Jump to main content

By Monique Richoux (she/her), teacher from the shared lands of the Secwepemc and Syilx peoples

I feel connected to this land, this mountain, because it is the home of the plants and birds and other creatures that I cherish, but am I really connected? Is it a mirage? I have been struggling with this for almost 10 years now, since I really started understanding colonialism and globalization and what is happening right now in real time (cough, gasp, sweat), not just theoretically. Wendell Berry says people should stay put, should really get to know the land and then they will protect it. Then again, Wendell Berry is not likely to get arrested for doing so.

– Richoux, reflection journal, July 19, 2021

I wrote this inquiry/lament/love-letter from this smoke-filled place on evacuation alert, sick with dread for the animals and plants that couldn’t escape, distracted by my plans to get my domestic animals out should the order be given, and wondering if I should get out anyway because the smoke (from the White Rock Lake fire) had become unbearable. What do I do about the hummingbirds? Is it better or worse to leave the feeders full should we be forced to vacate? I seek to live in connection with this land, this hectare (2.5 acres) that my co-tenants and I are allowed by the government of BC to call “ours,” knowing full well that it is not ours, but rather a product of colonial displacement that privileged settlers.

How do I heal my relationship with all those who have been displaced so that I can be here? With the coyotes who are excluded, with the Secwepemc and Syilx people who can no longer access or benefit from this space, with the deer who must now jump over the fence when the dogs aren’t looking, with the stones who keep silent watch? This question is vital, not only because I am a settler, but because I am a teacher of many settler children, all of us on stolen land. Furthermore, BC teachers are charged with the Teachers’ Council’s professional standard nine to “…critically examine their own biases, attitudes, beliefs, values and practices to facilitate change.” Most importantly, however, we are running out of time to prevent catastrophic environmental and social breakdown.

Place-based education seems to offer a path toward a more reciprocal, holistic model of educating our young at a time when it is clear we desperately need it. This means different things to different people, but, in general, it suggests that getting kids outside and connected to the land will result in people who are more invested in protecting that land, either through civic action or career choice. However, scholars such as Delores Calderon and David Greenwood, to name two, suggest that learning about the land in a biological/geographical way without including the social/historical/political context, and specifically including the long-term traditional roles and relationships of the First Peoples, does “…not go far enough to promote decolonizing goals that should be included in any place-based education model interested in cultural and ecological sustainability.”1 For me, this means examining my sense of place not just through a physical/ecological lens as I have always done, but through the larger, socio-historical-political lens of colonization as well.

Simply put, using a “place-based methodology” in my teaching and living is probably not enough. Feeling haunted by the words “stolen land” is an indication that I am ready to move toward a more comprehensive and decolonizing framework, which includes teaching even young children about what colonization and land appropriation is, and that this is in fact why the residential school system was created in the first place.

Stories are a great starting point for these conversations. One of my personal favourites is Bill Peet’s 1970 classic The Wump World. There is a line in the book where the leader of the colonizers plants a flag on the Wump’s planet and declares, “It’s perfect. We’ll take it!” Destruction ensues. Kids are mesmerized by this book, often asking to hear it again and again.

Peet’s story opens the door to discussions about local legacies of colonization, but how do I learn to teach this in a way that does not privilege settler narratives? All I know about my “here” is the settler story written down in a 1990 textbook that serves (unintentionally) to uphold colonialism.

The Secwepemc Museum and Heritage Park, over at the old Kamloops Residential School site, is a veritable trove of information, and yet I have struggled to relocate that information here in my community (about 45 minutes away from Kamloops, one of the few places in BC that organized a Canada Day celebration in 2021, rather than deferring out of respect for the grief re-exposed by the confirmation of unmarked graves at the Kamloops Residential School).

In my daily life, I see the deer people and the bear people, many of the plant people and bird people; I can easily imagine a land with no humans at all, the paradise that might be if settlers had not carved out this place, and I am able to transmit this to my students. But I am learning that we can’t truly “see” a place without including the thousands of years of entanglement of the human people too, because as so many Indigenous (and settler) scholars have shown us, the people shaped the land as much as the land shaped the people. (For example, see Knowing Home: Braiding Indigenous Science with Western Science, Books One and Two, edited by Gloria Snively and Wanosts’a7 Lorna Williams, available most generously for free download.)

Another pivotal resource for me in learning about decolonized approaches to learning with and from the land has been Loften and Vaughan-Lee’s film Counter Mapping.2 The film features Jim Enote, an A:shiwian historian, who says, “We live in a world with many ways of knowing; with many different systems of knowing.” The film and accompanying essay by Steiner-Scudder describe how Jim and some of the A:shiwi Elders decided to “…create maps that bring an Indigenous voice and perspective back to the land, countering Western notions of place and geography and challenging the arbitrary borders imposed on the Zuni world.”3 The Zuni maps, says Jim, contain something very important: a different way of looking and knowing.

My Grades 1 and 2 students and I made a sort of “counter-map” for our town last year (pictured on pages 16–17); one that highlighted the more-than-humans that live in the valley, and potentially shows the Salmon River as it once may have been: full of salmon and central to human life (in reality, you cannot see it from this vantage point and it has very few salmon—even fewer after the heat dome of late June). We started with taking some photographs as we looked south from our school, and after choosing our favourite image, we traced the outline of everything except the houses onto a large canvas. We then spent several weeks thinking about what kinds of plants and animals we know live in our community, adding them to the canvas and, finally, painting it with fabric paint and sharpie. We were engaged in a different kind of knowing and thinking about what a community is, focusing on the more-than-human lives that interact silently with our own, and developing awareness that what we do affects others. This was before I had discovered the term “counter-mapping,” which is why it hadn’t yet occurred to me that we might try this on a larger scale, one that includes and honours the many-storied histories of Secwepemc and Syilx peoples.

Now I wonder, what if there is a way to use counter-mapping to bring Indigenous Peoples and settlers together, to bridge some of the gaps that colonialism has brought into all our layered lives? How can I engage children fully in developing a deep, pervasive connection to “place” if they have no way to conceive of what it might mean to be in a reciprocal relationship with the land? If they have no sense of ecological identity? If they have never eaten a Saskatoon berry or a salmonberry or salmon? If they are not connected to the peoples whose lives have been entangled with this place for time immemorial? Such a project could provide the kind of methodology needed to shift place-based education forward.

I am still uncertain how to move forward with this project, as COVID-19 and climate instability wreak havoc in our daily lives, impeding our ability to connect with others, but I know that it is no longer enough to feed the hummingbirds, uproot knapweed, or even get children outside every day. I can never change the fact that I am a settler on stolen land. However, as I struggle to reconcile this discomfort, it behooves me to try to deconstruct my thinking about this place and find ways to create time and space for my students to do the same.


Dedicated to Dr. Peter Cole, UBC, who inspired this investigation through his course Theories and Dimensions of Place-Based Education: Ecohumanist, Critical and Indigenous Lenses.


1 Delores Calderon, “Speaking back to Manifest Destinies: a land education-based approach to critical curriculum inquiry,” Environmental Education Research, Vol. 70, No.1, 2014, p. 24–36.

2 Adam Loften and Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee, Counter Mapping, Go Project Films, 2018.

3 Chelsea Steinauer-Scudder, “Counter Mapping,” Emergence Magazine, February 2018, emergencemagazine.org/feature/counter-mapping.


Read More About:

Category/Topic: Teacher Magazine