ocean with rocks in the foreground and mountains in the background provided by the Songhees Nation

What does it mean to be a guest? | Reflections from a workshop about Coast Salish laws and governance

What does it mean to be a guest? If we went to someone’s house, how would we behave? 

Last month, our colleagues and friends Chaw-win-is and Lacey Jones offered a workshop to the VSAC team about Coast Salish laws and settler relationships to local Indigenous nations. The majority of Project Respect’s work takes place on Lkwungen and W̱SÁNEĆ territories. Both Chaw-win-is and Lacey have been instrumental in our team’s understanding of doing our work with a commitment to local Indigenous governance. 

We are both settlers on these lands and we would like to share some of the central questions that were posed in the workshop, as well as our reflections. 

Chaw-win-is and Lacey contrasted the roles of “guest” and “visitor” to ground the workshop. A visitor is someone who may drop by, but has no expectations of the host, someone whose visit is short and has a clear end. Whereas as a guest has a relationship with the hosts and part of being there is cultivating that relationship. What are you, a visitor? A guest? Something else?

The other primary question raised in the workshop was: what does it mean to work in a local context? VSAC has committed to implementing the Calls to Action from the report on the national inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG). Chaw-win-is and Lacey pointed out that we have to be careful framing our relationship as an organization with Lkwungen and W̱SÁNEĆ people through a “national” lens, like the Calls to Action, because not everything in those “national” frameworks is going to apply on these territories.

In the small group discussion, in a group of all settler folks, many of us named that we don’t feel like guests, and that calling ourselves “guests” would undermine historical and ongoing violence done by settlers, and the many ways that we continue to benefit from this violence. We feel like neither visitors nor guests, because most settlers and settler institutions have not built the honourable relationships with Indigenous people that would be required for us to live as guests. This leaves us with some important questions: Is it possible to be invited as a guest after so much harm has been done? Is it still possible to bring this relationship to a place where we can be trusted as guests and treat our hosts with dignity? What would that require of everyone involved? 

We are also considering the question, and perhaps necessity, of settlers giving land back by leaving. On the one hand, one of the most concrete and meaningful gestures to uphold Indigenous sovereignty is by returning land. As Chaw-win-is pointed out in the workshop, canadian state-sanctioned reports like the Truth and Reconciliation Commision (TRC) and the MMIWG inquiry do not include returning land in their recommendations, and so conveniently avoid addressing this question. 

On the other hand, ending our personal occupations of these lands also feels, in some ways, like denying our roles and responsibilities to communities and relationships that we have benefitted from as settlers. 

Amara considers these questions as someone from a family of many generations of settlers on these lands without meaningful connection to her ancestral lands (Scotland and Ireland). She highlights that going “back” to these places without having a strong relationship to them, on one level, means continuing to see land as something that can be bought/sold/travelled to without much thought. To move to Scotland is to see land as a place that can give her something, without her having invested her own energy, care, or time in that place and its communities (and only investing the cost of a plane ticket). Thinking about land in this way, as part of a surface-level transaction, instead of as part of a relationship, is part of the thinking that holds up colonialism. “As someone who doesn’t own property I don’t have a meaningful way to return land on a personal level, so what does it mean to have responsibility to Lkwungen people, and to uphold Lkwungen sovereignty and governance? I am trying to learn what my obligations are. I am thinking about the ways of being a good guest or visitor that were offered during Chaw-win-is and Lacey’s workshop: to respect the laws of the hosts; to build and care for your relationship with the hosts; to come with something to offer, not just hoping to take something away.” 

Tahia shares how her relationship to this land as a settler is also deeply connected to the colonization of her ancestral lands (Bengal) as a person of colour and also as someone who is first generation with strong connections to her home, her family, her food, her traditions, and her language. As a person of colour and a settler, the conversation about what white settlers should be doing to decolonize is different than the call to action for racialized settlers. How we decolonize has to recognize that the relationship to colonization of white settlers and racialized settlers is inherently different. “I recognize that I still benefit from being a settler here, but my relationship to the history of colonization here is different than that of white people because the reason I am here is due to colonial displacement as a result of very similar violent histories on my land.”

As a result, Tahia feels she doesn’t have the same dilemma as Amara about “going back” because she still has an active relationship with where she’s from. “I actually really want to go back home because that’s where I feel most safe from racism and white supremacy. But what about my responsibility and obligation to the land and people I have benefited from by being a settler? So while I’m here one thing I am very conscious of is property ownership – both because of my own beliefs and values and because of my understanding of my current role as a settler on these lands. Buying a home for instance is a marker of success in the immigrant narrative. I am trying to break free of that story. I am also thinking more proactively about how I can contribute to land repatriation as part of an existing movement across Turtle Island of people of colour who are using a class analysis to mobilize wealth/economic power in racialized communities to collectively support Indigenous sovereignty, resource redistribution and land repatriation.” 

We are both so thankful to Chaw-win-is and Lacey for their work and for sharing their knowledge through this workshop. We encourage you to reflect on the relationship you hold to the Indigenous nations whose territories you live on. Also consider what returning land and resources to these Indigenous nations would look like for you and your family. What other questions and complexities come up when we start doing this hard work of solidarity and justice?

(Photo courtesy of: Songhees Nation (2013) Songhees. One Printers Way. Altona, MB)

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