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Learning Insights: Acknowledging Indigenous Traditional Territory

Contributor: Annie Leblond and Nathalie Gagnon, Indigenous Learning, Canada School of Public Service

Published: August 17, 2020

Whether you know it or not, you live and work on Indigenous territory. But what exactly does this mean?

You've probably heard someone acknowledge traditional Indigenous territory, but you may not have known why. If you want to learn how to acknowledge it as well, but don't know how, here are some tips to help guide you.

Traditional diplomacy

Territorial acknowledgement stems from an old Indigenous diplomatic custom. When an Indigenous person found themselves on another nation's territory, even when only passing through, they would announce their presence by saying something along the lines of, "I want to acknowledge that I am on the traditional territory of [nation name]." That was a way of saying, "I recognize that you are the nation responsible for preserving this territory and, above all, I come in peace."

In these times of Reconciliation, the custom is reiterated at formal and informal meetings to acknowledge the Indigenous nation or nations that occupy the territory on which the meeting is taking place. The plural aspect is important; we will come back to it.

"Acknowledging territory shows recognition of and respect for Aboriginal Peoples. It is recognition of their presence both in the past and the present. Recognition and respect are essential elements of establishing healthy, reciprocal relations. These relationships are key to reconciliation [...]."     
– This excerpt and the examples provided below are from the Guide to Acknowledging First Peoples and Traditional Territory.

Draw me a border

The boundaries of Indigenous territories are not related to borders resulting from (arbitrary) administrative divisions, so the borders of colonial states have created artificial divisions within many traditional territories. For example, the Anishinaabeg occupy both sides of the Ottawa River or Gatineau and Ottawa; not just Quebec, but Ontario as well! Mohawk territory straddles land in Quebec, Ontario, and the United States.

Yes, but how do we acknowledge territory?

The wording depends on whether you are located on First Nations, Métis or Inuit territory. You also need to know if there is a treaty or a territorial agreement in place.

Among Métis people

On the territory of the Métis Nation, we simply speak of "territory," not "traditional territory."

Among Inuit

The tradition of acknowledging territory does not exist among Inuit. However, you can impress your friends by teaching them that Inuit Nunangat (where Inuit live) consists of four regions:

  • Nunavut
  • Nunavik (Quebec)
  • Nunatsiavut (Labrador)
  • Inuvialuit (Northwest Territories and Yukon)

Among First Nations people

There are hundreds of First Nations communities in Canada. Always check which traditional territory you are on.

Several Indigenous nations may occupy the same territory. You must ensure that you name them all. For example, in Vancouver, the territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh and Tsawwassen nations overlap.

Virtual meetings or events

You should recognize only the territory on which you are physically located and invite others to do the same (by telephone) or to have a thought for the territory in which they find themselves during an event.

For example :

"I would like to acknowledge that since I am in Ottawa, I am on the traditional unceded territory of the Anishnaabeg nation. I recognize that we all work in different places and that therefore you work in a different traditional Indigenous territory. I encourage you to take a moment to reflect on that and acknowledge it."

Whether or not a modern treaty or territorial agreement is in place

The wording of First Nations territorial acknowledgements will change depending on whether there is a modern treaty or territorial agreement (traditional territory) or not (unceded traditional territory) between the nation and Canada.

Diagram entitled: Where am I?
  • Text version

    This is a diagram to help the reader easily determine whether they are in a territory, an unceded traditional territory, or a traditional territory.

    The question posed in the title is, Where am I? In response to this question, the first row of the diagram shows the three Indigenous Peoples among whom you could be: Métis, First Nations and Inuit. Under "Métis" is the text box "Territory." Under "First Nations" is the text box "Traditional Territory." Under "Inuit" is the text box "Territory," with an explanation in small print that the tradition of territorial acknowledgement does not exist in Inuit territory.

    A text box in the third row of the diagram under "First Nations" asks the question, Is the territory part of a modern treaty or territorial agreement? If the reader answers "no," they are sent to the text box "Unceded Traditional Territory" in the final line of the diagram. If the reader answers "yes," they are sent to the text box "Traditional Territory."

Some examples

Winnipeg – First Nations (with a modern treaty or agreement) and Métis

"We [I] would like to begin by acknowledging that we are in Treaty 1 territory and that the land on which we gather is the traditional territory of the Anishinaabeg, Cree, Oji-Cree, Dakota and Dene Peoples, and the homeland of the Métis Nation."

National Capital – First Nations (without modern treaty or agreement)

"I would like to acknowledge that the land on which we gather is the traditional unceded territory of the Anishnaabeg People."

Although there are some general trends, there is no single wording that applies to all territories. There is no one-size-fits-all approach.

If you wish to acknowledge a territory, do so in a respectful and thoughtful manner and at the very beginning of your activity.

Inquire about the protocols to follow before your visit.

Ask a local Indigenous Elder to help you with the wording.

Refer to the following resources for guidance:

Take a look at these resources, even if only to find out whose territory you live and work in. You might find out about the neighbours you didn't even know you had!

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