Connecting Indigenous Research and Culture in the Academy and Community
By Sharday Mosurinjohn
Photos: (Left) Adam Hopkins facilitating the Kairos Blanket Exercise on Friday 8th November; (Middle) Randall Tetlichi's presentation on living in harmony; (Right) Bryan Bowers's presentation on Kahswentha-related art and artifacts.
When Alana Fletcher came to Queen’s University to pursue doctoral research in the Department of English Languages and Literatures, she soon got involved with the Four Directions Aboriginal Student Centre. Fletcher began attending the Centre’s events, aimed at enhancing the Queen’s Aboriginal community by balancing their academic, spiritual, physical, and emotional needs. By late summer, on the cusp of her second year, Fletcher was invited by the director of Four Directions to help organize the Indigenous Research Symposium.
The theme of this year’s Symposium is “Honouring the Kahswentha: Reclamation, Renewal, Reconciliation.” The Kahswentha refers to the two–row wampum belt (pictured here), which constitutes the Haudenosaunee record of the first agreement between the Haudenosaunee and European newcomers. This occasion is one of two major Four Directions events held every year. The Symposium focuses on Indigenous knowledge whereas the annual Spring Pow Wow celebrates Indigenous culture.
This is the second time that Fletcher has been involved with organizing the Symposium, joined both years by undergraduate student Brandon Huston. The two have received “tons of very necessary help” from Four Directions Staff, says Fletcher. Not only did the organizing involve bringing together Aboriginal elders, Indigenous scholars and others community members, it also involved all manner of practical details from carting things from the Four Directions Centre to the building where the Symposium was held, to buying food for breakfast. Among the skills Fletcher has developed through this process, she jokes that she might add “catering” to the list on her CV.
Now in its fifteenth year, the Symposium is garnering more interest than ever. According to Fletcher, this year’s installment, held over November 8th and 9th, attracted almost seventy participants—an impressive feat at a busy time of year. Fletcher and her Four Directions colleagues worked tirelessly to reach as many communities and institutions as possible with their call for papers and invitation to attend. One of the keynote addresses came from elder Randal Tetlichi, who travelled from Yukon College in Whitehorse, YT. The Symposium drew other attendees from Whitehorse, from Victoria, BC, Yarmouth, NS, Thunder Bay, ON and from nearer-by, including Tyendinaga, Montreal, Akwesasne, and Kanatsiohare:ke.
Fletcher also credits the success of the Symposium to its timely theme. “There was an initiative launched right before the Symposium called Kahswentha Indigenous Knowledge Initiative,” she says, and it, too, has a focus on renewal, reclamation, and reconciliation. It’s about building relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities, but also about building relations between Indigenous communities and academic institutions. This is “a major debate at the moment,” affirms Fletcher. “There is lot of focus on Indigenous perspectives in the academy at Queen’s with the QNS (Queen’s National Scholar) talks, the introduction of an Indigenous studies minor, and Indigenous language instruction.”
One of most significant things accomplished by the Symposium, explains Fletcher, is “drawing attention to and celebrating Indigenous perspectives on debates that might otherwise remain confined to an academic, theoretical arena.” Although a cross-section of Indigenous and non-Indigenous participants were affiliated with institutions, a number of speakers, such as elders and other members from various communities, were not affiliated with institutions. “It’s essential to have community members there,” says Fletcher. In her words, meeting academic discourse with the perspectives of “people who are dealing with things like Indigenous and non-Indigenous relations, Indigenous language, and being the ‘subjects’ of anthropology” is “crucial.”
Fletcher herself delivered a talk, entitled “Kahswentha: Nation-specific Indigenous Peacebuilding and the Reconciliation Process.” She was convinced to speak by Dr. Jill Scott (Languages, Literatures & Cultures, Gender Studies), with whom she has been working as a Research Assistant. Fletcher’s own research is “about many things,” but centres around a textual history of a story from a small community in the Northwest Territories, and ways in which reiterations of that story in different genres and media have led to partial gains in environmental justice for those people through public and government responses.
The story itself “is multiple.” Fletcher is starting with oral history of a small community called Deline regarding the history of uranium mining on Great Bear Lake. She wants to look at “how their perspective has been legitimized by its transfers into its other forms.” A part of this oral history refers to an even earlier story, “a prophecy made by an elder regarding a substance taken out of the ground and used to hurt people far, far away.” For Fletcher, at the heart of studying the cumulative effects of this story being told and retold in different ways is the issue of bringing something from geographical and political periphery to the centre.
It was during a graduate seminar Fletcher took in her first year that she got interested in this story, but she came to Queen’s in the first place to work with supervisor Dr. Sam McKegney who researches in the area of contemporary Canadian and Indigenous literatures and governance. Fletcher’s Masters research at Carleton had to with representations of Indigenous persons and Indigenization narratives and rhetoric. Sure that she wanted to pursue these interests in doctoral work but unsure about how to do it, Fletcher recognized this “perfect storm of truth debates” in the form of different stagings of knowledges and claims to competing legitimacy from an array of social actors. This “social justice aspect” of the mining story captured Fletcher’s attention.
Now in the third year of her doctoral studies, Fletcher looks forward to continuing her work with Four Directions Aboriginal Student Centre, delving deeper into her own research, and pursuing related projects, like the paper she recently collaborated on with Dr. Scott for an edited collection, in order to get her work out into the world.