February 23, 2023

Moving Together in the Ways of the People: SFU faculty members explore Indigenous epistemologies

“It’s no longer about needing permission to decolonize my classroom, it’s about having a responsibility to do so.”

 What does it mean to decolonize your classroom? According to SFU instructors who recently explored this question through a program hosted by the Centre of Educational Excellence in collaboration with Elders and knowledge carriers from the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh and Tsleil-Waututh Nations, the answer is both foundational and complex. 

Moving Together in the Ways of the People invited faculty and graduate students to explore Indigenous ways of knowing and being through participating in the process of carving Coast Salish Sea going canoe paddles in preparation for paddling the Salish Seas together. The carving was undertaken as a sacred process in the context of ceremony, sharing circles and feasting together over a series of sessions. The journey also included a series of reflective discourses, during which participants were given the opportunity to consider how being immersed in Indigenous ways of knowing and being will impact them as educators in the classroom, as well as a ceremony in which participants joined other members of the SFU community to be acknowledged and to share their personal and collective learning as a meaningful action towards reconciliation, throughout the university and their life-long, personal and professional teaching journeys.

“The program was guided by an advisory group made up Indigenous community members, SFU graduate students, and CEE staff. I worked closely with them to breathe life into this innovative collaboration that is demonstrating just how powerful and necessary Indigenous epistemologies are to decolonizing higher education,” says Denise Findlay, who is of Sḵwx̱wú7mesh ancestry and is CEE’s new Educational Developer for Indigenous Ways of Knowing and Being.

Interested in learning more about this program? Come to a screening of a short documentary of the Moving Together in the Ways of the People program on March 27, 6:00 p.m, Saywell Hall Atrium, Burnaby Campus.

For faculty members participating in the program, learning about Indigenous epistemologies was about emotional learning.

“What I got from this course was an understanding that the best learning is emotional learning. And really, that's what to me is what Indigenous pedagogy is about. It was totally different than the Western academic learning that I have been trained on my whole life. The experience was both personally transformative and healing. Having gone through this and experienced the incredible generosity of the Elders and community members, it’s no longer about needing permission to decolonize my classroom, it’s about having a responsibility to do so,” says geography professor Tracy Brennand. 

BPK senior lecturer Diana Bedoya echoes Brennand’s emphasis on emotional learning, highlighting the importance of relationships within this kind of learning. 

“Taking this program has changed the way I teach in so many ways. It opened my eyes to the fact that learning is through the relating. You can memorize content, but that kind of learning doesn’t last because people don’t have emotional attachment to content. But we have an emotional attachment to our experience and the people we're having that experience with. That’s what stays with us. For example, in one class on morbidity and obesity I changed the conversation so that students started relating to the people behind the statistics. I have never enjoyed teaching so much, and I think my students feel the same.” 

For Math professor Marni Mishna, the emotion that she aims to bring to the classroom as a result of the program is joy. 

“Throughout the program we engaged in ceremony. You can read about ceremony, but you have to experience it to understand how it can be educational. For me, the power of ceremony was about bringing joy and it made me realize the importance of helping students find joy in the material I teach. For example, I am teaching calculus to class of 300 business majors. It’s difficult because they're not there willingly and the beautiful part of math is not in this course. But one thing I’m doing now is really trying to engage them with examples that make the content relatable to them and to recognize their humanity so that it doesn’t feel like a transactional experience.”    

An Indigenous approach to educational design

Moving Together in the Ways of the People was based on the Indigenous philosophy that knowledge is seen to emanate from lived experience and established on the basis of it making us better relatives to one another, the land and all of existence. Through the process of participating in relational ways of knowing and being with each other, with the land, water, and more than human, participants were given the rare opportunity to develop capacities within themselves that will help them actualize the vision outlined in SFU’s Aboriginal Reconciliation Council Report. As educators from various academic disciplines, the capacities to think and reach beyond existing educational paradigms made possible by Moving Together in The Ways of the People, might otherwise lay dormant in more traditional pedagogical settings.  

The project was done in the context of ceremony in order to follow Sḵwx̱wú7mesh oral record keeping protocols referred to as utsám, meaning to call witnesses, and chen chen Stway, which means to work together. Utsám is a serious role one plays in community as a record keeper with the responsibilities of sharing what work has taken place and the learning resulting from important processes. 

A documentary filmed by SFU graduate student and artist, Calder Chevrie, captures the journey aesthetically as a methodology that aligns with Indigenous ways of knowledge creation which challenges dominant forms of evidencing that continue to perpetuate colonizing perspectives.