This three-part series on settler colonialism is co-authored between two people: one who identifies as a michif (Métis) man from Saskatoon, the other who identifies as a racialized, non-indigenous female settler. As co-authors, we are speaking from our own perspectives as an Indigenous person (Justin) and as a settler (Kay).
This series is informed through an anti-colonial, anti-racist, and intersectional feminist lens. We have tried to make it as accessible as possible, but fully acknowledge that we were not completely successful. We have embedded links for further learning and hope this can make the piece more accessible and informative. We hope this article can serve as an introduction to some important (and complicated) issues; in our opinion, an understanding of settler-colonialism, and our complicity in it, is essential to building a better future.
Example Three: Territory acknowledgements
As we touched upon in part one of the series, UBC is situated on xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) land. The Musqueam Nation descends from the cultural group known as the Coast Salish peoples. ‘Coast Salish’ is an anglicized term that refers to diverse Indigenous nations and tribes along the Pacific Northwest Coast. A few of these communities include the sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), sel̓íl̓witulh (Tsleil-Waututh), and Stó:lō (Stolo) Nations. Cities like Vancouver, Victoria, and Seattle exist on Coast Salish territory. It is unceded; in other words, the land was never surrendered, relinquished, or handed over in any way – it was stolen. This means that the provincial and national governments do not have legal or moral authority over them, and instead they remain Indigenous lands.
In many spaces, it has become commonplace to acknowledge the territory upon which an event is occurring. Often folks will state at the beginning of an event, “We would like to acknowledge that this event is occurring on [X territories of nearby Indigenous nations]”. Territory acknowledgments are complex, as they carry different effects, meanings, and implications, depending on who makes them, what is said, and how they are said.
Firstly, territorial acknowledgments are an important and essential part of life in Indigenous territories. They are an external form of the internal decolonization work we should all be doing. At UBC, I have witnessed acknowledgements of territory by different people: members of the Musqueam Nation, members of other Indigenous nations, and settlers. Each are, rightfully so, quite different. In my experience, when a member of the Musqueam Nation acknowledges the territory, it is much more of a welcome and an offering of knowledge. It is also a callout, a callout for listeners to recognize where they are, and to understand the privileges and benefits they receive from being situated on the land. It also instills a sense of commitment in each of the listeners to the Musqueam Nation.
Below I will discuss and engage with two instances of territorial acknowledgement: the first by a settler and the second by myself.
The first was at a conference: a speaker acknowledged that we were on the traditional territory of the Musqueam peoples – and that was it. Yes, there was an acknowledgement, and yes, that is better than no acknowledgment at all. However, the speaker failed to situate themself – by that I mean, they did not locate themself as a guest who is actively working against colonialism. In failing to do so, the speaker revealed their complacency in ongoing settler colonialism. By not acknowledging their own position within settler colonialism and their commitment to working against it, the speaker reduced the Musqueam Nation to an object of the past. At that instant, Musqueam was a historical object being acknowledged – not a nation being committed to and recognized.
Territory acknowledgements are essential. But unfortunately it seems as though they are becoming ‘another item’ to check off the list. This should not be the intention behind them. Territory acknowledgments should not be something to do, only never to think about again. They must come with a responsibility and a commitment to doing better. This is something I am conscious of whenever I am at an event. It is also something I do on a personal level, both internally and externally.
When I acknowledge traditional territories, it is rooted in an understanding of the privilege I have in being here. I am blessed to be here, to be living and working on territories that are not my own. It is also about positioning myself as an uninvited guest, and sharing who I am and where I am from. This is part of my own protocols. By sharing these details about my story, people gain valuable insights into my life. In doing so, I am held accountable not only to myself, but also to my family and broader community. This is something I spend a lot of time thinking about, and try to incorporate into my work. I believe this is important for all people to do. Although an acknowledgement is important, it alone is not enough. Territory acknowledgments must coincide with a deep understanding of how guests on Indigenous territories continue to benefit off these lands and resources.
Oftentimes, when non-Indigenous organizers make a territory acknowledgment, it is done hastily (weacknowledgethatwearegatheredonuncededcoastsalishterritory), and then discarded (now on with the show!). Rarely again is the question of land revisited. In these instances, the acknowledgment is superficial. What is missing is a deeply rooted understanding of the ways in which we (settlers) benefit from the land dispossession of Indigenous communities. What is missing on our part is a continuous and self-reflexive understanding of settler-accountability.
As an institution, UBC is also guilty of this. While the university’s official website recognizes the traditional territory of the Musqueam people, it does not acknowledge that the land is unceded. This omission hides the fact that Musqueam land is sovereign and unsurrendered. In doing so, UBC commits the violence of situating the community of Musqueam in the past, and legitimizes colonial occupation of Indigenous territory. It’s also interesting to note that UBC official campus maps completely erase the Musqueam nation from existence.
In my experience at UBC thus far, only four of my professors have made territory acknowledgments. While I understand that territory acknowledgments can be problematic when they are done as a cursory gesture, I also believe they can be mobilized as teaching opportunities. If more non-Indigenous professors were to make territory acknowledgments, students who were previously unaware of settler colonialism could start gaining a better understanding of its complexities. If these professors were to spend time unpacking the acknowledgment, they could open up the space to discuss the unceded nature of Coast Salish territory, the politics of Indigenous resistance, and the history and current nature of the Musqueam Nation. The reality is that colonialism is invisible to many settlers, and we need more non-Indigenous people working to expose these violences. Indigenous people, after all, have been doing this work for centuries. As non-Indigenous students, we need to urge our non-Indigenous professors to model and practice settler-accountability.
We also need to hold ourselves accountable. With regards to territory acknowledgments, it starts with situating ourselves (as Justin said). As settlers, it’s about discussing our relationship to the land: how we got here, how we’re implicated in settler colonialism, and how our work connects back to anti-colonial resistance. It’s about critiquing how we as white settlers or racialized settlers claim differential space and privileges on this land. It’s about understanding that pretty much all of our learning is indebted to the labour of Indigenous folks. It’s about knowing that there is so much more work and (un)learning to do.
A territory acknowledgment should not be seen as an item to be ticked off, but as an ongoing process of accountability and unsettlement. It should be uncomfortable. We settlers are not “good allies” for doing a territory acknowledgment; it is the very least we can do. At the end of the day, we’re still here, benefitting off colonialism, dispossession, and exploitation of Indigenous land and communities.
Settler colonialism is a violent and often invisible process, one that continually reinvents itself. As we’ve discussed in this series, settler colonialism at UBC is perpetuated through the erasure of Indigenous students, the tokenization of Indigenous students, and the superficial implementation of territory acknowledgements by non-Indigenous people. These are just three examples; there are countless other instances of settler-colonial violence occurring on campus.
However, settler colonialism is not the only story at UBC. So many folks are doing incredible anti-colonial and decolonial resistance work on this campus through education, knowledge-production, creativity, and everyday resilience. This kind of work is being done at the First Nations Studies Program, the First Nations Studies Students Association (FNSSA), the UBC Needs Decolonization facebook group, the First Nations House of Learning, the blog of FNSP graduate Samantha Nock, the UBC Indigenous Law Students’ Association, the FNSSA’s blog, the CEDAR summer camp for Indigenous youth, the Aboriginal Issues In the Classroom project, the Indigenous Students Association, the Indigenous Foundations resource website, the Decolonizing Knowledge UBC initiative, and the Knowing the Land Beneath Our Feet project – just to list a few.
If UBC is truly committed to “challeng[ing] convention, lead[ing] discovery and explor[ing] new ways of learning”, we as students, staff, and faculty at UBC need to critically self-interrogate what it means to be learning on these unceded lands. We need to understand that our lives are intimately connected. Collectively, we must work towards gaining a deeper understanding of the history of these lands, incorporate anti-colonial/decolonial and anti-oppressive practices into our lives, take actions to make campus (and society) a safer place, and nourish relationships rooted in respect, reciprocity, and mutual understanding.