Rising up An overview of the native studies graduate conference

Photo by Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair

The Native Studies Graduate Student Association and the department of native studies hosted “Rising Up,” their inaugural call for papers conference on March 4 and 5 at the University of Manitoba. The conference hosted 34 graduate scholars from across the country in nine fields of interdisciplinary study.

For me, aside from gaining valuable experience presenting, the highlights of participating in the department’s first conference included hearing, providing, and receiving constructive criticism, meeting other researchers, and hearing how they intend to apply their research.

One interesting presentation came from Lakehead University student Melissa Twance: “Pictographs as Sites of Critical Inquiry in Environmental Education.”

Twance said at one point she wanted to be an Ojibway language instructor, a goal I also had, but she is pursuing a larger discussion of how sacred legends like Mizhi Bishu (Water Panther) can teach valuable lessons about living within our means in education and environmental stewardship.

This caught my attention when she began speaking Saturday morning as it falls in line with my own current and planned research (my presentation was titled “Baakag: Guardian of the Forest”). This kind of research aims to share a beautiful worldview within languages that hopefully can develop into something larger than language revitalization.

Another highlight of the conference was the honouring of Emma LaRocque as an honoured guest. LaRocque is a U of M professor of 40 years who built the native studies department from the ground up to what it is today. Graduate student Belinda Blair, communications director of the NSGSA, and Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair, acting head of the department, honoured her for her life’s work.

LaRocque gave one of the keynote addresses, after which she was paid tribute. Her address was reflective, beginning by thanking the NSGSA for the honour, and thanking a number of colleagues for having been supportive throughout the years. She spoke fondly about personal friendships and thanked those who had a hand in advancing her career and making it a little more enjoyable.

She told a story that marked a turning point in her life, “when a stranger from the East arrived in 2000, I told him, Dr. Peter Kulchyski, that I was going to go to Calgary for a better contract. He told me, ‘but I came here to work with you.’ He took my contract to the dean and got terms matched. The rest is history.”

She thanked Chris Trott, who was hired in 1998, for nominating her for the National Aboriginal Achievement Award that she received in 2005. She also acknowledged Jill Oakes, who was instrumental in developing the master’s program.

LaRocque has long been a leading figure in the growth and development of native studies as a teaching discipline, developing or helping to develop most of undergraduate courses in the department.

In an interview for this article, LaRocque took pride in the department’s reputation as likely the strongest native studies department academically in Canada, testament to its staff of six professors with PhDs. She recalled how she went from instructor to full professor in her career (a huge professional jump).

LaRocque was frustrated that “in the 1970s and even into the 1990s, many people thought of native studies as a cultural awareness and remedial program.” As a result, she helped outline the substance of native studies as an intellectual discipline.

The conference program noted that in her career LaRocque has advanced an indigenous-based critical resistance theory in scholarship and specializes in colonization and its impact on native-white relations, particularly in the areas of cultural productions and representation. She authored Defeathering the Indian in 1975. Her 2010 book When the Other is Me: Native Resistance Discourse 1850-1990 won the Alexander Kennedy Isbister Award for non-fiction.

Jason Bone is a master’s student in native studies at the University of Manitoba and does outreach and education for the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.

Feature image: photo by Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair.

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