At one point or another, every student has sat in a classroom and stared out the window while daydreaming about being outside. Faculty of Environmental Studies (FES) lecturer Robin Cavanagh has made this dream a reality by taking his class outdoors and creating a ceremonial fire pit on York’s Keele campus.
The fire pit was installed by Cavanagh at the start of the 2011-2012 academic year – with the help of his students and support of FES Dean Barbara Rahder – to use as an outdoor teaching space for his indigenous studies classes. Situated directly behind the Ignat Kaneff Building on a small hill that overlooks the water, Cavanagh explains the location brings together all four elements of the Aboriginal medicine wheel – earth, air, water and fire.
Native Canadian relations starting the fire with students. From left, Paul Thompson, Robin Cavanagh, Paul Izdebski, Nele Michiels
A recipient of the 2012 Dean’s Teaching Award, Cavanagh is also a member of the Sagamok First Nation and an Anishinaabe helper/fire keeper. He describes his motivation for creating the fire pit, saying, “It was about bringing an indigenous spiritual pedagogy to life and a way of normalizing the sacred. I’ve attempted to create an environment where students are comfortable, feel safe and can easily express themselves. It was about sharing something sacred, sitting in a circle and participating holistically. I was taught that this is one of the ways we transmit knowledge [in Anishinaabe cultures].”
The new space has already had an impact on his classes. “The students are relaxed, there’s more laughter, they’re humble, in the sense that it’s okay not to know everything,” says Cavanagh. “The environment created is a place where students can feel safe to dream of something different for the world.”
Master in environmental studies (MES) student Naomi Smedbol has taken Cavanagh’s course on aboriginal research and is excited about the indigenous space.
Students in the Indigenous Environmental Thought course participate in an outdoor class
“There’s something both practically and theoretically sound about conducting a course on nontraditional research methodologies in, not only an unfamiliar setting, but more importantly, one with profound traditional significance of another kind,” she says.
Jolene John of the Centre for Aboriginal Student Services (CASS) has attended ceremonial events conducted by Cavanagh utilizing the fire pit since its creation. The space has served as a gateway to welcome indigenous high school students to the campus, as well as in smudging ceremonies to celebrate festivals. John says the events induced “pride, respect and honour.” She characterizes the pit as “a multifunctional space” that can be used by all York students for “community events, ceremonies, self-reflection or to simply enjoy the outdoors.”
John emphasizes that any individual, whether of aboriginal descent or not, can engage with the space. “Everyone can identify with and remember the teachings of the medicine wheel or the creation story and apply these values to current issues they may be facing at school or in their personal lives,” she says.
The pit itself is reflective of the medicine wheel encircled by a layer of pebbles, designed as a comfortable and inviting space to learn through creation. Though students are not permitted to start fires on their own, the pit is still a unique place to perch and reflect, perhaps with a book in hand.
Submitted to YFile by Michael Young