January 2021


Welcome to the latest issue of the Sacred Natural Sites Newsletter.

If you would like to contribute an article or updates for a future newsletter, please send an email to the editors at

We look forward to hearing your news. 

Alison Ormsby, January Issue Editor

Featured Article

The Twin Sisters Protected Area:  A New Intergovernmental Partnership to Protect Endangered Caribou and Indigenous Sacred Lands

by James Hickling, Donovan & Company, Vancouver, BC and Chief Ken Cameron, Saulteau First Nations, Moberly Lake, BC

Figure  1.  View of the Twin Sisters Mountains in northeast British Columbia
(Photo Credit:  Saulteau First Nations)

The vast Peace River Region in northeast British Columbia includes a remarkably beautiful area where two ancient mountains rise up together on the horizon.  Known locally as the Twin Sisters, these mountains have always been a sacred site for indigenous peoples in the region and across North America. 

The Twin Sisters area has special spiritual significance for the Saulteaux people.  By the 1870s, the indigenous way of life on the western plains of North America was being increasingly disrupted by expanding European settlement, the extirpation of the buffalo, and widespread epidemics.  This was also a period of growing conflict between indigenous resistance movements and Canadian police and military forces. 

Oral histories confirm it was around this time that a Saulteaux spiritual leader named Crowfeather (Kah ka gow wah kwun ees) received a vision from the Creator.  The vision told how the Saulteaux people would find a sanctuary and protection on the shores of a deep lake that rests at the feet of two mountains that stand together.  Crowfeather and his people trekked for twelve long years, across the plains and then north through the Rocky Mountains, enduring many hardships along the way, until they came to their promised land at the Twin Sisters mountains. 

The Saulteaux people settled there in view of the two mountains and have prospered.  But protecting the sacred Twin Sisters area has been an ongoing struggle.  The surrounding area is rich in biodiversity and natural resources.  Since the 1960s, adjacent landscapes have become increasingly fragmented by logging, mining, oil and gas, and hydroelectric projects.   In the mid-1990s, the Amoco Corporation (now part of BP) applied for permits to build new roads and drill exploratory wells on the flanks of the Twin Sisters.  The Saulteaux people opposed the project and blockaded nearby access roads. 

In 1998, Saulteaux also challenged the permits in court on the grounds that such activities would desecrate the Twin Sisters area and infringe Saulteaux’s freedom of religion.  The law in British Columbia, however, was not yet ready to protect indigenous sacred sites.  The judge described the Twin Sisters as “an area of undeveloped splendour” that was the subject of prophecies and treated as a sanctuary of the “utmost spiritual significance’”.  But he went on to find that religious freedom only protects religious activities, it does not protect “a concept of stewardship of a place of worship” (1).

Figure 2.  Amoco Road and Drill Site,
(Photo Credit: Nîkanêse Wah tzee Stewardship Society)

Meanwhile, as part of their resistance to the Amoco project, the Saulteaux people revived the ancient Sun Dance ceremony (nipâkwêsimowin), which the federal government had previously outlawed by making it a criminal offence to engage in a Sun Dance (2).  Many indigenous people from the region and across North America came to participate, and the ceremony and prayer gave Saulteaux confidence.  Eventually, the blockade was dismantled under the watchful eye of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and the drilling project went forward, but the wells drilled by Amoco turned out to be ‘dusters’.  The corporation built the road and drilled, but could not find any oil or gas (Figure 2).    

Twenty years later, the provincial government acknowledged the spiritual significance of the area when it entered into a New Relationship and Reconciliation Agreement (NRRA) with Saulteaux (3).  The NRRA referred to the spiritual importance of the Twin Sisters area and provided for the establishment of a new Class ‘A’ park (the highest form of land protection in British Columbia), as well as a joint park management plan that gives priority to Saulteaux values.  This was an important milestone in Saulteaux’s efforts to protect Twin Sisters.  But the government was slow to fulfill its commitments, and the park process stalled while the government turned to address other priorities.
In the meantime, the cumulative effects of industrial activities in surrounding areas had begun to take a toll on the biodiversity in the region.  For example, for thousands of years the Twin Sisters and nearby mountain ranges had supported large populations of mountain caribou (Rangifer tarandus), but those populations began to decline after decades of habitat fragmentation. In 2014, the nearby Burnt Pine Herd was finally extirpated when a mining company pushed a new road into one of the few remaining pockets of critical habitat (4).  That same year the Twin Sisters Herd was reduced to just 16 animals.

Figure 3.  Caribou Cows and Calves in the Species Recovery Program
(Photo Credit:  Wildlife Infometrics)

Saulteaux responded to this crisis by hosting several conferences and workshops to identify solutions with elders, experts, and local stakeholders.  Then, together with West Moberly First Nations, the Saulteaux people formed a non-profit organization called the Nîkanêse Wah tzee Stewardship Society, which means ‘Future for Caribou’ in local indigenous languages.  The result was an innovative, indigenous-led species recovery program that has since become the most successful program of its kind anywhere in the world.[5]  In just six years, using traditional knowledge and western science, the recovery program has helped the Twin Sisters Herd grow from 16 to over 100 animals (Figure 3).  In May 2018, after years of study, the federal government finally stepped in and determined that there is an 'imminent threat' to caribou recovery in British Columbia, and called on the provincial government to take action (6).  The next step would have been an 'emergency order' to protect caribou habitat under the federal Species At Risk Act.[7]  Instead the two levels of government turned to Saulteaux and asked them to share their knowledge and experience, and help develop a new approach to caribou recovery.

Then, on February 21, 2020, after more than two years of intensive negotiations, the Intergovernmental Partnership Agreement for the Recovery of the Central Group of Southern Mountain Caribou was finally signed (8).  On the same day, the provincial government issued an Order-in-Council establishing a new 30,000 hectare park around the Twin Sisters mountains, as well as a moratorium on industrial activities in adjacent areas (9).  The land protection measures in the agreement are on track to be fully implemented in June 2021, by which time the Twin Sisters will be surrounded by about 150,000 hectares of new Class A Park lands, and about 800,000 hectares of new protected areas – all of which will be managed and monitored by a new Indigenous Guardians program. 

Saulteaux Chief Ken Cameron (Figure 4) welcomed the Partnership Agreement and the protection of the Twin Sisters area.  He explained, "Many years ago our ancestors were given a prophecy from the Creator.  The prophecy says that we will find sanctuary at the Twin Sisters mountains.  Our people have always kept faith with the prophecy, we know it to be true.  It is so fitting that by protecting the Twin Sisters area here today, we can now also give sanctuary to our endangered caribou in the future."

Figure 4.  Chief Cameron Speaks at the Partnership Agreement Signing Ceremony (Photo Credit: Province of BC)

Chief Cameron also expressed the view that the protection of the Twin Sisters area can have positive impacts for the Northeast region.  He said, "This will help make British Columbia a better place to live for everyone.  It shows that we can find ways to balance the environment and the economy.  And it brings increased certainty for indigenous people, government, and industry."
The Partnership Agreement has been the subject of some local controversy, fueled in part by a disinformation campaign and petition that mistakenly claimed the Agreement was intended to "shut down" recreational access to the backcountry.  Those false claims caused a racist backlash on social media and in local communities.[10]  But Chief Cameron praised the new partnership.  He said, "I want to thank the previous and the current provincial governments, and the Government of Canada, for taking steps to protect caribou and the Twin Sisters area.  I also want to thank all those industry and local government leaders who agreed to take a stand against racism and to dispel the misinformation that has been circulating in local communities."  Chief Cameron concluded, "We are helping caribou populations recover and we are protecting our culture.  It's working, and there's nothing to fear, the sky is not falling."

The protection of the sacred lands around the Twin Sisters is the culmination of many decades of stewardship by Saulteaux.  The people kept faith with the prophecy and have overcome every obstacle and delay.  Chief Cameron explains, “We walk with all indigenous peoples and their partners who recognize the importance of sacred sites.  There is a better way and this is our time to lead.”     
[1] Cameron v. Ministry of Energy and Mines, 1998 Can LII 6834 (BCSC), at paras. 195-7.  See also, Hickling, J. (2017) “Religious Freedom in the New World?  Indigenous Sacred Sites and Religious Beliefs in the Courts in British Columbia” OJLR 6:3, 544-79.
[2] Indian Act, RSC 1927, c 98, s 140.  See also: An Act to Further Amend the Indian Act, 1880, SC 1884, c 27 (47 Vict), s 3.

[4] See, for example:  West Moberly First Nations v. British Columbia (Chief Inspector of Mines), 2011 BCCA 247 (CanLII).
[5] See, for example, Serrouya, R. et al. (2019) “Saving Endangered Species Using Adaptive Management” PNAS 116(13): 6181-6186.  Available at
[6] Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Canada.  Imminent Threat Assessment for Southern Mountain Caribou. Available at 

[7] Section 80, Species at Risk Act, SC 2002, c 29.

[9] Available at
[10] Prepost, Matt (2019) “Peace River Regional District Denounces Racism Stemming from Caribou Recovery Plans” Alaska Highway News (May 21, 2019).
Events, Opportunities & Announcements

United Plant Savers, a non-profit dedicated to Plant Conservation, is hosting the International Herb Symposium virtually June 10-13, 2021.

This year there will be a virtual session on “Medicinal Plant Conservation & Sacred Groves and Forests”.  If you are interested in submitting a pre-recorded case-study (5-7min in length) accompanied by a written description, please send a title and your contact information to by February 15, 2021. Those selected will receive a small stipend and complimentary admission to the symposium after the recording is submitted.

The IUCN World Conservation Congress in Marseille has been postponed to 3 to 11 September 2021.

SCB's 30th International Congress for Conservation Biology (ICCB 2021) will take place 12-16 December 2021 in Kigali Rwanda. 

The Routledge Handbook of Indigenous Environmental Knowledge

Edited by Thomas F. Thornton and Shonil A. Bhagwat, The Routledge Handbook of Indigenous Environmental Knowledge brings together 28 chapters written by over 50 authors in one volume which provides an overview of key themes in Indigenous Environmental Knowledge. These themes are anchored with brief but well-grounded empirical case studies drawn from bioculturally diverse areas around the world. The case studies form a major component of this 400-page volume and are illustrated with over 35 tables and 65 figures including diagrams, maps, charts and images, which help give the reader a flavour of the range of cultures and environments the empirical material is drawn from.

The introduction to the volume provides an overview of Indigenous Environmental Knowledge and how it sits within a body of diverse knowledge systems. The remaining chapters suggest how to achieve an understanding of diverse human environmental knowledge systems for the sustainability of all humankind. These chapters are divided into four Parts: Part I: Concepts and context (7 chapters); Part II: Issues of perspectives, values, and engagement (7 chapters); Part III: Application of Indigenous Environmental Knowledge for adaptation, conservation, and coexistence (8 chapters); and Part IV: Governance and equity (5 chapters). However, it is important to note that many chapters address themes that cross-cut different sections. As such, the division of chapters into a particular part is only for the organizing of the volume and is not intended as a tool to pigeonhole chapters in any way.

The chapters cover Indigenous Environmental Knowledge not only in a wide range of cultures and livelihood contexts, but also in a wide range of environments, including drylands, savannah grassland, tropical forests, mountain landscapes, temperate and boreal forests, Pacific and Indian Ocean islands, and coastal environments. The chapters discuss the complexities and nuances of Indigenous cosmologies and ethno-metaphysics and the treatment and incorporation of Indigenous Environmental Knowledge in local, national, and international environmental policies. Taken together, the chapters in this volume make a strong case for the potential of Indigenous Knowledge in addressing today’s local and global environmental challenges, especially when approached from a perspective of appreciative inquiry, using cross-cultural methods and ethical, collaborative approaches which limit bias and inappropriate extraction of Indigenous Environmental Knowledge.

The Editors and contributors dedicate this volume to all the Indigenous Peoples of the world and acknowledge their contribution to environmental knowledge.

Cultural and Spiritual Significance of Nature” -- New guidance for the management and governance of protected and conserved areas.

The cultural and spiritual significance that nature holds to people from Indigenous groups, mainstream religions and the general public can help make protected and conserved areas more diverse, sustainable and socially equitable.

Co-Chair of the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas’ Specialist Group on Cultural and Spiritual Values of Protected Areas (CSVPA), Bas Verschuuren explains: “Cultural and spiritual values are conceptualized and mobilized in different ways in the fields of nature conservation and cultural heritage. Applying ‘significance’ as a key concept to the guidelines helps IUCN and its partners, such as ICOMOSa and ICCROM, to strengthen nature-culture linkages and cultivate more sustainable and integrated approaches to conservation.”

The guidelines include six overarching principles, which offer a foundation for the implementation of 41 guidelines divided over 12 main headings:
1. Respect diversity
2. Build diverse networks
3. Ensure safety and inclusivity
4. Account for change
5. Recognise rights and responsibilities
6. Recognise nature-culture linkages
Each guideline has been illustrated with an example of its implementation. Nine case studies demonstrate in depth, how these guidelines can be implemented in protected and conserved areas worldwide. For those who want the full scoop there is also an edited volume expanding on various case studies while also elaborating on the conceptual, theoretical and philosophical underpinnings of this work.

The publication can be downloaded from the IUCN library.


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Aulet, S. & Duda, T. (2020) ‘Tourism Accessibility and Its Impact on the Spiritual Sustainability of Sacred Sites’ Sustainability, 12:9695.
Batoro, J. et al. (2020) ‘The perception of sacred trees as proponent of water spring in Malang Regency East Java, Indonesia’ Asian Journal of Medical and Biological Research, 6(3):425-430.
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Hickling, J.  (2020).  Ktunaxa Nation v British Columbia: Sacred Sites and Saving Graces.  Oxford Journal of Law and Religion, 9(1): 193–207.
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The Sacred Sites Research Newsletter (SSiReN) is issued twice a year. Past issues can be found in the library of the Sacred Natural Sites Initiative's website. For information and submissions, please email the editors Alison Ormsby, Emma McVey, and Bas Verschuuren at
SSiReN focuses on research, on-the-ground conservation, stories from custodians and policy advocacy in relation to sacred natural sites. It is aimed at those who support of the conservation and revitalization of sacred natural sites and territories such as custodians, scholars, practitioners, traditional knowledge holders, and policy makers.
SSiReN was conceived in 2011. As a creature, a Siren is also a symbol of the connection between beliefs, culture and nature, which is characteristic of sacred natural sites.

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