There is now a routine ritual before most public events on the West Coast of Canada, during which organizers thank indigenous tribal groups for allowing attendees to meet on their “unceded traditional territory.”
An aboriginal elder often offers a prayer and mini-lecture as part of this gratitude ceremony, which now occurs before conferences sponsored by governments, public schools, mainline Protestant churches and institutes of higher learning.
I have wondered about the consequences of this quasi-sacred protocol. Will there be social and political ramifications that flow from it?
It’s been fascinating to learn about how some high-school students in B.C. are dealing with the concept of “unceded territory.”
Some teachers at Howe Sound Secondary School in Squamish, B.C., brought it to my attention in regards to the thorny issue of whether aboriginal smudging should be performed in public schools.
It heard from the creative teachers after I wrote a column last fall about a Vancouver Island woman’s protest against her young children having to take part in aboriginal smudging ceremonies in their public elementary school.
Along with the B.C. Humanists Association I concluded smudging rituals are spiritual activities, which should not be required of anyone.
So, in the name of freedom of religion, I recommended B.C. public schools “teach far more world-religion courses, so students can learn, in age-appropriate ways, about a variety of spiritual observances and worldviews, from Catholicism to Sikhism.”
I wrote that would fit with the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which recommended doing more to educate students about aboriginal traditions.
I concluded: “The actual practice of (smudging rituals), however, is probably best reserved to individuals, families and spiritual communities.”
It was satisfying to learn that two high school teachers in Squamish had assigned the column for discussion to their highly diverse “English First People’s” class of Grade 10s to 12s. They sent me some of the students’ responses.
Thanks to teachers Paul Demers and Sara Price for showing such initiative with their class, which they say includes many First Nations, but also Caucasians, Indo-Canadians et cetera.
The high school regularly holds smudging ceremonies.
Of the roughly 20 student letters I received about the issue, about half agreed with my position, the others didn’t.
What was especially interesting is the key reason many gave for holding smudging ceremonies in public schools.
They said smudging should be conducted because students in B.C. are studying on the “unceded territory” of First Nations people.
As two students wrote in a combined letter: “The idea, or fear, that smudging in school is breaking a religious freedom law is a hurtful subject, given that we reside on never ceded and sovereign First Nations land.” (See second letter below)
Another small group of students wrote: “The land that all British Columbia schools are on is unceded land. It is appropriate that the people on whose land we find ourselves on do the blessing. Having the rooted origin of place and culture should absolutely have a right to do a prayer.” (Third letter below)
A third small group maintained: “(Smudging) only came to schools because the land we meet on is unceded land, so it’s important to learn about some culture because the land is unceded.” (Fifth letter)
Here’s a sample of some letters on the unceded territory issue, plus a final letter from some students who agree with me. (I’ve removed the students’ names.)
We start with the teachers’ cover letter: