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Part One: A pluriverse of conversations

Land-based de-colonisation: Embodying Reciprocity

and Responsibility

Denise Nadeau


This is the keynote presentation I gave on May 25th, 2023, at the First Nations House of Learning at the University of British Columbia which is situated on Musqueam territory on the theme of Land-Based Decolonization. Alannah Young also presented at that event (


I am a grandmother, educator, scholar, and activist working at the intersection of somatic therapy, spiritual practice, decolonization, and racial justice. My research is on how the body holds racist and colonial patterns of behavior.  I am the author of Unsettling Spirit: A Journey into Decolonization (MQUP,2020). I’d first like to situate myself as to how I come to be here today on Musqueam territory.  I am a settler of mixed European heritage from Quebec– French, Scottish, Irish and English- whose ancestors came here many generations ago, in particular my French ones. I grew up in a city Tiohtià:ke  (Montreal), but visited my Dad’s family every summer on the Gaspe coast - Gespege’wagi. My relationship to land was first as private property, my parents owned a house with a yard. Then I learned about land as a resource - my grandfather owned a sawmill in a small town on the ocean. I moved to B.C. for university, discovered “Beautiful BC”. That was the beginning of a back – and - forth process where my relationship to land began to slowly change as I became an educator who first learned that people had the answers to their own problems  (I first heard Paulo Freire when Paz Buttendahl brought him to UBC in 1984). I learned that there were entire knowledge systems – Indigenous Knowledge Systems and that these knowledges were based on and from the land. As well as being an educator, I have a training and background in the area of religious studies, which affects how I see and understand the world.

I want to use this talk to address my more recent challenge as an educator – how to educate and support settlers to develop a real sense of responsibility to the peoples and territories in which they live and hence to act in a reciprocal way with the land and all the relatives embodied in the land and water.  I feel comfortable talking about how I haven’t really solved this challenge and am more or less in process. 


Somatic exercise 

I’d like to start with a brief somatic exercise to give a break in our listening. 

This is an orientation activity to locate ourselves in this space in present time. Just notice how you are feeling now in your body – comfortable? Uncomfortable?  With your eyes and gently moving your neck if you are able, take in the environment around you, looking in all the directions and noticing things that look familiar or new, colours you enjoy, shapes, light, sounds, notice what comes up for you, memories, associations as you do that, then bring your attention back here – now notice your body. Once more look around, noting 5 things you see, four that you hear, 3 things that you connect to with touch, 2 smells and 1 taste. Notice how this feels in your body, what has changed , what has stayed the same.

When you move your eyes and neck you are activating your social engagement system. At a deeper level my colleague Alannah has given us some context to this room, the Sty Wet Tan Hall, on Musqueam territory but open to other nations. This room allows connections to the past and the future, to ancestors and those to come, and to building materials from lands both near and far away. We are in the midst of a web of relationships.

This is a brief example of how Alannah and I have worked together, combining a perspective from Indigenous knowledge systems with a somatic tool. We call our education method  “Embodying Indigenous Resurgence: All Our Relations Pedagogy” and have written about it in: Sharing Breath: Embodied Learning and Decolonization (Leon & Nadeau, 2018).


I want to now jump off from where Alannah ended. We have done work together, especially with water, providing an embodied experience of how we are interrelated with the land. However, how that results in people actually living out their relational responsibilities is another matter.


Here’s a quote from Heidi KiiwetinepinesiikStark (Ojibwe) and Gina Starblanket (Cree) who wrote “Towards a Relational Paradigm –Four Points for Consideration: Knowledge, Gender, Land, and Modernity” (2018). They point out that for feminist and Indigenous scholars, and I will add Buddhist and relational theologians, the concepts of interconnection and `we are all one` are now becoming more common. There is ‘ important difference between understanding our place in the world as situated within relations of interdependence with all of creation and living in a way that carries out our responsibilities with these relationships.’ (p.177, emphasis added).

How do we educate about living out kinship responsibilities?

It is actions, not just beliefs, that will transform the separateness of humans from the more-than-human world. And this is the challenge I face as an educator who works with mostly white settler populations.  What are the obstacles to behaviour change? And how can working with the body and land undermine these obstacles, though maybe not totally overcome them because we are living in systems of racial capitalism and white supremacy?


My particular approach has been influenced by years of training in somatic therapies and expressive arts. I have always been interested in how the psyche is shaped by social, economic and cultural factors and how these are played out in the body. In my book, Unsettling Spirit – A Journey into Decolonization (2022), which is a form of autoethnography, I explored  how hard it is/was for me to reciprocate  in a deep way – I watched my own grasping, concluding that settler identity is constructed on what you have – e.g. possessions, titles, etc.. It is not who you are deep inside. I started to explore and continue to explore the larger structure of white possessiveness and private property that keeps many of us locked in non-relational ways of being.


The idea of the settler being caught in the dynamic of grasping  as hunger and thirst I first heard from  Nlaka’pamux lawyer Ardith Walkem (  

‘A Nlaka’pamux elder once told me that the problem with the newcomers was that they were famished. She explained that newcomers never stop eating away at the waters, at the land, at the trees, at the fish. Newcomers would log, mine, build subdivisions and highways, and fish to the point of extinction and still never feel full or satisfied.’ (Ardith Walkem –Justice of the Supreme Court of BC – Dec 2020, emphasis added)

Recently I discovered the work of Dylan Roberston. His book Hungry Listening: Resonant Theory for Indigenous Sound Studies (2022) has given me a few clues as to how to educate out of this morass – because I don’t think you can change behavior with theory or thinking. He describes in his Halq̓eméylem Upriver dialect, how the settler behavior as always hungry, thirsty. 

( Welleentim) shxwlitemelh (“an adjective for settler or white person’s methods/things”]) and xwelala:m (“the word for listening”). 

I suggest you find the Indigenous word for settler from your territory. Robertson  talks about the white settler as “the extractive listener”, wanting to consume the content and hence missing the rhythms, structures, cadences, repetitions that are part of both Indigenous music,  songs, creation stories, dances,  whose function is to transmit law and history. “To be starving is to lose the relationality  and reflexivity in the desire to satisfy the hunger”. 

What I found helpful about Robertson’s work is he also identified it as a playing out in perception, the inability to have a broad sensory engagement with not only Indigenous music, but with the land and place. It is perception that is goal oriented and looking for the use value of whatever is being perceived – a narrow focus.

He talks about an ethic of listening and how to listen, to place with the whole body and being aware that we are being listened to. 

So how do we expand the sensory field?

That exercise we just did is an example which I have expanded in a 4 session course where I ask people to go out on the land and practice a multi-dimensional sensory engagement, including moving into an awareness of time and space.  And added to that sensual perception, exploring time in a different way, thinking about ancestors, the ones to come, and spatial dimensions, both now in the present but in past and future, remembering that in Indigenous systems these can coexist at the same time. 

Yet for me the greatest challenge is the ideology of white possessiveness rooted in private property. Aileen Moreton – Robertson, of the Quandamooka Nation in Queensland Australia, writes about this in The White Possessive (2015).  Both settler and Black scholars have written about private property as the core problem (see Rinaldo Walcott’s On property: policing, prisons and the Call for Abolition (2021) and settler scholar Eva Mackey’s Unsettled Expectations: Uncertainty, Land and Settler Decolonization (2016). Private property is a place to guard and surveil; we put up alarms and light sensors. How do we move from that to Land Back as sharing. The importance of this is that it links Black and Indigenous struggles as the 3 P’s: property, prisons and policing are all about protecting property.  Private property is supposed to provide certainty and permanence – which for anyone involved in the deeper questions of religious meaning knows are delusions.

In my recent work on educating about Land Back (see, I talk about the Vancouver Island Treaties and how the original signatories envisioned sharing the land with settlers, as they have always seen the land as shared - with the birds, the animals, the water mammals and fish.

We have to tackle  property and unlearning private property if the settlers can develop a decolonized relationship with land and understand Land Back as sharing, and treaties as sharing. It is not easy to break out of the grip of white possessiveness when we are still caught in the systems of racial capitalism and white supremacy – probably impossible. But I look to Indigenous futurisms and revolutionary abolitionism and the work of those like Leanne Betasamoake Simpson and Robin Maynard who are thinking out and proposing how we can live together “in a good way.” My work is giving people a bit of an embodied sense of another way of being in relation to land and all beings and, of course, working with Indigenous peoples who speak to a different way of being with the land.

I use a few art therapy exercises to get people out of their heads. For example, I’ve used scribble art after listening to a clip of Leann Betasamoake Simpson reading from her book Rehearsal for Living (2022) who spoke about an ethic of sharing. a vision of multiple sovereignties – sharing with consent how to live on common territories of the squirrels , the maple, the bear.  After I ask people to scribble on a piece of paper to connect to the feelings and what was called up for them. We then can talk about the readings at a deeper level.

Recently I did a writing workshop with Liz Howard, Anishinaabe author of the Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent (2015). It was about developing land consciousness - where you invite people to spend time learning the land-based oral histories of the nation on whose land they are visitors, whatever legitimate teachings they can find, and to research the local ecology, geology, and archeology of the land. Even to do field work, noting space and time – and trying on intergenerational perspectives on the land, those of ancestors and those to come, their relationships with the land. People can record their sensory experience embodied in the landscape, and explore Indigenous writers who see body as coextensive with the land rather than be landowners. 

Finally, in my work of educating around Land Back I now believe that until people have the experience of ceremony with the land they will still be stuck in possessiveness. Land Back includes not just returning physical land, but also the return to ceremony, Indigenous kinship, language and governance structures as well as Indigenous legal orders. This means reciprocating and acknowledging our kinship relation with the land through ceremonies, songs and prayers. I find that these have helped move my own settler mind-body set. Water walks, first salmon ceremonies, offering tobacco to the water – they are all embodied practices which slowly can affect the grasping mind. As an Indigenous colleague once said to me “Ceremony is the embodiment of our relationship with older relatives.” We have to practice it, not just think it.

So I conclude with no easy answers – the perceptual body work shakes those who are willing to hear, as does something like art therapy, any modality that gets people out of their thinking brain. But we face a structure of white supremacy and possessiveness that will only fade when another structure grows and pushes back – as I discovered in my scribble art – spending all my time in critique of the system will not work unless we continue to work with the land, with ceremony and expanding the groupings of people open to and practicing an ethic of care and sharing.

Land Back is an Indigenous -led movement addressing how “systems of land governance under our current provincial and federal governments not only exclude Indigenous Peoples from decision-making tables where choices about land use are made, they also fail to set limits for industrial activities and development, driving wildlife decline and ecosystem degradation”.

About the Author

Dr. Denise Nadeau is an educator, scholar, and activist working

at the intersection of somatic therapy, spiritual practice, decolonization,

and racial justice. She is of mixed European heritage from Quebec and

the author of the book Unsettling Spirit: A Journey into Decolonization,

which is published by McGill-Queen’s University Press and won the

Canadian Society for the Study of Religion 2021 Prize.  She currently

resides as a visitor in the traditional homelands of the WSÁNEĆ (Saanich),

Lkwungen (Songhees and Esquimalt) peoples on Vancouver Island.  

Denise Nadeau – Writer, Educator, Somatic Practitioner


Howard, L. (2015). Infinite citizen of the shaking tent. Random House Canada.


Mackey, E. (2016). Unsettled expectations: Uncertainty, land and settler decolonization. Fernwood.

Maynard, R. & Betasamoake Simpson, L. (2022). Rehearsal for living. Knopf Canada.

Moreton-Robinson, A. (2015). The white possessive - Property, Power, and Indigenous Sovereignty. University of Minnesota Press


Nadeau. D. (2022). Unsettling spirit – A journey into decolonization. McGill University Press.

Roberston, D. (2022). Hungry listening : Resonant theory for Indigenous sound studies. UBC Press.

Starblanket, G. & Kiiwetinepinesiik-Stark,  H. (2018). Towards a relational paradigm − Four points for consideration: Knowledge, gender, land, and modernity. In M. Asch , J. Borrows & J. Tully (Eds.) Resurgence and Reconciliation.


Walcott, R. (2021). On property: Policing, prisons and the call for abolition. Biblioasis, Ontario.


Young Leon, A. & Nadeau, D. (2018). Embodying Indigenous resurgence: “All our relations pedagogy”. In: S. Batacharya& Y-L Wong (Eds.) Sharing Breath: Embodied Learning and Decolonization (pp. 55-82). U of Athabasca Press.


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