Photo by Jordan Abel

On Land, Belonging, and Dispossession

Jordan Abel—

“Decolonization is not a metaphor.”1
Tuck & Yang

One of the most difficult things I’ve had to do in my life is talk about where I come from. As an urban Nisga’a person who grew up disconnected from my home community, questions like “Where are you from?” or “What community do you belong to?” felt like they needed hours to answer instead of moments. In fact, I wrote an entire book that attempts to answer these questions, and I still don’t think I’ve gotten to the bottom of it. Recently, I’ve started answering this question by saying that I am a queer Nisga’a person from Vancouver, BC as a gesture towards the city I was born in—and a place that actually feels like home to me—rather than saying that my paternal grandparents are from Gingolx, B.C. but were removed from that community at a young age and were raised in the Coqualeetza Indian Residential School. An experience that no doubt caused them irreparable physical and psychological harm, and that subsequently resulted in the fracturing of our family and my eventual dispossession. To say I’m from Vancouver is both accurate and easy—even if it’s not a satisfying answer for some of the folks asking that question—and it’s also sometimes an answer I give because I simply do not have the energy to say more.

What’s difficult for me, though, is that I do feel a sense of belonging to Gingolx and the Nass River Valley—I do feel as though I am supposed to be intimately connected to that place even if I have never lived there. How then can I begin to talk about a place that I have no geographical or physical connection to? How do I begin to repair my relationship with land that I’ve been dispossessed from? And what does it mean to have a relationship with the land? How do we begin to talk about the land without centering ourselves and our human ways of knowing?

The answer, for me at least, has been to write through these questions by using process-based conceptual writing techniques. I started out by rewriting descriptions of land from James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans—a book that Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz argued “became perceived fact, not fiction, and the basis for the coalescence of U.S. American nationalism” in addition to being a narrative that was “instrumental in nullifying the guilt related to genocide”—and, by writing over, through, and beyond Cooper’s original text, I began to make the first steps towards reclaiming these description of land and disrupting the colonial imaginary.2 While the geography that Cooper was writing about was primarily the American northeast, I quickly found that the land I was directly in relation to on a day-to-day basis—the traditional territories of the Sinixt, Sylix, Ktunaxa, and Secwepemc peoples—figured prominently in my writing.

From there my process-based writing slowly shifted away from Cooper’s source text and inwards towards my own writing. I began rewriting my rewritings. This process for me is one that is deeply indebted to relationality with the land. Which landforms do you pass every day? What do you notice when you look out your window at home or while walking to work? How might we move forward and beyond traditional territory acknowledgments to further personal understandings of the land that we are in relation to every day? My writing process then became about returning to the same sentences every day, finding them in a new light, seeing them from new angles that I hadn’t previously. This rewriting was about the possibilities of sentences as geographical spaces that I could return to, linger on, walk through again and again.

When I was in Paris a few months ago, I ended up at the Musée d’Orsay standing in front of a series of Claude Monet paintings where he had painted the same scene of the London Houses of Parliament over and over in different light, in different weather. I was reminded that the core of the process that I’ve engaged in Empty Spaces is an old one—that I am returning to the same textual spaces and seeing something different each time.

While my writing doesn’t ever bring me home to Gingolx or the Nass River Valley, it does allow me a connection with the land of my ancestors while also giving me space to reflect on the land that I’m currently occupying. Empty Spaces, then, is a work that is in part about the possibilities of healing from settler colonial violence and the essential role the land plays on that journey.

Jordan Abel (Nisga’a), an award-winning author, is associate professor in the Department of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta. He is the author of NISHGA,The Place of Scraps,Un/inhabited, and Injun.

1 Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, “Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1, no. 1 (2012): 1–40.

2 Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne. An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. Beacon Press, 2014.

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