Indigenous students shine online in virtual pilot program

Artwork by Métis (Otipemisiwak) artist Christi Belcourt
Artwork by Métis (Otipemisiwak) artist Christi Belcourt

When Jennifer Rokaya Sedgewick wears beaded earrings, she’s making a statement about resistance to colonial norms and making herself visible as an Indigenous woman. In fact, the York University PhD student has largely decolonized her wardrobe, ensuring that her clothing choices reflect her identity.

“Eurocentric norms dictate proper appearance,” said Sedgewick, who is Métis. “Fashion is resistance.”

Sedgewick’s thoughts about the statements fashion can make were only one of the explorations of Indigenous cultures, languages, spiritualities, and histories that came to life online April 7 as students from Canada, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico, and the Philippines presented their final projects for the International Indigenous Student Exchange Program. This eight-week virtual pilot program brought together 16 Indigenous students from various countries and communities to learn about their commonalities and differences.

Consuelo Fernández-Salvador (top-left), associate professor, Department of Anthropology, Universidad San Francisco de Quito, Ecuador, C. Elizabeth Best (top-right), Métis, York University, Jennifer Sedgewick (bottom-left), Métis, York University, Sara Fuentes Maldonado (bottom right), Kichwa-Otavalo, Universidad San Francisco de Quito
Pictured above: Consuelo Fernández-Salvador (top-left), associate professor, Department of Anthropology, Universidad San Francisco de Quito, Ecuador; C. Elizabeth Best (top-right), Métis, York University; Jennifer Sedgewick (bottom-left), Métis, York University; and, Sara Fuentes Maldonado (bottom right), Kichwa-Otavalo, Universidad San Francisco de Quito

The program, funded by a grant from the Canada Outbound Student Mobility Innovation Fund and York International, was created by a team at York University in partnership with four other universities: Tecnologico de Monterrey in Mexico, Universidad de San Francisco de Quito in Ecuador, the University of Costa Rica, and the University of the Philippines. Students attended weekly online talks and lectures together and also worked in groups to investigate topics of interest to them in more depth.

At the April 7 event, Randy Pitawanakwat, manager, Indigenous student services at York’s Centre for Aboriginal Student Services (CASS), offered an opening prayer, followed by welcomes from Lisa Phillips, provost and vice-president academic, and Lily Cho, associate dean of global and community engagement for York’s Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies. Then, it was on to student presentations, moderated by Professor Carolyn Podruchny, the course director, and Breanna Berry, Indigenous Recruitment Officer with CASS, and program facilitator.

Students Ángel Solis (Tsotsil), Caleb Wesley (Cree) and Felipe Bañez (Boruca) talked about how technology can help to keep Indigenous languages alive by making resources available online. These websites and social media sites become preservation resources, as well as empowerment tools.

“With social media we are able to collaborate and share resources and content,” said Wesley.

For their project, Quenses Quela (Ibaloi), Christina Da Costa (First Nations) and Amy House (Inuk and Mi’kmaw) created Settler Greed, Indigenous Land, a comprehensive timeline of the dispossessions of land Indigenous peoples have faced at the hands of Canadian and Filipino governments between 1900 and 2020.

“Land displacement directly caused by colonialism is an ongoing process and an issue for Indigenous people worldwide,” said House.

She and her peers cited numerous incidents including the High Artic relocation of 92 Inuit in 1953 and 1955, which “was portrayed as humanitarian by the government but actually extended their borders of control.”

Da Costa also pointed to the hundreds of boil water advisories that are still in place on reserves across Canada, despite the federal government’s promise to make them unnecessary by 2020.

“Many people on reserves live in Third World conditions due to greed,” she said.

Focusing on Indigenous languages, Samay Ainaguano Baltazar (Quichwa-Chibuleo), Aleria Mckay (Haudenosaunee and Teme Augama Anishnabai) and Rosalyn González (Boruca) each interviewed speakers of their own Indigenous languages – Kichwa, Anishinaabemowin, and Boruca – to research language revitalization.

“Many of us are working hard to learn was has been lost,” Mckay said.

Professor Gabrielle Fletcher of Deakin University in Australia noted that often, efforts to rescue languages are community driven. “Language reclamation is a political act and one of preservation, not only of language but of world views and cultures,” Fletcher said.

Elizabeth Best (Métis), Sara Fuentes (Quichwa-Otavalo) and Jennifer Sedgewick (Métis) joined together to create an e-zine called Disrupting the Colonization of Everyday Life that offered tales of personal struggle and individual and community resistance in the face of colonialism, whether subtle or overt.

In the publication, complementing Sedgewick’s efforts to “decolonize her closet,” Best displayed her beadwork, created by traditional techniques, and focused on everyday acts of resistance to colonialism.

“My existence and my art are my resistance,” Best said. “Resistance is finding ways to serve my community and finding happiness to replace my trauma and hurt.”

Fuentes told the story of women in her community, including her grandmother, who bodily resisted efforts to divert the community’s water source. Their resistance manifested their three main values: “with one collective hand, one heart and one mindset.”

“I admire all of the bravery and vulnerability you bring to this project,” Berry told the team. “Our existence and our continuation of practices unique to our Indigenous nations are our resistance, resilience and resurgence.”

The final group of students examined whether there was a place for spirituality in Western academy. Jandrea Rose Oddoc (Kalinga), Jen Bolton (Anishinaabe) and Emma Litschko (Mi’kmaq) expressed concern that often Indigenous spirituality is reduced to spectacle, rather than taken seriously or seen as intellectual.

“Academics separate themselves from their work, but as Indigenous people, we are mentally, emotionally and spiritually involved in our work,” Litschko noted.

Drawing on Indigenous stories, the team noted, keeps them grounded, focused on their goal and provides the moral values that guide them through academia.”

The program was meaningful to the faculty and staff involved, as well as the students.

Professor Michael Hill of Universidad de San Francisco de Quito, said, “Indigenous communities and knowledges are certainly often localized, but there are scarce opportunities in the academy to also transnationalize and globalize Indigeneity in ways that allow Indigenous students themselves to share their perspectives across local, national, or regional boundaries. This program, however, disrupted that pattern and provided all of us, and especially the students, with a safe space in which we could come to know one another better and appreciate both the shared challenges facing Indigenous peoples as well as unique Indigenous histories.”

Professor Leah Abayao from the University of the Philippines, said, “For me, the program provided explorations and critical reflections on Indigeneity.  The workshops and the Knowledge Fair elevated discussions into discoveries of deep Indigenous spiritualities and the desire to change the conventional restrictive platforms into enabling spaces where one can think and act with respect and cultural empathy, and allow students to build resilience in becoming Indigenous intellectuals”.

Podruchny, the course director, said “I feel lucky to be involved and humbled by the students.” Given the success of the program, she added that the group is planning to offer the program this fall, with the addition of Deakin University in Australia to the mix. They are also exploring opportunities for in-person connections once the pandemic related travel restrictions are lifted.

In closing, Vinitha Gengatharan, executive director of York International shared how grateful she is for the trust, generosity and commitment of the students and faculty who took part in the pilot initiative. “We need to continue to co-create more spaces for reflection, healing, empowerment, and connections to place and community and continually be willing to challenge the power dynamics, our curriculum and structures. We are committed to continuing the work and to expand this pilot initiative,” said Gengatharan.

By Elaine Smith, special contributing writer, York International