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Driving to Terrace with academia, oil and glaciers on my mind…

Driving to Terrace with academia, oil and glaciers on my mind…

Posted by on Nov 16, 2012 in all posts, Canada, Freda Diesing School of Northwest Art, on the road | 0 comments

We left Calgary early on the first Saturday of October bound for a small town called Terrace in Northern British Columbia, with the purpose of visiting the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Art.  The drive was estimated to be about 20 hours and we planned to divide the days of driving with an overnight stay in Jasper, in the midst of Jasper National Park.  To get there, you have to also drive through Banff National Park.   The views between Calgary and Jasper via Banff and Jasper National Parks are nothing short of extraordinary.  Words such as ‘beautiful’, ‘amazing’, ‘unbelievable’, ‘mind-blowing’ are used in over-abundance and do little to convey the magnitude of the natural display of wonder through which the road traverses.

Photo taken by Kelly along the Banff-Jasper Highway

The morning we left, I was jetlagged after returning the day before from a trip to the UK (the during which time I visited the University for the last time as an employee). The tremendous beauty that surrounded me in Banff and Jasper were a far cry from those intense days working as an academic.  Although there were precious gems of collegial friendships I had developed with many inspiring students and other like-minded academics, overall, the geography of the academic environment was harsh and unforgiving, hardly nourishing or conducive to deep creativity and passionate purpose.   During the four years I worked at the University I felt an intensifying hierarchy and lack of support.  This is not the same experience for all early academics, but it was for me.  I was often lost in a murky sea of politics, torn between commitments within two different departments, scurrying around like a headless chicken to keep up with an overload of teaching and often times losing my sense of purpose and self in the process.  The glacially sculpted peaks and valleys of the Rocky Mountains offered an immediate respite, reminding me of the slow process of time through which each of us are such small, but deeply connected components.  I also was reminded by how small my world had become in the mire of the University’s expectations and structure. Much bigger issues, such as climate change, that I could view firsthand in the receding glaciers at Banff and Jasper, are exponentially more important.  The world is much larger, vastly more interesting, than the small-mindedness of universities whose primary objectives are to make themselves as big as possible within the global economy, particularly at the expense of the happiness of many of its staff, faculty and students.  I also realized that the healing required from my experience working in academia – to unlearn ways of thinking that had been detrimental to my overall well-being – would be slow and erratic.  Feelings and experiences embed themselves deep in each of our bodies, affecting far more than our minds.  I felt an intense gratitude for these reminders surrounding me in the tremendous beauty of the sculpted Rocky Mountains, turquoise lakes, sublimely green ever-green trees and yellowing Autumnal leaves – and also the melancholic presence of melting glaciers amidst the beauty.

Photo taken by Kelly at Bow Lake in Banff National Park

Although we hastened our travel to Jasper that first day of driving, we managed a few stops that brought us to the forefront of climate change processes.  After marvelling at the turquoise waters of Lake Louise and Bow Lake, we stopped at Columbia Icefields to walk up the path to see the Athabasca glacier up close.  At the turn off to Columbia Icefields, on the drive to the parking lot, we noticed signs that read 19012, 1920, 1945, 1960, 1980, 1992, 2000 – each demonstrated the level from which the glacier had receded, the most recent being 2000, at least 50 metres from where the edge of the glacier currently lay melting with torrents of small rivers and streams running off toward the turquoise lake below.

Photo taken by Udi of Athabasca glacier at Columbia Icefields, Banff National Park

We also stopped at Parker Ridge, on the side of the highway and walked 2km up a steep ascent to eat a small picnic lunch.  The view hiking up the snaking avalanche path was as impressive as the drive and we felt alive as our lungs were working harder to grasp oxygen from the thinning crisp air.  The only downside of the view was a haze of smoke from controlled forest fires in British Columbia.  Along the path, stunted alpine evergreen trees and wildflowers thrive here in the desert-like landscape that brings constant blasts of wind.  Once we reached the crest of the ridge, the most extraordinary sight beheld us.  We were transfixed.    Through at least a mile or so of evergreen and Autumnal yellows of forest cascading below us lay an untouched valley with a rivulet of streams and rivers cutting their way through from a massive glacier on the right that we approximated to be at least 5 miles long.  The massive Saskatchewan glacier, which dwarfs the Athabasca glacier at Columbia Icefields, we later learnt, creates the North Saskatchewan river that flows over 700 miles to meet with the Saskatchewan River in Saskatchewan and eventually empty into Lake Winnipeg.

Photo taken by Kelly on top of Parkers Ridge, Banff National Park

Our overnight stay in Jasper was in an overpriced hotel that was more like a glamorised hostel, with a shared bathroom for the hallway, but a separate box-shaped bedroom with gold fixtures on the lamps, bed, dresser and windows.  We happily left Jasper bound for the furthest town we could reach before dark.  We remembered to fill up on petrol as the nearest petrol station was a 4 hour drive away.  We entered British Columbia a couple of hours after leaving Jasper.  That night, we made it as far as Burns Lake, a small town at least 200 miles from Terrace.

Photo taken by Kelly at the border of British Columbia

The drive to Burns Lake from Jasper was engrossing, a continuous flow of mountainous peaks and valleys amidst lakes and rivers, endless evergreen trees and the red, oranges and yellows of aspen, cottonwood, alder and other deciduous trees at their Autumnal peak.

Photo taken by Kelly just outside of Burns Lake, British Columbia

Photo taken by Kelly in British Columbia along the way to Terrace

Our only stop along the way was spontaneous, about 5 or so hours into the drive.  We noticed a sign that said ‘Ancient Forest’ which piqued our interest.  It turned out that this sign led us to a moderate 1 mile hike through an ancient cedar forest where the cedar trees were as old as 2,000 years.

Photo taken by Udi of an ancient cedar canopy in the ‘Ancient Forest’ in British Columbia

This forest is a temperate rainforest and very rare for being so far inland, especially for North America.  We learned that the golden moss growing on the majority of the trees only forms on trees more than 250 years old.  The intense oxygen and sweet aromas from the ancient cedar forest were more than enough to sustain us for another 5 hours of driving.

Photo taken by Udi of ‘golden moss’ on cedar trees in the ‘Ancient Forest’, British Columbia

Photo taken by Udi of me visiting ‘Treebeard’ a cedar tree estimated to be over 1,500 years old in the ‘Ancient Forest’, British Columbia

We also made a brief 5 minute stop to get a good photograph of a ‘No to Enridge Pipeline’ sign.

Photo taken by Kelly in British Columbia, along the way to Terrace

We had noticed several posters plastered onto signs along the way, but this particular one had been rigged up on a bridge over a fast-flowing river just off the highway.  The controversial Enridge Pipeline project is two parallel pipelines from the Tar Sands in Northern Alberta to Kitimat, each with a length of over 700 miles.  The primary reason for this proposal is to open Canada’s oil market to China and other Asian countries.  The proposal was first set forth about 7 years ago.  Although there has been a significant amount of financial incentive offered to at least 60 different First Nations communities, not one community has agreed to accept.  The reasoning behind this is not only because of the sacredness of the land historically to all First Nations peoples but also because of the incredible fragility and diversity of the plant and animal life which comprises the temperate rainforest land that the pipeline would pass through, affecting not only salmon runs, but habitat for all species.  National Geographic wrote a special article in August 2011 about the critical protection needed for the Great Bear Rainforest – ‘a wild stretch of western cedar, hemlock, and spruce forest that runs 250 miles down British Columbia’s coast.  Whales, wolves, bears and humans thrive in the rich marine channels and forests of the Great Bear’.  There have been and will continue to be numerous protests about Enridge in Canada and the US.

Photo taken by Udi along the way to Terrace, British Columbia

In addition to Enridge, there are other pipeline projects proposed such as Keystone (running from the Tar Sands in Northern Alberta all the way to the Gulf of Mexico in Texas) and the Trans-Mountain pipeline system from Edmonton to Puget Sound, in Washington state in the US.  Each of these proposed pipelines (Enridge, Keystone and Trans-Mountain) are intensely controversial – particularly for First Nations and Native American communities.  When we were in Victoria after our visit to Terrace, we learned that there was a blockade of activists protesting Keystone in Texas, many of whom were imprisoned.  Daryl Hannah, the actress was among the activists which brought greater media attention to the efforts committed to blocking the construction of Keystone.  These pipelines are highly contentious, but with the economic crisis being such a burden to so many people while the hunger for oil grows, the imagined need for Enridge, Keystone and Trans-Mountain is bound to strengthen.

That night, during our short stay in Burns Lake we were told by the motel owner that he had seen the Northern Lights just a few days before.  We could only hope to be so lucky, this was something that Udi and I both had long wanted to witness.

The next day we drove the 4 or so hours to Terrace, stopping along the way in Smithers, to see one of the Northwest College campuses after noticing a sign.  The Freda Diesing School of Indigenous Arts is also a part of the Northwest Community College satellite campuses and we were curious to visit the NWCC Smithers campus.  In Smithers, we learned, students can take a variety of courses not only in education and computer technology, but also preparatory skills for geological exploration and mining.

Photo taken by Udi of the Smithers campus – Northwest Community College, British Columbia

We arrived in Terrace with much excitement in the middle of the afternoon, finding a place to stay for the next 4 nights with much more difficulty than assumed due to the influx of oil and gas workers in the area at the time.  The symbol of Terrace is the ‘Spirit Bear’ – or the Kermode as it is officially known – a white Black bear, the subject of the National Geographic article mentioned above and an animal of extreme spiritual significance for many First Nations peoples.  The Spirit Bear is notoriously elusive but can occasionally be spotted in this area.  As the Spirit Bear is the symbol of Terrace, there are several life-size sculptures around town, each painted with ovoids and animals symbolic to First Nations communities.

Photo taken by Kelly in front of the Terrace City Municipal Buildings (notice the Spirit Bear 100 metres away)

We decided to quickly drop our stuff off and drive straight down to Kitimaat Village, where the majority of the Haisla First Nations people live, to see a view of the Douglas Channel harbor that leads out to the Pacific Ocean, before dark.  We were also hungry and noticed that there was a recommended restaurant in Kitimaat Village called ‘Sea Masters’.  The drive to Kitimaat is about 50 kilometers south of Terrace.  We were hoping to see the Northern Lights that night…

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Knowing Blackfoot Sacred Places – through Visiting

Knowing Blackfoot Sacred Places  – through Visiting

Posted by on Nov 15, 2012 in all posts, Canada, Red Crow Community College | 0 comments

I think it is probably safe to say that most of us, if not all of us, have visited sacred, spiritual or religious sites of some sort or another – either as part of our own belief system or that of others.  Our reasoning for visiting sacred places varies as does our interest and openness to how we connect with them and how these connections might or might not affect our lives.

For students, teachers, Elders and community members involved either directly or indirectly in the Kainai Studies program at Red Crow, learning and engaging with sacred places is about reconnection, reclamation and repatriation.  What we learned through reading literature by Cynthia and Narcisse (and also Betty Bastien), and also through different conversations with each of them and Ramona, Ryan, Adrienne, Alvine and Duane was that learning about sacred places was not just learning about them, but rather to learn from them.  To learn from a place mean that participants within the program needed to not just tour them, but rather to visit them (Cynthia and Narcisse write beautifully about this process in their article, ‘Love thy Neighbor:  Repatriating Precarious Blackfoot Sites’ which we will be adding to the links/resources section of this blog).  But what then does it mean to visit?  And how, can we as learners from the outside also learn about the significance of visiting sacred sites, especially as a core component of the Kainai Studies program?

Map of traditional Blackfoot territory – borrowed from Chambers and Narcisse (2008) – original map from Glenbow Museum website, “Niitsitapiisini: Our Way of Life” http://www.glenbow.org/blackfoot/teacher_toolkit/english/culture/territory.html (Accessed November 2012)

The original Blackfoot territory, or Nitáówahsinnoon covered most of Alberta and Montana and parts of Saskatchewan.  Within Nitáówahsinnoon the Blackfoot developed intimate knowledge and close relationships with all dimensions of the environment.  These relationships were renewed through ceremonies and ritual as well as reciprocal practices of visiting and providing nourishment (see Cynthia and Narcisse’s article and Ryan Heavy Head’s writing for much more detailed information). Ceremonies took place at different times, at sacred sites for different purposes for thousands of years and were nearly erased due to the heavy layers of oppressive actions felt by the Blackfoot peoples over the last 150 years. Because of the power of stories and secretive practice of ceremonies, knowledge surrounding sacred places endured.  Yet, currently, much of this knowledge is fragmented and weak (as some has been lost as a result of the Indian Act and residential schooling, amongst other reasons) and is currently being re-built through efforts such as the Kainai Studies program.

The landscape of Nitáówahsinnoon is itself storied as Cynthia and Narcisse explain.  Each sacred place has a story about its emergence and many sacred places have stories that were written on them through pictographs or petroglyphs.  For Siksikáítapiiksi, these places are not simply piles of rocks, cliffs, or glacial erratics; they are places imbued with meaning and history. These places are the equivalent of books, encyclopedias, libraries, archives, crypts, monuments, historical markers and grottos; they are destinations for pilgrims; places of sacrifice, revelation and apparition; and sources of knowledge and wisdom. For Siksikáítapiiksi, these places are repositories for the knowledge left by the ancestors.

Prior to the onslaught of colonialism and settlers, there were thousands of sacred places throughout the Blackfoot territory.  The majority of these places have been demolished, precisely because they are seldom seen as anything but rocks, stones or cliffs.  While we were staying in Fort MacLeod there was front page news that the Glenwood ‘glacial erratic’ (this is the term used by the Canadian government for giant seemingly out-of-place glacial stones) was desecrated – petroglyphs on top of the stone were literally drilled apart and acid was poured on pictographs to distort and erase the fading colors barely present.  The stone is so large that to carry out this type of desecration, more than one person would have needed ladders, lights and heavy equipment.  The destruction was discovered by a Blackfoot historian who had just received approval from the community to begin archaeological investigation into the petroglyphs and pictographs at the place.  Worst of all, the site was not listed in the Alberta historical places and has only become more widely known because of the violence induced at the site.  News of the desecration of the Glenwood place was felt strongly by the people we met and by both of us. We had been there for just over a week, but had already begun to learn with the landscape, visiting several sacred places amidst reading and conversing about them.  In addition to the desecration of Glenwood, many other sacred places are in danger of being destroyed due to the constant pressure of oil and gas drilling.

At the end of our stay in Alberta, as we drove North to Calgary, we stopped at the ‘Okotoks’ or ‘Big Rocks’ as they are known in Blackfoot.  These massive rocks are also known as the Okotok ‘glacial erratics’ although they have been visited by the Blackfoot through ceremonies over thousands of years.  The story of how the rocks got there is that the Creator Napi was being chased by the rocks because he had offered his robe to the rocks when it was hot but had asked for it back when it was cold.  The rocks said that the robes had been given to them, but Napi took them anyway which made the rocks start chasing him.  This chase created the hills and the landscape.  These particular ‘Big Rocks’ chased Napi further than any others.  They stopped and cracked where they did because some birds farted on them.

Photo taken by Udi of the signage before the walk to the ‘Big Rocks’. There is information from a scientific perspective and from a Blackfoot perspective. This sign shows the story of Napi and the landing of the rocks in this particular location.

 

Photo taken by Kelly of one of the Okotok ‘Big Rocks’, south of Calgary, Alberta

Udi and I located the ‘Big Rocks’ about 10km west of the town of Okotoks which is about 50km south of Calgary.  The rocks appear as huge anomalies in the landscape.  The Blackfoot story of the Okotoks makes them come alive and we felt a closer connection to them reflecting on this story, rather than the only through a scientific explanation.  Here is a youtube video I found that helps to experience the ‘Big Rocks’.

Photo by Udi of the ‘Big Rocks’ from the path. Notice the two signs explaining the ‘Big Rocks’.

Our first visit as mentioned in the Land, Buffalo and Blackfoot post, was to the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump Museum.  Although this site is indeed a sacred place to the Blackfoot, it is now acknowledged more widely (well beyond the Blackfoot people) as a place to learn from and about the incredible history of the Blackfoot people, including the profound relationship the Blackfoot had with the buffalo and the tragic decimation of the buffalo, due almost entirely to the lack of reverence and respect of European settlers.

Our second visit was to Crowsnest Mountain and Crowsnest Pass, about one hour directly west of Fort MacLeod, within the Rocky Mountain range.  The drive to Crowsnest was itself stunning as we had not seen the Rocky Mountains since our drive through Glacier National Park.  We were unable to locate the precise place of Crowsnest Pass, but we did locate a sign that identified the region as a place of heritage importance for Canadians, with a brief mention of ‘Indian’ usage of the place as well.  This historical positioning of the Blackfoot as ‘hearsay’ or ‘pre-historic’ is common discourse, relegating the history of the Blackfoot as something before White man history began.

Photo taken by Kelly – Sign describing Crowsnest Pass by the Province of British Columbia

We drove up a road about 10 miles to be closer to Crowsnest Mountain.  Similar to Chief Mountain which is 50 miles south, Crowsnest stands out strikingly in isolation from the other mountains.  We stopped the car next to a natural gas pipeline tank with warning signs of ‘extreme danger’ on the fence surrounding it.  This picture demonstrates the prominence of the mountain and the ever-encroaching development that endangers the longevity of all sacred places.

Photo taken by Udi – view of Crowsnest Mountain from natural gas well pipeline

Our third visit was to Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park, an archaeological and natural preserve near the Milk River, just above the United States border.  We had dinner with Cynthia and Ramona the night before we visited Writing-On-Stone at a popular restaurant in Fort MacLeod, called Jonny’s.  They both urged us to visit Writing-On-Stone.  The next day, after a 2.5 hour drive, we arrived just in time for a 3-hour guided tour from a younger Blackfoot woman.

Photo taken by Udi – Hoo Doo Table from within the Writing-On-Stone coulee area

Writing-On-Stone is a wondrous landscape within prairie where you also see sagebrush and wildflowers, especially at the edge of the Milk River that winds its way through the coulees.  There are marvelous hoo-doos that have been eroded from the sandstone and writings and pictures carved continuously for the past 4,000 years.  In this picture is a famous hoo-doo that was also used as a place for Vision Quests for thousands of years.  Today, this site generally and more specifically this hoo-doo is a sacred site where blessings are offered.  Ancient petroglyphs are still noticeable in many areas, although newer, graffiti is also present.  The forms of petroglyphs and pictographs being the Blackfoots form of literacy is still being debated.  Narcisse explains very descriptively in a blog-posting that whilst ochre pictographs were drawn onto the Okotoks because of the hardness of granite, at Writing-On-Stone, stories were carved into the rock as petroglyphs as the sandstone rock is much softer.  Here is a good experiential short video of Writing-on-Stone on youtube and another one showing different petroglyphs with brief explanations (just be patient for the first 20 second advertisement!).

Photo taken by Udi – Petroglyphs inside Writing-On-Stone

Our guide told many stories represented through the different petroglyphs and was also very open about her own life and Blackfoot learning.  The three hours passed by very quickly.  The storied landscape spoke deeply to us, we were absorbed in the colors, the formations and the stories told.

Photo taken by Kelly – Writing-On-Stone landscape – Milk River, sandstone hoo-doos and prairie

Woven through these moments of different visits to places and to meals with different people (such as Cynthia, Ramona and Erika), I was reading various articles and books.  Two days after our visit to Writing-On-Stone, I had just read through Cynthia and Narcisse’s article for the first time and I was completely taken by the style of the writing and the stories conveyed within.  In particular, I was very moved by the section discussion ‘visiting as repatriation’ and felt a strong desire to better understand visiting as a process rather than a single event.  In the article, Cynthia and Narcisse mention Carolla Calf Robe and her annual visits to Sundial Butte to make offerings and ask for blessings for her family.  After an accident when Carolla was confined to a wheelchair, she was carried up to the top of Sundial in a wheelchair.  She was resigned to the fact that she might never visit the site again.  This resignation and effort to make that visit helped her to find a renewed strength and continue living in a new way.  This story spoke to me of the importance of these places being about renewal and connection.

With our afternoon suddenly free, Udi and I both agreed that finding and learning from Sun Dial Butte (or Sun Dial Medicine Wheel as it is most commonly called) was a great idea.  Locating Sun Dial is no simple task.  There are gravel roads criss-crossing the plains, which at this point are mostly farm lands.  We stopped to ask for directions and were given a simple list of where to go.  I also had written out directions from the Internet.  These did not match… we were better informed by a rancher along the way who directed us perfectly.  There is a beautiful conversation filmed at Sun Dial with Narcisse Blood talking about Sun Dial and the significance of sacred places and the necessity for altering our relationships with the land that is based on reciprocity rather than extraction for our use.

Photo taken by Kelly – Sign depicting Sundial Medicine Wheel just below the site

Udi and I stayed on top of Sun Dial for more than 2 hours, sitting, meditating, walking around, slowly, intentionally.  We were there on our own.  The sun was warm, a gentle breeze blowing strongly and then softly.  We agreed that there was a profoundly strong, yet gentle strength.  The experience of being there is difficult to articulate.

Photo taken by Udi – Top of Sun Dial Butte

After we returned to the Fort Motel in Fort MacLeod, I spent an hour or so trying to write about the time spent there.  This is some of what I wrote ——

… those moments under the sun’s rays at Sun Dial, I felt a sense of completion. It was a gentle peacefulness, but strong like the beating of my heart.  This peace was something about … being … connected — to time – all those beings past and present who had been here at this place called Sun Dial, all those who were there.  I felt that all-is-well – regardless of… it just is.  Pain and suffering drift into the wind, the voices of ancestors whispering and beckoning within the stones. I felt as if I was somehow a deeper sense of myself – a self inseparable.  This is the moment I really began to develop a deeper understanding about what ‘indigenous knowledge’ is.  I felt a sense of power – not a power to control or master, nor a power to be heard and seen – but rather, a power to be a part of… love or fear, it did not matter.  I look around and see how so much is based on fear and power – a need to be in control and to manipulate.  Sun Dial is the opposite of this.  Thousands of years have witnessed beings gathering here at this site – to connect to one’s inner-outer being – to connect to stories of the ages that are told as if they happened yesterday.  Thousands of years. Power has been manifested here through the mode of giving – of self to self, of self to land and of self to other selves through transfers of stories, song and ceremony, through offerings and gestures. We left four sage cuttings amidst the stones, resting them gently symbolising the importance of the number four, as Ramona taught us.  Through such a profoundly simple gesture of gratitude and appreciation, I felt, I learned something of the Blackfoot way of knowing – I felt that I began to connect deeply to the past – all pasts, presents and to future connections.  It made me curious, more curious than I have been in a very long time.  But, mostly it made me feel alive.

Photo taken by Kelly – Prairie views from Sun Dial Butte

This visit to Sun Dial and the other visits to Head-Smashed-In, Writing-On-Stone and Crowsnest Pass and Crowsnest Mountain provided deep learning experiences for us.  Yet, these experiences were the tip of the iceberg of what we could learn through a much longer stay and much deeper engagement.  However, making ourselves open to being present within these places helped us to feel their sacredness, beyond a more rational way of knowing.

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Becoming Blackfoot and its challenges

Becoming Blackfoot and its challenges

Posted by on Nov 13, 2012 in all posts, Canada, Red Crow Community College | 0 comments

As noted in a previous entry on Kainai Studies, a key aspect of the learning has to do with ‘becoming Blackfoot’. As Narcisse and Cynthia put it in the course outline of their Blackfoot Pedagogy class, quoted previously:

As “coming to be human” is considered one of the aims of Western humanist education, becoming Blackfoot maybe the central aim of Blackfoot pedagogy. Just as Western derived curriculum is about “what knowledge is of most worth,” Blackfoot pedagogy is about what knowledge matters (both in Blackfoot territory and more globally). It is about what the young need know to become Blackfoot, to become human and to fulfil their responsibilities, living in this place, at this time.

What ‘coming to be human’ or ‘coming to be Blackfoot’ is in practice then depends on the particular values, priorities and cosmologies that are held dear. In the previous blogs we tried to give a bit of a flavour of what we experienced some of these values and priorities to be through our time around Red Crow and by our conversations with people there.

Over this time we had the chance to talk to a number of students and also to gauge from the teachers some of the effects of being part of Red Crow, and especially the Kainai Studies course. Succinctly put this can be summarised as a coming to be re-embedded in that mesh of knowledge, identity and connection to place and community which was taken away by a century of policies of assimilation.

Speaking to students there is a palpable sense of a re-awakened pride at being Blackfoot, an aspiration to learn more about what this means, by learning their language, history, ecological knowledge and spiritual values. This is a considerable feat given the indoctrination perpetrated through residential schools and the de-legitimising of Blackfoot ways which has persisted over the century. Almost all the students I interviewed for the documentary introduced themselves by speaking in Blackfoot first. And this was a generation which did not have, for the most part, their parents speaking the language. All students mentioned how they are studying so as to learn more about being Blackfoot to better serve their community, whether as social worker, teacher or healer.

Ryan related to us how some of their graduates have gone on to take positions of power within the Tribal council or else in teaching positions elsewhere in Alberta and have been using the knowledge they acquired through the course, such as in implementing policies that ensure greater protection of the plants and animals in the Blood reserve. In conversation with Cynthia we also heard of the success of the Blackfoot Pedagogy course, for both Blackfoot and non-Blackfoot graduate teachers, in reconnecting to the historical landscape of Alberta. Teachers have gone on to take their students to the sites visited during the course, introducing a new generation to the power of learning from place and the sense of the historical continuity of habitation in this landscape.

Given the serious problems concerning the unabated extraction of natural resources (mines, oil and gas extraction, the tar sands) in this region of Canada we left Alberta with a sense of a quiet revolution happening in education. The scale of this is still relatively small but the effects of Kainai Studies have been communicated to other First Nations groups across Canada and have been very well received (see the report and project on Aboriginal Learning Knowledge Centre in Canada).

Other challenges still remain for Kainai Studies. There is still some resistance internally amongst some in the Blackfoot community of the merit of educating a new generation to ‘become Blackfoot’. Whether because of Christian values (many Christian Blackfoot live in the reserve), or else because of an aspiration to further integrate the Blackfoot into the capitalist economy by training them for the workforce, Kainai Studies continues to have to make its case to the Tribal Council which helps fund it. Externally, Kainai Studies is challenging other universities to accept its Kainai Studies degree as a valid transfer to the second or third year of their own degrees. Ryan, Cynthia and Narcisse are hopeful that a new generation of educators will emerge that will take this work of the deepening and dissemination of Blackfoot pedagogy and ways of being forward as teachers, carers, researchers and decision makers. This will be a generation that integrates, as Narcisse, Ryan, Cynthia and others have attempted to, Blackfoot ways of knowing with ‘global’ science and epistemology.

 

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Kainai Studies

Kainai Studies

Posted by on Nov 6, 2012 in all posts, Canada, Red Crow Community College | 1 comment

It is the end of September the yellowing leaves look even more vivid against the vast blue south Albertan skies which cover us as far as the eye can see. I drive through the gravel road to Red Crow College on the Blood Reserve. The college is busy today with students dressed in jeans, hooded tops, caps and sunglasses, many standing around the porch waiting for class. I arrive early to meet Duane Mistaken Chief, who teaches Blackfoot language and he kindly lets me sit through his class. About ten students arrive and get their notebooks ready.

Duane’s approach to teaching consists of breaking down language, like bits of crackers he tells his students, to its philosophical and experiential basis before being put back together again. This involves unlearning the structure of the English language as well as the way that Blackfoot has been traditionally taught in schools, translated and written down. For Duane the Blackfoot language has in most cases been filtered through the English language and its structures. This work of translation and systematising was carried out by Christian missionaries and others who were not particularly interested in Blackfoot ways of being in the world. Understanding Blackfoot language in-depth, on the other hand, offers an insight into appreciating their particular ways of being.

 

Duane shows this today through the example of colours, as he writes the English and the Blackfoot equivalent words on the blackboard. In Blackfoot colours are not understood as things that exist outside as separate objects in themselves but as that which appear to our awareness and which we describe in reference to something in the world that we already know. The key term here is natsi, ‘having the appearance of’. So the colour orange is ‘that which has the appearance of soil’, also suggesting the colour of the otter during a stage of its life. Green becomes ‘the appearance of young grass shoots’. In this way the Blackfoot language embodies a sophisticated philosophical position, a phenomenological stance, where the world is described in reference to one’s own experience and in relation to what is familiar.

photo taken by Udi of Fall 2012 Kainai Studies teaching schedule, Red Crow College.

 

The following is taken from the Kainai Studies Course Description and it gives a flavour of the holistic approach taken to teaching all aspects of Kainai, or Blood, life and history.

Kainai Studies Course Codes

Required Certificate Courses
KS-100 Introduction To Kainai Studies; KS-110 Introduction to Blackfoot Language; KS-120 Kippaitapiiyssinnooni (Blackfoot Ways); KS-120 Kainai Family Structure and Parenting; KS-122 Hide tanning; KS-130 History of the Blackfoot World; KS-140 Colonialism and Blackfoot Society; KS-183 Kainai Ethno botany; KS-200 Experiential Field Studies; KS-210 Kainai Ethics In Community Scholarship; KS-220 Intergenerational Violence in Blackfoot Society; KS-297 Aitsiniki: Blackfoot Narrative as Analytical Framework and Social Critique

At the same time, just like Duane’s approach to uncovering the experiential groundings of the Blackfoot language the teaching and learning across Kainai Studies seem to be based on direct experience and practical engagement with particular situations or places.

This is clearly evident in Ryan Heavy Head’s class on Blackfoot ecological knowledge and traditional foods. Here in the first year he asks his students to find a place they will visit and stay put for two to three hours every week over the course of one year. The students are tasked with finding out who lives here, identifying the species of birds, animals, plants and insects (in English and Blackfoot) and eventually getting to know some of these as individuals. Gradually the students also come to know the habits of these beings and their responses to the changing seasons, also called ‘phenology’ a term Ryan and Adrienne taught us. As part of this process of learning students develop deep relationships to the place. In the course there are no required readings, other than books that identify species, instead students are encouraged to learn from the place and the beings themselves, writing about their experiences of learning.

Other aspects of learning the place are also part of the courses in Kainai Studies. for instance, the following description is found in the Course Description mod document of the modules to be taken for this degree:

KS-286 and 287 / ANTH-286 and 287 Kainaissksahkoyi: Learning and Being in Kainai Places

This six-credit course series explores relationships between knowledge, identity, and place. One weekend per month throughout the term of a full year, students, instructors, and eminent scholars travel kitawahsinnoon (Blackfoot territory), visiting historical sites, engaging in dialog with sacred places, and conducting traditional hunting and gathering activities of the annual round. In all of these activities, participants reflect upon a core question: Where is here? What do various responses to this question suggest about relationships between knowledge, identity, and place? How do shifts in one’s sense of emplacement – as through the introduction of niitsitapi stories, concepts, and approaches, for instance – effect one’s responses to the core question over time? What might these transformations mean? And how might engagements-with and senses-of place shape one’s life-long learning experiences.

In addition to grounding participants in first-hand knowledge of niitsitapi places and their associated knowledge traditions, this course is relevant to a number of current discussions in mainstream academic disciplines including (but not restricted to): traditional land use and occupancy studies in archaeology, anthropology, and international development; tourism and ethno-tourism; the anthropology of space and place; cognitive psychology; education; economics; religion; and studies in epistemology, cosmology, ontology and pedagogy.

 

For students who carry on into the second year, the course develops into the practice of finding, sourcing, preparing and preserving traditional Blackfoot foods. From chokecherry picking to finding roots and plants for medicines to hunting, students her learn how to be part of their environment ‘as humans’ as Ryan puts it, rather than the sort of infantile behaviour we currently tend to have as humans with place.

 

The experience of place was also the key aspect of the course ‘Blackfoot Pedagogy’ that Narcisse Blood and Cynthia Chambers ran in 2010 for postgraduate teachers at the University of Lethbridge in conjunction with Red Crow College (see course outline). Part of this course involved visiting traditional Blackfoot sites such as medicine wheels, the Buffalo Jump and other significant historical places in the Blackfoot territory (see the video they made on this course).

This engagement with traditional Blackfoot places, stories and rituals  also provides another way of understanding Blackfoot history. Narcisse teaches a course on the History of the Blackfoot World which offers different ways of understanding the past and the present. We can have a fethe courses course from the following description from the Course Outline:

 

KS-130 History of the Blackfoot World
This course espouses what has been called an “ethnohistorical” approach, meaning more specifically that it invites students to engage interpretations of the past that are authored from the perspectives of those about whom the history relates – in this case, the Niitsitapi, or Blackfoot peoples.  Moreover, the course seeks to challenge popular notions regarding available sources for historical investigation.  Rather than focusing only on surveys of archival documents and other written texts, students will be introduced to a variety of histories recorded and transferred through Niitsitapi naming traditions, arts, rituals, and narrative traditions, as well as those histories inscribed on the local landscape itself.  In other words, this course denies ethnocentric interpretations of valid or accurate “history” as something that manifests only through textualization, a view that renders most non-Western memory as either “ahistoric” or “prehistoric”.  In place of this bias, students will be prompted to recognize all histories as subjective, socially and culturally situated constructs, as stories we tell one another about ourselves in a manner meant principally to frame our experiences of contemporary presence.

 

photo by Udi of ‘Writing on Stone’ provincial park, Aberta.

The experience that emerges across these courses suggests another kind of learning. Instead of trying to summarise what this might mean I thought it would be best to quote directly, and extensively, from Cynthia and Narcisse’s course outline on Blackfoot Pedagogy:

 

Pedagogy is more than teaching and learning. While in Western education, curriculum and instruction are separated (as in C&I), pedagogy seeks to unite what is to be learned with how it is learned. Rather than an “instructional method” or “cultural perspective,” we propose that Blackfoot pedagogy is about a way of living, being, and learning. Developed over thousands of years in this place (southern

Alberta) Blackfoot pedagogy is a profound necessity for survival in kitaowahsinnoon or “the sphere of nurture” where we live and what is referred to in English as “Blackfoot territory.” Blackfoot pedagogy is about learning where we live and with whom, and what is appropriate to do in this place and what is necessary to know, and to know how to do, to sustain life here.

 

As “coming to be human” is considered one of the aims of Western humanist education, becoming Blackfoot maybe the central aim of Blackfoot pedagogy. Just as Western derived curriculum is about “what knowledge is of most worth,” Blackfoot pedagogy is about what knowledge matters (both in Blackfoot territory and more globally). It is about what the young need know to become Blackfoot, to become human and to fulfill their responsibilities, living in this place, at this time.

Below are some tentative ideas about Blackfoot pedagogy:

 

1. Relational model: Knowledge and skills are acquired within a set of complex kinship relations that include humans as well as the other‐than human world.

 

2. Learning and teaching is situational: Blackfoot knowledge is learned where (within the spatial context in which) it will be applied.

 

3. Learning/teaching/knowing is dynamic: These are part of the flux; they are dynamic processes rather than static rules or content.

 

4. Localities of practice: There is a relationship between place and knowledge, and thus what we must be cautious about extending the truth and value of Blackfoot pedagogy beyond the boundaries of kitaowahsinnoon.

 

5. Learning is participatory and learners are engaged: The participatory mode of consciousness necessary for Blackfoot pedagogy.

 

6. Education of attention: Blackfoot pedagogy is about the education of attention. More experienced practitioners show learners what to pay attention to and how.

 

7. Scaffolding: Mentors provide scaffolds for apprentices to learn and practice necessary skills. This is one way people come to know.

 

8. Skilled practice and mastery: The development of skilled practice in a supportive context leads to mastery.

 

9. Becoming Blackfoot: Becoming Blackfoot (vs. being Blackfoot) occurs within the context of Blackfoot pedagogy, for children as well as adults. One continues to become Blackfoot throughout life.

 

10. Authenticity and assessment: There are protocols and practices for assessing learning. People are tested and expected to perform.

 

11. Ethics: Learners have responsibilities to the contexts in which they are learning, to the communities in which they are situated and related, as well as to their teachers. Conversely, teachers have responsibilities to the learners, to the knowledge and to future generations, as well as to the broader community and kitaowahsinoon.

 

12. Reimagining education: What does Blackfoot pedagogy offer—to Blackfoot? To everyone? How can Blackfoot pedagogy inform how

teaching and learning in schools?

 

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At the Pond

At the Pond

Posted by on Nov 6, 2012 in all posts, Canada, Red Crow Community College | 0 comments

‘The pond’ is how Ryan and his wife Adrienne referred to the Helen Schuler Nature Reserve sitting between Lethbridge and the edge of the Blood Reserve. A deep valley cut through by the Oldman River (Napi) with ponds and wetland vegetation is surrounded by trees now turning yellow with the approach of the cold weather. The area is home to a variety of birds and other animals such as turtles, rabbits, bats and beavers, whose large family lodges have a central location in the pond amongst the nesting birds as if they were the guardians of the valley. Ryan and Adrienne have been coming to this place for many years, coming to know its many plants and animals intimately even as individuals. Their immersion in this place is of such quality that the place and its animals have also come to know them, at moments showing them where to collect foods and medicines. Ryan and Adrienne showed us around this place and explained to us how they came to learn from it and how this relates to Blackfoot ways of learning and to the stories concerning the relationships of humans to place and other beings.

Photo taken by Udi of a beaver lodge at ‘the pond’

Central to our encounters and conversations with the people associated with Red Crow College have been questions related to epistemology, that is, the philosophical enquiry into the nature of knowledge and knowing, of what is considered ‘knowledge’, how we acquire it, and in cases of meeting of different traditions of enquiry, such as that between the Blackfoot and ‘globalised’ science how and why does one prevail over the other.

At the heart of Blackfoot ‘ecological-spiritual’ knowledge and practice are the various medicine bundles which are the material objects that embody these and serve as focal points in the ceremonies and exchanges related to each bundle. In Blackfoot the term used is amopístaani which Ryan translates as ‘bound-together-by-wrapping-around’ (see Heavy Head 2005). The significance of this binding together, as we will see, describes not only the physical bundling of various material components but also the binding of beings through contractual relationships. One of the most important bundle for the Blackfoot is the Beaver Bundle. It took us sometime to understand and fully appreciate the meaning and significance of the Beaver Bundle. Although we have only begun to do so, even this brief exposure to this way of learning, knowing, relating and communicating has left a deep impression on us.

In conversations with Ryan and Adrienne, as well as with Narcisse, the cultural translation of the Beaver Bundle would amount to something like the material and ceremonial embodiment of the contractual relationships that humans have with other plants, animals and beings. These contractual relationships, which relate back to the stories of how humans first received the Bundle from the Beaver people, involve both a knowledge of the behaviour and environment of a variety of beings and the reciprocal conduct humans ought to have with these so as to ensure a balanced co-habiting in this place. Furthermore, animals also have their own bundles between themselves and other animals, so ensuring a reciprocal dwelling and existence in which no species dominates or exterminates another.

Photo taken by Udi during our conversation with Ryan and Adrienne at the pond

Here I was reminded of the anthropological theory of ‘perspectivism’ developed in relation to Amazonian peoples which states that in ‘western’ ways of thinking (epistemology) it is considered that we share a common ‘nature’ (biological and genetic) with other animals but that what makes us distinct as humans is our capacity for culture. Amongst a number of indigenous communities however, this is inverted: we share with other animals the capacity for culture but inhabit different kinds of bodies or have different natures which allow us to do different things. So animals, such as the jaguar in South America, or here the beaver, have their own societies, language, kinship relations. Adrienne reinforced this point as we walked around the pond, showing me a colony of ants who were carefully farming aphids perched on the stalk of an absinthe (wormwood) plant. The ants milked the sweet nectar the aphids produced, perhaps a mildly psychoactive, whilst protecting them from the hungry ladybugs that crawled close by. An Ant Bundle, were such a thing to exist, would then have within it this set of knowledges and relationships that are part of the ant’s perspective on the world. This is what the Beaver People, who had been inhabiting this place for millions of years, passed to the Blackfoot in the story of the Bundle.

photo taken by Udi at Bow Lake in Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada

Physically the Beaver Bundle consists of the coats of the various animals who are part of these contractual relationships and other objects all of which have associated songs and dances that pertain to some aspect of the natural environment or of the behaviour of animals. The Bundle acts as a library of ecological knowledge which is interpreted and recited or sung and danced by the holders of the Beaver Bundle. This duty befell Ryan and Adrienne, though as they stated this was unusual concerning their young age as this role has historically been taken by elders. Ryan compared the traditional role of elders in Blackfoot society to that of amateur naturalist groups, often frequented by the elderly, who, at this stage in life, have more time and patience to observe the natural world. The bundle also acts as a ‘peer reviewed journal’ legitimating and communicating newly acquired observations about the natural world, such as changing weather patterns or the introduction of new species. These then come to be codified in new objects and songs and dances and added to the Bundle’s ceremonies. Altogether the Bundle has hundreds of songs, with no single individual knowing all of them.

The story Ryan and Adrienne told us of how they were inducted into the Beaver Bundle suggests the qualities underpinning this way of knowing and hints at what might be called a Blackfoot pedagogy, of which Narcisse and Cynthia have also written and taught elsewhere (see Blackfoot Pedagogy course). As part of their initiation into the Bundle Ryan and Adrienne were required to put on a feast that required them to serve traditional foods such as, amongst other things, fowl eggs. These had to be acquired rather than purchased and it took several seasons of trial and error for Ryan and Adrienne to learn how and where to source these as no one around had this knowledge. The elder’s instructions, himself a holder of the Bundle, led them to immerse themselves into this experiential learning which came to form the basis of how Ryan taught the Kainai Studies course at Red Crow College.

Before ceremonies, such as that of the Beaver Bundle, were banned and prior to the knowledge inculcated through residential schools, a working knowledge of place, the seasons, the plants and medicines, the animals would have been widespread amongst the Blackfoot. This would have been a day to day practical knowledge learned from elders, grandparents, from peers. With these government policies, enshrined in the Indian Act of 1885, residential schools, the confinement of the Blackfoot to the reserves, the destruction of their traditional environment through settler agriculture and the decimation of the buffalo few today have the thorough knowledge of place and beings embodied in the Beaver Bundle. Indeed the knowledge of the Bundle almost disappeared altogether in the 1990s according to Ryan as one of the few remaining Bundle holders returned his Bundle to the River assuming no one else was interested in learning it. Today the learning of the Bundle, its knowledge and values of inter-being and reciprocity have been rejuvenated and institutionalised through the courses Ryan teaches at Red Crow ensuring that the next generations can once again benefit from a learning of place and its beings that has kept a people alive in this part of the world for thousands of years.

photo taken by Kelly at the Royal Alberta Museum, Edmonton, Canada

For me, the inspiring learning from this practice of the Beaver Bundle has been how knowing is intrinsically bound to entering into relationships with; with place, people, non-human beings. Also, the authoritative sources of learning are much broader than in traditional academic epistemology (primarily other scholars and through books) to include dreams, landscape, plants, animals and other beings. This epistemological expansion shifts the human intellect from the centre of the universe placing it instead as one one amongst many other intelligences from whom we can learn. Ethically this means that the world is not only there to gratify human needs and desires, as is the tendency in the Judeo-Christian tradition, but rather it is a network or bundle of relationships we learn to enter into.

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Residential schooling

Residential schooling

Posted by on Nov 6, 2012 in all posts, Canada, Red Crow Community College | 1 comment

This is a difficult blog entry to write as neither of us has had the experience of this kind of schooling and the forms of cultural oppression it brings, but also because it is always challenging to faithfully give an account of experiences and stories one is told. However, given that  so many people spoke about residential schools to us not only here in Alberta with the Blackfoot but throughout our journey across Canada we felt that we had to write about this. Residential schooling is an underground current, and for most a poisoning one, that has permeated the formative experiences of many First Nations peoples not only in Canada but in many other settler societies where the government had a policy of assimilation.

St. Mary’s Residential School Dormitory – photo from Glenbow Museum Archives

As we heard from a number of people we talked to, residential schools perpetrated a still present trauma in First Nations communities as children were forcibly removed from their families and schooled into the ways of thinking, believing, of being and relating of the White settlers. The schools where run by different Christian denominations and the Blackfoot language was forbidden. During the same period the government prohibited the Blackfoot from practicing their ceremonies, dances and from leaving the reserve without permission.

 

The first residential schools were opened in the 1840s with the last one closing its doors in 1996. At school, children had to cut their hair, speak only in English and learn a history which was not their own. At the same time they were made to feel that the ways of their grandparents were inferior to those of the settlers. They were also required to pray and learn the teachings of the bible. The government and the church have only recently offered a public apology for these policies and associated abuses and we were surprised to find ‘truth and reconciliation’ commissions for residential schools when we arrived in Canada. Also through our stay a number of stories in the press addressed grievances against former teachers of some of these schools who were accused of abusing the children.

 

We heard many stories of the adverse effects of the loss of family, culture, community and of a way of life with its complex mesh of social, ecological, spiritual and economic practices for those who attended residential schools. The loss of orientation in the world which the destruction of this mesh was attributed to the hardship encountered in First Nations communities; alcoholism, violence and abuse, suicide, loss of confidence and so on. A key part of this, as we heard, revolved around a crisis of identity, of having one’s culture destroyed and delegitimised, of being in a limbo state of not really knowing who you are.

Education panel from Blackfoot exhibition at the Glenbow musuem, Calgary.

 

At the same time we also learnt of how much effort is being placed on healing and cultural rejuvenation amongst First Nations communities around the impact of these policies on individuals, families and communities. What has occurred since the 1960s is a reawakening of First Nations spirituality, ceremonies and societies, of art and education.  Alongside this cultural re-invigoration a stronger assertion surrounding land and treaty disputes with the Canadian government has also been seen (see our entry on the Nisga’a from Northern British Columbia).

Community Colleges Panel, Blackfoot Exhibition, Glenbow museum, Calgary.

Red Crow Community College is part of this wave of cultural reawakening as First Nations groups seek to gain more control over their own education. Kainai Studies, as far as we understand, is the first and most successful initiative at a post-secondary school level which is reconnecting with the Blackfoot way of being, knowing and doing which was deliberately destroyed through residential schooling. That Red Crow college is housed in what used to be St. Mary’s residential school makes their victory all the more palpable.

St Mary’s Residential School, Blood Reserve, photo from Royal Alberta museum exhibition, Edmonton

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