During my research of Native American and First Nation cultural landscapes, I have been repeatedly struck by the diverse and multifaceted relationships forged between people and place. A particularly interesting example comes from the Stó:lō people of the Fraser Valley. As explained by Keith Carlson in his 2010 book The Power of Place, The Problem of Time, which explores the construction of Aboriginal identity in British Columbia during the colonial period, Stó:lō cultural landscapes contain a series of “special tunnels”.
Understanding how these tunnels work is akin to watching Neil deGrasse Tyson talk about theories of relativity. That is to say, it takes some work. According to the Stó:lō, these tunnels link, and can instantaneously transport individuals between, various points on the landscape. This journey is not without danger, as many corpses have been found at tunnel exits many miles from where the living person was last seen. Those that survive the journey are endowed with special powers and prestige.
These tunnels form a crucial part of the Stó:lō cultural landscape. They also actively structure how the Stó:lō conceive of space and time. Imagine, for instance, two Stó:lō villages separated by 50 miles but linked by special tunnels. For those ensconced within Western ways of measuring space, the distance between these villages is quantifiable, as is the approximate time required to travel between them. These calculations have little purchase among the Stó:lō, for whom tunnels allow for instantaneous teleportation. Consequently, the communities, places, resources, and landscapes with which the Stó:lō feel most connected are not necessarily those most proximate to Stó:lō villages, but rather those situated near and linked to special tunnels within a culturally constructed landscape. These relationships, Carlson shows, were utterly lost on Canadian officials during the creation of reserves.
This account of Stó:lō tunnels serves as a powerful reminder that conceptions of landscape depend not just on the meaning or history ascribed to particular locations, but also on underlying and culturally contingent beliefs regarding physical laws and the nature of space and time itself.