Doctor of Philosophy
Geography and Environment
Relationships to land are foundational for nurturing knowledge systems, identities, and wellness among Indigenous peoples. As Indigenous peoples resist enduring structures of colonialism and rebuild self-determination, they are pursuing diverse strategies to reclaim and reconnect with their lands and land-based practices. While this movement is growing globally, few empirical studies have explored why particular strategies are developed nor how they are operationalized in place. In partnership with Biigtigong Nishnaabeg, this dissertation applies the concept of environmental repossession to document the spatial strategies being implemented to reoccupy, reconnect with, and reassert Biigtigong’s rights to its ancestral territory. Drawing from Indigenous and participatory methodologies, this dissertation examines individual and community meanings of environmental repossession and considers the long-term implications of these efforts for decolonization.
Taking a case study approach, this dissertation explored the perceptions of Biigtigong Nishnaabeg community members who participated in the reclamation of Mountain Lake. Thematic analysis of interviews (n=15) with Elders, youth, and band staff suggests that Biigtigong is practicing environmental repossession as a multi-step process. Alongside reoccupation of territory, repossession in Biigtigong involves reintroducing community members to the land and remaking community relationships to reclaimed places. The findings reveal that the reclamation of Mountain Lake created the space for community members to gather and revitalize the roles, values, and relationships that connect them to their Nishnaabeg identity.
In Biigtigong, the everyday work of environmental repossession is supported by the Department of Sustainable Development. Narrative analysis of interviews (n=7) with staff members demonstrates that the department has evolved as a place-based structure to facilitate repossession efforts across multiples scales and over the long-term. The results illustrate how repossession is part of a broader departmental vision to decolonize Biigtigong’s economic, political, and social relations with the land and renew Nishnaabeg governance.
Taken together, this research suggests that environmental repossession is a place-based mechanism of decolonization through which Biigtigong is asserting self-determination over its territory, wellness, and future as Nishnaabeg. While Indigenous communities may have shared goals or experiences of dispossession, what land reclamation looks like, how it is practiced and what it means will vary across places, spaces, and scales.
Summary for Lay Audience
For many Indigenous peoples, land-based practices and knowledge are essential to their cultures, identities, and wellness. While colonial laws and policies have aimed to displace and discriminate against communities, they are resisting and developing their own strategies to assert their rights to land. The concept of environmental repossession aims to describe these different strategies and to document how they are created in response to the needs, strengths, and experiences of specific communities. This study explores what environmental repossession looks like in the community of Biigtigong Nishnaabeg in order to understand why and how communities use particular strategies of repossession to reclaim access to and control over their lands. By examining what Biigtigong’s strategies mean for the community members involved, this study further considers how decolonization may be understood on the ground in Indigenous communities.
In partnership with Biigtigong, this research documented the community’s return to Mountain Lake through the construction of cabins and a week-long camp. The findings show that the reclamation of Mountain Lake took place through a multi-step process to: 1) take back access; 2) encourage community use of this land; and 3) build new community connections to this place. For the Elders, youth, and staff participating, this process had an important impact on their relationships with each other and feelings of belonging. Being together at Mountain Lake strengthened community members’ sense of identity and pride as Nishnaabeg.
The findings of this research demonstrate that reclaiming land can be a difficult, time consuming, and expensive process for communities. In Biigtigong, the Department of Sustainable Development was established to support the everyday work of environmental repossession. For the department’s staff members, this work is part of a bigger, long-term goal to decolonize how its territory is governed and return to Nishnaabeg values. Overall, this research aims to share lessons for other Indigenous communities pursuing land reclamation.
Nightingale, Elana, "Reclaiming Ancestral Territory in Biigtigong Nishnaabeg: Applying Strategies Of Environmental Repossession For Indigenous Decolonization" (2022). Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository. 9080.