Goldcorp Centre for the Arts, 149 West Hastings Street
Below the Radar
Speakers: Melissa Roach, Am Johal, Ta7talíya Nahanee
Melissa Roach 0:06
Hello listeners. I'm Melissa Roach and this is Below the Radar, a knowledge democracy podcast. Below the Radar is created by SFU's Vancity Office of Community Engagement and is recorded on the territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. On this episode of Below the Radar, our host Am Johal is joined by Ta7taliya Nahanee, a Squamish matriarch and decolonial facilitator and strategist. She's in conversation with Am about founding Decolonizing Practices, and how she works with people to untangle new colonial systems of oppression and to resist the comfort of complacency. Since the time of this recording, Ta7talíya has decided to go by her ancestral name. And although Am refers to her as Michelle, she's using Ta7talíya now. Thanks for joining us, and I hope you enjoy the episode.
Am Johal 1:01
Welcome to Below the Radar. This is Am Johal. I'm really happy to be here with Michelle Nahanee. Welcome.
Ta7talíya Nahanee 1:07
Hi, thanks very much for having me today.
Am Johal 1:10
Michelle, you've been doing a lot of incredible decolonizing work in different ways, from your masters work to the other work that you do out in the community. And I'm wondering if we can begin with some of your personal story of decolonizing, and when and how that part of the journey began for you.
Ta7talíya Nahanee 1:31
Yeah, I'm only actually a few years into working with the word ‘decolonizing.’ Even though I was a communications director, I was a graphic designer in First Nations-specific contexts for 20 plus years, I never felt comfortable using the word and I didn't have the critical analysis of how colonialism impacted me. So, in that sense, I was successfully colonized. It wasn't until I went back to do an MA at SFU that I started to read Indigenous scholarship. And I started to become very passionate about taking that word out of academia and bringing it into more daily lives, especially in the Indigenous contexts that I work in. So there are different, what I frame now as, neocolonial oppressions. Things that I was talking about with my friends. So, you know, we're all in contract positions. We're working for different organizations. And there wasn't really a way to talk about the things that were coming up for us. So, that's why I became really passionate about not using the word ‘decolonization,’ but using the words ‘decolonizing practices.’ So, things that we can — I call it: actions we can take, words we can say, ideas that we can learn or unlearn to undo colonial impacts. Because, the word decolonization, it's just somewhere where we're not actually going to get to, but decolonizing practices are things that we can work towards that word, and it just makes it more accessible.
Am Johal 2:57
As you were working on your graduate work, what writing and thinkers did you find interesting in terms of thinking through this idea of decolonizing practices?
Ta7talíya Nahanee 3:08
I looked at eight writers, eight Indigenous scholars, and mapped ideas. Like Leanne Simpson, like Taiaiake Alfred, and looked at everything from the idea of being a warrior, the idea of being back to the land, ideas of returning to our Indigenous languages. And then I actually started to critique that, as a working-class Indigenous person. I really felt like, those are things that I'm not going to achieve, right? I'm not going to have time to go back to the land when I'm raising a child. I haven't had a vacation in three years, you know. I'm trying to survive in Vancouver. But that doesn't mean that I can't decolonize. And so, I guess I critiqued some of the writers in that, you know, those are all great ideas if we can get there. And I do absolutely, of course, support Indigenous language resurgence. I'm the board chair for Kwi Awt Stelmexw here in Vancouver. So, I use my skills to support language resurgence. I always joke my mouth is too English to get some of the pronunciations, but I use my communication skills and my corporate fundraising skills for folks who can do that. And so, in my thesis, I've got the survey of pathways to decolonization that I'm looking at. And I'm pulling the more accessible pathways forward and critiquing some of the more out-of-reach ways to go. And then really get down into that it's such a personal journey. So, my thesis is called Decolonizing Identity: Indian girl to Squamish Matriarch. And looking at all the naming conventions, because, of course, I'm a communications major. So, the power in the language and talking about being born Squamish and then going to school and learning, then, I'm Indian. Which, of course, it's loaded with so much meaning, especially in the early 70s. But my family took on the term ‘Native,’ because we were quite involved with activism. And I continue to work with the Native Women's Association of Canada to this day. And then, of course, you know, First Nations and Aboriginal and Indigenous, we all know, sort of where we're at now with it. And even like, where my work goes, and yet, my community is still legally called Mission Indian Reserve. I still legally carry an Indian status card. So it's that double face that I really start to work with in the game that I designed, and in the way that I talk about neocolonialism as the double face of things that look like helping. It looks like we're getting better, but we're clearly not.
Am Johal 5:45
Now in terms of your specific approach to decolonizing practices, you, of course, work in many different ways. And how you intervene in these questions. I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about how you've taken your own unique approach to intervene and work with different organizations and people related to that?
Ta7talíya Nahanee 6:05
Yeah, sure. I mean, it's nothing that I would have predicted that I do for a living. But in Fall 2017, I designed a giant board game called Sínulhkay and Ladders, which is really a series of scenarios mapped out on a giant snakes and ladders game board. And the snake being the Sínulhkay, the double headed serpent, and the ladders are Chen Chen Stway, which is our Squamish term of lifting each other up. And so I work with all kinds of organizations. We spend four hours together playing the game, talking about the scenarios. And I do it in a way that I'm just helping people shift the way that they see things. And I received an award from the City of Vancouver, Award of Excellence in Diversity and Inclusion, even though I never use those words in my work. But it's funny because a lot of people don't want to use the ‘decolonizing’ word, and that's fine. I use it in this very particular way. And so we've worked with... we probably do four to five workshops a month. Lately, we've been working with City of Vancouver staff. We've worked with NGOs. We work with larger groups and smaller groups, and every session, there's three people playing the game. It's a facilitated dialogue. So, this getting to share things that are happening on the ground, because all of the scenarios in the game are real. And so, they're things that people don't think about as oppression. Like, I've been talking a lot about the honorarium economy, for example. So the precarious employment of Indigenous peoples, but justified through this honorarium economy, where it looks like we're being held. It looks like we're being included. But really, you know, everyone's still just sort of being kept in this very uneasy state.
Am Johal 7:54
So what have some of the outcomes been? Where is Decolonizing Practices going next, in your view, now that you've been working on this for a number of years?
Ta7talíya Nahanee 8:03
Yeah, two really neat things that are happening is that we are working with other nations who want to deliver the game. So the game is really just a framework of understanding. So, for example, we were spending a week, meaning my husband and I, spent a week in Tseshaht territory, which everybody knows as Port Alberni. And we are working to translate the game into concepts from their Indigenous language, and using scenarios that are relative to the topics that they want to talk about in their community. So, there will be a game board produced in the next couple of months from people who are deeply involved in what they're calling ‘courageous conversations.’ And so it's a licensing program in a sense, but you know, decolonial in the sense that it's rooted in Indigenous languages and Indigenous ways. And so that's one example. We already have another game board called the Treaty 7 edition, when they have kept the teachings of Sínulhkay and Chen Chen Stway, but it's delivered in Treaty 7 territory by colleagues of ours from the Calgary Foundation. So, we're starting to test that, the scalability, I guess, of the project. You know, just with friendly groups, because it's, you know, it's all new. And it's not a business. It is a social innovation, I guess, an Indigenous social innovation. So we're in the middle of testing that. So, I think what's next is to get good at figuring out how that works. How the facilitators can be cared for. How we maintain the quality of the delivery, and using the tool of the game to achieve the goals of different groups.
Am Johal 9:46
You know, one of our previous guests on the show, Ginger Gosnell-Myers, who worked in Aboriginal relations with the City of Vancouver. And now that she's not working there, we've been collaborating a few times on some public events related to planners working at the City of Vancouver even within the Park Board. And even a need kind of regionally within how cities are thinking about decolonizing practices, because I think planning as a particular type of profession has a real connection to colonialism and linear rationalism, and all of these types of things. And as you've gone through your work, working with different public agencies and others, what are some of your reflections as you do this work with different organizations, from government agencies, to nonprofit organizations, in terms of what the opportunities are to establish a practice around decolonizing practices that would be useful in a way from your perspective?
Ta7talíya Nahanee 10:43
For me, I really am targeting a certain area, which is how we work together and how we work together better. And I stay with that through a very much a belief in a one person at a time, one conversation at a time model of social change. And that's sort of what helps me stay in it, because wanting to change these huge systems is a lot. And so, I think I'll just share some of the main themes. Every workshop we do, folks write a giveaway and a takeaway. And so like their giveaway is the thing that they commit to. And the takeaway is the thing that they learned or unlearned that day. So, some of the things that are the main things that people are coming up with, and this is looking at, we've probably worked with around 1200 individuals, I would say, in the last year, in Vancouver, Calgary, and like I said, in Tseshaht. So, the things people are focusing on are: continuing to learn, ask questions and share information, build relationships, centre relationships, learning about the land that they live on, learning about their host nations. And so, you know, for some of us that are more woke types, you know, this is not a new conversation. For many people, it's very new. They only understand territorial acknowledgement as the email footer that they're supposed to use, right? And so when I'm in there, in our dialogue, we're really talking about the deep personal commitment that territorial acknowledgement is and helping them understand what it means to connect to the land. And also for each of us to connect to our own ancestry. That's another decolonizing practice that we're bringing forth. It's a big ‘aha’ moment for people to see that this is not just something that Indigenous people are doing for them. It's a personal act, and it's your own decolonizing practice, and then just starting to unembed yourself from all those systems. You know, develop some resistance, which is a new conversation for a lot of people. I think another one is just people talking about privilege and complacency. So, we do spend quite a bit of time sharing complacency as a fluid space, as something that you can decide what you're going to do about it. I think that really helps in terms of shifting like some of the guilt and shame people are initially processing when they think about decolonization. And because, it is a game, but I'm talking about land equity. I'm talking about intergenerational financial equity gain through theft of Indigenous lands, right? I'm very clear what I think about that. And, that math isn't being discussed enough. But when we talk about it, within the game as a structure, and we give a place to talk about it, then people seem to be more open to say, “Okay, what will I do about that?” You know, my family has this property, and I know that I'm more comfortable than my Indigenous friends. So, for an example, I had a friend really challenge me and say, “Well, what do you expect me to do about that?” And I could just say, I can't tell you what to do. Like, that would be colonial, right? So, I can tell you what I think about land, and that I mean only to talk about the math. Anyway, she came back a couple of weeks later, and she said, You know, I've decided that I'm going to start donating to Indigenous housing. And I'm going to tell 10 friends to do that. And so, that just felt like such a good day's work to me, you know, that I supported someone to sort of process their complacency, come up with a personal commitment. And I think that if I'm doing this with, you know, 1000 people, what else is possible, right? So that keeps me going. I guess, in terms of the takeaways that people are thinking of is understanding decolonization as this ongoing complex personal process. So I explained it similar to the word healing, and that is different for everybody every single day, depending on what's going on with your family, what's going on in the news. And people also understanding that they don't have to be perfect, that we're in this new space and we're making mistakes, but the problem has been that we don't talk about the mistakes. So the game has created this metaphor for the do-over, that they're gonna slide down the serpent and then we're gonna go, “Okay, what are you going to do different this time?” So, they can come through the game and do it differently. So, talking about perfectionism as a colonial tool. People get quite interested too when I'm sharing the concept of Chen Chen Stway as Squamish law. This is a Squamish law. A law connected to this territory. And so that's not a well known thing, that Chen Chen Stway, the law is lifting each other up. And to explain to people the difference between lifting each other up and helping, that the word ‘helping’ infers that somebody needs help, and someone's able to help. Chen Chen Stway is a different thing. It's both people having power. And then just really focusing, supporting people in the discomfort, that if you're uncomfortable, it probably means that you're doing it right, that you're in a decolonial mindset, versus the comfort of colonialism. So those are the major themes that are coming up in the work and just things that I get to talk about every couple — I can't do the work every day. It's too heavy —but a couple per week. Those are the kind of dialogues I'm supporting.
Am Johal 16:03
I think, you know, when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission came out with their calls for action, different public institutions have been doing some more work. But, as a term, it's been critiqued a lot. Because you'll see people like, you know, the Prime Minister Trudeau using the term and it gets used differently by different people. How do you draw a distinction between reconciliation and decolonization practices?
Ta7talíya Nahanee 16:30
Yeah, I love talking about that. And I've been talking about it as like the stall of reconciliation, that we're in a stall of it, right now. When people rushed out to do reconciliation with a colonial mindset, because they didn't decolonize first. And I talked about that it's not an either-or. In fact, I see them working in tandem. Decolonize, Indigenize, reconcile, and self actualization. So, those four things, working together, in tandem. It's not one or the other. And it's decolonizing first. And, you know, also that reconciliation is to go back to an original state and the original state was not balanced. So that's another flaw, the word. I'm more of a fan of ‘redress.’ I think that's the next-level conversation, but we have to get comfortable with these other things first. There is a square in my game about committing to reconciliation, and then the serpent down is “failed to operationalize your commitment to reconciliation,” right. And it's funny, as an Indigenous consultant, how many times I've been in conversations, and “Oh, Michelle is here now,” you know, “Michelle will, you know, get us into reconciliation.” Like that's part of my job, right? And so it's become sort of the thing that the government will do, or the Natives will do, or someone else will do. So, yeah, it's decolonization first. And reconciliation may be the state that you get to once you do all of these other things. But there's a self part that's really the key to all of it.
Am Johal 17:58
Great. Michelle, thank you so much for joining us on Below the Radar.
Ta7talíya Nahanee 18:01
Thanks very much. Huy chexw.
Melissa Roach 18:08
Thank you for joining us on Below the Radar to hear from Ta7talíya Nahanee. Head to the links in the show notes to learn more about her workshops and a new nonprofit initiative she's co-founded called M̓i tel'nexw Leadership Society. Stay up to date with Below the Radar by following us on Twitter at BTR underscore pod and subscribing wherever you listen to podcasts. Thanks for tuning in.