More than a dreamcatcher workshop

Meaningful relationships with Indigenous groups will take ongoing engagement with real issues

Leah Combs asks students to take their interactions with Indigenous groups more seriously than a one-off gesture.
Leah Combs asks students to take their interactions with Indigenous groups more seriously than a one-off gesture.

There’s been a change among young people in Canada. 

They’re taking a stand against cultural appropriation and it seems there’s a growing trend of genuine interest in a more meaningful understanding of Indigenous cultures, histories and ways of being in the world.

But while the interest in having a deeper understanding of other’s experiences seems to be there, it’s sometimes expressed in tokenistic gestures.

Canadian youth seem to care about the completion of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report, the announcement of the Inquiry on the Missing and Murdered and other recent breakthroughs by Indigenous peoples in this country. 

Every day, I see fellow students of all backgrounds showing support for these types of advances (particularly on social media). The AMS announced a new position in late February, the Deputy Commissioner of Indigenous Affairs, which nods to a need for more Indigenous representation within student government. 

We’re seeing the development of more critical awareness, but students aren’t always going about learning from and about Indigenous peoples in the most thoughtful way. It’s important to think about how Indigenous peoples and their stories are represented on campus. 

Beyond the Four Directions Aboriginal Student Centre, the only significant physical representation of Aboriginal peoples on campus are the few pictures lining the walls of the fireside lounge by Common Ground — which, by the way, have been taken down for three weeks for the GHETTO art installation.

Student’s experiences with Indigenous peoples often ends in course readings, or if you’re lucky, in that dreamcatcher-making workshop you attended a few years ago. Your club might have emailed the Queen’s Native Student Association to invite them to an event you were hosting, or invited an Elder to give the Thanksgiving address for a conference you worked on. 

Tokenism is the practice of making perfunctory gestures toward the inclusion of members of minority groups, usually while generalizing their experience and limiting their power. 

In my experience, efforts to include Indigenous persons and their cultures in on-campus events feel tokenistic, though they tend to be well-meaning.

Tokenism is a regular problem for Indigenous peoples, and most marginalized people experience this to some degree. So often, people who are more socially comfortable pay lip service to these disadvantaged groups, but don’t offer more substantial support.

Engaging with Indigenous peoples and (with their permission) their cultural tools can allow us to learn and develop more balanced worldviews. 

We just have to ask ourselves — is it okay that the only relationship we have with Indigenous peoples and their cultures is a series of encounters that have only benefitted us? I don’t think it is.

There’s a harder side to what we call “Indigenous issues,” which includes caring about the lands we walk on and the ancestral peoples who lived here before us. Beyond creative workshops and take-it-or-leave-it gestures is a whole world of hard conversations and even harder realizations to be experienced. 

As Aboriginal Awareness Week approaches, here are a few steps to take if you want to open yourself to a meaningful understanding of Indigenous experiences:

1) The first step is to show up. Within the context of Queen’s, Four Directions hosts constant talks, teach-ins and other events centered on sharing knowledge and stories by Indigenous persons and groups. Take the time out of your day to be there — you will learn something.

2) The second step is to be patient and listen. Sometimes it’s all too easy to forget that our perspective may not be the most important one. Make an effort to listen diligently to others’ stories.

3) If you’ve already shown up and listened, the third step is to provide help or support if it’s been solicited. Indigenous peoples don’t need anyone to swoop in and save them, but sometimes allyship is requested and the kindest thing is to help when you’re wanted.

A common issue I’ve seen with settler individuals in their interaction with Indigenous groups is a fear of overstepping. People are afraid of using the wrong words or taking up too much space in a conversation, but to this I suggest a simple solution: just ask. 

If you feel what you want to say may be offensive, politely explain your hesitation and ask if your statement could be perceived as inappropriate. If you’re afraid of seeming ill-versed in the subject matter and don’t want to be embarrassed, take the time after the discussion to meet personally with someone to talk further. 

Keep in mind that it’s no one’s responsibility to make you feel comfortable in these conversations, so be sure to remain open and remember why you’ve chosen to engage.

If you’re ready to take the first step, there will be a number of opportunities to show up in the near future.

Queen’s Native Student Association is presenting a production of The Hours That Remain, the story of an Indigenous woman haunted by the disappearance of her sister, on March 10, 11 and 12. 

The week following this is the annual Aboriginal Awareness Week, this year featuring a concert, a Mohawk language luncheon and an important film on the Cree community of Attawapiskat.

All individuals of all backgrounds are welcome to come out and work on developing a meaningful understanding of Indigenous cultures and experiences.

Leah Combs is a fourth-year Environmental Science major and president of the Queen’s Native Student Association.

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