Reconciliation, relationship, belonging and healing were the key messages shared during The University of Alberta’s Aboriginal Teacher Education Program (ATEP) Orange Shirt Day event. The event was held in the Education building 4th floor lounge on September 27th, 2019. A morning protocol was led by Dr. Francis Whiskeyjack, ATEP resident Elder, from Saddle Lake Cree First Nation. He opened the event with a smudge ceremony, prayer, and song.
ATEP Alumni shared their educational experiences as program participants, and as teachers working in the field. In honor of Residential School survivors, lunch was provided for event participants. Following lunch, Dr. Leona Makokis shared the Gently Whispering the Circle Back Documentary produced by Blue Quills University, and spoke to her own experiences of being a survivor of IRS.
A powerful part of the day included panelists sharing their individual ATEP program experiences, as they told their stories, common themes emerged. The ATEP program is grounded in indigenous worldview teachings. The panelists all shared a common sentiment that the importance of relationship, and sense of belonging the program creates was key to their success. along side learning of educational pedagogy, connection to cultural practices such as smudge ceremony, was expressed as a critical component of programming. Panelists discussedlearning about indigenous history, perspective, and culture. They shared the importance of being able to weave these understandings into their work with indigenous students. Stephan Angus, a teacher from Montana school stated that weaving indigenous perspective and culture into his teaching practice results in students working “with him, rather than against him.” A few shared that ATEP provided a first opportunity for them to learn about IRS history. A history many survivors do not want to discuss. Learning the history and gaining awareness about being an inter-generational trauma survivor was a catalyst for healing. One panelist described how her healing journey has been one of working towards regaining identity. She stated it gives her “hope for the future – which is what reconciliation is”. One non-indigenous panelist chooses to teach exclusively in indigenous schools. She explained that ATEP is an inclusive program, open to everyone, and not exclusive to indigenous participants. She said that she chose ATEP and indigenous schools because the indigenous worldview values align with her own. That is connecting to people, community and the land. She recognized that ATEP taught her that building relationships with indigenous students is key to engaging them. She shared that in one position, where she worked as a First Nations, Métis, Inuit liason she quickly realized she needed to support the staff to internally shift their understanding in order to work effectively with indigenous youth.
The importance of relationship and connection in indigenous culture was further emphasized in Dr. Makokis’ keynote address. She shared that in indigenous culture they introduce themselves by their kinship affiliation. She explained the importance of ceremony to understand identity and form a sense of belonging. She said traditionally each stage of life would be celebrated in ceremony. Indigenous culture outlines 7 stages of life. Particularly interesting was the teaching of stage 3, the “belly button” stage. This is when a baby’s belly button dries and detaches from the body. A ceremony is held as the belly button is viewed to be a sacred connection to your mother.
I encourage you to watch Gently Whispering the Circle Back. It is a powerful 50 minute documentary wherein Elders share their poignant experiences in IRS and the community initiative towards healing and reconciliation.