“When I heard the Catalan land acknowledgement, I was really hearing the voice of the land”

Lorna Wanósts’a7 Williams

Promoter of Indigenous linguistic revitalisation programmes

Lorna Wanósts’a7 Williams.
Lorna Wanósts’a7 Williams. Author: Mariona Miret
Dr. Lorna Wanosts’a7 Williams is Professor Emerita of Indigenous Education, Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Victoria and Canada Research Chair in Education and Linguistics. She is a highly respected indigenous elder from the Lil'Wat Nation from British Columbia, Canada.

As a child, Wanósts’a7 was sent to Indian Day School and then to residential school at St. Joseph’s Mission, where her Lil’wat language was lost. Lorna helped to develop the writing system for Lil’wat and co-authored the first curriculum and learning resources for teachers to teach the language in school. In 1973, Wanosts’a7 was instrumental in opening Mount Currie’s band-controlled school, only the second First Nations community in Canada to do so. The school delivered an innovative curriculum including Lil’wat and Euro-Canadian knowledge, history, and values, with instruction given in both Lil’wat and English.

At the University of Victoria, Dr. Williams initiated and led the development of Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Indigenous Language Revitalization, and a Master’s in Counseling in Indigenous Communities. She also initiated and implemented a mandatory course in Indigenous Education for all teacher education students, leading to the requirement that all teacher education programs in British Columbia include an Indigenous Education course.

The meeting

I met Lorna Wanósts’a7 Williams on Monday 16th June, in a hotel room in Barcelona where she was gathered with indigenous peoples from all over Canada in order to prepare the indigenous circles that were going to happen over the next two days.

I had been contacted some months ago by the First Peoples Cultural Foundation because Lorna wanted to make sure our language and culture would be present in those events.

When I entered the hotel room, people had just finished introducing themselves, and Lorna was coordinating the team so that everything would take place smoothly.

I observed her. She was diligent, focused on the details, and radiating a warm energy.

The big event happening that week was the UNESCO World Higher Education Conference, and Dr. Williams had been invited to host An Indigenous Perspectives Circle on the Future of Higher Education on Wednesday, May 18th. On the day before, on Tuesday, a side event about the same topic was organised together with the Indigenous Advanced Education & Skills Council.

I had the pleasure to accompany Dr. Williams and tell her everything about Catalonia, as some kind of ambassador of my country. Over the conversations we had, walking arm in arm, I had the opportunity to learn many things from her. On one of the days I felt it was necessary to share a chat, in order to listen to her knowledge in serenity and be able to pass it on to my community, just as indigenous peoples like doing.

Nationalia: What is it like to teach indigenous knowledge at university?


«In the indigenous world, we recognize that everyone learns in their own way, in their own time, and everybody is different. It's what makes working together so efficient because everybody brings different gifts to the community»

Lorna Wanósts’a7 Williams: I can talk about it in one university, at the University of Victoria. I had the support of the Dean of Education, the Provost and the President to teach indigenous knowledge in the way that's respectful to the indigenous world. And I wouldn't find that in too many places. Us, indigenous, we learn in community, we don't separate new learners from the old people. We bring everybody together. So I brought together undergraduate students, graduate students, both masters and PhDs; both indigenous and non-Indigenous to learn together.

The beauty of humans is that we are different from each other. In the indigenous world, we recognize that everyone learns in their own way, in their own time, and everybody is different. It's what makes working together so efficient because everybody brings different gifts to the community. Because I had the support of the leaders I was able to offer a course with no grades. Many of the students were very passionate about their learning and getting their A's. To take a course where there was no grade caused them to behave differently.

In the indigenous world we don't learn with books, we don't learn with reading and writing. So I made it a rule that there would be no books, no computers. The process was learning by doing. Everything was new to the students. And that's not easy to explain. In the indigenous world we're discouraged from asking direct questions to our our teachers; instead, we're invited to observe, to see the patterns of their stories we listen to, and to decode those stories, to find our answers. That was a very different way of learning for the students.

N: What a journey. What what would you like to tell us about your people, the Lil’wat, and their values? What is the lifestyle like in your community, that you would like to share with us?

L. W. W.: Our people are in the mountains and valleys near what is now Whistler North to the Fraser and from the Fraser River to the Harrison Lakes and to the Coast in British Columbia. It's a large territory, but we're now confined into very small, narrow spaces.


«I grew up at a time when many people that surrounded me had never been to school. They'd learned on the land, and learned in our own way. But I also experienced residential school, and federal schools that were for native people. Through that process I began to ask myself “what is our way of teaching and learning”?»

I grew up at a time when there were many people that surrounded me as I was growing up who had never been to school, European school or Canadian school. They'd learned on the land and learned in our own way. So that's a real gift to me.

But I also experienced the residential school that people talk about now, and also federal schools that were for native people.

N: We have recently been hearing a lot about them. From 1894 to 1947, a system of boarding schools for Indigenous children in Canada was set up: the residential schools. For 150 years, First Nations children were forcibly taken from their families to go to these schools, often away from home. We are talking about 150,000 children. They experienced the trauma of the progressive assimilation of language, cultures, and traditions. Across Canada, Indigenous communities are beginning the long process of identifying nameless graves found in old residential schools, and investigating the deaths of children who went there. In May 2021, the remains of more than 1,000 people, mostly children, were discovered on land belonging to residential schools.

L. W. W.: Yes. When I went to those residential schools, it was through that process that I began to ask myself: “Which is our way of teaching and learning”?”

To give you one example, the concept of ‘kamuchkaja’, I use it when I'm bringing people together. When we gather, we really pay attention to creating a sense of common energy. And it's when you achieve that sense of common energy flowing amongst the whole group that you can create, that you can learn and teach; then people aren't feeling afraid and worried and bored, people are very connected. In my classes, that's what I teach: how we arrive at that, how we can construct that.

N: In the Occitan community, there is one concept called ‘convivéncia’, which means “the art of living together in harmony”. This is something that people who come to the Occitan Valleys in Italy love, because it's something that can only happen physically, when you are next to each other. And it builds up the more time you spend together; it reaches this common energy, by being together in that magical ambiance of just humanhood. From your perspective, what do you think it is important for the world, for global society to hear what indigenous peoples have to say?

«We are socialized to stomp on each other and to be the best, and in society we can't have that, if we're going to work together»

L. W. W.: Students who come to my classes are socialized to stomp on each other and to be the best, and in society we can't have that, if we're going to work together. What those students told me was that they waited all week for the time to come, because when they got to the class, they could breathe.

In North America there is such a sense of disconnectedness, disconnections from family, from community, from one another, and a disconnection from the land, and that's promoted by school. In the indigenous world, we can how to maintain those connections and continue to do the things that we need to to do to learn and teach.

N: I believe in our society, we are very disconnected from ourselves also individually. Is it important in the indigenous world to be connected to oneself? How do you discover yourself in your community?

L. W. W.: In order to be connected to others into the world, you have to be connected to yourself. And so in the indigenous world, there are many ways. It's your individuality, your uniqueness, the beauty of your unique being that is connected to the rest of the community. To be really connected, you have to really know that sense of self.

One way we have in indigenous communities is through our names. We learn how to be who we are through the names that we're given. And we don't have just one name. We can have several. Our names help us to explore and to know ourselves.

The other one is that every being that comes into the world has a song. So in our ceremonies, at a certain time in life, that song is invited to emerge. It's in the emergence of that song and presenting it to the community that you achieve that sense of self because then you're a part of it. Everything has a song... the trees, the rivers, the streams.

N: In the session that you hosted in the World Higher Education Conference in Barcelona, “an Indigenous Perspectives Circle on the Future of Higher Education”, you invited our representatives to do a land acknowledgement in our languages. Why did you want the Catalans and Occitans to do a land acknowledgement?

L. W. W.: Because when I knew I was coming here, and knowing where I come from, we always do an acknowledgment of the land that we're on. When I arrive to some place, I introduce myself and I lay my words down on the on the ground, on the land, and say, “this is who I am”. And in order to be able to do that, I need to know the land that I'm on.

I know that in this part of the world there has been colonization for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years. And the closest I thought that I could come would be the Catalan and the Occitan languages. For me, to achieve that sense introducing myself to the spirits of the land, it has to happen in the language through which I make that connection.

When I heard the Catalan land acknowledgement being said by Mr. Xavier Vila i Moreno, just like when I hear the languages of the lands where we are, I'm really hearing the voice of the land. And that's what I was listening when he read it.

N: How have you felt here in Catalonia? What do you take away from the two events that you have taken part in Barcelona?

«I was very conflicted about coming here, because this is where Columbus came back to when he came from the Americas. Coming here has been a long journey of processing. But I am really happy to be here. There's a real sense, a real feel of community here»

L. W. W.: I was very conflicted about coming here, because this is where Columbus came back to when he came from the Americas. Columbus is coming to find himself on Turtle Island... that changed our world so drastically. All my life I've had to work to come to terms with it.

So coming here has been a long journey of processing. But I am really happy to be here. The people have been very, very kind to me. And there's a real sense, a real feel of community here, and that's really amazing. In every colonized country, the indigenous peoples have been actively suppressed and voiceless. Having our session yesterday and bringing people together from all over the world to talk about indigenous knowledge and the challenges that we face to be heard and seen in a colonial world, I really felt that people were able to tell their stories in a very clear and honest way. And I think that they were heard.