Steven Hall is a fourth-year undergraduate student pursuing a major in First Nations Studies and extended minor in Psychology at SFU. Since February 2018, he has worked as a research assistant for the Disrupting Colonialism through Teaching: An Integrated Seminar Series and Grants Program to help reshape teaching and learning with regards to Indigenous Peoples. Below are some of his insights into his own journey, and how to make decolonizing happen.
"Decolonizing is an ongoing process – there’s no end point": A Conversation with Steven Hall
Written by Vanessa Milost Gonzalez
Interview conducted by Vanessa Milost Gonzalez and Adjua Akinwumi
Tell us a little bit about your journey as an Indigenous student.
Embracing one’s own identity is quite a journey, and it’s the journey a lot of Indigenous Peoples are going on: relearning what they’ve lost and taking back their identity. It’s been told to us numerous times in different fashions that we should not be Indigenous and, as an urban Heiltsuk born and raised in Vancouver, it took me a while to embrace who I am.
This goes way back: when I was about nine years old, I remember learning my clan’s “wolf dance” at a friendship center in Vancouver, and the excitement I felt to discover a part of my background. I was looking forward to showing the dance to my friends at school, but once I did I was made fun of for about three months: “look, Steven thinks he’s a wolf!”, my friends would say while mocking the dance. In that moment I decided “I’m different, and I’m going to suppress my identity because it’s not welcome or accepted within this community I’m in.”
Throughout elementary and high school, I would still identify as Heiltsuk but not talk about it forwardly. It wasn’t until I got to Langara College, where I earned an A.A. degree in Psychology, that I took my first Aboriginal Studies course and started to understand that what I was experiencing was not an individual incidence, but embedded in a system that shaped everything I learned. Once I had this realization, I started to seek community and rediscover my own roots. For instance, it’s only been since last April that I’ve learned my language, Haíɫzaqvḷa, and today I’m very thankful to say “Ǧṇṃ́diṇúgva”, a phrase that translates directly as “wanting to be a girl” or “acts like a girl”, but which has been modernly claimed as being LGBTQ2IA+. It means a lot to know that I can say I’m gay in my language, and that this phrase was important in my culture and part of our society. With that, a whole other world has since opened up for me.
How does Disrupting Colonialism through Teaching play into this journey for members of the SFU community?
Disrupting Colonialism through Teaching consists of both a grant component and a seminar. In our first year’s cohort, we had eight scholars from different departments at SFU who wanted to decolonize their teaching. We met regularly throughout the course of the year to collectively discuss issues concerning the university and ways to address them. We started with the history of colonialism, and from there we explored questions like “what does decolonizing look like in our education system?” and “does it work in our education system?”. We did different readings and I brought a student’s perspective to the material – what would it look like if that was used in a classroom setting?
As an RA for the program, I felt very privileged to see how human scholars can be, and to be at the table when participants discussed topics that were really true to their heart. Some of them focused on creating a safer space for Indigenous students in the classroom, while others took a more disruptive approach to effecting institutional change. Everyone was at a different place in their own decolonizing journeys.
In addition to my role in the seminar, I’m also doing research on whether there is a program like ours being implemented in other Canadian universities. So far we believe that there isn’t. It seems that most offerings out there revolve around seminar-based initiatives, but there’s no meeting up afterwards and getting faculty involved to do the work. Our program is quite unique in this way.
What could SFU do to foster conversations and reflections around decolonizing?
Continue to fund the Disrupting Colonialism through Teaching program. The work we do here goes far beyond our cohort. There’s an estimated 900 faculty members at SFU, eight of whom have participated in the program. They’re creating a research proposal, they’re trying to decolonize their teachings in whatever way they want to. And they’re sharing with their faculty – and this sharing can have a big ripple effect.
We also need a VP for Indigenous Initiatives at the university. This role has the potential to create community – this is crucial to decolonizing in general. How do we make that happen? I see a VP creating that space here at SFU.
What are some realistic goals to pursue?
Decolonizing is an ongoing process – there’s no end point. We need to embrace it as a living thing that we need to continuously work on. It starts with the individual, with decolonizing your own self, where you come from, who you are. “Why am I in the place that I’m in currently? Who am I not acknowledging?”: these questions are starting points. Beyond self-reflection, you also have to find relationships with folks. You can’t decolonize on your own. And if you try, you will burn out…you’re going against the grain and a system that is too big for you.
This is an Indigenous way of being, doing and knowing: the crucial step to any effort you’re trying to achieve is to find community. That’s what Disrupting Colonialism through Teaching has enabled, bringing together different disciplines on this one focal point that is decolonizing teaching. As an undergraduate student, being able to see the work that’s being done by professors who genuinely want to change the institution, to make a difference for Indigenous students – I’m very grateful for that.