Progressive politics, ideas & culture

July-August 2016

The canoe and the ship

Today's universities want to "Indigenize" their curricula. But how do you re-imagine institutions that were never meant to welcome Indigenous people in the first place? This talks with Indigenous students, scholars, and professors in search of an answer

Justine Ponomareff

By Borret, Arnoldus Hyacinthus Aloysius Hubertus Maria [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsA CANOE AND A SHIP TRAVEL DOWN A STREAM. The vessels navigate parallel paths, moving side-by-side, synchronized, but separate. This image was at the heart of the Two Row Wampum treaty, the agreement made between representatives of the Dutch government and the Haudenosaunee people, on the shores of what is now called New York, in 1613. The Haudenosaunee people crafted a wampum belt as a symbol of the treaty, with two lines of purple beads nestled amongst three thicker rows of white. The purple lines represent the two vessels, bound together in their journey, but also autonomous, each with their respective laws and customs. The white symbolizes a basis of truth, friendship, and respect between the two nations. This is what the Haudenosaunee people believed would define their relationship with settlers, for “as long as the river flows and the grass grows.”

Anyone with a basic understanding of North America’s history knows this is not what happened. The rivers flowed and the grass continued to grow, but the ship brazenly built its success on the oppression of the canoe. Government mandated genocide, both cultural and literal, attempted to rob generations of Indigenous families from their autonomy. Canada’s residential schools (the last of which only closed in the 1990s) were devoted to the dismantling of Indigenous youth’s languages, spirituality, and culture—and were only a small part of the government’s assimilationist agenda. But the word assimilation doesn’t begin to embody the pain inherent to colonialism. It also does nothing to capture the strength of Indigenous peoples who are now reclaiming their spaces, languages, and knowledge.

Today, Canada’s collective dialogue is finally shifting to include reconciliation with Indigenous people. This year, after six years of gathering statements from witnesses and survivors of Canada’s residential school system, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) released 94 calls to action. The calls outline improvements that span across many areas of Canadian society, like child welfare, health, language and culture, media, the legal system, and education. Each of these sectors holds barriers rooted in colonization. And, in many ways, the TRC’s report acts as a guide for the Canadian government to address the chasms left by the residential school system.

In a country with a history of using the education system to oppress Indigenous people, academia has an intrinsic role to play in truth-telling. Given all this, says journalist and award-winning director Candace Maracle, the need for an improved, context-conscious curriculum is evident: “Not just as a Haudenosaunee woman, not just as a journalist, but as a person.”

That’s why the TRC report also addresses modern education, targeting every level of schooling from kindergarten to post-secondary. It’s something that many Indigenous and education activists are currently focusing on, and also grappling with. As these discussions gain traction, post-secondary institutions are newly focused on introducing more Indigenous content into the university curriculum—what’s being called “Indigenization.” But when it comes to translating this term to tangible, systemic action, it’s not so easy to parse out. Indigenization can refer to many things, from to the creation of more Indigenous spaces on campus, to mandatory courses added to universities, to adding more Indigenous context and perspectives into already existing curricula. Regardless of what form it takes, this emergent buzzword carries a connotation of pervasiveness, effortlessly suggesting systemic transformation. At its core, Indigenization is more complicated: these are institutions that, in many ways, are built on a rejection of Indigenous knowledge.

“These institutions and classrooms were never meant to be Indigenized. These spaces were created to not allow my people in,” says Andrea Landry, a 27-year-old University of Saskatchewan professor. Landry is Anishinaabe and comes from Pays Plat First Nation in Ontario. Now, she calls Treaty 6 territory home in Poundmaker Cree Nation, Saskatchewan. She teaches Indigenous studies and political science through on-reserve classes. “I grew up in high schools where being brown was a burden,” says Landry. She went to Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo, B.C. During her undergrad, Landry was involved with international politics. She did work with the United Nations. Idle No More had started. She was travelled to different countries every month. But every time she came back to the classroom, she was confronted with frustrating questions like Teach us about the ’60s scoop? Teach us about residential schools? Why do I always see Indians drunk downtown? “I was always questioning my professors,” says Landry, “and saying, ‘Where is the representation of my people?’”

All of which raises the question: How do you even begin to re-imagine institutions that were never meant to welcome Indigenous people in the first place?

* * *

There are 650,000 Indigenous youth under the age of 25 in Canada. This is the fastest growing segment of the country’s population. Yet, fewer than 10 percent of Indigenous people aged 25–64 have a university degree, according to Universities Canada, an organization which labels itself “the voice of Canadian universities.” Comparatively, 65 percent of non-Indigenous people of the same age category have a university degree—more than triple the amount. The reasons behind this are nuanced, not easily attributed to any single set of causes. Economic barriers, like a lower average income, make it more difficult to attend post-secondary institutions. There is also a sense of disheartening alienation that can come with travelling long distances from communities to universities.

“If we’re saying everyone needs a higher education in this country to be employable, how do we create the space so that everyone can attend? That’s the biggest piece,” says Darren Thomas, a 46-year-old working on his Ph.D. in community psychology at Laurier University. A member of the Seneca Nation, Thomas lives in the Grand River Territory of the Haudenosaunee. He also holds the unexpected title of professional entertainer, as an on-stage comedy hypnotist. Thomas is an easy-going conversationalist, with a relaxed smile that reaches his eyes. “I help people who have experienced trauma laugh,” says Thomas. He’s one of 13 designated role models for the Council of Ontario Universities’ (COU) “Let’s Take Our Futures Further” campaign, which launched in February 2016 and aims to showcase the successes of Aboriginal students in Ontario.

In a time where mainstream media and textbooks all too often cast Indigenous people as victims in their own narratives—or don’t cast them at all—showcasing the successes of Indigenous Canadians is long overdue. This is why initiatives like Future Further are important. “Many Canadians don’t know who we are, don’t understand what our resiliency is,” says Wanda Wuttunee, a professor of Native Studies at University of Manitoba. “You can hear many sad, hard stories. But what do they do with them? Are they resilient and keep going? Or do they sit?” There’s a need to make space, so that the triumphs of Indigenous scholars, thinkers, and creators across Canada can be shared. Narratives of struggle should not be dismissed, but they also shouldn’t stifle ones of success.

When Thomas first attended university in the late 1980s, he says there was a sense of trepidation from his home community surrounding Western education. “Fundamentally, there’s still that fear,” says Thomas, “that Western education is a mind changer.” The phrase “mind changer” comes from a very specific part of Haudenosaunee history, Thomas tells me. In the late 18th century, there was a Seneca prophet by the name of Handsome Lake. He had visions that told him how his people should live. One of the visions warned him of the mind changer, alcohol. Another told him that his people would become lost if they followed the white man. At the time, Thomas brushed off his grandmother’s warnings. “It’s the modern world,” he thought. “They’re not going to treat us this way.”

Now, he laughs gently at his youthful optimism, “Little did I know she was right.”

* * *

A few years ago, Maracle sat in a small living room, in her friend’s downtown Toronto apartment. She was hanging out with some colleagues from her Ryerson graduate program, casually drinking beers. One of her male colleagues turned to her, “I knew some Indians once…” There are enough people around that Maracle was embarrassed. “I knew some Indians once…” That agonizing anecdotal pretext. The man told Maracle they beat-up and robbed a friend of his. Five years later, recounting the story, Maracle laughs the sort of laugh that is fuelled by absurdity more than actual amusement. She’s able to laugh now, but at the time it stung, she says. Back then, part of Maracle rushed to offer an explanation on behalf of the Indigenous strangers. The other educated part, says Maracle, followed up her explanation with clarifications. “There was a part of me that sort of stepped back and said, ‘We’re not all like that and I probably don’t know them,’” she pauses, gently scoffing. “We might be a small population but that doesn’t mean I know every Indian there is and I certainly don’t hang out with robbers.” Maracle lets loose into a spurt of wry laughter. But she knows it’s not funny. These are the attitudes that often permeate classrooms—spaces that can be laden with ignorance and outright hostility.

Landry can speak, lengthily and with eloquence, to institutional hostility. She was the first Indigenous student to take the Master of Community and Social Justice program at University of Windsor. During that process, one experience stands out from the rest. The class was talking about Indigenous people, “because, of course, I brought the topic up,” says Landry, the only Indigenous student in the room. When the conversation shifted to genocide, one of Landry’s older male colleagues made eye-contact with her and said, “It wasn’t genocide, because it only killed thousands of your people.” He laughed. Landry locked eyes with him and just stared. “I remember my whole body got really, really hot. Even my insides and my stomach. Everything was hot.”

She felt instantaneous rage. Toward him, but also toward Canada’s institutions, for allowing him to believe such revisionist history. Her pause was brief and her decision to engage her antagonizer, in what she describes as a history lesson, was a quick one. She knew the numbers—that it was more than thousands. So, she talked about the statistics. She asked him if he knew the basics of Canada’s history of colonization.

Landry says she asks people “like that” questions, to lure their thinking outside of its usual scope. Questions like, What are your understandings of treaties? Or, Where did you learn about the history of the land? Her peer didn’t have any answers. He remained quiet, a contrast to his usual demeanour in class. Landry felt he undermined her because she’s an Indigenous woman. But she also felt he had been trained from a young age, by Canada’s institutions, to think that way.

That night she walked home, her anger propelling her tall frame quickly forward. It was the sort of anger that simmers for weeks. She called her mother and told her she wanted to quit, that she was done with the program. She dreamed of leaving academia and its promises of hostility, to be with her mother. To fish and live off the land. But, despite her disillusionment, she was determined to finish her degree (“Mama didn’t raise no quitter,” she later quips). Time and time again, she was expected to act as a spokesperson for all Indigenous people. Teach us about residential schools. Teach us about the ’60s scoop. Why do I always see Indians drunk downtown? “These kind of questions pick away at your identity,” she says, adding, “It took me six years to get my undergrad.”

* * *

University faculty are the only appendage of the great university body that has the ability to reach out directly and personally to students. They are, as Thomas puts it, “this body of people that drive institutional thinking from the classroom.” For many students, the classroom is the first (or only) place they will learn about Indigenous peoples’ histories—histories that, in elementary school, were given little to no space in textbooks, wedged between terms like “first contact” and “fur-trade.” Unfortunately, when students transition from the public school system to post-secondary institutions, university curriculums, shaped by the perspectives of professors, often manage to maintain the same established, outdated “truths.” Rather than drive institutional thinking out, many professors uphold the institutional status-quo.

After a year of doing his undergraduate at Laurentian, Thomas transferred to Western University. He felt fairly successful at Laurentian—a fact which he attributes mostly to being in an Aboriginal-specific program, surrounding by Aboriginal academics—but he couldn’t stand the cold. Western was closer to his community, but also much harder to navigate as one of the only non-white students on campus. He recalled one professor who handed him back a paper and said: “I don’t know anything about your people, how could I mark this?” The professor continued: “Stop thinking like an Indian.” Thomas quit on the spot. Thomas felt, “really, deeply, spiritually,” like he didn’t belong at Western—that it was not a safe space for him. Years later, he went to Laurier and took night classes to finish his undergraduate. Only then did he feel comfortable again.

University institutions do not change rapidly. Even when Thomas later did his master’s degree at Laurier, which he calls “a rich place to play,” he was asked questions like: Why are you here, then, if you’re always bashing the university? Why are you getting your master’s? “Well, no one asked me if they could come and create this country called Canada,” says Thomas, a rare edge to his voice. He adds that part of his university experience is him playing the game. “I’m getting these advanced credentials, because suddenly, in the eyes of the state, I know more.” Now, he sits with people involved in politics, with institutional power, and discusses issues that are important to him. “I’m just some radical Indian that’s trying to change the world,” he says, “but because I’m doing this, following and playing the game, it’s giving me access.”

There is hope for change. The practice of cluster hiring has taken off in North American post-secondary institutions. This involves hiring new faculty, across various disciplines, for the purpose of a common research objective. As a result of these cluster hires, more Indigenous professors are being hired across Canadian campuses. This is the most direct way to subvert the academic status quo and also the easiest way to avoid the co-opting of Indigenous knowledge in the classroom. In March 2016, the University of Guelph announced it will hire, over the course of the next 18 months, five tenured Indigenous faculty members. To encourage more Indigenous scholars, Guelph also announced the creation of five new graduate awards, worth $30,000 a year, for Ph.D. students and a $15,000 annual award for master’s degree students, as well as a new $45,000 postdoctoral award for an Indigenous researcher.

Another way to shift academic perspective is to create more informed educators. This year, Trent University launched a new five-year Indigenous Bachelor of Education program. It offers entry straight out of high school, or through transfer agreements set up with local community colleges and First Nations run schools. The first three years of the program revolve around Trent courses, then the fourth and fifth are spent in the Indigenous Bachelor of Education program. “The key to education is good teachers. That’s what we are trying to prepare here,” says David Newhouse, a professor of Indigenous studies at Trent University, who has also been chair of the Department of Indigenous studies for 23 years. “We’re guided very much by elders who keep telling us over and over again about the importance of education.”

Whatever guides a university’s hiring practices, the lived experience of whomever is doing the educating should be a significant factor in the decision. Lived-experience carries inherent truth, a truth which resonates and captivates. “You can’t teach something you haven’t experienced in your life,” says Landry, “You can try your best, but the emotional content is gone. And the emotional content is what gets to the core of people when you’re teaching in a classroom.” The wisdom and knowledge of Indigenous elders and scholars, for instance, is the core of Cape Breton University’s new MIKM 2701 course. Each week a different Mi’kmaq elder, knowledge keeper, or scholar co-teaches a lecture in their area of expertise. Unlike the rest of the newly incorporated courses offering Indigenous perspectives, this course is entirely free, accessible via live stream and, later, archived footage online.

“We wanted to create something that was free and was Indigenous-focused and Indigenous-led and could be a way for Cape Breton University to give back,” says Ashlee Cunsolo Willox, an assistant professor at Cape Breton University and one of the creators of the course. “To really take our responsibilities around the truth and reconciliation commission seriously.” This combination of honouring Indigenous systems of thought, while straying outside of academia’s capitalist nature created a result that Willox could not have imagined. Over 12,000 people, across 26 different countries, watched the lectures. Suddenly, people who would otherwise not have had the opportunity to enter a university lecture hall could learn about Mi’kmaq culture. Also, Willox tells me, generations of Mi’kmaq families were watching the lectures together. “A lot of people were indicating, as Indigenous elders, that to see their grandchildren, their children, their great-grandchildren watching it together with pride was healing.”

Landry’s classes also use a basis of traditional knowledge to deliver the content. This past semester, Landry asked her students to interview someone who knew about the land, or the old ways. Many of Landry’s students did interviews with people they had never thought to talk with, or had never made time to talk with, she says. A lot of her students broke down in tears when they were presenting. “I always want students to learn more about where they’re living and where they come from,” she says. “We have to stay true to who we are and where we come from, even through the learning process.” Her lessons touch on colonization, but outside the trauma-laden landscape. Instead, she prefers to encourage discussions of family, healing and the land they are learning on. What does your relationship to the land look like, now? What did your Mushum or Kokum teach you about the land? What was it like for them to grow up in colonial Canada?

Today, says Thomas, is an exciting time for emerging academics, because academia is at a tipping point. But for the system as a whole, the biggest challenge is still figuring out how Indigenous knowledge can fit into education. “How do we take Indigeneity,” he asks, “something that is so rich and lived and beautiful, and put it inside a Western institution?” It is important to understand, he adds, that Indigenous systems of thought and Western, Eurocentric systems of thought work from very different principles and have different ways of interacting with the world. The Western approach, cemented in Canada’s institutions and collective-mentality, is about evolving away from the past, whereas the nature of Indigeneity, says Thomas, is: How did our ancestors understand things?

Yet, if Western and Indigenous knowledge are going to cohabit academia, there has to be some sort of intellectual shift. What needs to happen is not a joining of two halves, but an understanding that Indigenous knowledge is inherently whole. For Landry, the answer is clear: First Nations run schools. Spaces rooted in Indigenous knowledge. Landry’s dream is to open her own school, out on the land, free of colonial academia. She doesn’t want Indigenous knowledge to be seen as an alternative to Western institutions of education. She wants her students to know that their academic and career goals and prioritizing their Indigenous knowledge are not mutually exclusive.

Some of these schools already exist (though in dismally small numbers). Blair Stonechild has been at the First Nations University in Saskatchewan since 1976, back when it wasn’t even called First Nations University. He’s been the department head, dean of academics, and was even the executive director of planning and development. Stonechild describes First Nations University’s approach as holistic, with an emphasis on physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being of the students. For Stonechild, First Nation run schools offer Indigenous students an ideal environment. Whether or not people understand or respect Indigenous systems of thought, he adds, they need to make room for protocols and perspectives: “At least create space for Indigenous culture to have some integrity.”

In a country where a ship is a ship and a canoe is a canoe, it’s important to know where you come from. Indigenous students have to recognize that when they leave the reserve and go to university, they’re just visiting the ship, says Thomas. “At the core of their being they have to know they’re born of that canoe,” he adds. “That the strength and resistance of their Indigeneity will help them flourish.”

Justine Ponomareff is a freelance feature writer from Toronto, Ont. She's a Ryerson University journalism graduate, who is passionate about social justice, feminism, and cats.

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