Indigenous Studies: How I found my history, my future, and my identity

Walking into the Indigenous Studies 100 classroom, I had no idea that this faculty would change the direction of my education, help me become proud of my Métis identity, and welcome me into a community that has been reclaiming Indigenous knowledge and history for more than 40 years.

“The intent was to present the Indigenous point of view in various areas of what are considered to be social sciences,” says Dr. Blair Stonechild. “And I know that there are certainly priority areas back then; questions of history, and re-interpreting history from an Indigenous point of view.”

As a student, I know that reading textbooks written by Indigenous authors has given me a unique outlook on Indigenous knowledge. These authors draw on sacred teachings and pass these teachings down through written language.

In the class Indigenous Identity, Culture, and Society taught by Willie Ermine, I had the opportunity to read The Lakota Way by Joseph Marshall III and connect Marshall’s knowledge to my own life, for instance generosity. I wrote about my grandma, my mom’s mom, and her ability to help others in times of need, along with her never-ending love for her family. Thanks to textbooks like this, I was able to relate to the material on a personal level.

Professors in the Indigenous Studies department are knowledge keepers. These professors share Indigenous knowledge and hearing their experiences and stories helped look at the world through an Indigenous lens. Professor William ‘Bill’ Asikinack was the first Indigenous professor I encountered and attending his class every week was a gift.

Austin Story 1 Nelson Bird
Nelson Bird

That was also the case for CTV’s Nelson Bird, who graduated with an Indian Studies degree in 1997.

“I went to Bill Asikinack’s class. He’d walk into the room, a short stature of a man; walk into the room sit on the desk, not at the desk, on the desk with his legs straight out and tell us stories,” says Bird. “He’d tell us stories about the history of our people. Tell us stories about a particular place or event. He had this way of telling a story that I have to say that I credit him a lot for the way I tell stories. I admired his teaching method.”

For me, the most rewarding aspect of Indigenous Studies is having the opportunity to share my own personal experiences and stories with professors and fellow students. This is something most of the professors use in their classes.

Austin Story 1 Miriam McNab
Miriam McNab

“I find that students really relate to the personal experiences of people,” says Miriam McNab. “They like to know and they just relate to it. They are more receptive to someone telling them a personal story about their family or themselves–their own experiences.”

Taking Indigenous Studies has made me proud to be Métis and share my own personal stories and experiences. At a young age my grandma taught me that my ancestors are always with me. Over the course of my degree, I became more comfortable sharing that I am Métis.

I can share stories about my personal history, the people who have inspired me, and my values and beliefs alongside Indigenous students who often share similar experiences, beliefs, and values. These individuals re-assure me that my Métis identity, my voice, and my history are important. We, as Indigenous peoples live through our ancestors, feel proud of who we are and our connection to the Creator.

Austin Story 1 Blair Stonechild 2015The one Indigenous Studies class I connected with the most is Indigenous Religion and Philosophy, taught by Dr. Blair Stonechild. Spirituality has played a large role in my life, and due to a personal incident involving my best friend’s battle with cancer, I have developed a deeper spiritual connection with my late Grandfather over the past seven years. Dr. Stonechild’s teachings and Elder Noel Starblanket’s words have strengthened my spiritual outlook on life.

“I think there is a fairly significant philosophical difference between Indigenous studies and a lot of the other disciplines. It kind of comes from the Elders,” says Stonechild. “It’s the distinction between thinking with the mind and thinking with the heart.”

“So when you’re thinking with the mind, you’re simply, mainly dealing with ideas–you want people to get this idea and that idea and you’re talking about the distinctions between this and that,” says Stonechild. “But you’re not really concerned about your relationships with the students. That’s the difference between thinking with the mind and thinking with the heart. Thinking with the heart keeps in mind that it’s a relationship. It’s realizing everything, including the mental process.”

Dr. Stonechild’s words speak to my experience. The majority of Indigenous Studies professors I have studied under teach from the heart and I am grateful for this. Each professor greeted myself and fellow students with a hello and a smile. Each professor used discussion and sharing circles as teaching tools, and provided excellent feedback on assignments and essays.   These professors made me feel proud to be Métis and pursue an Indigenous Studies minor as part of my film degree.

Taking Indigenous Studies has strengthened my mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional well-being. Looking forward to class, sharing personal experiences, expressing myself through writing and feeling respected has made attending class rewarding and given me a connection to myself I never expected.

Since 1976, students have learned about Indigenous people, their history, and their sacred teachings. For some, like myself, this education was also deeply personal, as we are Indigenous. And for that, we will be eternally grateful.

by Austin Josephson