Being a good guest in an Indigenous land

by Kerry Saner-Harvey

June is such a beautiful time to be out on the land!  And like many families in Manitoba, my family loves camping. During our initial terms with MCC in Northern Manitoba and Labrador, my wife and I (and our Lab Retriever) would often find spots to camp as we travelled.  Eventually, with two little campers joining the fold our tent expanded a bit.  Sometimes we utilized campgrounds, but in the North, we often took advantage of the vast open “Crown Land” around us to pitch our tent.  While we tried to “leave no trace,” I nevertheless took for granted our right to travel almost anywhere in the land most of us call “Canada” and—as long as I followed Canadian laws and regulations—to largely do as I pleased.  Despite some awareness of the First Peoples of those particular territories, and an honest desire to carry myself with respect in this Indigenous “space,” I know I was still largely ignorant of the stories and names for those spaces, their laws and protocols, or a sense that my mere presence could impact the food or livelihood security. Were there times when my presence was not as benign or unobtrusive as I assumed? I may never know.

In Labrador, I remember times when I was fortunate to walk in nutshimit (the bush/country) with Innu Elder Elizabeth Penashue, I recall how she knew the land intimately, with names for various rock outcroppings or bends in the river. For her, there was much more there than just the beautiful natural landscape that I saw. I also began to notice just a few of the many protocols–unknown to me–for respecting the land and animals, and interacting mindfully among the Innu. These ways of carrying oneself in a respectful way were not so much told to me, but rather demonstrated by example or framed in subtle questions. Yet they offered a path towards a more responsible way for me to be a good guest in Innu territory.

Elizabeth (Tshaukuesh) Penashue, an Innu elder from Sheshatshiu, N.L., is deeply concerned about the future of her community and culture which she believes is closely linked to the well-being of the environment. Penashue organized a canoe trip in 2011 to increase awareness of the importance of protecting land and water and to pass on knowledge of Innu culture. (MCC Photo/Nina Linton)

Once, at an Indigenous led gathering at Circle of Life Thunderbird House in Winnipeg, I observed several Indigenous guests from elsewhere acknowledge the hospitality of their Treaty 1 Anishinaabe, Cree & Métis hosts. I was struck by how much these acknowledgements reflected a current, relational interaction with others in the room. These Indigenous folks were quite mindful that they had entered another’s territory and sought to respect the protocols of the land—such as which direction you enter into a sacred space, or when and how you choose to speak or offer gifts. I’ve come to realize that the land acknowledgements we are becoming more accustomed to offering as settlers are really about being mindful that this space is intentionally shared with us by our hosts today.  And it’s worth noting this gathering was not happening on reserve land. Essentially all of what is called Canada today is the ancestral homeland of one or another current Indigenous group. So from this point of view, we are guests in the spaces we find ourselves today. Whether we happen to reside in a Treaty Territory or on unceded land, as settler “guests” (even multigenerational guests) we can consider what it means to share this land in a good way by being mindful of our surroundings.

Jaime Wolfe, Operations Manager at the Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba, spoke about honouring treaties at the We Are All Treaty People Celebration held at the Forks in Winnipeg, Manitoba on Sunday, September 15, 2019. (MCC photo/Allison Zacharias)

The notion that as European settlers gradually overtook this continent and established nation states, we would be able to assume full jurisdiction over the lands—whether by force or discourse—is  the core assumption (or legal fiction) of the Doctrine of Discovery. While the pursuit itself may seem repugnant today, these norms may be more present in us than we realize. In his remarkable exploration of the links between disease, starvation and colonialism in Canada, James Daschuk, notes that early Hudson Bay Traders were often mindful during business transactions of the local Indigenous protocols. Of course, doing so was in their economic interest, but it was also very clear that they were vulnerable outsiders. As more settlers arrived and our power increased with our numbers, we quickly began to see ourselves as the rightful ‘owners’ of this land and consequently ignored guest protocols that seemed of little value.

I am reminded of God’s call, through the prophet Micah to “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly” and ponder the ways I–and my ancestors–fell short of this, even after being previously displaced ourselves. 

Of course, respecting Indigenous spaces is not just about good protocol, but safety and having awareness of territory and boundaries. This is pertinent now for those of us who are cottagers or campers travelling in the near future where we might inadvertently spread COVID-19 if proper precautions are not followed. Many Indigenous communities, often on bordering points of access, will have had little exposure. When you add the lack of access to adequate health facilities, lack of clean or running water, and other health and socio-economic vulnerabilities, communities are understandably concerned.

“I’m sorry my kids didn’t get to see Split Lake the way it used to be. . . . They’ll never see it.” – Robert Spence, from Tataskweyak Cree Nation near the Keeyask Generating Station Project. (Photo courtesy of the Interchurch Council on Hydropower/Matthew Sawatzky, 2013)

In May, Manitoba Hydro sought to more than double the Keeyask Hydroelectric project workforce while largely ignoring the pandemic concerns of their four local First Nations partners who felt compelled to set up border stations blocking access roads until a tentative agreement was reached. Of course, this is only one link in a much longer chain of Hydro development overlooking First Nation jurisdiction over water licensing or effects on fisheries, livelihoods and loss of land. Throughout the pandemic, First Nations have continued to feel the pressure of resource extraction and the march of industry, including the Coastal Gaslink project on Wet’suwet’en territory that was front and center just a few months ago.  How might it look if corporate development and industry also took a posture of being a guest? Instead of consultation as an afterthought, would full participation, self-determination and the Indigenous Right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent be considered the norm? 

The current pandemic has reminded us that we do have an impact on each other, just by our mere presence in a place. This goes beyond viral transmission, to ecological impacts on the land and livelihoods, communal impacts from good-intentioned initiatives or to the interpersonal impact of our social positioning and privilege.  Sometimes, it is best to respect private spaces (including urban spaces) for Indigenous conversation and ceremony—away from white people’s eyes and ears. Without invitation, relationship or the respect of protocols, our mere presence can be another form of colonial invasion.  

Of course, only occasionally does respecting Indigenous spaces mean keeping our distance.  And doing so should not be used as an excuse to disengage. Indigenous-run businesses in the city, in urban reserves or rural highways, really appreciate our business. We can step forward when there are invitations to enter Indigenous spaces to learn from their teachings, celebrations or ceremony. And when we do find ourselves in mostly Indigenous spaces, taking a posture of patient listening and thoughtful observation, rather than asking lots of questions, expecting explanations, or filling in silence with our own assumptions, will be invaluable in absorbing protocol and best practice.

Vincent Solomon (former MCC Manitoba Indigenous Neighbours program coordinator) in conversation with Andy Arthur, artist KC Adams, and Steve Plenert, following an anti-racism event at Sam’s Place in 2015. (MCC Photo / Alison Ralph )

Over the last few weeks, we have been confronted again with the systemic racism that maintains its stronghold in Canadian society and our justice system. A national ethos that embodies the posture of a guest would not lead to such disproportionate violence and incarceration of its host people.  As June 21  is National Indigenous Peoples Day, perhaps this can be an opportunity for us to become even more aware of how we can respect Indigenous peoples’ personal, social and communal space as our hosts on this land. Shifting our perspectives and ways of carrying ourselves won’t undo colonialism or racialized injustice, but it can go a long way towards being able to sit down at a table together.


Get involved:  

Don Peters, former MCC Canada executive director, and Rebekah Sears, policy analyst for MCC Canada’s Ottawa office, participate in a walk for reconciliation in Ottawa in 2015. (MCC Photo/Alison Ralph)

Kerry Saner-Harvey is Program Coordinator – Indigenous Neighbours for MCC Manitoba

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