March 8, 2021

Soon after Seattle student Owen L. Oliver arrived on UBC’s Vancouver campus, he began exploring. Walking among the collection at X̱wi7x̱wa Library, visiting the First Nations Longhouse, seeing Indigenous art and language all around… He was struck by the presence, and prominence, of Indigenous culture on campus.

Oliver soon knew he wanted to share the experience back home at the University of Washington – somehow. That was 2019, when he spent a semester at UBC on exchange as a prestigious Corbett Scholar. An American Indian Studies and Political Science major at UW, Oliver had grown up in both Seattle and Alaska. But the time on the Vancouver campus, caused him to revisit the past – and his personal experiences growing up as a member of the Quinault and Isleta Pueblo tribes. 

Particularly inspiring was the walking tour of Musqueam house posts – evidence of campus co-ownership between the Musqueam and the institution – created by Jordan Wilson, a UBC alumnus and Musqueam member. Back in Seattle, Oliver decided to curate a similar UW tour, in the form of a photo booklet narrated with his reflections. His aim: to showcase the resilience of Indigenous knowledge systems, and share highlights of local Indigenous culture and landmarks with Natives and non-Natives alike. 

Indigenous Walking Tour – At the University of Washington debuts in spring, 2021. For information, visit UW’s American Indian Studies website. This is a selection of Oliver’s images and impressions from UBC.

“I tried to experience everything I could at UBC. I took amazing classes through the First Nations and Endangered Languages Program, and Indigenous writing classes. I spent a lot of time at the Museum of Anthropology and just soaked it all in. Vancouver and Seattle are only 2.5 hours apart, but so much is different: the engagement with Indigenous communities, representations of Indigenous culture, the approaches to reconciliation, and even the number of Indigenous students on the campuses.”

Oliver with his sister and brother, Isadora and Sampson, in front of the Reconciliation Pole on UBC’s Vancouver campus (photo: Brigette Ellis)

Playing stickgame, a popular game among Indigenous groups, especially in the Pacific Northwest, with UBC classmates (photo: Owen L. Oliver)

“One of the most important aspects of a university setting is experiencing diversity, but also being able to grow into yourself. I know a lot of students who didn’t really have a sense of identity before going to university. But being around students from around the world helped them see what they really wanted to do and who they wanted to be.”

“The House Post Tour inspired me to do something similar at UW. I created an Indigenous walking tour, telling my story about how my family grew up on the campus (my dad was an art professor for more than 30 years) and highlighting key Indigenous points of contact that are important for students, faculty and staff. It’s encapsulated in a seven-stop tour and fully illustrated in colour, just like the House Post Tour, but a bit more personal to my lived experience.”

Owen’s Introduction to Kwak’wala class took a field trip to Yalis, Alert Bay, for a potlatch (ceremonial feast)  (photo: Owen L. Oliver)

A UBC Vancouver street sign in Hul’q’umi’num and English (photo: Owen L. Oliver)

“One thing that really blew me away while at the UBC campus was seeing the Hul’q’umi’num signs, the road signs. We don’t have anything like that in Seattle, despite it being a town named after a Duwamish and Suquamish Chief.”

“A big part of the university experience is meeting people who are different from you, and stepping outside your bubble. Many people have never met a Native person before going to university. As a result, there can be pressure on us to appropriately educate and erase stereotypes, and be strong for our people.”

Owen in Yalis, Alert Bay (photo: Sydney Roberts)

(Booklet cover image: Owen L. Oliver)

“I joke that I spend more time outside the classroom than in class, because I’m often travelling, taking on speaking engagements and other leadership roles and working with members of Congress. I’ve found that the most important learning tends to happen outside the classroom, and it’s equally important to share those experiences with everyone.”

“My time at UBC certainly changed me. I learned you don’t have to travel around the world to expand your mind – you can learn a lot just a short distance from home. It reinforced the power of engaging with your neighbours. I was able to grow as a person, going beyond my studies to learn by experiencing life from a whole new perspective.”

Owen with his father, Marvin Oliver (photo: Brigette Ellis)


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