How do we see our taken-for-granted urban environments? Are they simply a backdrop? Built forms that have always been this way? What values and stories and teachings do they reflect? Whose values and stories and teachings do they reflect? A Masters and Bachelors in urban Geography have taught me deciphering skills — we can read our city as ‘text’. The built environment tells stories — and it conceals stories. We can dig deeper and get a better understanding of the decisions, histories, inclusions and exclusions, assumptions, forces, etc. that have shaped the places we inhabit. As an Aboriginal person, I know there is so much more than what can be seen on the surface, and in the dominant narratives. As marginalized people, as people ousted and excluded and “in the way of progress”, indigenous people have been written out of the story of our cities — even when they are built upon our own lands! What is it like to live invisible, resented, ignored on your own land? When the stories and images and culture of your city say nothing of your thousands of years of continuity and jurisdiction on your land? When they say nothing of your immensely generous contributions to the wealth, the very foundation of your city? This invisibility is reflected in the lack of voice and decision-making power that most indigenous people across North America have within their urbanized lands.
This persistent colonialism–marginalization, exclusion, attempted erasure–within our cities is what motivates me to do what I do. The generosity of my Coast Salish hosts compels me to make their jurisdiction on this land as visible and well-known as I can, in my own ways. I share stories, gather stories, listen to stories of the land and the people of the land. I bear witness to the ongoing lie of terra nullius and the pioneer tales that continue to stand as the dominant narratives of our cities. This was nothing but a vast wilderness transformed into a bustling city by our Great White Fathers. I still hear this garbage to this day, and I challenge it every chance I get.
At least once a month, I hear or read some upsetting reference to there being ‘no history here’, to this being a city/province/country/continent of immigrants. The empty land mythology is alive and well. And the erasure of indigenous people has had tragic consequences.
Myself, I have worked to address these imbalances and silences through making sure the stories are known, and more visible. Most people don’t know that they walk on indigenous land, because this fact has been erased from the history books, the public culture, the very landscape itself. So many residents and tourists are unaware that Vancouver is Coast Salish land, with specific languages and laws and ways of seeing and doing things. The more residents hear from the indigenous communities, the more they can have a better understanding of where they live. And as people begin to see the indigenous connections and jurisdictions, hopefully they will see that indigenous people have the right to say what happens on their land — however urbanized it may be. And this goes for all cities and communities in North America. Indigenous people must have a say over what happens on their lands, over the ways that the culture and values are shaped and defined. This is nothing to be feared or stopped at all costs. It is a plain and simple fact that these are all indigenous lands, and restoring indigenous voice over their lands will only strengthen our communities, bringing healthier ways of living and restored relationships back to the ways people live on these lands. Want sustainability? Decolonize. Want more balanced and healthy communities? Stop the exclusion and invalidation of indigenous people. Listen to the teachings of the people and of the land. It’s deeply rooted knowledge that flows across all of these lands — and it’s about time that dominant culture stopped trying to repress this fact. Only good will come from lifting the oppressions and erasures of colonialism. We all need to know the stories and the real roots of the lands that we inhabit.
To see more about my thoughts on this, check out my Pecha Kucha talk given in Edmonton in 2013:
CBC Radio interview as part of the Pecha Kucha talk:
An awesome article written by Lisa Baroldi, one of the main planners of the Designing Downtown Pecha Kucha event: