Classroom Climate Series Engages UBC with Aboriginal Topics

As part of the yearlong Classroom Climate series, CTLT Aboriginal Initiatives hosted three workshops in fall 2015. Faculty, TAs, researchers, students, and staff were invited to critically engage in topics related to Aboriginal issues. The workshops provided participants with an opportunity to learn about Aboriginal history and culture and how these topics could be explored within and beyond the classroom.

Here: Valuing, Recognizing and Acknowledging Place

Musqueam Elder Larry Grant began by welcoming participants to the unceded traditional territories of the Musqueam people, on which UBC is located. He discussed the local and legal histories between BC and First Nations communities, and the importance of teaching students about these histories.

Elder Grant, who is the Resident Elder for the UBC First Nations House of Learning, emphasized the importance of understanding the land where UBC, and the majority of BC, stands. The land is unceded—it has never been bought, sold, traded, or lost in battle.

“The Musqueam have been here since the last Ice Age,” Elder Grant said. “We have never left our land. We are not the migratory people that history says we were or are.”

Elder Grant noted that there are many other misconceptions about Aboriginal people, which have arisen from historical treatment of Aboriginal communities.

“Canada created this legacy of dependent people, and that’s how the misconception comes in about how Aboriginal people are so dependent and non-participatory in the dominating society of Canada,” Elder Grant explained. “When they created the Indian reserves, they basically created a minimum security prison, with people needing permission to leave those areas for any length of time—to go hunting, to go fishing, to go to another extended family in another community.”

To combat these misconceptions, UBC has made efforts to educate students about Aboriginal history. Elder Grant pointed to the naming of two Totem Park resident buildings as an example.

In 2011, then undergraduate First Nations Studies Program students Sarah Ling and Spencer Lindsay co-chaired a naming advisory committee of UBC staff, students, and Musqueam advisors. The committee’s goal was to choose names that were significant to Musqueam history.

Elder Grant explained that one of the names eventually chosen, həm̓ləsəm̓, is related to the story of χe:l’s, the transformer who oversaw social behaviour. χe:l’s once came upon a young man being possessive and wasteful of fresh water. Realizing the young man would not change his behaviour, χe:l’s transformed him into a rock, which today is still present up river from Wreck Beach. The site of transformation was named həm̓ləsəm̓. Elder Grant noted that universities act as a similar transformative site where resources need to be shared.

“We need to give what is needed to carry on with life. That truly represents what’s going on at university. We transform students as faculty, as a university, as a research unit, and we have to share that openly with the students and with each other,” Elder Grant said. “If you share [knowledge], then everyone moves together in life.”

Elder Grant urged that the UBC community—together with all of Canada—recognize the work that is ahead. “Assimilation is wrong, and it’s still happening. It’s our responsibility as Canadian people to make that more right,” said Elder Grant. “It will take all of us together to make things as close to right as we can.”

Engaging with the Museum of Anthropology

ćǝsnaɁǝm, the city before the city is a series of three exhibitions that explore the ancient village and burial site on which Vancouver was built. Susan Rowley and Jordan Wilson, co-curators of the exhibit at the Museum of Anthropology (MOA), discussed the exhibits and accompanying resources for students and instructors.

Wilson, a Musqueam community member and graduate student in the UBC Department of Anthropology, explained that c̓əsnaʔəm* came to public attention in 2012 after Musqueam members held a vigil in response to plans to develop over the site, in order to raise awareness of the erasure of Aboriginal history.

The supportive response from Vancouverites made Musqueam members more comfortable in sharing their stories. To ensure these stories were told in a respectful and meaningful way, the exhibit was developed with an advisory committee of Musqueam leaders.

“We started with open community sessions to get a sense of what the community thought was important in light of the vigil that took place. Musqueam community members saw this project as an opportunity to tell its own story, in its own words. Although c̓əsnaʔəm would be the focal point, this would also be a jumping off point to discuss who we are as a people,” Wilson explained.

Rowley, who is co-head of the UBC Department of Anthropology, encouraged anyone who visits the exhibit to be an active and respectful participant. “Musqueam is accompanying [you] throughout the exhibit, and it requests that respect be shown for the knowledge being shared,” she said. She hopes visitors will then share the knowledge they learned with others.

In addition to the physical exhibit space, Rowley and Wilson have also created online resources through flexible learning funding. Their project, named Engage UBC, aims to enhance student learning through creating online resources using the Reciprocal Research Network (RRN), an online tool that facilitates collaborative research about cultural heritage.

An online toolkit for instructors has been developed, along with online resources for students to use in conjunction with visiting the exhibit. Through RRN Publisher, students have also been able to create their own digital publications. The goal is for student-created content to be shared with a wider audience.

ćǝsnaɁǝm, the city before the city is a permanent exhibit at the Museum of Vancouver over the next four years. The exhibits at the Musqueam Cultural Education Resource Centre and the Museum of Anthropology will be on display until January 2016.

* How to pronounce c̓əsnaʔəm:
ć = “ts” and a little force adding a slight pop
ə = u in “but”
= a consonant with no sound like the space in “uh-oh”

Bridging the Knowledge Gap: Indigenous Foundations

To address the challenges in discussing Indigenous topics in the classroom, Janey Lew, CTLT Educational Developer, Indigenous Initiatives, facilitated a discussion on pedagogical approaches to teaching courses with Aboriginal content. Participants also explored how to utilize the resource website Indigenous Foundations.

Lew, who is also a Sessional Instructor in UBC’s First Nations and Indigenous Studies Program, noted that there are often diverse and varying levels of student knowledge within a classroom. Lew noted that a good place to begin is by asking, “What are the knowledge gaps, and how do we set forward a good foundation?”

A key topic of discussion that often emerges is the use of language and terminology. As language is often shifting, Lew acknowledged that it’s understandable if some people may be unsure which are appropriate terms to use.

To address this issue in her classroom, Lew asked her students to look through Indigenous Foundations. She designed an activity to help students think comparatively about the meanings and contexts of different terms. Students had to consider things such as legal uses of a term, common practice use, contentious meanings, and if students would use the term. Lew asked students to, “think about themselves in relation to these terms, while also thinking about other aspects of this terminology.”

When addressing Aboriginal content, Lew emphasized that students often arrive to a class with different understandings about topics. Instructors also come from a range of understandings.

“As instructors or mentors, we have to think about where we’re coming from,” Lew said. She encouraged participants to look to resources, such as Indigenous Foundations, that could provide “information on how to make decisions to think about these complicated topics.”

The next Classroom Climate event, “Taking Classroom Climate Online,” will take place December 9 during the CTLT Winter Institute. The session will include a faculty roundtable and discussion on how to address issues of identity, place, and location in online and blended learning environments. Registration is currently open.