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Perspectives on Precedents: Viewing 2020 in a Larger Historical, Cultural, and Political Context

Kim van der Woerd and Michael Quinn Patton worked together in 2016 as part of a team that created the Evaluation for Social Change and Transformational Learning Program at Simon Fraser University. This interactive blog illustrates and updates the kinds of conversations that framed the generation of that program

MQP: This is the time of year when people and pundits are looking back at 2020 and trying to capture what it has been like. A common assertion is that it has been “an unprecedented year.”

I quoted the Oxford Dictionary using that phrase in a recent blog on words of the year. You took exception to that perspective.

KvdW: First of all, Gilakas’la, thank you for making the space to have this conversation with me. I would like to start by positioning myself, I am a proud member of the ‘Namgis First Nation from Alert Bay BC. My family gave me the name T,łalisam in our first family Potlatch after the Potlatch Ban in Canada. I want to mention that throughout this blog, I stand on the shoulders of the phenomenal team I work with who teach me every day, and the ancestors who stand behind me and ask me to speak up and speak out.

I promised myself that I would speak up every time I saw these words – “unprecedented year.” It evokes the invisibility of Indigenous people here on Turtle Island. What we are going through right now is very precedented. Indigenous communities (my community, communities around you, communities all over North America) have gone through terrifying pandemics since colonizers came to this continent, and intentionally spread pandemics. Indigenous communities have gone through everything we are experiencing right now – the fear, pain, loss, all of it.

Forgetting that our continent has this history, and using the terminology of “unprecedented” is most definitely a roadmap of our culture for the invisibility of brown and black people.

MQP: Such an important distinction and perspective. Thank you.

I’m based in Minnesota. Minnesota is located on traditional, ancestral, and contemporary lands of the Dakota and Ojibwe Anishinaabe Indigenous people, land ceded in the Treaties of 1837 and 1851. Land acknowledgements are becoming more common at conferences of all kinds. Canada is ahead of the USA in that regard. But it strikes me that you’re raising an issue that goes beyond land acknowledgments. You’re calling forth historical acknowledgement.

What might be a historical acknowledgement of the Coronavirus pandemic state regarding Indigenous history?  Perhaps something parallel to a land acknowledgement. What would that look like?

KvdW: I love this parallel, and a response to this is naturally complicated but rooted in the education system that intentionally left out our history of colonialism; constructed curriculum that was inherently racist (e.g., virgin soil theory); and the health care system that developed race-based theories of disease to obfuscate the impact of colonial policies.

To the point about land acknowledgements, it really is essential that all people think about the original inhabitants of the lands that they are residing on. These lands of Turtle Island were stewarded by Indigenous people since time immemorial. This was not a land that was settled, this was a continent that thrived with millions of Indigenous people. In my opinion, land acknowledgements are inherently political statements. They should not be a rote statement that becomes part of a housekeeping check list. They are justice-based statements in that you are recognizing that you are on stolen lands.

We often use the example of opening a conference – say you and I are giving a presentation together. I start out by saying – “I’m so honoured to be here today giving this presentation with Michael, I took his laptop and I’m keeping it as my own. I recognize that it is his, but it’s mine now.” And then we carry on and give our presentation, and the audience is sitting there thinking – how did she get away with that? Why can she just keep his laptop? I’m sure many audience members would be alarmed. For me, making a land acknowledgement is more like an action statement, done with the right protocols, to remember that we need to ameliorate past wrongs.

Justice issues that we face today are deeply embedded in complex historical and current systems that maintain the status quo. Many people do not know that diseases were intentionally spread by colonizers through the fur trade and after with the intention of killing Indigenous people. In 2017, you presented with Albert Marshall (and Elder of the Mi’kmaw Nation) at the end of the Canadian Evaluation Society. What was so incredibly heartbreaking was that there were no original inhabitants left in Newfoundland; the Beothuk peoples all died from disease. A whole Nation was killed by disease.

I’m not sure that there has to be a historical acknowledgement when talking about this pandemic specifically. Words matter, as Rita Mae Brown said “Language is a road map of a culture …,” and I think it’s more a matter of LEARNING about our history in Turtle Island so that we can use respectful language that acknowledges the history and suffering of Indigenous peoples. And to flash forward to today’s pandemic, it’s so important to make sure we have good disaggregated data so that we can see how this is disproportionately affecting BIPOC people.

Turning it back to you – you asked us to reflect on words of the year and what they tell us about 2020, do you think the words selected are reflective of a PRECEDENTED year?

MQP:  You’ve given us so much to think about and reflect on. Thank you. Building on what you’ve offered, because words matter, because acknowledgments matter, and because history matters, as an evaluator I hereby banish the term “unprecedented” from my vocabulary. Unprecedented is defined as “never done or known before.”  To assert that something has never been done or known before is a failure to look deeply enough into precedents. A precedent is defined as “an earlier event or action that is regarded as an example or guide to be considered in subsequent similar circumstances.” Whether circumstances are considered “similar” is a matter of perspective.  Whether what has happened in the past offers guidance for the future depends on how we understand the past, and what, as you’ve so powerfully illustrated, gets included in our examination and understanding of history.

But what you’ve opened up in challenging the designation of 2020 as “unprecedented,” is not just a failure to acknowledge the tragic historical precedents you’ve spotlighted (literally, brought into the light), but the hype about this being an “unprecedented” time is yet another manifestation of dominant culture exceptionalism. The Western world feeds on the myth of exceptionalism: that white people are not just different from but better than other peoples, that white people have been given dominion over the earth, that white people have a “manifest destiny” to exercise control over the world including both land and people throughout the world, that white people are superior, and that whatever white people do is, by definition, exceptional. The ethnocentrism of white exceptionalism leads naturally to the designation of something as “unprecedented” because anything outside of the white experience and white frame is excluded from consideration, and thus is ignored as a source of precedence.

This is not just ignorance, it is dangerous, and we see that danger in the threat to the future of humanity manifest in the climate emergency. Writing about the movement for environmental justice, Trisha Kehaulani Watson-Sproat (2020) posits that “reconciling the past may be the only way to a sustainable future.” She continues:

“Most, if not all, environmental justice and climate justice frameworks tend to focus on more recent environmental harms and subsequent environmental degradation. But injustices perpetuated against Indigenous peoples and their lands have much longer history and are still firmly rooted in worldviews connected to exploitation and domination of land and its resources….

“The environmental histories and traumas of Indigenous peoples remain largely absent from the environmental justice discussion, and this must be remedied if we are to develop   pathways to a just, sustainable future….(p. 18).”

Indigenous values, beliefs, customs, and practices that connect humans and nature in a kinship and stewardship relationship offer precedents for addressing the climate emergency.

“Indigenous peoples are situated to be powerful actors in the future of environmental and climate solutions. As knowledge keepers, they can be problem solvers within their homelands and around the world. Once upon a time the Indigenous peoples of this world not only lived among nature but thrived alongside it. It is a glorious past, and one that can help us to navigate a collective path toward a powerful, just, sustainable future.” (Watson-Sproat, 2020, p. 29)

Acknowledging, understanding, and building on the precedents of human-nature interconnectedness manifest in Indigenous cultures might well be unprecedented in the dominant culture, but is the very precedent needed to ensure humanity’s future.

So, perhaps, this addition (in italics) to the land acknowledgement:

I’m based in Minnesota. Minnesota is located on traditional, ancestral, and contemporary lands of the Dakota and Ojibwe Anishinaabe Indigenous people, land ceded in the Treaties of 1837 and 1851, land where the Indigenous people lived harmoniously, respectfully, and sustainably with nature.

Thank you for sharing your perspective and generating this dialogue. As we look to the new year and new decade, what additional precedents, if any, do you want readers to know about, acknowledge, and take into account going forward?

KvdW: I have so many thoughts. Starting with your end point for a land acknowledgement, what I would encourage is to uncover the history of “ceded” in treaties – I live in British Columbia where we do not have many treaties (colonialism happened East to West and maybe they just got tired by the time they got to us?). But what I do know is that treaties were NOT designed to be mutually beneficial, and the clear majority of them have no tangible benefits to the nations with which they negotiated. So, the word “ceded” should be used with considerable and knowledgeable caution.

Secondly, I really appreciate the notion to live harmoniously (that is one of my north stars); but I don’t think we can do that until we have reconciled the past and incorporated restitution – in my mind, we can’t legitimately, authentically get to a harmonious place until we address the world view that BIPOC people are not fully human. The notion of harmonious is romantic in nature and doesn’t get us to where we really need to get to.

Finally, what I would suggest is to maybe not write out a land acknowledgement as part of a speech or opening, and actually just let your heart speak. What does it MEAN to you to be on stolen lands? I can often find myself going into my ancestral and cellular memory of generations before me to really think about what this means as I take space in the homelands and waters of the ancestral and current peoples of the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation, Vancouver, BC). Learning how to speak from your heart can be difficult, and what we hear often is people saying they can’t do that because they fear messing up and saying the wrong thing. This is where I segue to the fuller picture of your response We tell people to let go of their white supremacy of perfectionism and just try (Jones & Okun, 2001). Many Elders we work with say there is no right or wrong, there is your experience, and your heart – so that can be a pathway to making this statement more action oriented.

Zooming out  (and not in the zoom room kind of way) – I really appreciate you bringing up white exceptionalism, with also acknowledging the role Indigenous people play and have played in stewarding our lands – and the critical role we play in the climate crisis and sustainability. I know for so many of our Nations across Turtle Island, we have had the teaching of take what you need and leave the rest. I think there was an inherent understanding that we only have so many resources. To that end, many Nations also had the teaching and practice of reciprocity when you HAD more than you needed, you shared with those around you, which also enabled you to stay true to the take what you need and leave the rest teaching.

I want to bring up a quote that a dear friend of mine just posted on her social media:

“Before our white brothers came to civilize us we had no jails. Therefore we had no criminals. You can’t have criminals without a jail. We had no locks or keys, and so we had no thieves. If a man was so poor that he had no horse, tipi or blanket, someone gave him these things. We were too uncivilized to set much value on personal belongings. We wanted to have things only in order to give them away. We had no money, and therefore a man’s worth couldn’t be measured by it. We had no written law, no attorneys or politicians, therefore we couldn’t cheat. We really were in a bad way before the white men came, and I don’t know how we managed to get along without these basic things which, we are told, are absolutely necessary to make a civilized society.”

– John Fire Lame Deer – Seeker Of Visions, Lakota Nation. 

I really feel that we need an entire paradigm shift in how we think about the power structures and policies and practices both within the public and private sector, and maybe recognize that Indigenous people who were here for 13,500+ years before colonizers came, have innate wisdom to share and learn from for sustaining our planet. There is such a profound intersection of white exceptionalism and the crisis our planet is in right now. When I think about people who are active in the conservation efforts, I also may add a bit of white saviourism to this as well. While the phenomenal leader, Greta Thunberg was for the most part, met with such positive media (rightfully so) and supportive police protected protests for the climate crisis; this is juxtaposed on how Indigenous people have been met standing our ground to protect sacred lands and mother earth. We only need to think about the Wet’suwet’en pipeline crisis where the Nation has been having a standoff with the RCMP ready to shoot the land protectors; or the Standing Rock pipeline resistance, where police sprayed rubber bullets at non-violent protestors; or the Northern Gateway Pipeline struggle; or the Idle no More movement; or the anti-fracking protests … the list can go on. What has ended up happening, rather than paying attention to what we can learn from those who kept the earth safe for 13,500+ years, we have ended up in a place where Indigenous people are surveilled as a dangerous population. I also think of a quote from one of our colleagues who attended an event where the speaker provocatively said, we are more able to think about our world deconstructing from this climate crisis than we are able to think of new models to fix this. This is emblematic of the power structures and again, capitalism and white exceptionalism.

Our families have had the practice of using the ancestral and cellular wisdom of the seven generations before us, and we pray for the safety and wellbeing of the seven generations that come after us. It is not just about us being here at this moment of time. We have let the notion of short-termism prevail over almost everything – the need for new, the planned obsolescence that overflows our landfills and rapes the earth of its precious resources. If we continue at this rate and continue to perpetuate the status quo, this crisis will be even more critical. I think it is incumbent on all of us to critically reflect on our roles in our history and contemporary legacy of colonialism, as well as current justice and environmental crises, and consider who we should look to for leadership out of this, and how we show up into this space as active co-conspirators for equity, healing and justice.


Jones, K., & Okun, K. (2001). The characteristics of White Supremacy Culture. Retrieved from:

Watson-Sproat, T. K. (2020) Indigenizing environmental & climate justice. The Nonprofit Quarterly. Fall, 16-31.

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