Story created on assignment for East Bali Poverty Project and Photographers Without Borders.
Story featured in The Independent.
Danielle Da Silva
Featured on powwows.com.
The last federally-funded residential school in Canada was shut down as recently as 1996. Funded by the Canadian government's Department of Indian Affairs and administered by Christian churches, Canada's residential school system was a network of far-flung boarding schools intended to remove First Nations children from their parents/communities and thus the influence of their own culture. Well in place before Confederation in 1867, the system became official after the Indian Act passed in 1876, and in 1884 an amendment to the Indian Act made attendance at these schools compulsory for First Nations children. Many now describe this as a "cultural genocide," whereby First Nations cultures were systematically exterminated by depriving children of their ancestral languages, beliefs, and their rights as humans. More than 6,000 children died while reports/stories of sexual abuse are rife. The end result has been mass transgenerational trauma that manifests in various ways including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), suicide and substance abuse.
It was in 1961 that band member Rosemary Odjig raised the tradition of the "pow wow" in her hometown of Wikwemikong after witnessing a pow wow in another community and realizing the importance of practicing and remembering the teachings of her community's ancestors. What started as the "Wikwemikong Indian Days" gathering almost 60 years ago is now known as the "Wikwemikong Annual Cultural Festival" and is revered as one of the largest and longest-running pow wows in North America.
Wikwemikong is "unceded territory" on Manitoulin Island in Ontario, Canada, which means that the land has never been surrendered in a treaty or otherwise. It also means the land is entirely governed by the First Nations community. "Manitoulin" means "spirit island" in Anishinaabemowin (Ojibway language), and it is the world's largest freshwater island, making it an ideal location for First Nations communities to settle away from the encroaching colonisers more than a century ago.
Rosemary Odjig's vision of an annual pow wow in the spirit of reviving teachings, stories, language and traditions seems to have become a success. Today the Wikwemikong Annual Culture Festival pow wow is a fun way for families and friends to get together, to dance and sing to the hypnotic beat of the drum in the Sacred Circle, eat local food, and share stories, language, knowledge and crafts with each other. Talented drum groups and dancers partake in friendly competition for cash prizes, offering mesmerizing and educational entertainment for spectators. Everyone from all walks of life are welcome to watch, support and participate.
These powerful portraits and images taken just a few days ago at the 2017 Wikwemikong Annual Cultural Festival honour the Wikwemikong Heritage Association, which "is a non-profit organization committed to the preservation and enhancement of Anishinaabe culture through education and the participatory cultural opportunities with both Native and Non-Native people."
This week 30-year-old female orangutan "Mekar" (lovingly named after the village in which she was found, which means "blooming") was found trapped, skinny and bullet-ridden in a small patch of forest inside a palm oil plantation for over seven days. Arboreal creatures sharing 97% of human DNA, orangutans are not able to thrive in palm oil plantations due to lack of food and tree cover, but the reality is that palm oil plantations are both a norm and a way of life in Sumatra, posing a great threat to wildlife and conservation efforts.
When critically endangered orangutans are in trouble in Sumatra, people know who to call: "HOCRU," or the "Human-Orangutan Conflict Response Unit," which operates as a part of Sumatra's leading orangutan and habitat conservation organization, "Orangutan Information Centre (OIC)."
Mekar was safely tranquilized using a dart gun. It took three tries to hit the orangutan in a tree 15 metres above ground and after she was sedated, she fell into a net held taught by the HOCRU team and the help of locals.
OIC's vet, Ricko al Husein, and the HOCRU coordinator Kriezna Ketapel did a check on her vitals and found that she was malnourished with over 30 air rifle bullets riddled throughout her body and face. One eye had a bullet lodged inside, impairing her vision.
Fortunately Mekar was healthy enough to be translocated to the national park on the same day, so the team made preparations to drive two hours to the nearest release site at the national park entrance.
Orangutans viewed as pests on plantation sites and in villages are often shot, killed, and even sometimes consumed or kept illegally as pets. Poachers are also notorious for killing mother orangutans so they can capture and sell their babies as pets to foreigners and locals where they are seen as status symbols. HOCRU evacuated or confiscated 28 isolated or illegally kept orangutans in 2016. However by educating local communities and building partnerships with local people, OIC is getting more and more calls so that these magnificent beings can have a second chance.
Sumatra is the only place in the world where critically endangered orangutan, elephant, rhino, and tiger exist in the same ecosystem. And the largest culprit causing the need for rescues and pushing these animals towards extinction is habitat loss due to deforestation. Unsung heroes, the staff at OIC are not only the sole organization performing rescues and translocations, but they have reclaimed and reforested almost 1500 hectares of illegal palm oil plantations that encroach on conservation land, and are creating buffer zones between the national park boundaries using coffee and orange farms. Right now one of their key aims is purchasing land to create a conservation area called the "Sumatran Wildlife Sanctuary" that will act as a migratory corridor and safe haven for wildlife that can not be returned to the wild. They key to their success? Involving and working with local people, government and NGOs.
If you would like to assist with OIC's "Sumatran Wildlife Sanctuary" effort, you can donate here: grouprev.com/sumatranwildlifesanctuary
The purpose of my trip to Sumatra last year was to film behind-the-scenes of Photographers Without Borders (PWB) photographer Gita Defoe’s trip to document the work of the Orangutan Information Centre (OIC). This organization is valiantly endeavouring to save rainforest and orangutans from extinction in Sumatra by doing a number of things: OIC has a rescue unit to rescue orangutans that come into conflict with humans or that are being illegally kept/trafficked; they work with another local organizations that helps rehabilitate rescued orangutans; they protect and reclaim conserved rainforest that is illegally cleared by palm oil companies; they reforest old palm plantation site and reclaimed lands; and they educate and involve local people and children in these efforts. I ended up taking a few snaps of my own along the way of documenting these activities, which you will see in the body of this story (there is also a full gallery at the end).
Sumatra is losing rainforest to palm oil plantations and animal agriculture so fast that it is estimated Sumatra will have no forest left in 20 years. Sumatra is currently home to thousands of people, as well as the critically endangered Sumatran orangutan, tiger, elephant and rhino. It is a difficult issue to contend with as many livelihoods now depend on palm oil. It is not easy to boycott regardless as it is disguised in so many products as "vegetable oil" (click here for a list of everyday products containing palm oil).
What OIC does is truly remarkable and I feel privileged to have been able to meet these people, whom I like to call “everyday heroes,” who work day in and day out to see that the orangutan and its forest friends are not pushed to extinction.
Before starting we met Panut Hadisiswoyo, who is the founder of OIC and is now one of my great personal friends and heroes. He gave us an overview of the courageous work he and OIC do before we left for Gunung Leuser to track and document some of the wild and rehabilitated/released orangutans.
Once there, our first few days were spent trekking in the Gunung Leuser National Park with our guide and new friend Darma, who also hosted us at his house for a few days. He used to work at the orangutan rehabilitation clinics, so many of the orangutans that have been rehabilitated and reintroduced to the forest recognize him fondly. He even helped deliver one of their babies once and he recalls how the orangutan mother placed the baby in his arms, signifying a very strong bond of friendship and trust.
During our time in the jungle we learned that there are only a few thousand Sumatran orangutans left, and that palm plantations are rampantly and greedily chopping down pristine forest at rates that made me weep. We spent an enormous amount of time with an orangutan mother named Mina, her baby and her older daughter Katerine. I was blown away at how she allowed us to watch her for hours. We even walked with her through the forest as she chased tourists. When this happens it’s because some tour guides bring along bananas to satisfy their tourists, but this endangers both human and animal by making the animals dependent on humans, and makes for a very unpleasant visit to the jungle (If you ever go trekking with orangutans, get Darma to take you; if he’s not available, request a guide who respects the forest and does not tote bananas for your enjoyment). We had the most incredible experience because our amazing guide had incredible respect and reverence for the environment.
We also learned that animals such as the Sumatran tiger and elephant are critically endangered, and that the Sumatran rhino is all but extinct. I felt something die in my soul after seeing these creatures up close and in the wild.
Next we went to a restoration site where our spirits were lifted. OIC spends much of their time and resources suing palm plantations that illegally chop down conserved forests, as well as reforesting these reclaimed sites. By planting many kinds of native, fast-growing species, a forest can be regenerated in a matter of years, and while new forest is never the same as old-growth forest, it is nevertheless inspiring.
The most daring part of the documentation process was when we went to an amusement park to rescue this illegally-kept 5 year old baby orangutan. We learned that these kinds of situations are especially sad because in order to acquire a baby orangutan, one must kill its mother. We called this little one Cece. We could really see how much Panut and the Human-Orangutan Conflict Rescue Unit (HOCRU) these people care about these animals. We took her to a rehabilitation centre where she will be taken care of and hopefully released back into the wild in time. We had to pay the government officials to come with us to complete the seizure as it was a Sunday, and we also had to take them to lunch and have them pose for an awkward photo (see gallery below; government officials are relatively idle on this pressing issue and this rescue would not have happened without the persistence of Panut and the OIC staff).
Again, we were reminded that not everybody can be saved when we went to the Medan Zoo to visit a pair of orangutans that Panut and his team have been trying to rescue for some time now. It was raining hard, which was a good thing since my eyes wouldn't stop crying. The poor creature sat dejected in a little green house, with no trees to climb on, and plastic bottle in hand.
Sumatra is a small island with a beautiful culture and beautiful people. It's not just animals that are suffering from human greed, but other humans as well. Palm plants take up so much water from natural aquifers that some villages have to get bottled water delivered. If this is happening now, what will the future hold? It doesn't look good.
I am now determined to give back to the forest that gave so much to me. What started as a plan to buy my own land in Sumatra has now turned into a venture among special friends who feel the same way I do. We're calling it the "Sumatran Wildlife Sanctuary," and simply put, it will be a privately conserved rainforest area where wild animals can find sanctuary, migrating in and out of other areas safely, at least while on our property.
Sumatra saved my life, so now I'd like to give something back.