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Living in Place: an Indigenous student’s perspective abroad — Corbett scholar Owen Oliver

Photo credit: Owen Oliver.

October 24, 2019

I accepted the Corbett scholarship with the idea that I would be learning how to view and develop international methods of decolonizing, re-indigenizing, and reconciling with the intent of bringing these ideas back to Seattle. However, as I have situated myself on the University of British Columbia’s Vancouver campus (UBC), I’ve been fortunate enough to realize what it means to actually live in a place that has already been implementing these ideas every single day. UBC’s campus sits upon the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territories of the Musqueam band and people. Because of this relationship, UBC has honored Musqueam’s request to create a meaningful collaboration that acknowledges the UBC’s dark history of colonization and provides the opportunity to hold genuine listening communities to ensure the co-ownership of UBC. This allows for space to strive together to create a University that respects Indigenous peoples’ view of land, place, and traditions.

To live in place means to connect with the land in other ways than just physically. Living in place is the idea that you understand the history and significance of a place first. For Indigenous people this is second nature. To an Indigenous person from the United States, walking on UBC’s campus for the first time makes you feel overwhelmed and energetic. These emotions aren’t because the campus is so lush with greenery, or so big you could fit UW’s campus inside it, but because you feel like you’re in a place that has established co-ownership between the Indigenous people of the land and the institution. This co-ownership is based on the little things that add up and result in making you happy to be part of this university. For example: Indigenous art made by Indigenous people of the area; the Musqueam Coast Salish language translated alongside the main street signs; most importantly over 30 Indigenous faculty members contribute to 180 courses with predominantly or additional Indigenous content. To me, this exemplifies what it means to live with the land and in a place.

Art has always been a pretty big influence in my life; it’s something that has molded my experiences as an Indigenous person but it’s also something that has helped me through the tougher of times. Whether in the form of visual art, dancing, or singing, art has always grounded me in what it means to be a creative and innovative student despite struggling in western academia. When a place is filled with high-quality art it immediately resonates as a place where I can feel included. While getting oriented with the various locations of my classes during the first weeks of school I always managed to be a little bit late, having to show up to class sweaty because that walk turned into a run. I wouldn’t be lying if I said it was because I was trying to create an impromptu art walk along the way. It turned out that I wasn’t the only one either. During one course, we did a similar walk around campus that showed some of the First Nations’ qeqən. qeqən or house posts were used as interior foundations for many Coast Salish people’s longhouses. Many of these posts would help support central beams for longhouse that were as large as 60 feet by 40 feet wide. Much like interior styled totem poles, they hold stories, honor, and family histories.

Musqueam house post. Post contact ~ 1920 Photographer unknown.

To my surprise, during this class art walk we were all given the booklet ‘qeqən: House Posts that provided supplemental information about each piece. ‘qeqən: House Posts’ is the official University of British Columbia walking tour of the Musqueam house posts around the campus. It was written by UBC alumni and Musqueam member Jordan Wilson in collaboration with Musqueam’s culture department and the UBC’s Indigenous Strategic Initiatives. It showcases seven different stops around the 990-acre campus and incorporates the history that the Musqueam people have had with Vancouver and the endowed lands. Wilson eloquently guides you through the booklet with traditional ecological knowledge and relies on you to question your responsibility as a guest on this campus with each stop. I still don’t have a favorite qeqən yet but I especially appreciate the history behind Brent Sparrow Jr.’s (Musqueam) sʔi:ɬqəy̓ qeqən. This qeqən was originally commissioned by UBC in partnership with Musqueam but their tribal council decided to gift the university for their 2016 centennial in the true spirit of potlatch and living in place. sʔi:ɬqəy̓ qeqən ultimately explains the origin of the name Musqueam. However, it isn’t my story to tell—if you ever get the chance to visit UBC I encourage you to stop by sʔi:ɬqəy̓ qeqən and pick up a free qeqən: House Posts.

sʔi:ɬqəy̓ qeqən. October 21, 2019. Photo credit: Owen Oliver.

Having appropriate Coast Salish art is beyond meaningful to the ever-evolving narrative of Indigenous people in the area, but it’s not the most important thing. Language is. UBC’s efforts to include the Musqueam language, hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓, has proven that a university can be involved in the process of revitalization of Indigenous cultures at its core. The University of Washington could really learn from its institutional peer in order to create a more diverse and equitable future for all its students. For example, while walking on UBC’s campus you will notice the large street signs upon major intersections. While the English is on top, you may notice a language that is unfamiliar to you but, on closer inspection, you realize that it’s the Musqueam hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ translation. These translations refer to the place names that Musqueam gave these roads in partnership with the University of British Columbia. Crossing Memorial road also means you are crossing ‘šxʷhək̓ʷmət,’ which does not translate directly to ‘Memorial’ but to ‘that which is used to remember them’, a saying that Musqueam people have been using to refer to people and events that have passed, since time immemorial.

Street sign place names. October 4, 2019. Photo credit: Owen Oliver.

These street signs allow for increased visibility of the Musqueam peoples’ living language and culture. You wouldn’t believe how excited I was to see an Indigenous language printed alongside English around campus. This once again contributed to my feelings of acceptance and welcome at this university as an Indigenous person. This is something that the University of Washington has yet to fulfill for me outside of wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ, the longhouse-styled facility that I proudly call my second home. Unfortunately, wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ sits between the English-language only cross streets of Stevens Way and Whitman Court. With simple language and ‘honoring’ comes immense knowledge and education that can seriously be harmful to Indigenous people every single day.

The University of British Columbia also gives priority to language by helping create the Xwiʔxwa Library. The name Xwiʔxwa was gifted by a Squamish Chief who explained that Xwiʔxwa means ‘echo’ in Squamish, for a library holds echoes of knowledge systems that have been passed down from families. At Xwiʔxwa you’re receiving an echo from families, scholars, and unknown friends. Xwiʔxwa has a one-of-a-kind collection of materials including non-fiction books, board games, DVDs, and dictionaries—all created by Indigenous authors. Xwiʔxwa also serves as the only Indigenous branch of an academic library in Canada. Xwiʔxwa happens to be my favorite spot on campus!

Xwiʔxwa 2013. Photo credit: Francine Cunningham.

Before I departed for my journey up to UBC, I also left my position, of almost a year, at the City of Seattle where I worked as an Indigenous intern in the Office of Planning and Community Development (OPCD). While working as the first Indigenous intern at OPCD, I helped create a foundation to start including Indigenous people into the planning process of Seattle. Before, OPCD would often go only to federally recognized tribes for consultation and totally forget about the urban Native Americans that live in Seattle. During my time there, I questioned their position, and fought to reach as many native communities as I could and begin to solidify my work as a liaison between OPCD and native people. Community planning requires a lot of engagement, reading, and—obviously—planning. I searched for books that could help me create this foundation in a positive way. That’s when I came across ‘Indigenous in the City: Contemporary Identities and cultural innovation’ by Evelyn Peters and Chris Andersen. After doing a little more research about the book, I found out it was being used as the main textbook in the course, PLAN 32,1 at UBC. PLAN 321, under the School of Community and Regional Planning, is described as “a place-based exploration of the multiple, complex and contested ways urban Indigeneity is constituted in Canada today, with opportunities to attend community events and hands-on learning”. PLAN 321 was a course I knew I had to take even before I received my Corbett award. This course unintentionally helped me succeed in my internship but, most importantly, showed me city planning as a profession based on living in place. Words can’t describe how thankful and emotional I was waking to that first class. I didn’t even stop and look at the art around me. I didn’t have to, because I knew I was going to a class where I was going to be acknowledged and accepted as an Indigenous person.

Even though my time has been limited at the University of British Columbia, I haven’t ceased to take advantage of every social and academic collaboration that I can. As a guest on this campus, and on Musqueam land, I have also learned to actively listen to my peers and realize that you can never assume that the person you are listening to doesn’t have anything to share. You just have to wait sometimes. Exchanges like this allow you to sit in place and listen. Many told me that I needed to go on the full year exchange to be fully ‘immersed’ but, for an Indigenous student, coming here is like being in the future of reconciliation. This is a future that I want to take back to Seattle and be proud to help build and develop in my own way with my community. Ultimately, this is a future I want my kids growing up in, where they can see appropriate representations of art, language, Indigenous scholars, and themselves.

I encourage everyone reading this just to take a second and look into a study abroad experience. It doesn’t matter where you go—just go. Being away allows you to open up in ways you never knew you could. It’s time to take that leap of faith and be encouraged to take risks; what do you have to lose? You only have everything to gain when you surround yourself in a place that lets you critically engage in any way you want to.

– Owen L. Oliver (Quinault / Iselta Pueblo) 2019/20 Corbett Scholar

The Corbett British Columbia-Washington International Exchange Program, housed at the Canadian Studies Center, Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, provides an opportunity for undergraduate students at the University of Washington to spend two semesters at the University of British Columbia or University of Victoria; and for students from the University of British Columbia and University of Victoria to spend three quarters at the University of Washington. More information about the program and how to apply is available here