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During the summer of 2019, Library staff members from various divisions collaborated on a reading circle around Indigenizing library instruction. This informal group continued into the fall of 2019, when we read sources focused more on politics prior to the federal election. The time and space offered participants a place to examine their practices and knowledge in a way that was supportive and safe. Based on the feedback, more informal learning and sharing was desired. One topic that was strongly requested was land acknowledgements, and how to authentically deliver them. Out of all this, the Decolonizing the Library Interest Group (DIG) was formed in late fall of 2019.
Land acknowledgments have become a common practice across academic and other institutions all over Turtle Island, the name given to what is now known as North America by many Alognquain and Iroquois Nations. However, many questions have been raised about the practice of giving land acknowledgments and people often express concern about how to do an acknowledgment that is not simply a “checklist” item at the beginning of an event, workshop, or gathering. These statements can also end up being delivered in a rote format, without any recognition of the speaker’s positionality or reason for including the acknowledgment.
The SFU Library’s Decolonizing the Library Interest Group collaborated with Dr. Alix Shield in 2020 to create a workshop titled “Writing Positionality Statements and Land Acknowledgements.” The intention of this workshop was to provide our library colleagues with an opportunity to reflect on their own positionality and to engage in learning, thinking, and writing that would support them to provide more meaningful land acknowledgments.
The DIG members felt that we could support our colleagues by opening up a space for discussion about positionality and land acknowledgments, as a starting point for this work. It should be noted that this Interest Group is made up of Indigenous and non-Indigenous SFU Library staff members who have come together based on a common interest in engaging in decolonizing work in the library context. Our interest group has no intention of positioning ourselves as experts on land acknowledgments and especially not on the specific protocols of the local Indigenous Nations on whose unceded lands all three of SFU’s campuses sit.
The Decolonizing the Library Interest Group was privileged to work with Dr. Alix Shield on the development and delivery of this workshop. Dr. Shield has incorporated positionality and land acknowledgment statements into her teaching at SFU, including supporting students in the process of writing their own statements. The workshop benefited significantly from work that Dr. Shield has done in this area.
We received positive feedback from our Library colleagues, and have had requests from outside the Library to facilitate the workshop in other departments. However, we are not well positioned to be regular facilitators of this workshop. The following is a breakdown of the activities and high-level principles used. We offer these starting points to any others who may be interested in taking up this work in their departments within SFU, and beyond.
The first time we facilitated this workshop we scheduled it for 90 minutes, and hoped to incorporate both reflective work and small group discussions. We found that wasn’t long enough, since participants had questions and wanted to share their experiences with hearing both “good” and “bad” land acknowledgements. Subsequent sessions were scheduled for two hours, to allow for more conversation and offer space for people to practice delivering their statements.
Prior to the workshop
Registered participants were asked to do the following pieces of prep work:
- find out whose land you are on
- find out if you live/lived near the site of a residential school, using these resources:
- CBC: Did you live near a residential school ; a useful tool for looking up how close you were to a residential school when you, yourself, started attending elementary school, (and whether or not residential schools were still operational then).
- UBC Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre ; provides more in-depth and accurate information about the schools themselves.
- Watch Dr. Kim Anderson's talk on Indigenizing Curriculum between 4:40-13:30 where she talks about giving land acknowledgments.
- Use the BC government pronunciation guide to help you learn how to pronounce the names of the Nations whose lands you live on.
We estimate that this prep work will take about 30 minutes, and let participants know that it does not have to be completed all at once.
Workshop resources & activities
We begin the workshop with the facilitators all offering their own positionality and land acknowledgment statements. This is done to show the participants the many different ways that these statements can be enacted.
We then watch the land acknowledgement clip from the Baroness Von Sketch show.
This clip is intended to open the workshop with some humour and also open the discussion of the kind of land acknowledgments we have all gotten used to hearing -- the kind that Dr. Kim Anderson suggests in her talk on Indigenizing Curriculum (watched as part of the session "pre-work") causes us to just “glaze over.”
We discussed the “formal” land acknowledgments of our institution (SFU) and the diversity of First Nations and language families that exist in the province now known as B.C. This discussion opens us up to some follow up with the participants on their prep work and ask if anyone would like to share about what they found in their research about the lands that they live on and/or their own proximity to a former residential school.
Before we get into prompting the participants into writing, we share some important principles to keep in mind:
- These are living documents; they can (and should) change as you learn and/or as protocols change.
- Include only what you are comfortable sharing; this may mean you have more than one.
- If you are writing one to use professionally, think about how the statement relates to your work and what you’re aiming to do? It should be connected!
After talking about the Baroness von Sketch clip, and “good” or “bad” statements we’ve heard, we move into talking about our positionalities. One of our DIG members shares that without making a land acknowledgement from the heart, they “ring hollow”. Protocol requires heartfelt statements, and “having the knowledge of where you are, making it personal, and situating yourself allows you to bring your heart into the land acknowledgement, making it meaningful to you and others” (Personal communication, 2020, Jenna Walsh, Indigenous Initiatives and Indigenous Studies Librarian).
The first writing prompt that we provide is taken from This Book is Anti-Racist by Tiffany Jewell (illustrated by Aurelia Durand). It is intended to support participants to think about their own positionality:
“For the next five minutes, write down everything you can think of that makes you who you are.” Ex. I am a mother, a daughter, a baker, a writer, a queer woman, a white Settler, etc. etc.
We encourage participants to include both their personal and social identities and briefly explain the difference between these aspects of identity. Note: some identities are both personal and social, like “mother.”
Participants do not need to share this list with anyone. It is just intended to help them think about their identities beyond the ways we typically introduce ourselves in Western culture (“Hi, my name is _____ and my job is _____”).
The next activity provides participants with a short template, adapted from Dr. Shield’s assignment, to start them off writing their own positionality statement. Keep in mind that this template is just a starting point to get participants thinking, and that everyone should proceed in this work with care. To simply “fill in the blanks” is not the goal. It’s also important to keep in mind that some people may have difficult relationships with their identities, or perhaps don’t have information about their family heritage; we must be flexible in following this guide, in a way that shows care for ourselves and for others.
- What is your name?
- Are you a settler/non-Indigenous person?
- Are you Black? Are you a Person of Colour? Are you Indigenous?
- What is your relationship to SFU (are you student/faculty/staff/etc.)?
- What department are you located in at SFU?
In their 2012 article, Tuck and Yang discuss the fallacy of using the word ‘decolonize’ to describe all actions related to reconciliation work. This is because to truly decolonize the Canadian government would need to repatriate the land to Indigenous Nations and communities. We may not be personally able to repatriate land, but we can learn about the territory or territories we live on, and about the Nations who were here since time immemorial.
In most parts of British Columbia, you will hear the word “unceded” in a land acknowledgement. This means that the Nation(s) never gave up or sold their rights or ties to the land. It effectively means the land is occupied by the colonizer government (British, and then Canadian), and by all of us living on it. This is an uncomfortable realization for many. In other parts of this country, there is a long history of treaties being signed between governments and Indigenous Nations or communities. There has been criticism of the treaties around broken promises, forced signatures, and a misinterpretation of intent due to language barriers. Modern treaties, those being negotiated in areas that do not already have a treaty, are often much different.
Building on our positionality statement, we recognize where we are.
- Whose territory/territories are you located on? Grew up on?
- Why are you engaged in this work/area of study?
- What is your “compelling action” in doing this work? (i.e. how are you engaging in a meaningful relationship with the land and/or Nations?)
In an interview with CBC Unreserved, Hayden King (Anishinaabe) says that he regrets writing Ryerson University’s land acknowledgement back in 2012. His regret, he says, comes from how often these statements can become superficial. What is needed is voicing an obligation or as he says in a podcast, a compelling action. What this action is depends on the person and organization. In the context of academia, and libraries, DIG asked workshop participants to think back to Dr. Anderson’s talk (a pre-workshop viewing activity) and how she connected her land acknowledgement to her course lecture.
(these templates are shared by Dr. Shield and can be accessed on the Traditional Territories web page)
- Language matters: are you thanking the host Nations? Why? What does “uninvited guest” really mean? Debbie Reese’s blog, quoting Dr. Joely Proudfoot.
- “What are you, or your organization, doing beyond acknowledging the territory where you live, work, or hold your events?” from Native Land, Territory Acknowledgement
- Learn how to pronounce the names of the Nations and territories -- this takes practice.
- Expect to make mistakes, and feel uncomfortable. Embrace this discomfort and not knowing everything. Be gentle with yourself.
- As you identify gaps in what you know, fill them. Help others. We’re all at different places in our learning on these topics.
- You may feel guilty as you continue to learn about these topics. That’s okay. Take time to sit with it, and reach out to others when possible. However, be mindful of who you reach out to, and be careful about putting this emotional labour on an Indigenous person. If unsure, ask someone if they have the emotional capacity to help.
- Practice giving your land acknowledgment! If the first time you speak it is in front of an audience, you will increase your discomfort!
Note: some of these principles are adapted from the LISSA document Library and Information Studies Students' Association which provides a template for personalization, definitions, and speaker protocol.
Land acknowledgements in the digital realm
As our workshops took place during the global COVID-19 pandemic, we also included a brief discussion of land acknowledgments in the digital realm. If you rely on SFU web services like Canvas to conduct your work from home, you might also incorporate an acknowledgement of the Indigenous lands on which the web servers (that power these SFU platforms) are located. For example, the servers that allow most of our SFU web services to run are located on the SFU Burnaby campus, on unceded xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), Səl̓ílwətaʔ/Selilwitulh (Tsleil-Waututh), and kʷikʷəƛ̓əm (Kwikwetlem) territories.
So, to update your land acknowledgement while working remotely, you might consider acknowledging:
- The location/Indigenous territories of the web servers that enable your work to happen (i.e. SFU Burnaby and unceded xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), Səl̓ílwətaʔ/Selilwitulh (Tsleil-Waututh), and kʷikʷəƛ̓əm (Kwikwetlem) territories).
- Your physical location and the Indigenous territories on which you are located (i.e. if you’re working from home, where are you located?)
Ex. Though we are meeting virtually for the duration of this course, our work relies on the SFU web servers (powering Canvas, etc.) that are located at SFU Burnaby on the unceded territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), Səl̓ílwətaʔ/Selilwitulh (Tsleil-Waututh), and kʷikʷəƛ̓əm (Kwikwetlem) First Nations. I also want to acknowledge that in the current work-from-home situation, I am doing my work from Vancouver Island, where I live as an uninvited guest on the traditional territories of the Hul’qumi’num-speaking Snuneymuxw First Nation.
(adapted from INDG 222: Introduction to Indigenous Digital Media, A. Shield)
The Decolonizing the Library Interest Group felt that it was important to be clear about our shared approach to this work. The intention of our workshop was to invite those who may not feel comfortable giving land acknowledgments to begin to take up the work. We therefore felt that it was of the utmost importance that our approach be grounded in the parallel priorities of offering information and creating opportunities where questions could be raised and answered.
Positionality & Land Acknowledgement workshop
Indigenizing Library Instruction