Indigenous Sovereignty & Environmental Justice: From Fairy Creek to Our Own Backyards


By Gabe Samuels, General Sustainability Intern, Office of Sustainability Initiatives

In early August of 2020, a group of environmental activists flocked to a temperate forest known as the Fairy Creek Watershed on the South of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, roughly 15 km away from Port Renfrow. These protestors have been set up along the entrance to the forest since then, forming a blockade meant to protect the last unprotected old-growth forest on this part of the island from Teal-Jones, a privately-owned timber harvesting and manufacturing company intent on logging in the forest. This land, however, is home to more than ancient trees. It is the traditional home of a variety of Indigenous First Nations peoples, including the Pacheedaht, the Huu-ay-aht, and the Ditidaht. The resultant interaction between all of these groups – the protestors, the loggers, and representatives of the local First Nations – is a fascinating example of the convergence of Indigenous sovereignty and environmental justice, and a reminder of these notions’ lasting relevance in the modern world.


In its simplest terms, Indigenous sovereignty can be understood as the inherent legal freedom that Indigenous nations have to self-govern within their own territories. This is commonly understood through the legal perspective, and it’s certainly the way that I’ve always perceived it. But sovereignty applies to more than just a group’s protection against an intrusive government; it is also intended to prevent other non-state actors from acting with impunity on their land. In a conversation with Emory Professor Debra Vidali, she pointed to the 1977 position papers in “Basic Call to Consciousness,” developed by leaders in the Haudenosaunee Confederacy (also known as the Iroquois Confederacy) and presented to the United Nations for their definition of Indigenous sovereignty. According to Dr. Vidali, their articulation of the concept “includes political and cultural self-determination and autonomy, as well as enduring responsibilities and relationships with fellow humans (past, present, and future), other living beings, and homelands.”

This leads back into the story of Fairy Creek. Teal-Jones may be the easy target in this story, but it is important to consider the role of the protestors as well. The activists, many of whom represent a grassroots movement by the name of the Rainforest Flying Squad, were not expressly invited by members of the First Nations community located on the island. Protestors’ participation in the blockade stemmed from their own agenda to protect old-growth forests, and many even noted First Nations’ sovereignty against invasive companies as a motivation for the blockade. While this is surely a good cause, they neglected to plan this movement with the groups whose homes they were protesting on.

A woman plays a trumpet while lying on the road as Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers assemble during an operation to arrest protesters manning the Waterfall camp blockade against old growth timber logging in the Fairy Creek area of Vancouver Island. PHOTO BY JENNIFER OSBORNE /REUTERS Source: Jennifer Osbourne (Reuters)
A woman plays a trumpet while lying on the road as Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers assemble during an operation to arrest protesters manning the Waterfall camp blockade against old growth timber logging in the Fairy Creek area of Vancouver Island.
Jennifer Osbourne (Reuters)

What activists failed to acknowledge is the fact that Teal-Jones was granted permission to cut a mere 20 hectares of the area in an agreement with the Pacheedaht First Nation, in which part of the revenue would have supported the local population. As a result, Pacheedaht hereditary chief Frank Queesto Jones and chief councilor Jeff Jones spoke out against the protestors, stating that they “do not welcome or support unsolicited involvement… by others in our Territory, including third-party activism”, emphasizing the importance of being able to “determine our own way forward as a strong and independent Nation”.

At the same time, it should be noted that this issue remains complex, as not all of the local Pacheedaht stand by the chief and chief councilor. Other members of the Nation, including Elder Bill Jones, have vocally supported the protests and the cause that they champion. Conflating the views of a few Indigenous leaders is a problematic, yet commonly occurring practice. In the words of Nikola Johnson, a Ph.D. student studying the collaboration between non-indigenous Chileans and their Indigenous Mapuche neighbors in peri-urban Chile, “it is not the position of non-Indigenous allies to determine who is the legitimate voice of an Indigenous nation when looking for what they should support in a conflict. Rather, non-Indigenous allies can take the time to understand the roles of different Indigenous leaders, and the context that shapes their public positions.” Therefore, one must be careful when attempting to simplify the debates that are ongoing in British Columbia.

Ultimately, a middle ground was reached on June 9th, 2021, as the provincial government agreed to a request made by the Pacheedaht, along with the Huu-ay-aht and Ditidaht First Nations, to defer logging for two years. According to the Indigenous signees, this will give them time to craft a plan to manage the local resources in the same way as their ancestors, based on sacred principles of “utmost respect”, “taking care of”, and “everything is one.” Even if this agreement had not been reached, however, this story is a crucial reminder that the sovereignty of nations should be respected even when third parties believe they have the natural world’s best interests at heart. Environmental justice in Indigenous communities exists when individuals have the “responsibility and relationships to be stewards of land, water, and the environments of other living beings,” says Dr. Vidali. In this case, the First Nations present on Vancouver Island had and continue to have that sovereign right.

The Fairy Creek protests present an interesting case study of Indigenous sovereignty in British Columbia, but we can look even closer to home to further understand its relevance. More than 200 years ago, the land where both of Emory’s campuses (DeKalb County and Newton County) now sit was home to the native Muscogee Creek Nation. But on January 8th, 1821, the U.S government signed the First Treaty of Indian Springs with members of the Muscogee (Creek), who are widely acknowledged to have been coerced into relinquishing their ownership of the land by signing. After the land was ceded, most Creeks moved either to Alabama or Oklahoma. The more than 20,000 Creeks that were in Alabama were brutally forced to relocate once again in 1836一 the same year of Emory’s founding. More on this complex history can be found on the Native American and Indigenous Engagement at Emory website, located here.

Nevertheless, members of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation retained their culture, and are now considered to be the fourth largest tribal nation in the United States, with 80,000 citizens. And in 2020, the Nation scored a significant legal victory in the Supreme Court. The decision in the case, McGirt v. Oklahoma, upheld that the tribal courts were responsible for enforcing laws within their territory, effectively upholding their sovereignty. While this was a positive ruling in support of Indigenous rights, it should also be viewed as yet another reminder that tribal sovereignty remains a relevant issue, and must continue to be protected.


As a member of the Emory community in 2021, it can be easy to distance oneself from attempting to understand these issues and being an ally to the Indigenous community. Yet if we at Emory are truly committed to promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion, the small yet active Native American community that exists on our campus deserves attention. I recently had the privilege to sit down with two members of this community, Matowacipi Horse (24C), who is Camanche, and Sierra Talavara-Brown (23C), of the Navajo Nation, about their experiences as Indigenous students at Emory. It should be noted that their responses may not necessarily be reflective of the Native American community at Emory as a whole, yet they still can touch on common feelings and experiences.

In our conversations, they both talked about the challenges associated with attending a university that lacked a robust community for students from Indigenous nations. It was not until recently that Emory was able to institute a Native American student association, because “there weren’t enough of us”, according to Matowacipi, who noted the minimum requirement of 10 students to form a group. Sierra shared how being in such an environment “with no visibility or space for Native American people” can exacerbate feelings of social exclusion and imposter syndrome, both of which are common for Native American students in settings “where we are typically overlooked and historically not welcome.”

However, both Matowacipi and Sierra seem hopeful about Emory’s progress toward being a more welcoming environment to Indigenous members of the community. Matowacipi, who is about to start her second year at Emory, feels that she “came in at a time where this issue [was] just coming to the forefront” on campus. In our conversations, they also each noted that 2020 was the first year that the administration acknowledged Indigenous People’s Day instead of Columbus Day, something that Sierra helped prompt firsthand by contributing to the letter sent to the administration advocating for the announcement. According to her, this message was “an essential and appropriate step forward at Emory”, and one which she had been “striving to amplify since arriving.”

Even with this progress, Matowacipi and Sierra agreed that there is more that can be done to promote inclusion. One area of growth is Native American representation among the faculty, which is “almost nonexistent in higher ed,” according to Matowacipi. Sierra emphasized the importance of seeing people who had similar experiences to her in positions of power at Emory. She told me that meeting staff and educators “who know what you’ve been through historically [and] relate to you” is really vital to making Native American and Indigenous students feel supported and connected, “especially at an incredibly privileged PWI (predominately white institution) like Emory.”

In the meantime, both students shared the actions they were taking from within campus to bring more attention to Indigenous issues. Sierra is one of four students represented on the ‘ad hoc’ Native American and Indigenous Student Initiative committee, a group that meets every month to talk about issues, resources, events, and engagement. Matowacipi, meanwhile, is working this summer on the Each/Other exhibition at the Carlos Museum. This exhibition will emphasize once again the intersection of Indigenous sovereignty and environmental justice, with a focus on topics such as the ecological impacts of the destruction of bison populations by American settlers on Native lands.

Special Thanks:
Matowacipi Horse
Sierra Talavera-Brown
Dr. Debra Vidali
Nikola Johnson

Additional Materials:
Native American Engagement at Emory
Carlos Museum Panel: McGirt V. Oklahoma (10/12/2020)
A Community for All: Indigenous Student Initiative Committee Statement
Indigenous Environmental Network

Honor The Earth
Accomplices Not Allies

Works Cited

Basic Call to Consciousness, by Akwesasne Notes, John Mohawk, Chief Oren Lyons, and José Barreiro. (Native Voices, 2005)

“Environmentalists Battle Loggers to Protect One Last Old-Growth Forest.” Sierra Club, 1 July 2021,

“Factbox: Fairy Creek Blockades: the Dispute over Logging Canada’s Old-Growth Forests.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 6 June 2021,

“Fairy Creek Headwaters.” Ancient Forest Alliance,

“Pacheedaht First Nation Chiefs in Canada Tell Anti-Logging Protesters to Leave Their Lands.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 14 Apr. 2021,

Rothbauer, Kevin. “UPDATE: First Nations Tell B.C. to Pause Old Growth Logging on Southwest Vancouver Island.” Abbotsford News, Abbotsford News, 7 June 2021,

Song, Ji Seon. “McGirt v. Oklahoma.” Harvard Law Review, 10 Nov. 2020,

Tindall, David. “Why People Are Risking Arrest to Join Old-Growth Logging Protests on Vancouver Island.” The Conversation, 27 May 2021,

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