In Flight of the Hummingbird, Michael Nicoll Yagulaanas recounts the story of Dukdukdiya, the little hummingbird, from a Quechan parable who, though she is small and cannot carry much water, still “does everything she can to put out a raging fire that threatens her forest home.”

FASS News, Community, Faculty

Listening and unlearning from the heart

October 22, 2021
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By Christine Lyons*

We must all call for the ongoing progress of reconciliation, regardless of political affiliation, cultural background or personal history of connection to this dark history.

 

Reconciliation is not an Aboriginal problem – it involves all of us. 

~Justice Murray Sinclair

 

Reconciliation is not a static, abstract concept. It begins and continues with you and your relationships: your relationship to the land you live upon, to the Indigenous peoples who have stewarded the land since time immemorial, to your family, friends, peers—to your community. It begins from the heart of who you are in combination with what you do. It is personal, continual, and ongoing. In reconciliation, you are at once listening, learning, and unlearning. And it is a process that can be (and should be) uncomfortable or difficult. Importantly, for reconciliation to be meaningful, it requires action—actively trying to set things right on an ongoing basis; it is not for the ”actor” to decide reconciliation is taking place. 

These are threads that came through while interviewing a few FASS scholars** about what it means to bring reconciliation into their classrooms. 

Throughout my exchanges with Dr. Brenda Morrison from the School of Criminology, Dr. Sophie McCall from the Department of English, Dr. Sarah Henzi of the Department of French and the Department of Indigenous Studies, and Dr. Rachel Fouladi and Dr. Jodi Viljoen from the Department of Psychology, I also learned that the very question I began this piece with, “how do you bring reconciliation into the classroom effectively?” was entirely the wrong question. Reconciliation isn’t a thing.

Although it has been written into the university’s strategic priorities and commitments, reconciliation cannot be institutionalized, branded or written into our work by some magic formula (i.e., land acknowledgements + talking circle + Indigenous author/guest speaker = reconciliation).

THE INSTITUTION DOESN’T HAVE A HEART. PEOPLE HAVE A HEART.

I spoke with Brenda Morrison, who is known for her work Indigenizing curriculum and who was recently nominated for the YWCA's Reconciliation in Action award. Morrison pointed out that part of the work of decolonizing within an institution like the university is a struggle against being depersonalized: 

“One of the most important things in participating in reconciliation is bringing land acknowledgements into your practice. Suzanne Keeptwo is a Métis artist and writer (Algonkin, Kitchesipirini, with French & Irish ancestry from Québec) and her book, We All Go Back to the Land outlines not only how important land acknowledgements are but how the practice of incorporating a really formalized, static, land acknowledgements empty the act of its meaning. Land acknowledgements are an act of reconciliation, and they should come from the heart.” 

The institution does not have a heart, Morrison points out, and notes that “so often you see instructors, students, or hosts of events just repeating the SFU-approved land acknowledgement. But, to learn how to get it right, we need to do away with the institutional branding of the land acknowledgement and speak from the heart of who we are. The institution does not have a heart. People have a heart.”

This important distinction, Morrison notes, also relates to the difference between transactional versus relational ways of knowing and being. Institutions, or the justice system, for example are very transactional in their functioning, she says. Whereas land acknowledgements ask us to focus on relationality and connection. Morrison explains her approach: 

“In my classroom, what I have done is try to bring students out of describing themselves as a what and ask them: “who are you?” Students always begin with something like ‘I’m a __ year Criminology student, studying criminology because I want to be a ____.' This is not a relational point of view. It is transactional. That they are here in university studying does not speak to who they are. So, I ask them: ‘Where are you from? Who are your ancestors? Are you a daughter, son, mother, father, friend, etc.?”  These questions get them into a frame of mind that is relational rather than transactional.” 

The land you stand on shapes your understanding 

Asking students to identify their positionality is also a strategy that Sophie McCall uses in her classes teaching Indigenous literatures and storytelling. 

 

McCall notes that “part of my inspiration comes from Cree filmmaker, writer and scholar Tasha Hubbard (who is not alone, I would add, many Indigenous people have said similar things). Hubbard says, ‘I have students who have expectations when they take my class that they're going to learn all about Indigenous people. Instead at the beginning of the class, I will say that they are in this space to turn their gaze toward themselves because so much of the time Indigenous people are the object of the gaze.’”

 

McCall says she begins classes with this positionality and land acknowledgement, in the words she emphasizes, “The land that you stand on shapes your understanding.”  
 
The emphasized wordplay is fun, but there is a serious point McCall is trying to make. 

 

“We in academic teaching and discourse often were taught from an incredibly young age to absent ourselves from our own work and to remain somewhat invisible. And what this does is it recentres the white settler as the dominant, mainstream perspective, as if that perspective is not itself a position."  

 

McCall says this strategy of self-positioning is particularly helpful since many of the students she teaches come from different ancestries and cultural backgrounds, and share different racial, ethnic, or cultural ties.

 

 “Strategies of positioning oneself enable students to think about how they have been shaped by history and their family stories of their past. The goal is not only to un-learn the misconceptions that maintain ignorance and the status quo, but also to learn more deeply about themselves and their relationship to land and community, here in North America or even farther afield.” 

 

McCall designs assignments that ask students to research their own sense of themselves. Often this is reserved for upper-level courses, she notes, but she says she asks students to consider their own personal histories.

 

‘“My assignments often have long titles,” she laughs, “like 'Your personal history reading journal scrapbook.’” 

 

Sometimes McCall will assign an ethics review to students as part of the assignment.

 

 “This is so that they can experience what it is like to interview each other or family members and learn a little bit about what goes into the process of getting someone’s consent to speak with them, to learn their stories and knowledge.” 

 

“I guess my ulterior motive is not only to teach students how to replicate academic discourse,” she notes, “but to be creative in their writing assignments and to consider the resources they have within themselves to engage more fully with the course material.”

 

Photo credit: Dave Stobbe

Setting things right

Sarah Henzi joined SFU last year in a cross-appointment with the departments of French and Indigenous Studies. In her courses, SFU students can take Indigenous Studies courses en français for the first time ever, an important curricular milestone at SFU.

 

Sto:lo writer Lee Maracle wrote a very short piece, in 2012, on the problematics of the word ‘reconciliation," Henzi shares in an email exchange.  Maracle writes, "Conciliation is about a fairly reciprocal relationship, in which both parties agree to the sharing of space. Re-conciliation, means the restoration of the sharing, or fair relations. I am a tad suspicious of reconciliation as a process insofar as the Sto:lo have not experienced a conciliatory relationship with either the British or Canada.”

 

Henzi's responds, "As such, then, before thinking about reconciliation, maybe we need to think about conciliation, and building up those fair, respectful relationships. And this is what I try to do in my classroom: to create a safe space in which we can build respectful relationships, from which to have these deeper conversations."

 

When asked about how to bring acts of "(re)conciliation" into her teaching, Henzi also shared the words of Maria Campbell above. Campbell’s quote further emphasizes how concepts of “reconciliation” are devoid of meaning without the presence of any genuine “relationship.” Noting that there is no Cree word for Reconciliation, Campbell’s includes “kwayskahstahsôwin and instead centers the critical act of giving land back to Indigenous people as that which would "set things right." 

 

“I like the wording of ‘setting things right,’ says Henzi “instead of words such as reconciliation or even decolonization,” which she says can become too abstracted and disconnected. 

 

Henzi says the biggest challenge of addressing reconciliation in French while teaching Indigenous Studies, is the multiple levels of language facility and ensuring students understand both the words themselves and the meaning of the content.  

 

“I think the challenge of teaching this content in French is largely the language: for my students here, for the most past, French is their second language, and they are still in the process of learning it. So, it is about making sure that they understand the content, and not just the words, if that makes sense. Because these are difficult topics, addressing them in another language is, I believe, more challenging. So sometimes we need to throw a few English words in there. But ultimately, it’s about having the conversation, and learning things the right way, which is important.”
 

Listening to and involving Indigenous students 

For some perspective on the departmental committee level of reconciliation work, I also reached out to Dr. Rachel Fouladi and Dr. Jodi Viljoen, the current co-chairs for the Indigenous Reconciliation Committee (IRC) in the Department of Psychology.  

Fouladi and Viljoen shared with me that the IRC was initially formed back in 2018. Its existence was largely due to faculty concerns regarding the need for a response to calls to action in the TRC report of 2015, the SFU-ARC Walk this Path with Us, and input from prior and current Indigenous students for suggested directions if they wished to do so.  

“Over the years, we have had an opportunity to work with and learn from Indigenous students in our program. This made us aware of the ways our program and the university was falling short, and motivated and inspired us to do better,” they shared.  
 
A small group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, faculty, and staff members came together to form a committee and start to try to implement acts of reconciliation in their teaching and programming.  

In addition to establishing a guide for Land Acknowledgements specifically for the Department of Psychology, the committee’s work led to the department securing funds to establish cultural safety training for graduate students both in the clinical and general programs.  

“San’yas Cultural Safety Training is an important program and something that has been available to staff and faculty, but we were quite surprised and troubled that the training was not available to graduate students, some of whom (in the clinical program) work directly with Indigenous peoples and/or organizations,” said Fouladi and Viljoen. Since the Department of Psychology has started to generously fund training for its graduate students, many students have been able to complete this training. 

The IRC conducted an informal audit in Spring 2020 asking psychology instructors questions about what they are doing in their classrooms to decolonize or Indigenize their courses, as well as, what contexts/resources they thought could help the process. As a response to the audit as well as the voiced interest from Indigenous students to have greater contact with Indigenous scholars, some of the activities of the committee since that have included booking workshops for faculty like Michelle Nahanee’s “Decolonizing Practices,” and inviting Indigenous guest speakers like Anishinaabe Dr. Cornelia Wieman, from the First Nations Health Authority in May 2021 or, earlier this month, Dr. Margaret Kovach, Associate Dean, Indigenous Education at the University of British Columbia. Graduate students in the department have also initiated a variety of activities, including a fundraiser for residential school survivors in which faculty have been challenged to match the funds raised by students.

While drawing attention to the fact that the journey is lifelong and multigenerational, and that structural change is neccesary,  Fouladi and Viljoen expressed enthusiasm for the tremendous uptake by faculty and students, as well as the public, in the workshop and colloquia series.  

“We are fortunate to work within a supportive department and there are lots of actions that faculty have taking and are continuing to take in their journey towards learning,” they said. 

Committing to (un)learn and do what you can

In our conversation, Brenda Morrison shared a story from the book Flight of the Hummingbird by Michael Nicoll Yagulaanas. Yahgulanaas describes Dukdukdiya, the little hummingbird, from a Quechan parable who, though she is small and cannot carry much water, still does everything she can to put out a raging fire that threatens her forest home.”  

 

Morrison says the story inspires her and others to “do what we can and not run from the work of reconciliation ahead - single acts of courage and commitment that create the embrace of a healing social echo.” 

 

She continues, “if we can learn from the hummingbird, we will use whatever powers we have, big or small, in the work of reconciliation.” 

 

My exchanges with Fouladi and Viljoen, with Henzi, McCall, and Morrison, all show how each of these individuals are doing what they can to help in “setting things right,” and my conversations, learning and unlearning will likewise continue and echo. Reconciliation begins with you, but it never ends.

 

Please help us carry these ideas forward. FASS would particularly like to include the perspectives of Indigenous students as we plan an ongoing series in 2022. If you know of students, staff, or faculty members in your department who are working to decolonize and/or Indigenize their curriculum, email us at fasscomm@sfu.ca and we will follow up.

* In the spirit of positioning myself and bringing into this piece my own land acknowledgement, from the heart: 

I am an uninvited guest on the unceded and traditional territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), səl̓ilw̓ətaʔɬ (Tsleil-Waututh), and kʷikʷəƛ̓əm (Kwikwetlem) Nations. I acknowledge and send gratitude to the lands and the waters. I am a woman, mother, wife, daughter, friend, survivor of sexual assault, and storyteller. I am closer to my mother and matriarchal side of my family than my father’s, despite knowing more about his Scottish heritage. My ancestors were Scottish and German settlers who emigrated to Turtle Island many generations before I was born. I was raised upon the traditional territories of the Erie, Neutral, Huron-Wendat, Haudenosaunee and Mississaugas, land that is covered by the Dish With One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant. I am here to (un)learn, to listen deeply, to respect and heed the histories and present realities of Indigenous peoples on whose land I call home.

** A note about who I reached out to for this piece of writing. When I was first asked to plan a news piece on “FASS faculty bringing reconciliation into their classrooms,” it was suggested I reach out to faculty members we know are Indigenous. However, after some thought and discussion with our communications team, we noted the well-documented critiques that far too often, Indigenous peoples are asked to educate white people, settlers and/or institutions with colonial histories and they are asked to share knowledge and practices on Reconciliation, land acknowledgements, Indigenization and decolonization. We agreed that asking additional labour and contributions of our known Indigenous faculty members, staff or graduate students was not appropriate, particularly at a time when Indigenous communities across Turtle Island are rightfully focusing on healing, community and self-care.

Rather, the idea behind this piece was to call upon other scholars within FASS who are including acts of reconciliation, decolonizing practices and/or Indigenizing curriculum to share what they are doing to put reconciliation into action in their classrooms—and what challenges do they face in doing so?

The other question that I was asked during the writing of this piece was "if and how FASS is planning on including the perspectives of Indigenous students (if not now, then going forward)"? This is a critical question. To not only report on faculty and teaching staff, but to seek to understand how acts of reconciliation or decolonization are being received particularly by Indigenous students and the Indigenous communities that are part a part of our work.

Our FASS Communications team brought this question to the Dean pro tem and Associate Deans. The first step we are taking to answer is reaching out to the Indigenous Student Centre and inviting Indigenous students to bring their ideas and experiences to future FASS News pieces.