Spilling the tea on land acknowledgments, and what reconcili-action really means
Tristin Greyeyes, Contributor
You may have heard someone before a class or at an event acknowledge the traditional “unceded” land we stand on. Land acknowledgments have become a protocol, but there are still mixed feelings from both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. “Land acknowledgements started at a time when Indigenous existence and our claims to our land was questioned by all levels of government, media, and civic institutions. Standing up in front of those institutions and saying ‘This is Indigenous lands’ was challenging the status quo,” says Khelsilem who is an Indigi-queer, writer, activist, public speaker and an elected Squamish Nation Council Member.
Often there is little connection to why we are acknowledging the land we stand on. Instead, it is a memorized phrase that is rattled off like an item on a checklist, with no action attached. What is offensive isn’t the land acknowledgement itself but the fact that it is often just tokenism. An Indigenous person might hear, “we acknowledge that we are on stolen lands, and our presence here is the continuation of systematic violence towards Indigenous people and we are willing to participate in reconciliation except except the one thing that might actually help, that is giving land back.” Acknowledging is one thing, action is another. Reconcili-action is not the act of bringing Indigenous people to the table to do some talking, cry with each other, expose their traumas, maybe host some events and workshops, shake hands, then pay your token Indigenous person(s) and call it a day. They just want land back.
Real action has to be long term, and sustainable. Stop using blanket words. Instead of unceded, say stolen instead. Name the issue so no one can deny it. Remember that it is a privilege to not have to advocate for your peoples’ basic human rights. Hire more than one Indigenous person, an individual cannot speak on behalf of the rest of the Indigenous people. Do some of your own research online before asking questions to an Indigenous person. Tread lightly, ask first, be accomodating and then some. Learn how to say hello in the language whose land you’re on—it’s basic but goes a long way. Be very patient. Be aware of your unconscious and conscious biases. Don’t speak for Indigenous people without Indigenous people. Do your own decolonizing and push for decolonization in all the places that you occupy. Most importantly, give the land back.
From Alberta to Ontario, Indigenous nations were forced to make treaties with the British empire, which was never honoured. Never once did those nations say “we give up our land.” In so-called British Columbia, the British skipped the treaties and went straight to forcibly removing the Salish people from their traditional homelands. Canada in its entirety was founded on stolen land. Finders keepers doesn’t make sense in a court of law, nor is it a legal stance. It wasn’t discovered like the outdated history Canadians might still learn in high school because people were already here. So how did this happen? Genocide.
The legacy of colonization thrives and many Canadians continue to benefit from the displacement and systemic racism, while Indigenous people are treated lower-class, often living in impoverishment third-world conditions without the basic human necessities like clean water. It wasn’t enough that Canada took and continues to take from Indigenous people, the state also discriminates against Indigenous people. The stolen land has a tremendous impact which has resulted in cultural loss, genocide, intergenerational-trauma, dependency, and our climate crisis. There is no justice on stolen land.
Here is what everyone should be saying after land acknowledgements, courtesy of Khelsilem: “This is Indigenous land and it’s time land is returned to them or they be compensated for it. Start with Crown lands, parks, and government purchases of private lands on sacred sites. Tax property values and and use natural resource royalties and give a portion to local Indigenous nations.”
I acknowledge that I am on the stolen and unsurrendered lands of the sovereign Coast Salish nations; Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, Lil̓wat7ul, xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, shíshálh, and səl̓ilwətaɁɬ. Give us our land back.