On spirituality, student support & the reinvention of the Maid of the Mist

Aboriginal Awareness Day explores ‘historical and cultural significance of several traditions and customs’

Willis Robins of the Red Spirit Dancers performs in Wallace Hall on Aboriginal Awareness Day.
Willis Robins of the Red Spirit Dancers performs in Wallace Hall on Aboriginal Awareness Day.
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The Saturday afternoon light illuminates the regalia of a member of the Red Spirit Dancers.
The Saturday afternoon light illuminates the regalia of a member of the Red Spirit Dancers.
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The drummers of the Red Spirit Dancers accompanied their singing with steady beats.
The drummers of the Red Spirit Dancers accompanied their singing with steady beats.
Photo: 

As warm Saturday sunlight streamed in through the windows of Wallace Hall, Mitchell Shewell, the Aboriginal Healing and Wellness Coordinator for the Katarokwi Native Friendship Centre, held up one of his complex, hand-crafted dream catchers and talked about the deep care that had gone into its creation.

His large, abstract dream catchers are made of wild vines, red willow branches, feathers, and “lots of buckskin and beads,” he told the early-morning audience of about 40 adults, students and children seated in a circle around him. Shewell used to collect the grapevines from Richardson Stadium, he said, until “Queen’s cut them all down,” forcing him to use whatever other vines he can find.

“As a community, we have to give people the opportunity to do something like this [making works of art],” he said, referring to the work he does as a crisis intervention counsellor. “I think we need to put [art and the process of creation] back into families.”

Shewell was the first presenter to speak at last Saturday’s Aboriginal Awareness Day, an annual event run by the Queen’s Native Students Association (QNSA) in conjunction with the Four Directions Aboriginal Student Centre.

The day’s presentations are designed to educate members of the Queen’s and Kingston communities about “the historical and cultural significance of several traditions and customs practiced then and now by First Nations and Aboriginal people,” said Barbara Hooper, the Nokomis-in-Residence of Four Directions.

“Nokomis” is an Anishnabe word for “grandmother,” Hooper told the Journal in an e-mail this week, which means “the one in the family who shares traditional knowledge, teaches from experience and nurtures with unconditional love.”

She said her role at the Centre is “to support students in their efforts to achieve academic, physical, emotional and spiritual balance throughout the course of their university life.”

“This might mean sitting with a student who needs an impartial listener for a while to relieve anxiety about exams or life in general, or attending events like Aboriginal Awareness Day,” she said.

Hooper’s mentorship is one of the many services offered to Queen’s Aboriginal students and their colleagues by Four Directions. The Centre also runs weekly feasts, medicine walks, cultural activities, admissions and scholarship assistance, a resource library and spaces for students to gather in and use—all of which are open to everyone.

Four Directions is funded by the Queen’s Aboriginal Education Council, a body that reports to the Senate and has received money from the provincial government as well as the University, and fills the house at 146 Barrie St.

Kristi Jamieson, the Aboriginal counsellor and student recruitment officer for Queen’s, said the Centre and its facilities are draws for incoming students.

“The majority of colleges and universities have Aboriginal student centres of one form or another, but we have our own house and can offer facilities the others don’t,” said Jamieson, who travels the province to speak in communities or schools with high proportions of Aboriginal students.

She said the major questions those students have about Queen’s—and university life in general—include how much it differs from what they’re used to, how far away from their homes they’ll have to travel and what programs and support systems the University has to offer Aboriginal students.

“Generally they ask a lot of questions about what [university life] is like,” Jamieson said. “I have been asked questions about Aboriginal content at Queen’s, and I point out that we do have a lot of content [such as the two development studies courses that introduce students to Aboriginal issues] even though we don’t have a Native studies department. …

“The fact that we don’t have a Native studies department weighs a lot on some students, if they’re looking to study that, but if they’re looking at other programs, the Queen’s reputation is [well-respected].”

Hooper, who has served as Nokomis since August 2004, said Aboriginal students may also have cultural concerns to face when coming to university.

“Some Aboriginal students are … from communities which are very different culturally from Kingston,” she said. “So while they try to find ways to adjust to life on campus and in the city, Aboriginal students might also cope with a particular kind of homesickness.

“This makes it especially challenging for a student to maintain academic standards within their program while possibly also having to meet home community stipulations to ensure continued funding.”

For those students, Four Directions and the QNSA are there to help, and Aboriginal Awareness Day is their biggest event of the year.

During Shewell’s presentation, the first of the day after a welcome by Hooper, the tables standing in front of him in Wallace Hall were laden with the works of art he has both created and collected over the years.

“It’s important to ask [where all the artwork you gather] comes from, because this is your spiritual stuff,” he said. “This stuff is very serious, but it can also be something to have fun with.”

Shewell said he thinks works of art can be both spiritual and purely artistic, but not at the same time. If an item is spiritual to you, he said, then it stops being art and is spiritual. It can, however, be art to someone else.

“That, to me, is Native culture,” he said.

Standing in front of the posters of painter Allen Sapp, playwright and director Yvette Nolan and the musician/poet/healer Jane Chartrand that were made by members of the QNSA, Shewell showed the assembled crowd his handcrafted pipe stems and bags, the elaborate feathers he has collected and a ceremonial horse tail.

“I don’t use this horse tail—it’s supposed to be used when you’re dancing [and single, to flick at potential partners],” he said. “This will go on to someone else at the pow-wow this year.”

Shewell also told the audience about the traditions behind pipe-smoking, giving insight into the complexities of this ritual. Some people prefer to smoke their pipes in private, he said, while others choose to share their pipes with a group.

“You don’t ask for things when you smoke a pipe,” Shewell said. “You basically just give thanks for all the gifts that have come to you … like family and community.”

The event’s diverse crowd of attendees waxed and waned over the day, through presentations on a variety of aspects of Aboriginal culture.

Robert Lovelace, a Queen’s professor who teaches the Aboriginal studies courses DEVS 220 and 221 and an Adopted Member of the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation, spoke about “Integration, Leadership and Brain Drain,” while a talk by Allison Farrant on the significance of drums and drumming circles to Aboriginal culture followed a vibrant demonstration of drumming and dancing by the Toronto-based Red Spirit Dancers.

Many members of the crowd joined hands to dance in a circle around the drummers, who accompanied the rising and falling sounds of their pounding drums with sonorous chants or songs sung in Ojibwe or Cree. The group’s dancers, clad in elaborate regalia, gracefully circled the drummers, to the delight of the audience.

When those sounds had faded from the room, Daniel David Moses—another Queen’s professor and a well-known playwright—stepped to the centre of the circle to tell the audience about the conflicting legends surrounding the Niagara Falls “Maid of the Mist.”

Moses said when he was first asked to write a play based on the story, the version he read had several decidedly non-Native elements.

“That version talked about a time before the coming of the white man, when the people around Niagara Falls had to give an offering every year to the gods, and that kind of got me,” he said, because according to Moses the Iroquois stories don’t usually include mandatory gifts.

“Then I found out that what they wanted every year was a virgin, and I thought, ‘okay, this isn’t Iroquois.’ … Iroquois society is matriarchal—the women wouldn’t put up with this.”

After finding another version in the Toronto Reference Library—which included an independent “Maid of the Mist,” stronger female figures and more natural and magical elements—Moses combined the two to create his play.

“I was intrigued enough by both versions of the story that I braided them together into one, because I liked the contrast,” he said. “It was really fun for me to … put them up against each other, to see how the shape of the stories really does reflect cultures.”

Moses’ reading of his final version of the story reverberated in the quiet, sunlit room.

When all was said and done, Natalia Novosedlik, ArtSci ’06, said she and her fellow members of the QNSA were pleased with how the event had gone.

“I think we were all really happy with it,” she said. “The presentations all went really well, we had a good number of people there, and everybody learned a lot. It was nice that we had people from both the Kingston and Queen’s communities speaking. …

“One of the things I’ve enjoyed about being involved with the QNSA is [the way it] bridges the gap between Queen’s and the Kingston community. It’s a neat way to interact on another level.”

Novosedlik said she got involved with the QNSA last year, after becoming a part of the Queen’s Medical Outreach (QMO) team that volunteered last summer in Pond Inlet, Nunavut.

“I’ve gotten a lot out of [my involvement with the QNSA] that’s not related to QMO,” she said. “It’s really broadened my Queen’s experience, and it’s a really inclusive environment.”

Aboriginal Awareness Day is the QNSA’s major event of the year, in addition to the support its members offer to the various Four Directions events and programs, and Novosedlik said the association is hoping to offer more such cultural events in the future.

“Before I [became a part of the QNSA], I didn’t have much awareness of the Aboriginal population at Queen’s or in Kingston,” she said. “For me, this was the first step towards thinking of my identity as a Canadian, because it’s an important part of our history and culture.

“When we think about diversity, it’s important to think about Aboriginal cultures and the differences within them.”

Hooper said she thinks there needs to be more such realizations.

“I hope there is awareness that First Nations, Inuit, Métis and Aboriginal cultures exist because we all live in this place called Canada,” she said. “I believe there are genuine strides at Queen’s to foster public awareness [such as the DEVS courses]. However, I think it is our individual responsibility to support any effort of the Queen’s governing and academic bodies, or faculty, student, and staff, to ensure continued awareness. …

“I think that to ensure heightened awareness, when we deliberate issues which impact on all students, we [must] place Aboriginal concerns not in the middle or at the end of the list, but rather at the beginning.”

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