Indian in a Jar?

Yesterday, Lakehead University announced that starting in 2016, all LU undergraduate students will be required to learn (something) about Indigenous peoples.  As reported by CBC Thunder Bay, this initiative is meant to ensure LU graduates have exposure to “significant indigenous [sic] knowledge,” and to develop basic understandings of treaties, and racism, among other issues.  The program is also meant to be flexible: exposure to Indigenous issues will be tailored to particular areas of study.  LU prides itself on being a school of and for the north, and so this programming could prepare non-Indigenous graduates for working in a northern Ontario reality, where Indigenous politics are enmeshed in everything.

In hearing this news, I was reminded immediately about something that happened in the Fort William First Nation sugar bush a few months ago.  I want to tell you about what happened there because it provides a backdrop against which I can assess yesterday’s announcement.

Settler Colonialism in the Sugar Bush

In the fall, my colleague – Gail Bannon – and I met with several Lakehead University students and their instructor in the sugar bush.  Several of us at FWFN have been working hard to revitalize our connection to inaantigag; after nearly three decades of not visiting, the bush is in need of some management to make it safer (identifying dead or near-dead trees that should be removed) and to optimize sap production for future generations.  We don’t necessarily have this knowledge “in-house,” so we did like any good Anishinaabeg would and reached out to those who had it – in this case, students from a department at Lakehead University.

But something happened that day that I think none of us have forgotten. Boundaries were broken, trust was put into question, and the colonialist sense of entitlement to Indigenous lands reared its head.

After not finding the students and instructor at the location we agreed to meet at, Gail and I decided to look for them in the sugar bush.  This is how our initial face-to-face meeting unfolded:

Me: Hi everyone.

Instructor: Hi there! How are you?

Me: Surprised. I’m surprised that you didn’t wait for us at the location we agreed to.

Instructor: Oh. I’m sorry, we must have get the meeting time wrong. So we just came up to look around and get started.

Me: The reason I’m surprised is that this place is important and sacred to us. Its not a place in which we want people poking around without a proper introduction, both to its history and connection to our community, but also to the trees themselves. You coming up here as you did today is representative of how colonialism works in the academy: you see yourselves as having a right to access Indigenous lands without representatives of Indigenous communities present.

Awkward silence.

Instructor: Is that something you work with? Colonialism?

Me: Colonialism is what my PhD studies are focused on ending, in one way or another. And one of the ways to end it is to establish good relationships with each other. Its about protocol. We invited you here because we want to establish a relationship with you and Lakehead University, because you have something we need. But we can’t do that without having a protocol in place.

Instructor: Oh, my apologies (he was sincere). I think developing a protocol is something we should do in phase two of this relationship.

Me: No. Establishing protocol and good relations comes before anything else. Nothing can happen here without it.

More was said, but we eventually got to the work that we had wanted to do that day.  And I am happy to report that our relationship with the students from the department at Lakehead University turned out well, with a very useful report being produced and given to us, and the relationship continues to unfold in positive ways.  But my point in telling this story is that regardless of our visitor’s intensions, what happened that day suggested to me that they had not been made aware by LU about how settler colonialism could work through them.  I think part of their surprise was a realization, however partial, that they could be (and were being) unwitting tools in upholding and expanding settler colonialism’s knowing of the Other.

Flipping the Lens

Earlier today, when I heard about Lakehead’s announcement, I wondered: If LU had instituted a mandatory Indigenous exposure policy, say, a decade ago, would it have changed what happened in the sugar bush that day last fall?  Maybe.  It might have, for example, made the students and instructor aware that the sugar bush is a sacred site, and that protocol is important. Maybe they would have waited for us at the agreed location.

But then I am also careful about projects that aim to learn more about the Other without substantive self-reflection being a core part of the process (and here I am talking about the Lakehead’s announcement). I believe that simply learning about Indigenous peoples isn’t enough to end colonial violence. This is because Canada and Thunder Bay are structured by settler colonialism and white supremacy. In this context, learning about Indigenous peoples is easy because it doesn’t question positions of power.

It is from this position, therefore – one of turning the lens back onto settlers in a settler colonial context – that I want to assess Lakehead’s news.

Indian in a Jar

My favourite piece of writing of 2014 was produced by my friend and fellow Anishinaabe scholar, Jana-Rae Yerxa.  Her powerful article, entitled Refuse to Live Quietly!, calls out so-called anti-colonial initiatives that can actually reproduce or protect colonialism in spaces of higher learning.  She writes:

I am tired of the ‘safe’ strategy that focuses on educating settler folks about an ‘Aboriginal experience,’ about ‘Aboriginal people’ and ‘Aboriginal history,’ instead of settler colonialism, white supremacy, and settler colonial violence.  I am tired of this safe strategy because it is not safe for me as an Anishinaabe Kwe. It is safe for settlers.  This is wrong because this type of educational approach is not only ineffective, it is also harmful.  It presents a guise of meaningful work, when the work needed – dismantling settler colonialism and ending settler colonial violence – is not actually being done.

This is an important critique to consider when assessing an initiative meant to expose all Lakehead University undergrads to Indigenous issues and knowledges on a mandatory basis.  Jana’s work here forces us to ask: Who’s comfort is being centered in such an initiative?

I have to admit at this point that I have not seen the project outline for what I am calling the Indigenous issues exposure initiative. All I have to work with here is the CBC Thunder Bay news article posted yesterday. But based on that, I question who’s comfort is being taken care of. For example, the article states that the teaching on Indigenous peoples/issues will be “tailored to each student.” My colleague representing the Office of Aboriginal Initiatives – Yolanda Wanakamik – explains that this tailoring might take the shape of foresters learning about treaties, or engineers destined for work in the north learning about “the culture of First Nations.”

However, as Jana’s work would suggest, this approach is safe for settlers. It allows settler undergraduate students to chose aspects of Indigenous peoples, issues, cultures, etc., that do not challenge their comfort zones. For example, learning about Indigenous “culture” in Canada is safe because it is often done through a framework of multiculturalism, where non-European worldviews, practices, art, laws and governance systems are decontextualized as “culture” that can be “tolerated.”  Looking at the Other in this way is different from learning about the “cannibal culture” of settler colonialism because settlers’ emotional, political, psychic and physical safety are given priority. Settler undergrads might therefore learn about treaties and culture, but this does not demand they undermine their own complicity in a settler colonial system that privileges straightness, whiteness, maleness, able-ness.

Tailoring Indigenous issues rather than turning the lens towards one’s complicity with settler colonialism presents a fractured picture.  In this critique, fracturing Indigenous realities into safe pieces of information commodifies lived Indigenous experiences of violence.  It renders these experiences, and Indigenous peoples’ resistances to them, into innocuous substances easily preserved like condiments that settlers can chose from as they walk down grocery store aisles thinking about what they want to digest on a given day. Lakehead University should avoid this “Indian in a jar” approach if it is serious about ending the foundational causes of colonial violence felt by Indigenous peoples.

Mandatory Indigenist Education

By contrast, what if exposure to Indigenous issues at LU took the shape of mandatory Indigenist education? Like Lakehead’s approach above, Indigenist theory centres Indigenous peoples’ worldviews, and the knowledges held by Indigenous women, children and the land. But it goes further: it is also consciously anti-colonial, and challenges the academy’s monopoly on what counts as knowledge. Importantly, because it is decidedly anti-colonial, it opens space for settler students to critically engage with their complicity with settler colonialism.

Key to achieving this would be a mandatory course (or more) focusing on the resurgences of Indigenous peoples worldviews and political orders. In these spaces, projects could depend on each student’s positionality: Indigenous students could focus on the resurgences of Indigenous laws, whereas settler students could complete projects concerned with ways in which settler colonialism has created the need for the resurgence of those same Indigenous laws.

Central to developing a mandatory anti-colonial course for all Lakehead undergrads – and one that does not commodify Indigenous struggles – would be ensuring students understand that just because racism and colonialism are being talked about does not mean the space is safe for everyone.  No doubt, this would be a process of unsettlement; much like what happened in my story about the sugar bush above, these unsettlements would create “teachable moments” where light is shone on the real problem of (un)knowingly upholding settler colonialism.  White students, for example, will be expected to embrace feelings of discomfort for having their colonial complicities discussed; such discomfort is integral to anti-racist/anti-colonial learning environments because it “promote[s] an honest dialogue about the need for the state and settlers to make amends to Indigenous peoples today,” as noted by Corntassel.

The great thing is, there are already university courses being offered that do just this. Lakehead’s own Department of Indigenous Learning offers INDI 2805 – Native Canadian World Views.  The University of Victoria’s Indigenous Governance program offers IGOV 520 – Indigenous Governance, among other relevant courses. If LU is serious about sending graduates into the world capable of ending colonial violence, then why not make courses like INDI 2805 and IGOV 520 mandatory for all students?

Full Circle

In reflecting on the above, I return to what happened in the sugar bush.  Had LU instituted an Indigenous learning initiative that required settler students to examine their own complicity with settler colonialism, I feel more confident in saying the students we met that day would have been aware of the power they had as young, white, male scholars; maybe they would have been more willing to undermine that power, and to allow us to introduce them properly to that piece of land. I think they would have been more ready to engage proper protocol.  And so, if Lakehead University wants to make things better for Indigenous peoples, it can play a key role by informing the majority of its students how to not reproduce the settler colonial power they have been given by a system no one tells them about.

Amendment: A previous version of this post included the name of the LU department mentioned in the section discussing the sugar bush above. The name was removed after a representative of said department contacted me with a request to protect its faculty.

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One thought on “Indian in a Jar?

  1. Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux

    You are aware I hope by now that this is NOT an Aboriginal Initiatives Office proposal for ALL LU students, but a Lakehead University wide initiative by the Senate, Board and Faculty, and that it was initiated in 2012-13 in the Strategic Plan with consultation happening with existing students and faculty approvals. I appreciate your concerns, we all have an opinion and what would be best is to suggest on all parts, cohesive and doable alternatives and wise suggestions that you would consider more appropriate. Any start is a good start, but we cannot ask everyone to take Dennis’s class because of numbers and space considerations. There is more to this conversation and it is constantly evolving, thanks, Cynthia

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