Creating a Narrative: Val Napoleon

Dr. Val Napoleon. Photo by Jeffrey Bosdet.

For Dr. Val Napoleon, it’s not so much the practice of law she finds interesting, as the research and theory.

“When we do workshops with communities on Indigenous law, to start that work, we spend a fair bit of time talking about the stories that will sink us,” she says.

Napoleon is the associate professor and Law Foundation Chair of Aboriginal Justice and Governance at the University of Victoria, who cofounded the institution’s Indigenous Law Research Unit. “The narratives that will sink us include an understanding of law that’s very narrow, as if it is only about power and rules, as opposed to the larger ways of inclusivity, responsibility and reasoning through problems, so that you can think about whose voices are heard. It isn’t just designated professionals that are responsible for the law in our world, but rather it’s a citizenry issue.”

From northeast British Columbia (Treaty 8), Napoleon is a member of Saulteau First Nation and is an adopted member of the Gitanyow (Gitksan) House of Luuxhon, and Ganada (Frog) Clan. Napoleon has worked as a community activist and consultant in northwestern B.C. for over 25 years, specializing in health, education and justice issues.

Her current research focuses on Indigenous legal traditions, Indigenous legal theory, Indigenous feminism, citizenship,self-determination and governance.

“When you think about law, writ large, it’s just as comprehensive and complex for Indigenous peoples, as anybody else,”she says. “What we’re trying to do is to not focus on issues of states dealing with Indigenous peoples through state legal processes, but rather from Indigenous legal orders. What’s legal, what’s not? What is involved with rebuilding Indigenous legal orders and laws which have been decimated by our recent history?”

To create a better future for all communities, Napoleon points to the book Out of the Wreckage by George Monbiot, which argues that people have narratives about the world and their part in the world that they maintain to help place themselves.

“We have to build a narrative to replace the one that people have,” she says. “So if we were able to do that, if we were able to create an imagination for Victoria, and narratives that would derive from that, what would it include? There will be different opinions, different kinds of things, different experiences and so on. But so what? We could work it out.”