Academic journal article British Journal of Canadian Studies

Aboriginal Peoples and the Land: Ownership, Understanding and Development

Academic journal article British Journal of Canadian Studies

Aboriginal Peoples and the Land: Ownership, Understanding and Development

Article excerpt

This case study investigating differences between conventional conceptions of wilderness and Aboriginal understanding of the land and its 'wild spirit places' in British Columbia demonstrates the importance of incorporating an element of this understanding when balancing proposals for conservation. Discourse incorporating the concept of wilderness legitimised the dispossession of Aboriginal peoples in the province during colonisation while taking no account of Aboriginal understanding; recent policies, on the contrary, have fostered movement towards negotiations and partnerships in land management. Historical studies of land use by indigenous peoples raise questions about how apt it is to call them 'conservationists'; indeed, traditional patterns of land ownership in British Columbia have included competition and conflict between First Nations. However, the article argues that traditional environmental knowledge, despite methodological and political reservations, has a role in land claims and resource management. Finally, the Squamish First Nation's land-use plan is examined to illustrate the complexity of the needs of protection, restoration and management of resources.

Indigenous peoples were defined with reference to wilderness by traders, settlers, missionaries and government officials who colonised the land they occupied (Fisher 1992; Francis 1992). Judgements that territory had not been cultivated, was desolate, was inhabited by wild creatures, or was without tracks or ways sometimes included reference to the presence of indigenous people (Harris 2002; Hayes 2001). When uses of the concept of wilderness by settlers included indigenous peoples, the natives were sometimes identified as part of the danger that was intrinsic to European settlers' understanding of wilderness (Coates 1991; Fisher 1992; Miller 1989). At other times, with the intention of preserving areas judged to be wilderness areas, the stance taken towards indigenous people was that they should be removed to ensure that an area could be retained in a supposedly natural state (Nadasdy 2003). Whether indigenous peoples were included or omitted in references to wilderness, their distinctive understanding of the land, their conceptions of territorial ownership and their historical use of the land were commonly misunderstood, misrepresented or ignored. However, irrespective of the presumptions of early European migrants to Canada, Aboriginal peoples have historically lived on, used, adapted, modified and responded to the territories that have been assigned the label of 'wilderness' by non- Aboriginal peoples.

This paper explores the issue of wilderness from the viewpoints of Aboriginal peoples. It outlines their traditional perspectives on the land, examines the literature on Aboriginal peoples' understanding of the land, considers issues arising from different views of ownership of the land, and explores developments in land use by Aboriginal communities. The main geographical location for this study is British Columbia, where there have been ongoing treaty negotiations and settlements, together with new agreements and partnerships that include Aboriginal governance of land use. The paper falls into four main parts. First, the context is clarified by reference to the colonial legacy of land allocation in British Columbia and to contemporary developments in negotiations about the land. Second, Aboriginal perspectives on the fundamental issues of property ownership with reference to the land and traditional ecological knowledge are outlined. Third, themes arising from contemporary developments in aboriginal management of the land are illustrated with reference to the land-use plan of the Squamish First Nation. Finally, some of the issues and dilemmas of development of the land and protection of wilderness areas by First Nations are discussed.

The Colonial Legacy and Postcolonial Developments in British Columbia: Towards Negotiation?

The process of colonial dispossession that led to the allocation of small parcels of land to the indigenous peoples of British Columbia during the latter part of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century resulted in about 1,500 small reserves in different parts of the province (Harris 2002). …

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