There are a few things to know about the department of Indigenous Studies at University of Sudbury, one of the federated universities on the Laurentian University campus impacted by the embattled school’s unilateral termination of the federation on April 1.
It has the highest number of students enrolled of all programs at the University of Sudbury.
It boasts what associate professor, nêhiyaw iskwêw, Midewiwin Kwe, Water Walker and Sweetgrass Roots activist Tasha Beeds said is the “lowest paid faculty in Canada.”
It is one of two universities that pioneered the discipline of Indigenous Studies. (The other is Trent University.)
But there isn’t much to know about the University of Sudbury’s future at the moment, other than the dissolution of the federation agreement on May 1.
It’s something that Beeds, who is an Indigenous (Plains Cree and Métis) woman of colour, says she has struggled with since the announcement. What will happen to her students? Her work? But more than that, what will happen to the work, history and knowledge that went into the school’s development, and what will Laurentian do with the materials with which they are left?
To see this loss clearly, it is important to know the story of the University of Sudbury’s Indigenous Studies department.
“In the ’60s and ’70s, we’re coming out of this massive level of oppression as Indigenous people,” said Beeds. “We were not allowed to leave the reserve; our children were taken. If we were to gather, we were not allowed more than five; if you had five Indigenous people together, in a public place, it was illegal. That is the amount of restrictions on us.”
That’s not to mention the concept of enfranchisement, the loss of ‘status.’ The administration of status under the Indian Act was based in cultural destruction, and until 1951, any Indigenous person who graduated university would have to surrender their ‘status,’ and would be legally unable to return to their home community.
“You were stripped of your Indigenous rights. That was the choice if you became educated.”
So, the idea that only 25 years later not only would there be a chance to attend university and maintain status, but also study at a school with curriculum created and taught by Indigenous instructors, like Beeds, could be seen as revolutionary.
“In conjunction with the civil rights movement that was happening in the States, Indigenous people were also raising consciousness about some of the inequities and inequalities, and so out of that emerged this discipline called Indigenous Studies,” Beads said. “Indigenous Studies kind of grew from that desire to educate not only our own people, but non-Indigenous people also.”
“Because we weren’t even recognized people; we were only given the vote in the 1960s. We weren’t even recognized as humans by the Canadian state. So, the University of Sudbury emerged between an alliance between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to educate.”
The names of those who began the Indigenous Studies department at University of Sudbury in 1975 are known across the world for their work in the field. Names like Dr. Jim Dumont, Dr. Edna Manitowabi, Dr. Art Solomon-ba*, Dr. Ed Newbery-ba, Dr. Thom Alcoze, Dr. Nahum Kanhai, and others made a home for students, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to learn the culture, the language and the knowledge that is held in their traditions. (* the suffix ‘-ba’ indicates someone who has passed on.)
“It grew organically, from the ground up, by and with and for Indigenous people,” said Beeds. “Our discipline is relatively new, but it’s very old because it’s rooted inside our own knowledge systems.”
It was Dr. Edna Manitowabi, who is now Professor Emeritus at the Chanie Wenjack School of Indigenous Studies at Trent University, that especially drew Beeds here in 2019 from Saskatchewan, where her son and grandchild still live. Beeds is a Water Walker, and a member of The Midewiwin, a religious society of spiritual advisors and healers, known as the Mide. The Mide serve as spiritual leaders, and Manitowabi is her ‘lodge chief.’
She’s afraid that instead of the School of Indigenous Studies, built for and by Indigenous people, Laurentian will offer an ‘Indigenized’ version of what they created.
“Laurentian University wants Indigenous Studies, everybody wants Indigenous Studies, because we are bringing in the students,” said Beeds. “Across the board, no matter what institution you’re looking at, across the country, people are wanting to ‘indigenize’. Why? Because there’s federal dollars tied up in indigenisation.”
The question is, well, what exactly is indigenisation?
“That’s the question we need to be asking the institutions,” said Beeds. “Because for me, you can’t just add ‘Indigenous’ to an institution without actually having the discipline. It’s a discipline. Would I be so bold as to teach nursing without having a nursing degree? Would I be so bold as to teach history without having a history degree? It’s a specialization.”
And it is one she has devoted her life to.
“I’ve spent 30 years specializing in this knowledge base, in this discipline, both in academia and in the community,” said Beeds. “And that’s where Indigenous Studies as a discipline emerges from the community, you have to have that tie back to community, everything we do, is supposed to tie back to indigenous communities.”
“The work we do, the research we do, the teaching, it connects back to that very basic precept that this is for my people. This is for my nation. This is for my children. These are for my nieces and nephews, my grandchildren. This is for people to understand that we are thriving, we are intelligent, we are powerful, it really is about empowerment.
It is about ensuring that those who teach Indigenous studies are trained in the discipline.
“There are Indigenous people employed at Laurentian, of course, but are they trained in the discipline of Indigenous Studies? That, to me, is the biggest issue. Laurentian can take Indigenous programs, they can take the classes, they can take the courses, they can take the Indigenous Studies program — but if you don’t take the people who are trained, how are you going to deliver that program?”
And though there is never a good time for an event like this, Beeds said this school’s importance should not be downplayed.
“We needed this cultural resurgence and this revitalization. And we needed it on our own terms.”
In fact, it was in 2020 that Beeds said there was a celebration of success to be had. A Facebook post she wrote soon after the announcement captures her feelings:
“One year ago, we were celebrating the impact of their intellectual legacy with the Department at the U of Sudbury on the entire discipline of Indigenous Studies Turtle Island-wide and within the realm of cultural resurgence, revitalization, sovereignty, and Nationhood.
“One year later, our faculty are being fired and our program will be taken over by Laurentian disregarding the very legacy of some of the most influential Indigenous people in Turtle Island.”
The post finishes with a quote from Indigenous writer and artist Chrystos: “They have our bundles split open in museums / our dresses & shirts at auctions / our languages on tape / our stories locked in rare book libraries / our dances on film / The only part of us they can’t steal / is what we know.”
Jenny Lamothe is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter at Sudbury.com. She covers the Black, Indigenous, immigrant and Francophone communities.