Indigenous graphic designer and consultant, Michelle Nahanee returned to school after 20 years to pursue a master of arts degree in communication.


A board game to inspire decolonizing practices

June 11, 2018

By Alisha Pillay

After 20 years as an Indigenous graphic designer and consultant, Michelle Nahanee returned to school to pursue a master of arts degree in communication at Simon Fraser University. 

Her thesis, “Decolonizing Identity: Indian girl to Squamish Matriarch”, examines the naming conventions she grew up with and how these contributed to her identity as a Squamish person. One example, she says, is 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.”  

Thesis includes board game

For her thesis she developed a board game called Sínulhkay and Ladders, a twist on the well-known Snakes and Ladders game. Her version, she says, is a rhetorical tool for sharing decolonizing practices. In the game, Sínulhkay, a double-headed sea serpent, represents domination and exploitation, masked as empowerment. The game’s goal, she says, is to achieve chénchenstway, a Squamish verb meaning “to support one another.”

“There are several different scenarios presented in the game,” says Nahanee. “Some acts are helpful to First Nations people, and some 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 go up a ladder and achieve chénchenstway. In the next square, however, lurks a double-headed sea-serpent 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 says her game is based on real-life scenarios and events she has 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 fact are actually causing harm.

“There was a time when my auntie 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.”  

A game to help decolonize Canada

In the spirit of helping to decolonize Canada, Nahanee wants to use the board game to develop peoples’ awareness of these types of sensitivities.

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

With an expected turnout of 30 to 50 guests, Nahanee was shocked to discover more than 250 people had signed up. She unfortunately could not accommodate everyone but plans to host more workshops.

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 convocation. 

“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 okay. 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 at SFU this fall Nahanee, who has earned an SFU Graduate Aboriginal Entrance Scholarship and the Graduate Dean's Entrance Scholarship, hopes to continue spreading and voicing the Squamish peoples’ ideas and epistemologies through an unconventional, decolonizing lens.