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What’s in a name? Honouring the legacy of Indigenous Peoples at SFU

May 11, 2023

Indigenous names honour and recognize First Nations. They support the resurgence of Indigenous cultures and languages and play a vital part in reconciliation. 

However, at the opening of SFU’s Burnaby campus in 1965, the Host Nations for Burnaby campus were not engaged or consulted; thus, their deep history and connection was not recognized at the time. 

In recent years, this has begun to change.

Informed by existing Indigenous naming protocols and processes, various revitalization projects related to Indigenous naming  are now underway at SFU and being steered by the Indigenous Naming Committee (INC)

Sponsored by Vice-President, External Relations, Joanne Curry and led by Director, Office for Aboriginal Peoples Ron Johnston and Director, Indigenous Initiatives and Reconciliation Chris Syeta’xtn Lewis, the INC is hoping to be working alongside SFU Host Indigenous communities: xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish), səl̓ilw̓ətaʔɬ (Tsleil-Waututh), q̓íc̓əy̓ (Katzie), kʷikʷəƛ̓əm (Kwikwetlem), Qayqayt, Kwantlen, Semiahmoo and Tsawwassen peoples to increase visual presence and representation of Indigenous peoples and cultures at the university. 

In elevating Indigenous histories throughout SFU’s campuses, the university aims to strengthen the relationship between SFU’s Host Nations and settlers and guests by reminding the community of where they are situated.

“When I was young and up to quite recently, we (Indigenous peoples) were invisible on our own lands,” says Johnston. “Now, we constantly verbally acknowledge and recognize our lands, but there isn't much of a presence otherwise, in terms of names. Indigenous peoples had our own names for these lands since time immemorial, but post contact these names were changed and our oral traditions and histories weren't recognized and honoured. So, what we're doing with the Indigenous naming work is reconciling the past with the present, by bringing back and honouring existing local Indigenous people and their place names and creating new ones that coincide with this important work.”

The INC is picking up the work grounded in Call to Action 5 of the SFU-ARC Walk this Path with Us Report: Install Aboriginal signage, place names, translations of building names and path indicators at all three campuses.

“This is really building on what we've heard from our Indigenous communities in the SFU-ARC report along with the Pathways report, and more recently in developing the What’s Next: SFU Strategy,” says Chris (Syeta’xtn) Lewis.  “We are approaching this naming work as an SFU family to create safe and welcoming spaces for Indigenous peoples as they walk into an SFU campus and when they work, study and teach here. We’re creating this sense of belonging in place.”

The gift of an Indigenous name is grounded in reciprocity and a deep respect for Host Nations, earned through listening and learning. It is given after putting in considerable efforts to reflect on the places’ meaning and purpose. As Lewis points out “…if we’re being gifted a name, the university needs to identify what we are giving back to the Host Nations community(s). It’s not a one-way street.”

The first phase of Indigenous Naming will follow a campus-by-campus naming approach, beginning with the Burnaby campus. Identified Host Nation representatives will hopefully join campus-specific meetings in early summer, where they will hear from various SFU family members representing the different naming projects, about the intended meanings, uses and impacts of their places. The INC will revisit other opportunities for naming following these phases, taking learnings to apply moving forward.

The vision is for each campus to eventually receive a name, the INC is inviting the university community to help inspire all three campus names and surface the unique vibrancy of SFU’s three campuses, relative to one another. Input from this two-question online survey will be shared with our Host Nation language experts. 

"There is deep meaning and history around traditional uses and placenames, and sometimes modern uses, of the area that was never taught at any level of education. We are taught that names don’t belong to us but belong to the land/place.  The Indigenous naming work is lifting those place-based teachings and the teachings of the land up,” says Lewis. “The work that we’ve (SFU) has been doing internally is really ensuring that the various SFU departments and faculties and units come together as one family to call on the Host Nations and say we’ve hopefully done the work and now we are asking for your help to find a name.” says Lewis. 

Contribute to the reflective work of naming: What do each of SFU’s campuses mean to you? Share your perspective.

Learn more about Indigenous Naming at SFU here.