“Beyond a feeling of recognition”: A Conversation with Dylan Robinson on Indigenous Place Naming as Action


As an Anishinaabe artist invested in the repatriation of Indigenous land and decolonial thought, a question that I have been continually grappling with is how we move from forms of representation that are mostly symbolic to actions of reparation. As a structure of power, settler colonialism makes land not only the most contested arena but also the most sought after. The dispossession of Indigenous peoples from our lands represents a profound epistemic disruption, as land, as Glen Coulthard writes, forms “the material basis of Indigenous people’s health and nationhood.”1 While it can be empowering to see Indigenous languages in public space, these projects happen on (stolen) land and intersect with differing and perhaps competing notions of sovereignty.

In his important essay “Public Writing, Sovereign Reading: Indigenous Language Art in Public Space,”2 Dylan Robinson extends sovereignty into other forms of perception including vision, listening, and touch. I knew that Dylan was a fellow language learner and a xwélmexw scholar and curator interested in public art, repatriation, and sound studies. It felt important to speak with him about these things – about the tensions in, and especially the sound of, our languages and sovereignties.

—Susan Blight

Susan Blight

Dylan, I’ll give you the opportunity first to introduce yourself to the readers of The Capilano Review in any way that you feel good about.

Dylan Robinson

Sure. I always love to introduce myself in our language which is Halq’eméylem. So I will do that, especially because we’re going to be talking about language today. Ey swayel el sí:yá:m siyá:ye. T’ilel tel skwíx. Telitsel kw’e Skwah. Barbara Holman el ta:l. Ruth Gardner el siselelh. íkw›elò kws thiyéltxwem, li te Xwméthkwiyem tèmèxw. Xólhemetchap te tèmèxw íkw›elò. éy kws hákw’eleschet te s’í:west e siyolexwálh.

I was struggling through the language a bit there because I’m still a language learner and it’s been really challenging as a language learner to do the work from a distance over the years. But what I said was a greeting to readers, where I’m from, and who my family is: that my mother is Barbara Holman, and my grandmother is Ruth Gardner. I said that I’m a member of Sqwehá (Skwah First Nation), which is located in the city of Chilliwack – a word that is itself an anglicized version of Ts’elxwíqw. And I said I am currently living on xwməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam) land, and that I am thankful for care and stewardship xwməθkwəy̓əm folks give to the land.

I’ve just recently moved here – I say I’ve “moved home,” even though I’m living on xwməθkwəy̓əm land and grew up in Surrey. For many years and since I did my undergraduate degree, I haven’t lived at home except for a very short period when I had a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of British Columbia, which is when I started to learn Halq’emeylem. So I’ve been learning Halq’eméylem from my language mentor – Lumlamelut WeeLayLaq – who is from Ts’elxwíqw. But with having a young family and living away from home, it’s been a challenge to be consistent with my language learning. We haven’t spoken Halq’emeylem in my family for a couple of generations. I’m the first generation to return to the language. I’m still a language learner, and I say that not out of a place of insecurity, but just to acknowledge the fact that this will be a lifelong practice and commitment for me, and I hope for my children as well. There’s a lot of investment right now in language revitalization – in our communities, of course, but also at universities and in the city. You even notice it when you’re on campus, the orthography of Hən̓q̓əm̓inəm̓ is really infused in the campus landscape, on all the street signs, the naming of buildings which we wouldn’t normally do. [Laughs] All this work is thanks to the leadership of xwməθkwəy̓əm folks working with UBC and the City of Vancouver.

And then I just closed by saying that it’s good to remember the teachings of our ancestors, which is something we sometimes say when we gather – and I like to include when I’m introducing myself – to re-ground myself in those values and help guidemy thinking alongside the knowledge shared by my ancestors.


You were speaking about the move from the east to your homelands, or around your homelands, and how that makes a difference. In Toronto, I’ve seen a major shift in the last ten years with a desire or at least the will to introduce Indigenous languages of this territory into public space through signage or place names. Now the west coast, I think, has had a longer history of that and is farther ahead than we are in the GTA. I’m wondering, in terms of locality and language revitalization and learning, do you think those types of initiatives, whether it’s signage or renaming, have a relationship to Indigenous language revitalization? And if so, what does that look like and how does that work?


I think it’s a complicated question because on the one hand, I feel like when our language is represented visually in different places, it provides an opportunity for those of us who are language learners to practice. When we see the language written, perhaps we can’t read all of it, or maybe we can recognize just a bit of it, but it’s a useful challenge and it’s a way of embedding a visual aspect of language learning in place. I appreciate that.

I have a good example of this for myself. A number of years ago, I was walking around the Mount Pleasant area of Vancouver and noticed a mural that was part of the Vancouver Mural Festival.3 The festival has a large presence in this neighbourhood, and as much as it has provided opportunities for Indigenous artists to show their work and increase the presence of Coast Salish visuality across the city, the festival has also been part of that gentrifying machine that “cleans up” and draws tourism to areas used by homeless folks. This is the case in the area where I saw this mural in Main Alley, just off of Main Street. But what caught my attention was this one piece that was completely unassuming located along a low concrete retaining wall beside a parking lot. I just happened to be walking by and what caught my eye was a very short phrase written only in hən̓q̓əm̓inəm̓, which is a language that xwməθkwəy̓əm folks speak, and then a short phrase in Sḵwx̱wú7mesh sníchim, which Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) folks and some səl̓ílwətaʔɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) folks also speak. So right there you have the two dialects that are used by the nations here in Vancouver. It reminded me a lot of your work with Ogimaa Mikana because it wasn’t translated. I could recognize just a bit of each because both dialects are similar to Halq’eméylem, which is the language that Stó:lō folks speak. The piece was initiated by Khelsilem Rivers, who’s been a Squamish language advocate for a long time.

Khelsilem, Land and Lightning, 2017, public artwork at 2111 Main Street (alley). Photo courtesy of Vancouver Mural Festival.

The part I could recognize was the last part of the two phrases, the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh “s7ulh ta témixw?” and the hən̓q̓əm̓inəm̓ “s?a:ɬ tə təməxw?”, which in Halq’emeylem would be written “s’olh témexw?” In English, these translate to “our land?” So I went back to my Squamish dictionary to get the first part.And it was a very simple question: “Is this our land?”

And I thought, “Am I translating this right?” Because this is the land of Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, xwməθkwəy̓əm, and səl̓ílwətaʔɬ peoples. But the question is being asked back to those communities, or at least those folks who can read a bit of Sḵwx̱wú7mesh and hən̓q̓əm̓inəm̓. But it’s an interesting question when you think about its address to Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, xwməθkwəy̓əm, and səl̓ílwətaʔɬ folks: How is this our land? How is this retaining wall that has been constructed here part of our land? How do we recognize this as our land? How is this our land, collectively? And there’s been so much fractiousness between Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, xwməθkwəy̓əm, and səl̓ílwətaʔɬ nations around returning land up until recently because the court system has asked communities to determine land as a singular thing, as property. So it was really important to me to be able to encounter this as a question as well, to think about stewardship and relationship. Stó:lō folks don’t identify Vancouver as our land politically, of course. In the modern system of property boundaries, it’s not. We affirm the sovereignty of Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, xwməθkwəy̓əm, and səl̓ílwətaʔɬ. But our families have always been connected through inter-community relations and inter-marriage. So we’ve always had a presence in Vancouver. And for that reason, I think it’s a good question to ask Stó:lō folks as well: What are our relations to this place?

All of that came from this working out of the language that was on this low retaining wall. I feel like there’s this possibility for our languages when they’re used through public art or signage to engage our communities. To ask questions amongst ourselves. Not just be directed towards non- Indigenous folks in the project of “consciousness-raising” and combatting ignorance around the history of the place now known as Vancouver. There’s a certain kind of work that feels like it’s guided by settler concerns and questions, guided by “reconciliation.” In large part it feels like this kind of work isn’t doing work for our communities. It’s too easy for Coast Salish design that’s now completely embedded in the city to become a kind of marketing or checkmark. Or when the city finally agrees to have a place formally “renamed.” That’s great, but I also wonder what work it does for us, beyond a feeling of recognition. In naming something as the place that we’ve always called it, or in placing our language upon the land, what does that do for us – for our communities now and our communities in the future?


It’s funny because when you talked about this piece with the question mark – you know, “Is this our land?” – it’s almost shocking because we are constantly in this mode of having to state our claim to our lands, or assert our sovereignty over our lands. To even question it feels a little bit shocking because we’re constantly having to prove our jurisdiction over our lands. And so where is the space for us to ask the question of what is actually our relationship to our lands, to our homelands, and/or perhaps even our relationship to another nation’s land? It’s beautiful that that piece could do that. It’s quite brave actually at this point.


I feel like it’s a challenge. The question is really provocative, and almost a rallying cry: “Is this our land? Well then what are we gonna do about it? How are you going to demonstrate that we have this connection to this place?” It really does something in being so direct.


Very much so. It brings me to the idea of jurisdiction or perhaps of sovereignty. This morning, I was reading “Public Writing, Sovereign Reading,” which is your essay on Indigenous language art in public space. You write, “Sovereignty is not a thing, but an action; it is a form of doing. It is asserted in everyday ways through the use of our voices, rhetoric, and gestures that affirm belonging, and disavow the rights of others.”4 Along this trajectory, what are your thoughts on the return and revitalization of Indigenous place names and how that’s expressed through public signage and its relationship to sovereignty?


On a very basic level, it can be an assertion of our sovereignty. But I also hesitate to say that because this work is an everyday thing. It’s not as if we need these big moments to rename and reclaim our places that we always know them to be. We’re not throwing a big party and saying, “Yay, we’re calling this place something different now!” [Laughs] Because this is still the place that we’ve always called it. So there’s a kind of awkwardness around the argument of reclaiming as something exceptional. It’s important, but feels a bit anti-climactic to me.


Absolutely. I need to tell you this, Dylan. When Ogimaa Mikana first came out, we got a lot of emails, right? A lot of people wanting to do this work. One of them was from the Art Gallery of Mississauga, and they were like, “We would love to put Indigenous language on the outside of our building.” Mississauga is an Indigenous word. You have Mississauga on your building.


That’s hilarious. There are so many ways in which our language still does exist in the fabric of the city. I think of your work with Hayden King, Ogimaa Mikana, and the renaming of Ishpadinaa. There are those recognitions that exist still in the fabric of the city, just sort of twisted, Anglicized versions. Well, like Ts’elxwíqw and Chilliwack, right? That’s the same thing right there.5

We’re talking about sovereignty and the expression and affirmation of Indigenous sovereignty. I think there is some good work that can be done through naming in our languages. But I also think about the process that we have to go through to do that. I was incensed at something that happened a number of years ago in Vancouver. There was a barge that came ashore on Sunset Beach during a storm in November, 2021, and remained there for about a year. Shortly after it arrived, the city decided to put up a Vancouver parks sign that read “Barge Chilling Beach,” in reference to another park in Vancouver called “Dude Chilling Park” given its name because of a large bronze reclining figure: a dude, chilling. The sign arrived quickly. It was so simple. The city decided to put up this funny sign and people were laughing, and it was getting a lot of attention. Shortly after this, the sign was painted over with the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh word “Í7iyelshn,” meaning “another soft under foot” place. There was a lot of criticism of the city from Sḵwx̱wú7mesh folks saying, “Well, isn’t this interesting that you can put up this Barge Chilling Beach sign in just a week? And it takes our communities years and years to actually get through the process names of these places with the names they’ve always had!” A lot of Indigenous folks here – Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, xwməθkwəy̓əm, səl̓ílwətaʔɬ, and others – were just livid at the fact that this thing could happen so easily without any consultation when it was supposedly just a “funny thing,” but we have to gothrough this incredible, onerous burden.

The Barge Chilling Beach sign on January 4, 2022. Photo by Nick Procaylo. Material published with the express permission of
the Vancouver Sun, a division of Postmedia Network Inc.

When something like this takes up so much of our energy and time, I wonder if maybe we need to start moving away from this work of visual and material representation. Or maybe not stop doing it entirely, but focus our energies elsewhere. Maybe we have the city instead sponsor programs that work with our communities and our younger generations to find ways for the names of our lands to be celebrated and affirmed with and for our communities first. Find ways to support having the stories and histories associated with those place names be more an everyday experience for our communities first, rather than trying to put all our energy toward educating non-Indigenous Vancouverites. What kind of programs can help us make that knowledge and the feeling of knowing and expressing our sovereignty through the everyday? Let’s think about the forms that serve us in connecting in a deep way with our lands.


You mentioned public signage and the labour of the legal and civic channels that we have to go through to get these things done, and I agree with you on that. It’s laborious and obviously they can do it a lot faster than they’re making it for us. So for the last few years I’ve been thinking about Anishinaabemowin in public space and specifically about the textual elements of signage, meaning the actual shapes of the letters and the ways that the orthography of our distinct sounds disrupt the hegemony of English in public space. I think that’s very true for a lot of Indigenous languages on the west coast and also for Anishinaabemowin which a lot of the time uses a double vowel system. So I’m interested in what that looks like, in terms of shapes. I’d love to know your conceptualization of how public signage with Indigenous languages moves from shapes to sound and what that movement means for Indigenous resurgence.


Well, we have three different orthographies here in the greater Vancouver area because the dialects or languages were formalized at different times. I believe Halq’eméylem, our language, was one of the earliest orthographies and we use a modified Roman orthography with accents and colons, and so it kind of looks like French and then little apostrophes for glottal stops. That’s different than Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Sníchim, which uses sevens for glottal stops. Then hən̓q̓əm̓inəm̓, which is the language that xwməθkwəy̓əm folks speak, uses the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). That is interesting because if you know IPA, you can work out the sounds regardless of knowing hən̓q̓əm̓inəm̓ or not. That was the most recent orthography. So we have these three orthographies, yet our languages have more similarities than differences – they share pretty much the same grammar. Unfortunately the differences in orthographies mean that we can’t do intercommunity language work. Or rather, you can, but you have to know the orthographies first. And it’s enough to learn your own orthography and the pronunciations and all of these things, right?

Historically, we all knew each other’s languages. You could actually identify where someone was from by the different sounds and slightly different pronunciation. You could also say that despite being “far ahead” as you said earlier – and I think, yes, we’ve done a lot of that work representing our languages in public space through the orthographies – we have done such little work on how the visual representation of our languages connects sonically to the land and to our people. For example, I walk around the UBC campus and see hən̓q̓əm̓inəm̓ and think, “Yeah, I can work out part of that word I think, but I have no idea what it sounds like.” So I think there’s a lot of work to be done in connecting the public representation of orthography to the sound of our languages.

We have lots of great technology to work withdirectional speakers that make a kind of narrow channel of sound, or speakers where you could pass through a sort of field of whispers of your language. There are ways to make this really beautiful and connect us in really deep ways through this kind of technology right now that we’re not using in public artwork. I wonder if it’s also partially because there isn’t a lot of sound-based public art. What I’m saying is that with all the kinds of audio technology we have available right now, we can direct sound in ways that mean it doesn’t need to be yelled loudly across a space. Although I think we also should be yelling our languages across space in certain places as well! [Laughs] This is not an argument to say, “It’s okay, we can be quiet.”


But we can go down to Yonge and Dundas Square and just yell at each other from across the corner.


So many performance opportunities! I really feel like that aspect of hearing our languages in public space needs to be supported in a much more robust way, or just more than it is being done now.


Yes, exactly. Because we see the advent in the last while of land acknowledgements, but the land acknowledgements the majority of the time they don’t even say the land in the language. Like it’s not even the land. It’s just the people or the nation. The land doesn’t even get to hear its own name?

I’m wondering if you think there’s a way for Indigenous place names, the returning of Indigenous place names, and the expression through signage to move from something that is mostly, at this point, representational. It’s a symbolic gesture in the sense that we don’t have our land back yet. Can you visualize a movement from something that is representational, an acknowledgement of territory for instance, to material restoration and repatriation?


Our languages contain all the knowledge of that place. So, I wonder about what happens when we work from that starting point in ways of returning. What happens when we centre what that place was in the process or in our conversations about what return might mean? Is that an interesting way to move forward? I’m not sure. My language teacher – Lumlamelut WeeLayLaq – always says to me, “Stop speaking in such long sentences; we’re to the point, we’re concise.” This is also a Coast Salish thing. I think the joke is you’ll ask an Elder how they’re doing and they’ll say, “Li.” You know, “I’m
good.” You don’t need to say anything more than “I’m good.”

I’m just thinking through this because in that being-to-the-point-ness, I think about the name that we Stó:lō folks have for Vancouver, which is directional, we call it Lhq’a:lets, which really just means “wide at bottom.” It’s where the river starts opening up. But in other ways our place names are guided by transformation stories. Our everything was made through transformation. When Xexá:ls came through our lands, they rewarded members of our community for being good leaders and then made them into the mountains or into creatures as ways to help our people, to say, “This will be a good
thing for future generations.” Then also stories that are more punitive where leaders were not upholding their community responsibilities and folks were turned into rock formations. But all of these transformation stories hold knowledge about our relationship to our lands. So, what would happen if we start from that point and ground that knowledge in not necessarily a public naming practice, but a process that really centres our stories and knowledge through public art’s sound and materiality, rather than the spectacle of naming that I was joking about before. Also, it’s important to think about our non-human relations in this work.

Some of my recent work has focused on the question: If the land is our relation, as kin or other nonhuman relations, what are we doing when we create public art where we put a giant concrete slab as the support over the land, to hold the thing that’s going in there? Is that a way of being in good relations, through the form of a concrete slab, through paint? I think we should be considering the materiality of what we do in relation to the land so that we’re not inadvertently just taking up a form that continues violence through its material relationship with the land. I think this holds as well when we talk about language-based public artwork and its potential relationship. What is the work that the presence of that language in public space is doing for our non-human relations? What does that naming do? What about speaking that language, having that language live in that place? How might we focus on that potential of public artwork to do something positive for the land?


You just kind of blew my mind with that because I think about that too. The idea of public work and what is the relation of putting down concrete and putting a sign in the ground, who does it displace. As a people who have been displaced, dispossessed from the land, we’re not trying to do that to any other being either.

You mentioned the ways in which we divorce the knowledge held within those words from the place name itself. I think about how prevalent the idea of Turtle Island is. “Turtle Island, Turtle Island.” Well, Mishee Makinagong, the place of the Great Turtle’s back, links us to the re-creation of the world. It links us to resilience and to survival and to Sky Woman and to creation of the universe. But when we say Turtle Island, that knowledge is pushed even further from that concept. Whereas when we say Mishee Makinagong, now we’ve got something that we can work with: the back of the Great Turtle.


It even makes me think that in the shift from the back of the Great Turtle to Turtle Island that you’ve turned the turtle into a western physical piece of land. Thank you for the way that you’re focusing that knowledge. It’s really helpful for me because, as Coast Salish folks, we have such little connection to your histories as Annishinaabe. We can acknowledge them and affirm them and say, “Yeah, this is how our neighbours understand the life of the land that they live with and the origin stories that they have.” But the way Turtle Island is emphasized as the name for North America (so many Indigenous lands!) often feels an imposition. Someone will say, “Oh, Turtle Island,” and we’ll say, “Uh, no, [laughs] we don’t call it that!” But what was really important for me about what you just said was that it recentres the turtle’s back; it gave me a different connection to the life of the turtle. We, too, have that life here so that I can feel a different kind of connection. Rather than Turtle Island, which is this reified thing that Idon’t really feel a connection to.


Agreed. And that idea of the Great Turtle’s back that’s the landing site for Sky Woman and that’s linked to creation and that’s also spatial. It’s not just, “Oh, North America looks like a turtle.” I hate that when they show the turtle as North America; that’s not actually what we’re talking about. You see it as well – this is an aside – in this meme of the Anishinaabe word for blueberry pie, which is one of the longest words ever. You know, it’s just so, so
long. But it’s this exoticization of our language. I don’t know if that kind of thing is that helpful.

In your book, Hungry Listening (University of Minnesota Press, 2020), you write that the Halq’eméylem word for settler emerges from the historical encounter between Stó:lō people and the influx of settlers during the Gold Rush, and that they arrived in states of physical starvation but they also have this hunger for gold. You extend that hunger to settler-perceptual logic and to listening. Now, that’s a condensed version because there is a lot of nuance in your book around positionality and you don’t simply reduce it to listening through whiteness. I’m interested in what you see in your experience of non-Indigenous people’s relationship to the resurgence of Indigenous place names.


Well, there’s a lot of hostility a lot of the time towards any sort of encounter with our languages and returning our place names through signage across the city. Gosh, you open any chat forum or video response on the website and you see it right away, unfortunately. Everything from, “How are we supposed to pronounce that?” to “But we’ve always had this name,” with no irony intended. There’s a real lack of recognition in that kind of response. I think the shift that I’d like to see is using those words in our languages to name our histories, as well as using our langauges to pose questions about the ongoing condition of settler colonialism – as it exists through property, the built environment – and about our relationship to our lands. There’s a call to do otherwise in those kinds of questions: How might you move beyond your starving orientations? How do you begin from reciprocity in this place? I think it’s necessary to start with our words – like xwelitem, starving person – to ask, what knowledge do our languages hold about that historical relationship, or the persistence of an orientation to the land? And how might settlers use that as a productive starting point for committing in different ways to change?


I wonder about allies who have some sort of interest in or desire to have better relations with us, who would then work towards the restoration of Indigenous place names. How do we continue that so that it’s not the end point, but rather the start of something that is more material or something that is about repatriation and redress? It can’t just be a symbolic gesture. These names hold knowledge and that knowledge and meaning is linked to something real, to a real people, a real land, and a real way of knowing and being that deserves redress and justice. I’m interested in that movement. I know that I have a belief in our languages and I have confidence in them. Our languages hold knowledge that is more profound then we can probably articulate in this interview, and that itself holds a power as well, you know. I’m not sure if it’s the same for your language, but Anishinaabemowin holds a spirit to it that is undeniable. Regardless of intent, when it exists and is spoken, it has a kind of spirit to it.


It also makes me think, maybe harkening back to this question of land acknowledgement or acknowledgement generally, and what happens when settlers start to understand their relationship to the history of our lands through more specificity of place. What kind of potential does that hold for them to sort through – “This place has always been ‘X’ and how do I reckon with my relationship, or lack thereof, to that history?” You said this when you were talking about land acknowledgements, that it defaults to the people, or to the nation or the community, but not to the knowledge of the place. How does that knowledge then become centred in working through one’s relationship to place or future commitment to a different kind of work?


I love that idea. Future commitment is one of the things I’ve been thinking about in regards to Toronto. Toronto, from my understanding of that word, is a Kanienʼkehá:ka word for “where the trees stand in the water,” and is a reference to the fishing weirs. The fishing weirs are a communal place of reciprocity between human and non-human beings. It’s about political diplomacy and beautiful concepts that we need to know. So when I’m thinking through that word, I often think about Toronto as a place but perhaps a form of governance. What if we reoriented ourselves towards that as a form of governance, of trees standing in the water, meaning something more than a place but a set of relations?


I think it’s a western reductivism that reduces place names to objects or settler’s names, objectifies place, makes it property. It dissociates places from their histories and from, as you’re saying, their connections to our culture and our people and the way that we express sovereignty and relationship. There is a larger question around how place naming functions in the western tradition, and how to move toward Indigenous expressions of place naming as action, guided by forms of doing.

  1. Harsha Walia, “»Land is a Relationship’”:
    In conversation with Glen Coulthard on
    Indigenous Nationhood,” rabble.ca, January
    20, 2015, https://rabble.ca/columnists/land-
    indigenous-nationhood/. ↩︎
  2. Dylan Robinson, “Public Writing, Sovereign
    Reading: Indigenous Language Art in Public
    Space,” Art Journal 76:2, 2017, https://www.
    jstor.org/stable/45142475. ↩︎
  3. Khelsilem’s public artwork, “Land and
    Lightning,” 2017, can be found at 2111 Main
    Street (alley) in Vancouver. See https://
    vanmuralfest.ca/blog/khelsilem. ↩︎
  4. Robinson, “Public Writing,” 85. ↩︎
  5. Capilano is one such Anglicization; see
    capilano/. ↩︎

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