In Articles, Mixed-Media

by Patty Hambler, Director, Health Promotion & Education, the University of British Columbia

“What is your sacred yes? What is your sacred no? What does consent feel like in your body?” – Dr. Natalie Clark

The Longhouse room is full and loud, with a much more diverse audience than I’ve seen before in this space. It’s rare to have a lineup to get into Sty-Wet-Tan Hall, here on the unceded ancestral territory of the hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ speaking Musqueam people, but it’s a packed house on this January evening.

The four houseposts surround the evening’s guests, greeting us with stories and lessons from the Coast Salish peoples. We are gathered this evening to feast, to listen, and to learn as a community. A large group of athletes in their Thunderbirds hoodies gather alongside professors, Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, staff, and community members. January is Sexual Assault Awareness Month at UBC and this evening’s event is Sovereign Bodies: Decolonizing Consent, with guest speakers Dr. Natalie Clark and Dr. Sarah Hunt.

Elder Roberta Price leads us in a traditional opening, challenging us to step out of our comfort zone by joining hands with those around us – friends, colleagues and strangers alike: one hand facing up to receive the teachings of our elders and ancestors, and one hand facing down to Mother Earth to acknowledge the connections to All Our Relations and to symbolize the importance of sharing teachings with the generations to come.

The salmon people have joined us this evening. They are here in spirit and nourish our bodies. In preparing for this evening, the organizers have honored the tradition of feasting as in important aspect of gathering together as a community to wrestle with difficult issues. We are here to talk about sexual violence, to consider the impacts of colonialism, and to explore diverse ways of thinking about a way forward.  

Dr. Hunt is the first to speak and she shares a powerful personal testimony intertwined with analysis of rape culture from an Indigenous perspective. I am struck most deeply by her reminder of the families of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls, who had to fight for years to have their loved ones acknowledged as missing. To be denied the right to be a missing person – this reality had never dawned on me before and it illustrates so profoundly how little value Indigenous women can have in our settler society, and how much this has contributed to the violence that is perpetuated on Indigenous women and girls. Dr. Hunt also reminds us that the traditions of the Indigenous peoples of this land have always included a deep understanding and practice of consent, in all ways, such as adhering to protocols to ask for permission to come ashore when visiting this coast.

Dr. Clark takes the stage with a raw energy that contrasts Dr. Hunt’s quiet and thoughtful approach. You can tell she is used to moving around the room, interacting with participants – the stage isn’t a perfect fit, but it allows us all to see her enthusiasm and passion for the this topic. Dr. Clark speaks of embodied knowledge, reminding us that our bodies hold emotional wisdom. She introduces the concepts of the ‘sacred yes’ and ‘sacred no’.  She asks critical questions such as, “How do we teach children what yes feels like? How do we know and experience desire?” Embodied knowledge of the sacred yes and the sacred no: she shares an exercise that she does with her girls’ group, where she brings in different textures, smells, and tastes, asking the girls to experience these with their senses and then share how they feel – what does your sacred yes feel like in your body?

As I continue to reflect on the evening, I am mostly grateful for the privilege of attending this event. I left wondering what those male athletes took away from the evening. I left reminded of the importance of non-Western epistemologies informing our work in higher education, and in Student Affairs. Indigenous ways of knowing about the world should not be limited to the confines of how we approach working with and supporting Indigenous students. Indeed, Indigenous epistemologies can help us to approach complex issues and problems with different and valuable perspectives than those that have helped to create them.

Hiy hiy

To learn more about decolonizing consent and rape culture, check out these resources:

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