Protecting Dene K’eh Kusan: an Q&A with Gillian Staveley

Recently, Gillian Staveley—a member of the Kaska Dena in northern BC—sat down with CPAWS-BC to talk about protecting a large swath of ancestral and traditional Kaska Territory. Read on to learn more about Dene Kʼéh Kusān and how you can support this Indigenous-led conservation initiative. 

Editor’s note: this interview has been transcribed, condensed, and formatted with consent.

Photos by: Britney Berrner Creative
Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

Kristina: Hi Gillian! I’d love to start by asking you who are you, and who the Kaska Dena are.

Gillian: My name is Gillian Staveley—I’m the Director of Land Stewardship and Culture with the Dena Kayeh Institute. I am also Kaska.

The Kaska Dena are a nation of people who are connected through our culture, our land, our language, our laws. We are a fairly large nation in terms of geography, with our communities placed throughout our ancestral lands in northern BC, southeast Yukon, and a small sliver of the Northwest Territories. We call this area Dena Kayeh, or “the people’s country”. 

ID: Dene Kʼéh Kusān, Kaska territory, mountains dotted with trees and forests, with a cloudy sky

Kristina: Tell us more about Dene Kʼéh Kusān. What is this project about? How did it begin?

Gillian: Dene Kʼéh Kusān is the Kaska’s Indigeous Protected and Conserved Area (IPCA) proposal within Dena Kayeh—we’re trying to protect 4 million hectares of land and water through it. To us, the phrase Dene Kʼéh Kusān is a reminder that we will always be here. Dene Kʼéh Kusān: as long as our lands are here, and our languages are here, and our laws are here, and our culture is here, then we will be here as Kaska people. It’s all tied together because we believe in the principles of relationality: we are all one. 

Kristina: What’s unique about the landscapes and ecosystems in Dene Kʼéh Kusān? What do you see, smell, and hear?

Gillian: When I close my eyes, I think of the regions that are very sacred to me, personally, within the Kaska traditional territory. 

I visualize the very sacred headwaters that we have, and the confluences of large rivers. I can also smell the moist moss that’s in the deep soils of our boreal forest. We have such an intact, beautiful forest in our territory—it brings me joy to feel those smells. There’s also other aspects of our lands, like hearing the wind in some of the highest peaks of the Northern Rockies, and being able to traverse them. 

You can also feel the heartbeat of our people in certain regions of Dena Kayeh, too, like the subarctic terrain. That’s where we’ve hunted and gathered since time immemorial. It’s those areas that are so important to us as Kaska Dena. We truly believe that we are our land, and it’s up to us to ensure that it remains healthy, because we will also be healthy as a result of that. 

Kristina: With Dene Kʼéh Kusān being so large, it provides one, huge, connected landscape for animals that call that land home. What are the animals and plants in this area like?

Gillian: Many different animal, plant, and fish species and medicines also call Dena Kayeh home. I think we know that keeping these regions intact is of utmost importance to their survival. As soon as we create those linear disturbances and development areas, they are impacted greatly. 

Creating habitat corridors for these really biodiverse regions in places like Dene Kʼéh Kusān is a very vital conservation strategy. It’s an Indigenous-led one, too, because we know that we can’t just protect pockets of landscape. We need to protect very large areas to be able to ensure that—for example—some of the last northern mountain caribou in our province are thriving, and not just surviving. That’s part of what our IPCA proposal is intended to do.

ID: Dene Kʼéh Kusān, Kaska territory, with a river and forested mountains, and a cloudy sky

Kristina: Often, nature and culture are very intertwined with each other. In your eyes, why is it important to protect Dene Kʼéh Kusān from a cultural perspective?

Gillian: In Dene Kʼéh Kusān, we’d be protecting half of the recorded cultural heritage sites in our ancestral territory, Dena Kayeh. That’s the kind of stuff that gets me all choked up! Yes, it’s a wild place, it’s remote, it’s an incredibly vast beautiful area, but it’s also our homeland. Our ancient trails are still walked on today, and our people still go into those remote areas to this day, and celebrate the fact that our people have lived there for over 8,000 years. 

They’ve created such wonderful memories in those places—and for us, it’s about reconnecting to what that means to us today, and knowing that we want it to be wild, yes, but we also want it to be cultured.

ID: Dene Kʼéh Kusān, Kaska territory, with a river and forested mountains, and a cloudy sky

Kristina: What does leading the protection of your own traditional territories mean to you and the Kaska Dena? 

Gillian: For me, protecting Dene Kʼéh Kusān is everything, truly. There is nothing more important than this in my life, and I know I am going to be spending the rest of my life ensuring that happens. I’m not the only one, either. This is who we are as Dena: it’s intrinsically who we are as stewards of our land, in wanting to see it protected. It’s a natural response we all have, and it’s what ties us together in knowing that we’re a nation of people that want the same things. There’s tremendous power in that.

Kristina: Why should Indigenous-led conservation projects be important to other people in BC?

Gillian: While it’s existed since time immemorial, we’re finally at a time in our country where there’s more recognition for Indigenous-led conservation. As the original people of this country, we have valid knowledge sources to witness and respect to help create a more just and sustainable world. In BC, we can be the ones leading that convo—we have that opportunity! Dene Kʼéh Kusān is just one example of what’s possible, and people are starting to realize that the time is now.

At the end of the day, it’s our collective responsibility to ensure these areas are protected and conserved for future generations. It’s something that all of our future generations can benefit from, whether you call that area home or not.

Kristina: To end us off: what can British Columbians do to support Indigenous-led conservation projects like Dene Kʼéh Kusān

Gillian: There are four things, I think, that British Columbians can do. Four is a sacred number to us, after all—it connects us to the medicine wheel teachings. 

  1. For folks who are interested in what we’re doing: visit our website, Dena Kayeh, and learn about our IPCA proposal, and what the Kaska people are trying to achieve. While you’re there, sign our letter of support as your first step. 
  2. I would really recommend that people begin to pay attention to Indigenous-led initiatives in their own backyard—or wherever they call home—and find ways to stand in solidarity with these nations. 
  3. I would advise that the BC public look into what IPCAs stand for, and the meaning behind Indigenous-led conservation efforts. IPCAs are rooted and grounded in the Indigenous nations who are putting those proposals forward, and they’re incredible proposals—more attention needs to be given to what we, as Indigenous people, are collectively trying to achieve.
  4. If people believe that their personal health and well-being is connected to proposals like ours, Dene Kʼéh Kusān, then I would really ask people to stand with us. Stand with the Indigenous nations who are trying to put these proposals forward. Call on government and public interest groups so that they see the importance of this initiative, especially in northern BC. There’s a collective duty and responsibility to ensure the success of proposals like this.

Want to take action right now? Sign Dena Kayeh’s letter of support for Dene Kʼéh Kusān and read more about the push to protect 25% of BC’s land and waters by 2025. 

ID: Dene Kʼéh Kusān, Kaska territory, with a lake and forested mountains, and a cloudy sky