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Indigenous Student Centre Book Club: An immersive experience in culture, knowledge and traditions
The Indigenous Student Centre (ISC) book club aims to bring together diverse perspectives in the Indigenous community, while creating a safe space for people to open up about their personal experiences.
As a resource for Indigenous students at SFU, the ISC book club is centered around fostering community. The book club was created in May 2020 in response to a student’s idea. Jesse Lecoy, a member of the Okanagan Nation and the Indigenous Student Life Coordinator with the ISC, is part of the team that helped design and facilitate the club in an effort to not only keep students engaged academically, but to provide a space where they could feel safe speaking about culture and tradition.
“That’s been an important part of the book club,” Lecoy says. “I tie it to our broader vision as a department … which is for Indigenous students to succeed and thrive as our ancestors envisioned – with a balance of culture, tradition, and academic success. The book club recognizes the importance of holistic wellness by supporting students in their journeys.”
Lecoy ensures ISC staff facilitate a casual setting for the book club – reading the entire book isn’t required. This way, the space allows for Indigenous students to engage in discussion about broader societal topics which often form the foundations of Indigenous literature and what it means to identify as Indigenous in a contemporary world.
Ashley Edwards, the Indigenous Initiatives and Instruction Librarian at SFU, is also a member of the ISC book club.
“There is value in (reading) Indigenous voices and story, whether it is fiction, non-fiction, poetry, or drama because so much learning is done through story,” Edwards says. “Growing up, the only Indigenous characters in popular media I saw were Tiger Lily in Peter Pan and Pocahontas. That is not representative of Indigeneity in any context, but particularly on the west coast.”
Edwards has worked with OneBook OneSFU, an annual program that provides a culturally significant book to everyone at the university, to centre authentic west coast Indigeneity at SFU. In 2019, she helped to host a panel for Eden Robinson, of the Haisla (Kitamaat) and Heiltsuk (Bella Bella) First Nations, and the author of the bestselling Trickster trilogy.
“I think it’s valuable to amplify Indigenous voices, but it’s more than that – it’s about reaching folks who might not see themselves mirrored anywhere else. I was born in the early 1980s and I didn’t realize what I was lacking … it’s great to be able to share and explore these books with the students.”
One of Edward’s favourite Indigenous books is Cherie Dimaline’s The Girl Who Grew a Galaxy. “I have never read a book that describes what it’s like to live with mental health (issues) in such a beautiful and eloquent way that resonated with me,” she says. “Every time I read it, I fall in love with it more.”
The club meets monthly with books purchased from local Indigenous bookstore, including Iron Dog Books and Massy Books.
Indigenous literature is a bridge between our communities
Indigenous literature shares a connection with our land – Nations, communities and regions often play central roles in Indigenous storytelling. As Indigenous students at SFU come from all over the country, their knowledge about traditional territories and culture enriches conversations during book club discussions.
Kathleen Anderson, an Anishinaabe woman from Treaty 1 territory and member of the ISC book club, cherishes the opportunity to speak with Elders at the meetings.
“I think of my Elders at home,” says Anderson who is also Métis. “My grandparents are storytellers and they’re always sharing all this knowledge with me, so it’s fun to read the same stories as the Elders ... they’ll say, ‘this reminds me of this story,’ and then we’ll get teachings about a book that has its own teachings.”
Anderson has been an avid reader since she was a child but grew up without stories centered around Indigenous Peoples. “Anytime something happened (in the story), I assumed they were white settlers,” she says.
As Anderson learned more about contemporary Indigenous literature, she realized that not all Indigenous stories need to feel traumatizing. Indigenous fiction, such as The Trickster trilogy and The Marrow Thieves, is relatable because of humour and culture – not just trauma.
“It’s nice to encourage my settler friends to support Indigenous authors,” she says. “It’s like, ‘this is a really good book and it’s not something that I would feel traumatized or taken aback by if you wanted to talk to me about it.’”
The ISC book club has helped Anderson gain new perspectives, which in turn has helped her spread Indigenous literary awareness among her family members.
“I’ve already started bugging my family to start reading (more),” she says. “My mom is learning and getting back in touch with our culture. If I have a good recommendation, I’ll give it to her. I’m like the family filter for books now.”
Elders with the ISC book club offer unique and rewarding teachings
Elder Syexwáliya (Ann Whonnock), Knowledge Keeper and the Squamish Nation Elder in Residence at the ISC, is an enthusiastic member of the book club.
Elder Syexwáliya encourages students to share their thoughts on how Indigenous literature has resonated with them. “Sometimes when we’re talking in groups, (students) may not want to share because they’re in a vulnerable position,” Elder Syexwáliya says. “By sharing my experiences and blending them with cultural knowledge, I can make (students) open up more and we get a better discussion. Young people start to share because they know this is a safe place to be able to express ourselves.”
This kind of knowledge sharing is an important aspect of cultural and personal growth. “Our old people say, ‘know who you are and know where you come from,’” Elder Syexwáliya says. “In one hand: your language, culture, land, family, and where you’re from. In the other, an education to support yourself and your family. When you have hard times in your life, it will be the culture that helps you make it through the hard times.
Elder Syexwáliya believes that Indigenous literature isn’t just for Indigenous Peoples – It can be used as a tool to educate non-Indigenous people as well. It can help people understand who we are and the issues we face in life.
“Gifting these books to (settlers) may make them spread this message and break down barriers,” Elder Syexwáliya says. “As my grandpop said, ‘maybe then, they won’t be scared of us.’”
“We give each other different views and that’s the most important thing,” Elder Syexwáliya says. “Like I say in prayer, listen and take into your hearts what is meant for us. Set aside what we don’t need today to bring back another day. Na’tsa’ maht Shqwaluwun – One Heart and One Mind.”