It is hard to believe it is almost the end of my first year at UBC (only 7 days away from the last school day!). As I have said in the first blog, Global Citizens stream in CAP really turns out to be a fabulous program the helps me through the transition from high school to university and allows me gain new perspectives about the world. At the end of the school term, I am glad to have taken part in CAP student conference that perfectly wraps up my year of learning in CAP. It is a great platform that joins students in other CAP streams and brings everything we learn together in CAP that are integral to our understanding of the world as a global citizen.
Among all the amazing programs, a presentation that intrigues me the most is “Unlearning the Colonial Gaze” by Rachel Lau in the panel of Forms of Witness. She started her presentation with her personal experience of viewing Marpole as merely an ordinary and meaningless place in Vancouver. Yet, after paying a visit to the exhibition at the Museum of Anthropology titled c̓əsnaʔəm, the city before the city, she realized that Marpole is one of the oldest ancient villages called c̓əsnaʔəm that existed more than 4000 years ago. Like many of us, she did not know that as the term “c̓əsnaʔəm” and its meaning as it is no longer in use in any indicator of that place, such as maps and road signs, and it is completely replaced by the English word “Marpole.” Therefore, she argues that the legacies of colonialism as shown in the naming of place erase the presence of First Nations and undermine Canadian’s understanding of our past. She urges us to unlearn colonial ways of looking everyday lives and relearn from indigenous people’s point of view. Her presenting not only inspire us to resist popular understanding of places that does not take into account the importance of indigenous people, but also it illustrates an key concept that is being repeated and stressed in all of my CAP classes—the power of language.
Throughout the year in our ASTU class, we have explored the questions of who has the power to determine whose stories are being told and how they are represented, especially in life narratives. These questions are worth-pondering as mere words can affect our understanding of the subject and shape our attitude towards them. The same issue can be examined by adopting the approach of postmodernism and poststructuralism that I learned in my Political Science 100 class. Postmodernists suggest that language plays an important role in the construction of knowledge. More often than not, power dynamics is embedded in language which allow those who are in power to establish matanarratives—a narrative that encompasses the elements of history, experience and knowledge—in order to reinforce their power (Erickson). Similar concept is also explored in my Geography 122 class, in particular when we examine geopolitics. Critical geopolitics argues that geography is biased as the way of defining geography reflects the value of the powerful. As suggested by Jonne P. Sharp, “any geographical description can influence political perception” (qtd in “Geography, Modernity and Globalization” 36). In the case of renaming and replacing a Musqueam word “c̓əsnaʔəm” to an English word “Marpole,” colonial powers exerted their control over indigenous people by diminishing their ability to identify places and at the same time legitimized their existence and possession of the land.
In addition to colonial intervention in the renaming of place as demonstrated in Rachel’s presentation, the language we use to call indigenous people also constitute to the consolidation of colonial power. In our Sociology class, we looked at the website from Indigenous Foundation regarding terms that are related to indigenous people. It is critical to understand what different terminologies entail and how they are being used since a lot of them “represent certain colonial histories and power dynamics…as the term for a group may not have been selected by the population themselves but instead imposed on them by colonizers” (Terminology). For example, by defining them as “Indians” in general rather than using their original names, the Canadian government devalued them and threatened the building of identity, history and memory among the indigenous community.
Yet, it is incomplete to say that language can only be exercised by those in power. Marginalized or stigmatized groups can also harness the language they use to empower themselves and resist dominant power. An autobiography we read in ASTU class, Cockeyed, is a case in point. Ryan Knighton confronts his limitation of being a blind people and refuses the stigma imposed on him using language as a strategy to restore his agency to identify, characterize and name. In the last chapter of the book, he describes himself as “blinding” instead of “blind” (Knighton 259) enables him to take up his power to represent blindness as a continuing and ongoing process, instead of what the hegemonic framework portrayed as the end, the final, and a non-life state. The same can be applied when handling the issue of indigenous people in Canada. We could possibly “unlearn the colonial gaze” by restoring and recognizing their power to manipulate language used to represent themselves and their possessions. Although the problems regarding the oppression of indigenous people are unlikely to be solved in the short term, I believe this measure would a good first step.
Erickson, Chris. “Chapter 16 Alternative Approaches to International Relations.” University of British Columbia, Vancouver, n.d. Power Point.
Geography, Modernity and Globalization II: Custom Edition. New York: Pearson. Print.
“Terminology.” Indigenous Foundation. First Nations Studies Program, 2009. Web. 2 April 2015.
Knighton, Ryan. Cockeyed: a memoir. New York: Public Affairs, 2006. Print.