Reclaiming colonized ocean spaces: A conversation with Nuxalk Chief Smawn

Recently, our Executive Director and Senior Counsel spoke with Nuxalk Hereditary Chief Smawn (Richard John Hall) about coastal and ocean conservation in accordance with Nuxalk Ancestral Law, and the importance of decolonizing ocean spaces.

Can you begin by introducing yourself and the marine waters of your people?

My English name is Richard John Hall. My Hereditary Chiefs name is Smawn and I am from Nuxalk Nation territories and reside in Bella Coola. My chieftainships lineages come from Kimsquit era; the James Pollard family adopted my grandfather John Hall and he inherited the Chief’s name and lineage.

I was born into the lifetime of a fisherman and at two years old I lost my biological father to the sea. His fishing days started as mine did, with wind sails and hand pull.

In those years as a fisherman, I travelled BC’s west coast as deck hand and commercial salmon fisherman, and did the herring fisherman as deck hand to my best friend Robert Schooner (vessel names: Indian giver and Indian forgiver). And through this era, I witnessed the decline and soon the death of an industry.


I proactively work as a National Marine Conservation Area Reserve (NMCAR) feasibility study Steering Committee member and I am also sitting on the Executive board for the Fisheries Resources Reconciliation Agreement (FRRA). I am also proactively working on Nuxalk Nation’s Marine use plans.


As a young man I fished with my grandfather, stepfather and good friend in the territorial waters of Burke Channel, north and south Bentinck Arms and up to Seaforth/Milbanke Sound and across to the southwest to Smith Inlet.

In the summer my hometowns were Tallheo Cannery, Namu, Ocean Falls, Dawsons Landing, Rivers Inlet and Bella Bella, BC (in them days Bella Bella, Namu, Tallheo and Ocean Falls had all board walks). I found that fascinating – those adventures as young man.

What would you like folks to understand about the origins of Nuxalk’s inherent title and relationship to these waters?

First and foremost, I want to remind the nations and ones in the audience who are participating on this endeavour of conservation/preservation of ocean resources: it is more valuable than the mighty dollar. We must fight for it together.

As nations and Indigenous people, we must look past our differences of boundaries/territories and remember the sting of the governments, corporations and DFO [Fisheries and Oceans Canada] behaviours. Learn from the wheel that is now broken; we must parallel the work with Indigenous voices, action, an Indigenous agenda.

We must work together and have a common goal – to save the lifeline for the ones yet unborn.

For those who remember; we as Indigenous fishermen we had no boundaries. We fished and took what we needed and managed the ocean with care.

The Ocean and resources are our lifeline and resources for many tribes in BC.

Why is the nation undertaking marine spatial planning?

We are undertaking marine planning because of the mismanagement of salmon, and this has to stop. The past behaviours of mismanagement depleted the stocks and have economically stunned the tribes of the coast; we are starving, homeless and have nothing to give to our children unborn.

Big picture:

The Indigenous lifeline of many is severely compromised and open-net fish farms are contaminating our oceans.

This also gives us as Indigenous people an opportunity to work together to form an alliance against our US neighbours’ fishing practices, and invite our Indigenous friends up there to protect the salmon coastlines to have salmon for the ones unborn.

In governing marine territories, could you offer an example of Nuxalk’s laws that guide decision-making or management?

Our laws protect the ecosystem, which includes the forest, environment, the fresh and salt waters, spawning grounds, the salmon and all saltwater and freshwater species related to harvesting.

The laws are to preserve and protect the ecosystem from overfishing, contamination from gas and oil, mining and self preservation of Indigenous lifeline.

We as caretakers of the land water and ecosystem take only what we need and protect for the ones unborn.

What are some of the ways relationships and responsibilities between people and marine waters are expressed for Nuxalk?

The relationship is ancestral, and responsibilities of the land were placed upon the Chiefs and families to preserve, protect and share by trade with others.

What challenges have you faced in working to reclaim colonized ocean territories?

The challenges of greed through colonized society, governments and corporations, foreign investments that just ….. take, take and take without consent and proper management. It is time for them to give back and support this program around the world.

What is your greatest hope as your people/the nation works to reclaim colonized ocean waters?

For all First People/Indigenous people in North America to stand up and work together to protect the ocean, seas, sea beds, spawning channels, rivers streams, and tributaries from further extraction, to protect from the contamination of mines, oil and gas, from climate change and to build capacity to further protect the lifeline of many.

To support/rebuild and to create economic opportunities and economic balance for all. To honour our ancestors and continue the healing paths of potlatches and cultural practices associated with the salmon, ooligan and continuing to trade with other nations.

First and foremost, and paramount, is to rebuild the sea’s resources for all to benefit and leave a vibrant coast for the ones unborn.

It is time – our time – to capture change and create jobs, careers, economic balance and time to embrace culture, potlatches and honour the ones who fought and remain resilient to colonization.

Richard Hall  
Hereditary Chief of Nuxalk Nation

West Coast Environmental Law thanks Smawn for these words, which were shared in preparation for our “Decolonizing Ocean Spaces” Panel at the Pacific Business and Law Institute Conference: Nothing About Us Without Us: Indigenous Jurisdiction Over Mining and Marine Territories and reprinted with permission. 

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Photo: Nuxalk Chief Smawn in traditional regalia overlayed on top of a photo of a shoreline in Bella Coola, Nuxalk territory

Jessica Clogg, Executive Director and Sr Counsel