I originally wrote this article before the Kamloops Residential School mass grave discovery. Since this was recently brought to light, it has also been stated that 1 in 5 Indigenous children died while attending Red Deer Residential School. I have been experiencing pain over this news. Across Canada, many Indigenous Peoples have felt the generational trauma and/or experienced the terror of residential schools first hand. I want to send my love and prayers to others who are in pain, to those who have lost loved ones from past and present genocidal acts, and to all Indigenous People facing the trauma from generations of eradication efforts.
In honour of Indigenizing our spaces, language, academia, practices, and Canada’s current and historical representation of identity and truth, I would like to take this opportunity to share a story, one which is passed onto me and which gives me the courage to speak today. This story is personal, but it is shared by many Indigenous People: it is not unique.
I did not get the chance to meet my grandfather before he passed, but I know him well. During a Sweat Lodge Ceremony, I called upon him and was adamant in honouring his strength, story and soul, as I always do because of my respect for him and our Spiritual bond. I was honoured to be invited to sit beside an Elder throughout the Ceremony, and when the shaker was passed to me I felt a wave of honour, belonging, wisdom, and courage: makoganzh (a bear’s claw). The Elder laughed warmly, and said, ‘ah, it chose you’. Her words brought me to tears, since I have grappled with the fear that I had lost my hope of connection, as I felt displaced from understanding and identifying with my culture. As someone who proudly identifies as Indigenous, I have experienced fear and been made to feel shame for not being “enough”, which is largely a result of generations of eradication efforts on the basis of blood quantum measurement. Indigeneity was stolen from my family by enforced fear and trauma following the numerous and ongoing acts of cultural genocide. However, these cultural eradication efforts did not succeed: I am here (something my Anishinaabemowin teacher reminded us of during my first lesson). You can’t claim or control one’s identity, you can’t shame someone out of who they are – it is a part of me and you. The Elder’s laughter throughout the Ceremony was comforting, this symbol of belonging and intention strengthened me and it was one of many significant Spiritual invitations that transformed my ability to feel belonging. My grandfather hid his Indigeneity for many years to protect himself, but I feel proud to share this with him now: this is an invitation for both of us to connect.
Upon attempting to enter the academic space, we are forced to become ‘professional’: to prove our intelligence by a measure of colonial methods and the adoption of an acceptable ideology of white success.¹ This notion of Indigenizing our academic methodology in order to eradicate barriers that exclude Indigenous Peoples is written about by Dr. Absolon-King in her work, Kaandossiwin: How We Come to Know wherein she highlights how colonial academic institutions and practices discriminate against Indigenous culture and Peoples.² Inclusion of Indigenous representation in our academic spaces- by decolonizing course content and classroom discussion, critically acknowledging and actively disengaging physical and social anti-Indigenous symbolism, and through the previously discussed idea of Indigenizing our research methods³- this will work towards creating expressive and embracing- and therefore, safe- spaces for Indigenous students and faculty. Racist historic figures who supported and enforced genocide guard the entrances to our universities, and through the repudiation of Indigenous cultural representation outside of designated safe spaces (ie: Indigenous Student Centres), this normalizes the fostering of a social and educational culture that is inaccessible and unsafe for Indigenous students. Kathleen Absolon-King shares stories showcasing how the enforcement of colonialism in academia impacts the wellbeing of Indigenous researchers, and represents the need to remove oneself from the space in order to heal⁴, which is faced and felt by the entire community. The statue and tribute to Wilfrid Laurier (as one of the many examples) live on, as it is carved in stone and cemented in place. The names of our institutions are repeated and normalized, and the pride surrounding these names and symbols ensures tolerance and acceptance surrounding a broader conversation of racism.
Through my work with OUSA, I will continue to advocate for substantial change in:
- creating safe and inclusive academic spaces,
- educating students in all disciplines on the truth of Indigenous cultural genocide and violence that persists,
- including Indigenous practices into our academia,
- supporting the hiring of Indigenous professors, as well as the inclusion of Indigenous students, and;
- decolonizing the symbolic social culture which discriminates against Indigeneity and enforces barriers to access, inclusion, truth, identification and cultural expression.
Every Indigenous student deserves to feel welcome to express their identity, to be supported, and feel safe and valued. Our academic spaces – places for future leaders to seek truth and societal growth, which claim to be built on a foundation of supporting whistleblowers – must commit to their own moral standard by enforcing truthful education about Canadian culture and identity. The optimism and usefulness of gaining education for all students of every background, experience, and identity, is lost if the foundation of such learning is grounded in ignorance and mistruths about current Canadian affairs, history and identity. Our academic perspective is fruitful because of our Indigeneity, not despite it, which is a key message that Absolon-King reiterates in her representation of Indigenous power and strife in academic methodology⁵.
Since my first Sweat Lodge, I have dedicated myself to learning Anishinaabemowin. The language holds the culture, as our language instructor mentions and continues to prove. Indigenous Peoples are currently experiencing pain and heartbreak with the recent discovery of the Kamloops Residential School mass grave and the 1 in 5 Indigenous children who died while attending the Red Deer Residential School. To the children found and the thousands upon thousands who may never be found but will be remembered and held in our hearts, I promise that I will share in the values and intentions of our People, I will not bow down to colonial definitions of identity, I will work hard to ensure our language lives on, and we will honour your lives for the rest of ours. To those who will never get the chance to return home; we will leave our porch light on for you, indefinitely.
Chi miigwech to my fellow Indigenous authors within our policy team, family and community members who share in their experiences and stories, and to other undergraduate students who have participated in consultation: our knowledge of Indigenous student experiences is collective and it is vital that we provide insight from many Indigenous Peoples in our studies.
¹ Kathleen Absolon-King, Kaandossiwin: How We Come to Know
(Fernwood Publishing Company, 2011).