Land acknowledgements are about better relations, not just checking a box

·6 min read

Decolonial facilitator Ta7talíya Michelle Nahanee says land acknowledgements are more than just copying, pasting and reciting, to check the box and get it done — they’re about good intention and working towards better relations.

Territorial acknowledgements have become a “compulsory email footer and check mark at an event,” Ta7talíya (ta-tal-ia) tells IndigiNews.

“I’ve been taught by my Elders and others who know that territorial acknowledgements are about showing respect, or connecting to the land, to be in better relations together,” she says.

Ta7talíya grew up in the village of Eslha7án of the Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish) Nation. She calls herself a decolonial facilitator, which she describes as a person who does whatever they can to “undo colonial impacts and change narratives.”

She didn’t always have the language she uses today to talk about things like colonialism, or to address the ways that it has impacted her own life, community, and those around her, she says.

“I'm a working class person. I raised a child on my own. I didn't have Grade 12. Growing up, really just accepting the erasure, we never used our Indigenous names for our community. We just called it Mission Indian Reserve, Skwxwú7mesh Indian Reserve,” Ta7talíya says.

“I had a general equivalency diploma from Native Education College, and they really weren't teaching us critical Indigenous theory. It was, you know, college preparation.”

With 20 years of experience in graphic design, working with Indigenous organizations, she eventually pursued and completed a master’s in communications where she explored colonialism from an academic lens, clarifying her own lived experiences, she says.

“I finally had time to read and connect to Indigenous critical theory and scholarship,” she says. “My family has always been a part of the resistance and resurgence movement, and I just finally had the language to talk about it.”

But it was important for Ta7talíya to take what she was learning in university classrooms and make the conversation accessible in an everyday setting. It’s part of the intention she has for an interactive “Territorial Acknowledgements” workshop she’s hosting on Feb. 24.

“I feel strongly about supporting everyone to personally connect to the practice of territorial acknowledgments. It is especially crucial with an increasing number of governments deciding it is not important or necessary to name and thank local host Nations,” Ta7talíya says.

“I'm a communications person, so I always want to share messaging and ideas that other people can share, to stand up for territory acknowledgments, and to go deeper.”

‘More than Googling’

In her work, Ta7talíya seeks to explain colonial conditioning and decolonizing practices. She offers stories from her own life and learning journey, as well as tangible tools like writing prompts and resources to personalize acknowledgements.

One of the biggest barriers for people moving beyond memorizing territorial acknowledgements and offering them from a superficial place, stems from the fear of getting it wrong or being embarrassed, Ta7talíya says.

“It’s a perfectionism I see — people, you know, expressing concern and worry over doing it right, or not doing it at all,” she says. “That’s an example of colonial conditioning. So I’m trying to help people access those narratives and replace them with teachings … trying to be respectful, show gratitude.”

The real goal of territorial acknowledgements, she says, is to be in good relations with each other.

“There’s gotta be more than Googling,” she says, “and connecting with people from the host Nations whose territory you’re on.”

Ta7talíya says this process requires honesty and openness, which take effort.

“Will you share your personal story? Will you share the reason that the company cares about disrupting colonialism, or will you feel embarrassed?” she asks.

Ta7talíya tries to lead by example, using personal illustrations.

She explains the colonial need for perfection hinders much of our work, our endeavours to improve. She uses her experience learning the Skwxwú7mesh language, for instance.

“I'm not a person who was raised with my language. My father's a residential school survivor. I don't have the tongue for the Skwxwú7mesh sometimes,” she says. “And such grace was shared with me, by one of the senior language instructors. They said, ‘We don't worry about how you’re saying it. We just want you to say it, and then you can get better at saying it.’”

Ta7talíya has a warm laugh when she recognizes people might need to copy and paste a spelling of a place or Nation, but the acknowledgement itself should come from the heart.

In her lifetime, Ta7talíya has seen the reclamation of cultural identity, of hearing her communities by their own names.

“I've witnessed a return to our collective identity as Skwxwú7mesh Úxwumixw, and really embraced the history of Eslha7án and the history of our own place names and stories on this territory.”

While working in this area, Ta7talíya saw the importance of the adoption of territorial acknowledgements by schools, public organizations and governmental bodies.

She says she’s motivated by the continued need for education around the intention and purpose of acknowledging territory. Recent decisions were made by Richmond and Surrey city councils to not participate in the practice of land acknowledgments.

In response to Surrey’s decision, B.C. Assembly of First Nations’ Regional Chief Terry Teegee expressed his concern.

“If the city cannot acknowledge whose lands they work, how can Surrey be trusted to advance reconciliation and First Nations issues? This is especially concerning considering the large Indigenous population in the City of Surrey, many of whom are young and starting families,” Teegee wrote. “This rejection of a simple and respectful step towards making the city a safe and welcoming place for these families is cause for concern.”

Ta7talíya wants to help people understand the true intention of territorial acknowledgement, and she has compassion for the fact that people may be situated differently on their education journeys.

“Even though I was somebody who was so impacted by colonialism, I was too nervous to talk about the word, and thought I hadn’t read enough and didn't understand that completely. Even though I was living it,” she says.

Decolonize First is a set of consulting resources Ta7talíya has designed for clients, usually organizations in development. The “Territorial Acknowledgments” workshop is different because it’s designed for the general public, to increase access to the language and concepts.

“I think it's only just the beginning of understanding and connecting to our ways of being and, and our ways of being within shared territory,” she says.

Ta7talíya envisions a time “where every municipality would be aware of, and led by the sacred laws of the land that they're on.”

Odette Auger, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Discourse