The Ancestral Power of Co-learning and Collective Knowledge

Reflections from our RELAW* Retreat: Indigenous Law in Story  
(Retreat 1 of 3: November 14–17th, 2022)

*Revitalizing Indigenous Law for Land, Air & Water

The snowflakes outside the window sparkled in the sunshine just outside of The Cascade Room at Manning Park Resort, in an area that encompasses the headwaters of the Similkameen and Tulameen Rivers and connects several Indigenous peoples, including the sməlqmíx / syilx, Nlaka’pamux and Stó:lō through its intertwined water systems. Our room held the medicine smudge smoke that billowed and floated out of the abalone shell into the air, filling our noses and spirits with warmth and peace. 

The medicine smudge smoke filling the retreat space (Photo: Summer Tyance)

Every year, our RELAW team of Indigenous rights and environmental lawyers and communications specialists offer the RELAW Co-learning Program to a new cohort. Individuals express their interest in the summer or are nominated by their nation. The program begins in the fall and lasts until the next summer, with three retreats held throughout the year. Every year we connect with different people, and learn about approaches to researching, applying and enforcing Indigenous law. Participants have the opportunity to engage with their nation’s own laws and processes, and explore how these can shape community decision-making related to land, air and water. 

At the first retreat for the 2022-2023 cohort, called “Indigenous Law in Story,” we learned about the RELAW approach and discussed the important role of stories in communicating the unique legal traditions of Indigenous peoples. We brought together 30 people from 14 different nations. Starting our first retreat with introductions was necessary to build a web of safety and comfort, allowing new connections and networks to blossom, laying critical foundations of learning that will continue to unfold over the course of the Program. Then of course, we slowly delved into the meaningful work that is learning from, and with, Indigenous stories, utilizing the method developed by the University of Victoria Indigenous Law Research Unit (ILRU).

A life-changing learning experience

I come as a guest to Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-waututh territories. Home for me is Kiashke Zaaging Anishinaabek, or Gull Bay First Nation, located in Northwestern Ontario. I am an Anishinaabekwe who has journeyed to the West Coast for educational and career purposes. Introducing who we are and where we come from is tradition within so many Indigenous communities; it is vital to provide the context of where our ancestors come from and how we show up or learn in relation. 

As the RELAW Communications Coordinator at West Coast Environmental Law, it was my role to piece together some of the logistical elements that were crucial for the retreat to occur in a good way. This was the first retreat that I was not only able to assist with planning, but also attend in person – and the experience was life-changing. 

The event left a lasting impression due to the significant amount of effort and heartwork integrated within the retreat. Everyone present played different key parts in making sure that the time shared was utilized carefully, and with intention. 

These RELAW retreats are created through an ethic of care. Having the retreat space be trauma-informed was just one aspect of this ethic of care in action. It was made clear to all that it was okay to take breaks when needed, to get up and move when necessary, and there was never any pressure to share more than what you wanted.

In the centre of our space and sharing circles was a blanket that held medicines, drums, chocolate, beading supplies, colouring books, and other items that anyone could use. I often found myself beading along as co-learners spoke, listening in like aunties around a fire or kitchen table. I was able to finish a pair of earrings on the last day and decided to enter them into the prize draw as a raffle item. The co-learner who won them said he was going to give them to his wife, and he also said he was interested in learning how to bead. I will keep my promise and teach him at one of the next retreats – hey, that is what “co-learning” is all about! 

Co-learners taking a scenic hike around Lightning Lake (Photo: Navjot Jassar)

If there is one word to summarize the RELAW team and the co-learners who participated in this first retreat, it would be energy. Energy as a transformation, as a motive and as a lifeforce that brought everyone together. From planning, to gearing up, to actually being present in the retreat space, I don’t think there was anyone who could have prepared me for all that I was to absorb. 

As someone who is going through the motions of applying to law schools with hopes to pursue Indigenous law in the near future, this retreat was an amazing introduction on how to take that small step into the snow, or rather, into some of the methodologies for examining Indigenous Law in Story. At our retreat, we honoured the legal traditions of the sməlqmíx / syilx, Nlaka’pamux and Stó:lō. Over the few days, we listened to stories and talked about them in large, medium and small groups, pulling out the teachings that related to the theme of laws of international and inter-community relations.

The teachings were not only incredibly helpful, but also super fascinating. Hearing from sməlqmíx community leaders who presented some of the laws they have been working to revitalize, in partnership with RELAW as an ongoing project, was inspiring. The term “co-learner” is now one I can understand more fully and appreciate after being not only staff, but an active participant in this inspiring Program. 

Coming together for our closing circle and gift give-away on our last retreat day (Photo: Summer Tyance)

Some of the pieces I was aiming to focus my time on while at the retreat were taking great photos, sharing stories for social media, engaging with others, and taking notes here and there for communications purposes – as well as taking care of some logistical concerns. I truly didn’t expect to play some of the other roles that I did. 

One morning, RELAW Manager Rayanna Seymour-Hourie had come up to me to ask if I felt comfortable opening with a prayer. At first, I wasn’t sure if this was something I could do justice to, or felt I had capability. A few moments later, I changed my answer from a shaky “no” to a confident “yes, of course.” My ancestors were, and always will be, my guide.

The value of co-learning and reciprocity

As an Indigenous youth, I often question my knowledge and whether it is as valuable as other knowledge. I have so much to learn! What this retreat has really taught me is that no matter how old you are, where you come from, or what degrees you may have – your knowledge is of value. 

Co-learning, simply put, means that we come to the circle with skills, words, and life experience that we can offer, if we wish. Co-learning is based on reciprocity. When I agreed to do the prayer, although not an elder and not fluent in my language, I showed up in the best way I could and with all that I know. Not underestimating myself was just one of the skills I learned throughout this retreat. 

This lesson resurfaced again when asked to facilitate a focus group to pull key Indigenous law principles, rights, responsibilities and more elements that are embedded into one specific Indigenous origin story. This is an example of the kind of story work and case-briefing that the ILRU method implies. It requires generous care, curiosity and respect to work with these important stories. Working with other community members who have their own beautiful strength, challenging questions, and decades of wisdom can be intimidating, but also incredibly rewarding. 

Being a part of this program, and a part of the RELAW team, is a gift. And it’s one that I do not take for granted. This notion was solidified when all of the co-learners and staff connected on the last day in one last sharing circle. As Rob Edward, a sməlqmíx elder, stood up and spoke in nsyilxcən, a large raven flew past the glass windows and landed underneath the snow-covered tree within my eyesight. A few of us took notice, as there were two ravens during the previous few days who were spotted in the area. Ravens partner together for life and typically reside in the same territory. I even spotted one co-learner offering the bird a piece of their snack during a stretch break. 

A raven spirit (Photo: Summer Tyance)

I also believe these ravens were eating the spirit dishes that Rayanna was leaving just outside near the Cascade Room. Spirit dishes are a common and traditional practice that some Indigenous cultures, such as the Anishinaabe, follow. Essentially when we share meals, someone takes initiative to create a small plate and take a little piece of each type of food to offer. Tobacco or other medicines are also added to the dish. The plate of food can then be left outside on the ground in the bush, tied and put in a tree, or be burned in a fire so the smoke can carry it up to the ancestors. 

When Rob reflected on his time at Manning Park, and all the historical connections, stories, and memories his family shared in the area, I just knew at that moment that the raven was one of his ancestors. I felt it in my spirit. 

From the comforting meals we shared, to the big laughs, discussion circles, hot tub debriefs, powerful presentations and so much more – all of these elements were pieces of a bigger and brighter vision. 

Everyone's ancestors showed up in this retreat space. They showed up as pieces of light, as parts of a story, through conversation and within the spirited landscape. They showed up in the collective knowledge passed down from generations to continue this important work. It is work that is difficult, but vital for the health of all people and Indigenous lands. 

Revitalizing Indigenous laws for land, air and water is something everyone can do, even if the effort seems small. Small ripples can create huge waves. This retreat really reiterated that there are resources out there to assist this process and it involves connection, sharing, and having the courage to ask questions. No one is too young or old to pick up this torch. Everyone is a co-learner when it comes to the valuable lessons that Indigenous stories continue to teach us over and over again. 

Focus groups discussing the Indigenous story work and case-briefing utilizing the ILRU method (Photo: Georgia Lloyd-Smith) 


Snow Spirits

Light entered
Smoke sifted
Warmth enveloped 
I felt wrapped in comfort 
And curiosity 

Voices echoed 
Silence escaped 
Snow sparkled
I felt engaged
And seen 

Stories sang
Trees whispered
People laughed
I felt heard
And encouraged 

Sparks popped
Flames ignited 
Expansion surged
I felt all 

A fire was lit one night and enjoyed by some of the RELAW staff and participants (Photo: Summer Tyance)

Summer Tyance - RELAW Communications Coordinator