities that can evolve into something beautiful. In our early origin stories, they came down from the sky to this beautiful place, and built a house. It was about community; all in relationship with the environment. So why not start with that simple idea? Build a house, a community, an environment with the shared responsibilities we have. We don’t have to define that community, it's just minds coming together who believe in the same thing. Our reset button, let’s make it now. Cultures shift all over the world, they always have, they’re meant to evolve, relationships evolve, people migrate, even ours. We came from different territories, intermarried, and built more. We didn’t know about division until colonization. There is lots to keep learning from, growing from, and it’s really just about building that community, having those conversations, and investing in it all.
We have to believe in it, live it, it can’t be a side project. It has to be our lives.
Original Art by Rande Cook
Rande is a world renowned and prolific creator of art. You can learn more about him and his art via RandeCook.ca. His art can be purchased from Leaf Modern Gallery in Victoria, BC.VIEW
Before They Fall
Conservation groups, Indigenous voices, and scientists come together in this timely, upcoming short film, as a decades-long battle to protect endangered old-growth forests in BC escalates at Fairy Creek (the last unprotected, intact valley on southern Vancouver Island) on Pacheedaht Territory. The film explores the characters’ individual relationships with ancient forests, and why it’s imperative we collectively protect them. It touches on potential solutions, like a transition away from old-growth in the future of logging, and Indigenous sovereignty.WATCH THE TEASER
The Ecology Collection.
Rande Cook has created a new edition to his Ecology Series specifically for this fundraiser. The original he has carved into red cedar, and we’ve then printed this artwork onto a limited run of ecologyst clothing. Twenty percent of every item purchased will be donated to the Ma’amtagila’s legal fees.GET YOURS NOW