Walking Backwards with Bad Knees Through Land and History: Seven Lessons in Decolonizing

Conferring with Experts. People: Catherine Tammaro, Katie Labelle, Carolyn Podruchny

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Editor’s note: This article is part of a series of reflections on the 2017 Canadian History and Environment Summer School. You can find all the articles here.

Excited to be on the organizing team of CHESS 2017, eager to highlight Indigenous ways of knowing in Canadian environmental history, I ran directly into the academic bush of blunders. It is a good place to learn.  Below I describe my journey through organizing CHESS 2017 and the lessons I learned.

I am descended from settler-colonists both in my family and in my scholarship. My great-grandparents came as children from Ukraine to the Canadian west, where their parents received free quarter-sections in western Manitoba. But the land was not free. It was paid for by the dispossession of Western Ojibwe, Plains Cree, Metis, and ethnically-mixed bands who for many generations hunted bison and small game, fished, and harvested produce from the land. I was born in the town of Selkirk, Manitoba, which in 1907 displaced the Peguis Band of Anishinaabeg, who included the grandmother of Kent Monkman. The parents and grandparents of Murray Sinclair resisted, and I grew up in the community with his children, and yet I was trained to uphold colonial institutions. I did my PhD at the University of Toronto and I am a faculty member at York University, both situated on land taken from the Mississaugas of New Credit in the 1787 Toronto Purchase. And I live in Oakville, a community that supported the further displacement of the Mississaugas westward to their current reserve. I grew up in university reading non-Indigenous scholars writing about Indigenous histories.  Now I read and listen to Indigenous historians at every opportunity.

One of my favourite articles is Leanne Betamosake Simpson’s “Land as Pedagogy: Nishnaabeg Intelligence and Rebellious Transformation.” In it, Simpson argues that Indigenous knowledge systems hold the keys to support Indigenous nation-building and resilience as they provide concrete challenges to state education systems that uphold settler colonialism. She suggests following the Anishinaabe method of using land as pedagogy, where the environment, spirits (or Manidoog), and stories all work together to help people develop, preserve, and share knowledge. She reminds us that “by far the largest attack on Indigenous Knowledge systems right now is land dispossession.” She explains that “coming into wisdom” takes place in the context of family, community, and relations on the land that is home, where children are taught that “wisdom is generated from the ground up.”

The reason Simpson’s article struck a deep chord with me is that for the past decade my teaching has been focused on looking for concrete ways to bring Indigenous knowledge systems into my university-based teaching of Indigenous-centred Indigenous histories. In a context where Canadian universities sit on Indigenous lands, much of it unceded and illegally taken, and where university knowledge systems are built on colonial foundations that devalue Indigenous scholarship, divorcing learning from communities and from personal experience, incorporating Indigenous knowledge systems has meant challenging both the metaphysical and physical foundations of “higher-learning” institutions.

Can land be pedagogy? I am experimenting with field trips in teaching, exploring the value of walking through spaces and places of historic events and peoples, using the land as a primary source to understand how people inhabited it in the past, and how land influenced lifestyles and choices. The method of land-based teaching seemed particularly important in teaching Indigenous histories for three reasons: 1) Indigenous societies have a deep attachment to land, even those who moved over time; 2) land is a member of Indigenous communities, with spirits inhabiting the large and small elements of landscapes; and, 3) in the words of Keith Basso, wisdom sits in places. Knowledge is embedded in place names. Stories are attached to places. Humans’ caretaking of places is a method of learning.

CHESS 2017 provided the perfect opportunity to explore these connections. Environmental historians are old hands at land-based learning. Mixing environmental and Indigenous history in a field school could be a way to explore what these two fields could bring to one another. But, what I learned through organizing CHESS 2017 is that crossing boundaries is fraught. It is tough to translate among different academic disciplines in genuine ways. It is tough to bring Indigenous pedagogies into university environments. It is tough to draw out lessons from the land. Indeed, coming into wisdom is hard work.

My biggest stumbling block was trying not to re-enact the colonialism of my foremothers and forefathers in academe. My first misstep was the first draft of the Call for Participants. I wanted to tell a story involving Aatentsic or Sky Woman (the Iroquoian grandmother of all) and Nookomis (the Anishinaabe grandmother of all) meeting in a Whole Foods and reflecting on the alienation of gifts from the land. Then I realized that it is not my story to tell. I am descended from settler-colonists in my heritage and in my schooling. I can listen to stories from Indigenous knowledge keepers, but I cannot wade in and become a story-teller myself. I next worried about where participants would stay. I wanted everyone to spend at least one night on a reserve, but the only inn was fully booked eight months in advance, so we stayed in a particularly colonial inn in a particularly colonial town. I was afraid that my bad knees that prevented me from actually walking much on Indigenous land might seem disrespectful. My ongoing battles with university accounting provide another refraction for colonial re-enactment: trying to pay Elders and Indigenous knowledge-keepers without requiring their Social Insurance Numbers, which in my view are representatives of governmental administration, dispossession, and disrespect. And how can you pay a local Indigenous caterer in cash, and then prove to university accounting that you have indeed paid for the catering without an insulting legal affidavit? And finally, when and how and to whom do you present tobacco? And what about the other three sacred medicines: sweet grass, sage, and cedar?

So I am left with the painful quandary: how can I welcome and incorporate Indigenous knowledge systems without re-enacting the colonization of my academic and my familial ancestors? CHESS 2017 helped me remember seven lessons, which parallel the teachings of the Seven Grandfathers:

  1. Honesty: Always situate myself in colonialism.
  2. Truth: View scholarship and landscapes through the lens of colonialism.
  3. Love: Seek to engage with the descendants and stakeholders of the historical actors about which I research and write.
  4. Respect: Remember that history is always political and that my work has consequences for people living today.
  5. Bravery: Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
  6. Wisdom: Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
  7. Humility: Know that I don’t know much.
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Carolyn Podruchny


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