December 22, 2017

A board game to inspire decolonial practices


By Alisha Pillay

After 20 years of working in the field of communications as an Indigenous graphic designer and consultant, Michelle Nahanee returned to school to pursue her master of arts degree in communicationat Simon Fraser University. She will be presenting her graduation project, which was supervised by Kirsten McAllister and Adel Iskander, on January 16th, 2018.

Her thesis, “Decolonizing Identity: Indian girl to Squamish Matriarch”, examines the naming conventions she grew up with and the way in which this contributed to the story of her identity as a Squamish person. An example that came quickly to mind, was the renaming of her community from Mission Indian Reserve #1 to Eslha7án.

“What a difference decolonizing identity can make,” says Nahanee. “Renaming our community has been so powerful for us.”

Along with an activity book, a set of flash cards and even a New Indian agent paper doll, her thesis has also resulted in the development of a board game called Sínulhkay and Ladders, which is a twist on the well-loved Snakes and Ladders game. Sínulhkay, the double-headed sea serpent, represents domination and exploitation, masked as empowerment. With the goal of the game to achieve chénchenstway, a Squamish verb meaning “to support one another”, Nahanee says the game is a rhetorical tool for sharing decolonizing practices.

“There are several different scenarios presented in the game. Some acts are helpful to First Nations people, and some only seem helpful at first but are actually quite damaging. For example, one of the squares in the game reads ‘take a First Nations studies course’. This is a great example of connecting with Indigenous people in a positive way. Therefore, you get to go up a ladder and achieve chénchenstway. In the next square, a double headed sea-serpent lurks and the game reads ‘embarrass an Indigenous person with your superior knowledge of Indigenous issues, terminology and culture’. This is obviously a harmful activity and the player has to slide back down.”

Nahanee explains that her game is based in real-life scenarios and things she’s experienced herself in what she refers to as a ‘neocolonial contact zone’ – a space where people are trying to get to know one another and have intentions of being helpful, but in actuality, are being quite harmful.

“There was a time when my aunty used the word ‘Indian’ and I was so excited to tell her that we are actually referred to as First Nations people now. I thought I was being smart and helpful, but I realized later that it was actually a really hurtful thing to say.”

Nahanee wants to bring awareness to these types of sensitivities with her board game, in the spirit of helping to decolonize Canada.

Word has spread quickly about her endeavors. She recently hosted a workshop in collaboration with the Pacific Association of First Nations Women at the Creekside community center which focused on decolonizing practices for community organizations – and also offered an opportunity to play Sínulhkay and Ladders.

With an expected turnout of 30 – 50 guests, Nahanee was shocked at the demand from organizations across the board, seeing over 250 people sign up for the workshop. With a venue that only had the capacity of half of that number, she unfortunately could not accommodate everyone, but has plans to host more workshops in the New Year.

Thankful for the support of her supervisors, Elders, and family members who have all helped inform her work at SFU, Nahanee is looking forward to her upcoming graduation.

“I came back to school as a mature learner with 20 years of Indigenous-specific professional experience. The decision wasn’t so much for career advancement as it was to expand my personal understanding of the field that I am in. This has been my time to unravel many of the harsh realities that I work with and get some theoretical knowledge to wrap around those. And, it did take me a little longer to complete than most, but all of that is ok. I’m really proud and excited with the outcome, and to see where all of the reading and writing has led me.”

With plans to pursue a PhD, she hopes to continue spreading and voicing the ideas and epistemologies of the Squamish peoples through an unconventional, decolonizing lens.