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Reflections of the Water: A COVID Exchange — Corbett scholar Shayan de Luna-Bueno

A horizon view of the Victoria, B.C. coastline with fir trees in the foreground, blue water, hills in the distance, and a cloudy sky.
The Victoria, B.C. coastline. Photo credit: Shayan de Luna-Bueno

March 29, 2021

I often take walks in my neighbourhood, on the beach, on the coast overlooking Washington state. I unfortunately did not have the opportunity during my exchange to physically go to UW; got to be safe from COVID!  But the virtual format of this year’s Corbett Exchange allowed me to connect online with the other students from the University of British Columbia and the University of Washington, in ways which I feel like we would otherwise not have crossed paths that much. We have had chances to talk online, hold socials and noticed that we aren’t all that different. We laughed and got to know each other more outside of just a student setting: how our lives are, how are we adjusting to COVID and technology, the small talks like weather, the ‘what ifs’ if we were able to exchange, the laughs we shared, the similar perspectives we had, and what we were opened to learning during this process.

Reflections

As I walked down the coast of my neighbourhood, the skies turned dark and I could see the lights of the American coast. It got me thinking…are we really that different? The water doesn’t change, our environment doesn’t magically change just because it is American or Canadian. The waters don’t stop for no one. The waters don’t stop for no one.

Borders are a social colonial construct. As I sat on the coast, on the beach, feeling the sand beneath my bare toes in the cold Pacific Ocean, watching the waves wash up, there were still lives and perspectives before me. I was thinking of the people that were here before me, before the European settlers, before all this urban development. It was crazy to me how even on the other side, the concept of ocean and water rights are different in the context of our both settler nation-states. International borders by Westphalian rules and American/Canadian water laws dictate our constructed boundaries and our relationships in how we respond to the ocean

I caught myself centering my relations and perspectives on these colonial laws that was dividing us. When in reality the clouds, the skies, the ocean, the waters do not see us any differently.

I was naive to automatically center the Western perspective, and how I have easily thought of that perspective only as the means to discern differences.

A beach near Victoria, B.C. The sun is half-hidden behind a cloud in a blue sky, reflected in the water.

A beach near Victoria, B.C. Photo credit: Shayan de Luna-Bueno

Even though I may not be able to physically be on the other side where I can see Washington state, I came to the Corbett Exchange to expand my knowledge on land relations, water rights and decolonization. I thought of how I am able to be connected through the waters, the same ocean. Many people often think the ocean divides. I think it connects. We share the same ocean, similar environments. I sat down on a large piece of driftwood, right next to the rolling shore and watched the waves gracefully touch the land as I could see the sun shine brightly, glimmering off the ocean’s dancing, like an elegant slow drag of the foot. I lightly dipped my toe into the cold waters and could see my own reflection, and thought:

How we see each other and how we relate is also reflected in our environments, and honestly– the only thing that really differs is the countries’ laws that were made. It reminded me of the types of stories and narratives we tell ourselves and each other. Connecting to the land and water is just so much more than physical.  Both coasts belong to Coast Salish Peoples. The lands I am on are WSÁNEĆ, Esquimalt and Songhees lands, while the University of Washington sits on Duwamish, Puyallup, Suquamish, Tulalip and Muckleshoot Nations. There are stories and perspectives that were here, and still remain here, before I was here, before the universities and before the European settlers were here. It reminded me of what I have learned. As an Indigenous person, connecting to land means all of our relationships with all beings, are beyond state-centric living.

Learning

I have learned through community about the WSÁNEĆ and their relations to their homelands of ÁLENENEĆ, which also include the marine environment, in a reading, “Whose Land Is It? Rethinking Sovereignty in British Columbia,” by Nicholas Xemtoltw Claxton and John Price. There are protocols so that they are able to live with each other in a good way and WSÁNEĆ oral history demonstrates that they have been here for millennia; the SENCOTEN language also shows the connected history of the WSÁNEĆ to the land. It is a part of their law that the WSÁNEĆ are inseparable to the land and everything living is a relative; there is a relationship and responsibility to the lands that we are on that cannot be sold, or separated. The most important concept in WSÁNEĆ law is NEHIMET, that “rights, teachings, and history is passed on through family heritage.” It connects family members to their harvesting, property, ceremonial and cultural rights. No one owns land, but we all have the responsibility to take care of the land, including taking care and upholding each other.

As part of my exchange, I attended an online screening of the film Older Than The Crown, which follows Sinxt tribal member Rick Desautel, who was charged with hunting as a non-resident and without a permit despite Vallican, B.C. being the ancestral lands of the Sinxt, and the Canadian state attempt to quash their right to hunt. His story highlighted the ways the Canadian state unjustly declared them as extinct despite having nearly 3000 Sinxt people on the Colville Indian Reservation in Washington State. With his case, the Sinxt have the chance to bring attention to the call the fact that they have been erased by Canada and even abolish that declaration.

I remember very distinctively, one of the Indigenous speakers at the screening said, “it breaks my heart that they don’t see Rick’s face, his story,” and commented on the importance of “…allowing our stories to be held, to be told.”

I also attended the Hilel UW webinar on “Fossil Fuels vs. Treaty Rights,” that allowed me to see a legal perspective provided by Jeremy Wood, a government attorney practicing in Seattle and an advocate for Tribal or Native Interests in the U.S.

Many narratives of the land we occupy, such as Indigenous land-based knowledge, have always been here despite the state and country narratives that we have known–and will continue to be living narratives.

This got me really thinking, as an immigrant, it automatically is overwhelming to be in another place that you are not quite familiar with, and you absorb the perspectives of the state and how they view land relations. But knowing that this is not my land, and that I am Filipino Indigenous settler on this land, that I should respect the views of the Indigenous peoples lands, it’s respecting relations to the land that respects the people of this land.

How we relate to each other transcends boundaries; how we relate to each other is reflected in ourselves, on the lands and in our own bodies.

We are actually more connected, whatever happens out there on the land and waters; our shared environment comes back to us. I may not be physically on UW campus but I know what happens here affects that place and everywhere else too. Like waves, it ebbs and flows, ultimately coming back to us. It’s a continuous connecting swirl.

Now, what type of stories do you tell yourself? What does it mean to make meaningful connections? Who do you include or not?

What we tell ourselves, and what we don’t tell ourselves speaks volumes to our worldviews and how we relate to one another.

The Corbett British Columbia-Washington International Exchange Program Fund 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.

Canadian Studies Center

Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies
University of Washington
Box 353650
Seattle WA, 98195-3650