Understanding the stories of the land: My first year with the RELAW Project

My name is Shelby Lindley and I am a member of the Upper Nicola Band in the Syilx (Okanagan) Nation. I started my position with West Coast Environmental Law in November of 2018 as a staff lawyer with the RELAW (Revitalizing Indigenous Law for Land, Air and Water) Project.

The RELAW Project provides legal support and co-learning opportunities to Indigenous nations using their own laws to address environmental issues affecting their territories. Part of my role was to attend the three retreats for the third cohort of this project at the Sts’ailes Lhawathet Lalem Healing Retreat Centre.

During the initial retreat in fall 2018, I was a short month away from the arrival of my daughter, Sophia, who is now a year old. Over the week my colleagues introduced the RELAW methodology, spoke about the different sources of law and the importance of Indigenous stories as sources of law.

The approach taken by RELAW speaks very personally to me because my grandmother, Lottie Lindley, who passed away in 2016, was involved in the development of a collection of stories and histories of our land that were published in a book called Okanagan Grouse Woman. In the book, she spoke about the teachings from her elders, her understanding of the stories of our land, and about how she wanted her children and grandchildren to have this knowledge.

Since reading it, I have often thought about how the lessons embedded in the stories could be carried on in my day-to-day life. In working with RELAW, I was invited to consider and reflect on how I might be able to do this in a way that recognizes the important connections that Indigenous people have with the land and the water in their communities, and how stories and teachings from our elders represent our laws.

On the final day of the first retreat, a blanket ceremony was held to honour the participants from each nation, as well as my colleague Rayanna and I, as we began our RELAW journeys. With my blanket wrapped around us in the beautiful setting near the Chehalis River, I could feel my daughter kicking to the sound of the drums. This brought me a lot of comfort in a time of new beginnings.

Another important tool supported by RELAW is learning on the land. Being in nature while working toward the collective goal of keeping it protected is very powerful and is a constant reminder of why this work is so important.


The Chehalis River and the inviting entrance at the Sts’ailes Lhawathet Lalem Healing Retreat Centre

In spring 2019, while out on the land during the second retreat and with my new baby, Sophia, we learned about the pit houses and plank houses that housed the Sts’ailes people as we walked along the river where they once stood. Our discussions about responsibility and respect for the Earth took place inside a beautiful healing centre surrounded by trees and mountains. Even while indoors, the view of the riverbank, the fire and the cedar beams kept us grounded and connected to nature.

My daughter Sophia in her cradle at four months old

Many Indigenous laws and teachings are embodied in the land itself; for example, my grandmother talked about the place known as “Hoodoo Rocks,” which told the story of two women who Coyote turned to stone for ignoring his warnings. Other Okanagan teachings explain the placement of our mountains, and the locations of our lakes. I look forward to continuing to work with RELAW participants to protect their land in ways which are informed by their stories and laws.

The third retreat took Sophia and I back to the stunning Sts’ailes territory. Over the week the focus was on enforcement, which can bring various challenges and difficulties for each community. The retreats provide a forum to bring people together who can work through these issues in a positive way. Participants were encouraged to share successes and challenges and the power of listening was apparent as wisdom and guidance was shared. I felt a sense of momentum as the participants began to consider the next steps in their Projects.

Sophia at the November RELAW retreat at 11 months old 

On this particular week, bright orange autumn leaves covered the ground outside of the healing centre – a time of reflection. I thought about the last time we had been here how sunny and warm it was while Sophia napped in her cradle outside. I reflected on how much I had learned over the previous year working with RELAW and on how being a mom for nearly a year has changed my perspective.

Now, as we begin a new year and continue this work, I feel energized and ready to put this knowledge to use supporting our RELAW partners in revitalizing and upholding their laws. My purpose in this role is to work toward a sustainable future through an Indigenous legal lens, not only for my daughter, but for the generations to come.

Top Photo: Blanket ceremony at the Sts’ailes Lhawathet Lalem Healing Retreat Centre following the first RELAW retreat in November of 2018
Photo credits: Shelby Lindley

Shelby Lindley, Staff Lawyer