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Land acknowledgments are an act of environmental justice

Indigenous perspectives have included and respected the Land in ways settler cultures are desperately in need of adopting since time immemorial. As an environmentally conscious white-settler myself, I strive to acknowledge these truths about First Nations cultures and listen deeply for wisdom graciously shared.


If not for the horrific crimes of European colonization across the globe, and the systematic oppression of Indigenous knowledge and culture, we may not be in a climate crisis right now. At the very least we might have a sturdier grasp on the tools and practices needed to escape it.


As the Esquimalt (or Xwsepsum) Nation puts it:

"Despite what the world thinks, we have not lost our culture. However, because our culture was tied to and sustained by our lands, we must find new ways to give it voice."

If we start heeding indigenous voices on climate adaptation/resilience, and we're lucky, we might yet be able to pull ourselves out of the crisis we've created. An intersectional perspective is needed to help us overcome this extreme challenge while enacting as little harm globally as possible.


It's not only the tactics and knowledge indigenous communities contain, but the philosophies and languages as well which harbour care for the land and all it holds.


This brief video about an initiative to preserve and revive the SENĆOŦEN language illustrates the profoundness Indigenous languages can hold in a word as simple as "fingers": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T7TBlDmrWAI 


The Snuneymuxw Nations shares

"We are in a sacred relationship with all things in the natural world - the Land, the waters and the air, and all of the plants and animals we live with. Respect for the spirit and life in each of these, and the intricate relationships and interconnectedness we are all in together is a key value and principle of our culture."

Caring for you is caring for me because we are one. Caring for the land is caring for you because you and the land are one. The implicit respect that emanates from this philosophy makes it very hard to knowingly harm others or the land because it is also harming yourself.


The systems, structures, and social norms of colonialism expertly mask these deep truths. Colonialism prioritizes some living things, some minerals, some vistas... but it does not care for them. Colonialism's lust for power and fortitude has been sold to us as a norm we must find ways to fit our love within, when our love is so much greater than the apartment boxes we can afford. Our literal environments are shielding us from a kinder, healthier, more environmentally conscience way of thinking.


Songhees Nation states:

"The development of a modern city makes it more difficult to experience the landscape that is home to the lək̓ʷəŋən. However, footprints of traditional land use are all around us, and this land is inseparable from the lives, customs, art, and culture of those who have lived here since the beginning."

So let's get specific. Why is delivering a well conceived land acknowledgement an act of environmental justice?


You, me, our words, the space we give to or take from others - are all part of the environment we co-create. A huge part of combating social justice issues occurs at the social level through conversation, example, representation, and focus. Land acknowledgements are an opportunity (hard fought for) to have an impact, to assert your position, to juxtapose ideas, and of course credit the stewards of the land... with a captive audience. It's actually an incredible feat that we can now expect any reputable gathering to begin this way, and an act of solidarity to listen keenly to the reconciliatory labour of other settlers.


Land acknowledgements are an act of environmental justice because environmental and Indigenous wellbeing are intrinsically linked and Indigenous perspectives are essential to overcoming the climate crisis.


---


What follows is my white-settler support to improve your land acknowledgements (along with help from the WSANEC Leadership Council's settler resources page) and some local info to help you understand who or what you're talking about: take or leave it!


I regularly deliver land acknowledgments to groups, so I've thought a lot about which words to choose, how to share them, and what my role in that task is.


"My name is Sadie, The Sustainable Fox. I am a white-settler living, working, and playing on traditional and unceded territory of the WSÁNEĆ and Lək̓ʷəŋən peoples."


-- is a land acknowledgement.


So is:


"I gratefully live, laugh, and learn on the Traditional Territories of the Lekwungen speaking peoples (commonly known as the Esquimalt and Songhees Nations), reside on WSANEC Territory, and took first breaths, steps, and tears on Snuneymuxw Territory; I owe all the people of these lands my humble thanks and reciprocity."


And so is this:


"I acknowledge, with gratitude and humility, that our work is rooted in the traditional territories of the Lkwungen and W̱SÁNEĆ peoples. We acknowledge our responsibilities as newcomers to this land to respect and honour the cycles of life which have been observed and engaged with by local First Nations since time immemorial and that this knowledge far outvalues the data driven economics which settlers have based colonial laws and borders upon."


-- I've used these acknowledgements (and variations of) at different times.


As we outside of Indigenous communities begin to understand the true horrors of canadian history, what is the shifting responsibility of the land acknowledgment? Now that we're past the awkward "I don't know why or how to do this" stage, how do we do better?


I'm not here to give answers, (again white-settler over here) -- but I'll share a few revelations I've had that changed the way I deliver a land acknowledgment:


First: land acknowledgments are directional

If we were being hosted by someone considered part of a local First Nation, they might choose to welcome us to the land. I acknowledge the land and the First Nations who traditionally cared for them as a greeting because I am a settler here. While I might welcome a group to a workshop I've created, it is not within my power to welcome those folks to the land as I am not considered part of the caretaker community -- this is one of the reasons we deliver a land acknowledgement at all: to acknowledge a lack of power, possession, and kinship.


Since learning this, I try to acknowledge the ceremony and importance (even if just for myself) of each land acknowledgement.


Second: ownership is an extremely rare to non-existent concept in most Indigenous cultures

Right down to language structure -- ownership is a concept colonization imported to Indigenous cultures around the globe. This lack of concept prior to colonization is also part of how colonizers were able to negotiate so many agreements with so many negative consequences for the Indigenous folks. Ownership might have been interpreted as responsibility to or deep understanding of or access to or usage of or permission to share... but almost never "mine, not yours".


Since learning this, I try to avoid possessive language in land acknowledgements (also in my personal life when talking about the land; most specifically when referencing the garden I care for).


Third: it's okay to say more/think critically about your acknowledgement

At this point, most folks have heard their local First Nations acknowledged before theatre shows, conferences, workshops, in email signatures... we know our basics. We've built out space at the beginning of meetings and events, so let's continue the work to engage our cohorts more deeply.


The WSANEC Leadership Council says

"Ultimately, a territorial acknowledgement is a tool to bring about a change in mindset."

They also very kindly provide this suggested list of questions to ask when working to expand your land acknowledgment (along with tons of other really helpful info specifically for settlers, link below):

  • Why is this acknowledgement happening?

  • How does this acknowledgement relate to the event or work you are doing?

  • What is the history of this territory? What are the impacts of colonialism here?

  • What is the name and history of the specific place within the territory?

  • What is your relationship to this territory? How did you come to be here?

  • What intentions do you have to disrupt and dismantle colonialism beyond this territorial acknowledgement?


Recently, I try to keep land acknowledgements present and new by taking time to consider ties in current events or my own life. A particularly poignant recent example might be drawing the similarities between the "protect the children" anti-trans rhetoric and it's stark parallels to the propaganda used to forcibly remove Indigenous children from their families.


Last: social justice issues are intersectionally linked

Most social justice issues (definitely environmentalism and Indigenous sovereignty) are deeply interrelated. Work done to progress one often has significant impact on the other and the issues may be more efficiently resolved in tandem. Putting care and energy into a land acknowledgment is putting care and energy into the land.


Passion for one is allowed to inspire passion for the other.


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Here's an overview of the Nations I regularly acknowledge (if you live in the so-called-Victoria area these are the locals). Because each Nation/Council has obviously put significant energy into clearly communicating their identity, I am primarily quoting their websites. Follow the links to continue your own learning journey through their design:


Coast Salish:

All of the First Nations on the South Island, much of the Gulf Islands, and Mainland Coast extending to South of the US border are Coast Salish Nations. There is overlap in cultures, art styles, stories, and philosophies -- but no two Coast Salish Nations are the same. Many Nations share a common Coast Salishan language base, though there are myriad of unique languages and dialects.


W̱SÁNEĆ:

pronunciation: WSÁNEĆ (wh-SAYN-itch)

colloquial spelling: WSANEC


"W̱SÁNEĆ Leadership Council Society is a unified, legal governing body comprised of two W̱SÁNEĆ First Nations: Tsartlip and Tseycum."


"SENĆOŦEN is the language of the W̱SÁNEĆ people. SENĆOŦEN is a member of a dialect continuum called Northern Straits which is a Coast Salishan language."


"The W̱SÁNEĆ People are Salt Water People. The Sea was very important to our way of life. Traditionally the W̱SÁNEĆ People had homes throughout the San Juan Islands and on the east and north coasts of the Saanich Peninsula.

Our land went east through the Gulf Islands and San Juan Islands and northeast across Georgia Strait to Boundary Bay. Our territory included the Saanich Inlet and deep into the forest lands on its west side. On the Saanich Peninsula itself, our land went south as far as PKOLS (Mount Douglas), and from there across to W̱QENNELEȽ (Mt. Finlayson) and SELE₭TEȽ (Goldstream).


W̱SÁNEĆ (Saanich Peninsula) was the headquarters because this is where the W̱SÁNEĆ People built their permanent winter homes."



lək̓ʷəŋən:

pronounciation: Lekwungen (le-KWUNG-in)

colloquial spelling: Lekwungen, Lkwungen


Lekwungen is the language shared by the people commonly known as the Esquimalt and the Songhees Nations. This can sometimes be tricky to capture eloquently in your acknowledgement, especially if you're not firm in your own understanding of what you're saying (maybe try "...Lekwungen speaking peoples, commonly known today as the Esquimalt and Songhees Nations").


"The Victoria (Matoolia) area was divided into five territories. These lands essentially belonged to settlements that were made up of extended families. Though some overlapped in places, they were as follows: Tsuli’lhchu, around Mount Douglas (P’q’a’ls); Cheko’nein, around Cadboro Bay; Chikowetch, around Oak Bay; Swenghwung, around James Bay; and Xwsepsum (sometimes spelled Kosapsum) in what is now called Esquimalt. Though each sche’chu (family) had its own territory, they all spoke the same language, Lekwungen. Lekwungen, which used to be called Songish, is similar to the Saanich, Lummi, Samish, and Sooke languages. They are dialects of what linguists call the Straits Salish language."


lək̓ʷəŋən translates to "Place to smoke herring".


It's pretty amazing this one word holds so much meaning: language, people, place, activity, connection... if we don't understand this when we say it in a land acknowledgement; are we truly acknowledging it?


Xwsepsum (Esquimalt):

pronunciation: Xwsepsum (ko-sap-sum)

colloquial/common name: Esquimalt (es-KWAI-malt)


As metioned aboved, the Xwsepsum (Esquimalt) Nation is one of two Lekwungen speaking Nations we acknowledge in so-called-Victoria:

"Members of the Esquimalt Nation are part of the Lekwungen peoples, belonging to the Coast Salish language group.


Traditional territories were centred in, and around, what is now the City of Victoria, and its environs. Known to have hunted, fished, and gathered across the southern portions of Vancouver Island and the lower Gulf and San Juan islands, these peoples also travelled to the coastal areas of the Lower Mainland and northwestern Washington State. Oral histories, legends and traditional place names exist that speak to Esquimalt Nation’s use of these traditional territories."


Songhees:

pronunciation: Songhees (SONG-hees)


The Songhees Nation is the other Lekwungen speaking Nation we acknowledge in so-called-Victoria:


"Songhees Nation members are Lək̓ʷəŋən People identified as Coast Salish."


Check out this stunning informational video on the Songhees Nation's homepage: https://vimeo.com/275788251 ( https://www.songheesnation.ca/ )


"The lək̓ʷəŋən People have hunted and gathered here for thousands of years. This area, with its temperate climate, natural harbours, and rich resources, was a trading centre for a diversity of First Peoples."


"There are messages in the landscape here; oral histories, surviving traditional place names, and the soil itself are all ancient stories waiting to be told."


-- Bonus! --

Snuneymuxw:

pronunciation: Snuneymuxw (snue-ney-mowck)


I have begun including the Snuneymuxw Nation in my personal land acknowledgements because I was born on their territory in the city of Nanaimo.


"The Snuneymuxw are a vibrant First Nation of the Coast Salish People, residing in the centre of Coast Salish territory on the eastern coast of Vancouver Island, with villages on the Fraser River and waterways in the Gulf Islands.

...

On December 23, 1854, the Snuneymuxw People entered the Snuneymuxw Treaty of 1854 to forever and always preserve and protect Snuneymuxw villages, enclosed fields, waterways, harvesting and gathering, and the rights to hunt and fisheries as they did formerly. Often referred to as a trade and commerce treaty, the Snuneymuxw Treaty of 1854 is protected under section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982. The Ancestors were brilliant to protect the Snuneymuxw way of being by entering into the strongest treaty agreement available to Canada.

...

In 2021, Snuneymuxw First Nation signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Canada and B.C., which marks a transformative shift from the extinguishment of rights, to recognizing and implementing the Snuneymuxw Treaty of 1854.

...

Much was done over the last 165+ years to deny or erase Snuneymuxw people, rights, way of being, and spirituality. While fighting and prevailing against the weight of oppressive systems, Snuneymuxw has persistently prioritized community, Snawayalth, and the Land.


Now, in the midst of a climate crisis, Snuneymuxw is driven by the urgent need to heal the Land and its communities. Snuneymuxw First Nation warmly welcomes you to continue the Snuneymuxw legacy of learning from, caring for, protecting, and enjoying the unsparing blessings of this sacred place."




Sadie seated facing away on a fallen Redwood, dwarfed by the scale of the surrounding forrest.
Photo taken in Sequoia National park which occupies the homelands of the Mono (Monache), Yokuts, Tübatulabal, Paiute, and Western Shoshone.


Thanks for reading --


With love,

Sadie



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