Speaking to our Minds, Hearts, and Hands: A Cogenerative Inquiry on Learning through an Interdisciplinary Land-Based Course

Volume 2(2): 2018

EUN-JI AMY KIM, McGill University

S. J. ADRIENNA JOYCE, McGill University


YUWEN ZHANG, McGill University

ABSTRACT. With the publication of the Accord on Indigenous Education (Associations of Canadian Deans in Education [ACDE], 2010) as well as the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC, 2015), many Canadian higher education institutions are showing their commitment to include Indigenous ways of coming to know in their programs. The current discourse around Indigenous knowledges in program and course development uses several keywords, including “land-based” and “interdisciplinary.” This discourse is becoming more prevalent in Canadian higher education, especially in teacher education, where TRC recommendations specifically speak to teacher-training and capacity-building (TRC, 2015, 62 ii, 63 ii, iv). Through cogenerative dialogue and metalogue (Roth & Tobin, 2004), we reflect on our own settler/ visitor and learning/ teaching experiences in a land-based, interdisciplinary field course. We reflect on the diversity of different learning paths based on multiple identities, which are central to these processes. We share our experiences and stories here in hopes of offering insights for future initiatives in developing land-based and interdisciplinary courses for educators and researchers alike.

RÉSUMÉ. Depuis la publication de l’Accord sur l’éducation autochtone (Association of Canadian Deans in Education, 2010) ainsi que le rapport final de la Commission de vérité et réconciliation (TRC, 2015), plusieurs établissements universitaires démontrent leur appui en introduisant des façons autochtones de savoir dans leurs programmes. Le discours traitant de l’inclusion de savoirs autochtones dans le développement de programmes et de cours utilise actuellement des mots clés tels que la mise en valeur de la « terre » et « l’interdisciplinarité ». Ce discours devient de plus en plus répandu aux études supérieures au Canada, surtout dans les programmes d’enseignement où les recommandations de la CVR mettent l’accent sur la formation des enseignants et le renforcement de la compréhension interculturelle (TRC, 2015, 62 ii, 63 ii, iv). À travers un dialogue cogénératif et un métalogue (Roth & Tobin, 2004), les coauteures de cet article portent réflexion sur leurs expériences en tant que colons/visiteuses étudiantes/ enseignantes et participantes dans un cours interdisciplinaire, donné sur le terrain et qui promeut la mise en valeur de la terre. Notre article reflète une diversité de parcours d’apprentissage, issue de nos différentes identités d’apprenantes, qui est centrale à notre processus de réflexion. Nous partageons ici nos expériences pour offrir des idées aux chercheurs et éducateurs intéressés à développer d’autres cours interdisciplinaires, sur le terrain et qui mettent la terre en valeur.

Keywords: Cogenerative inquiry, land-based pedagogy, interdisciplinary learning, Indigenous ways of knowing.


Following the recommendation from the Accords on Indigenous Education (ACDE, 2010) and the final report of Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC, 2015), there has been movement in Canadian higher education institutions to develop land-based courses that include Indigenous ways of coming to know. Specifically, one of the goals of these courses is to “challenge existing curriculum frameworks and structures in order that they may engage learners in experiencing the Indigenous world and Indigenous knowledge in a wholistic way” (ACDE, 2010, p. 5) and/ or to “educate teachers on how to integrate Indigenous knowledge and teaching methods into classrooms” (TRC, action 63 ii). Meanwhile, most courses are lecturer-led designs where students are not actively involved in curriculum and program development.

In the field of education, the discourse around including students’ voices in education program development is becoming more prevalent in K-12 settings (Lundy, 2007; Lundy & Welty, 2013). However, higher education institutions are generally still sites where students’ voices are not engaged in curricular development; research focuses largely on the “outcome/effectiveness” of lecturer-led courses (Trowler & Trowler, 2010). Scholars across disciplines (Bovill, 2014; Campbell, Beasley, Eland & Rumpus, 2007) have advocated for the need for more “studies of direct student engagement in the shaping of design and delivery of curriculum” in higher education settings as “‘change based on what students say is more influential and challenges long-held notions of teaching and learning practice” (Brooman, Darwent & Pimor, 2014, p. 665). Flynn (2017) also echoed the importance of “the expert insights on the part of students when they are given the opportunity to have a say on education matters” (p. 29). As such, research regarding student voice has increased in higher education settings (Campbell et al., 2007). In promoting and ensuring the sustainability of student engagement in curriculum/program development in higher education settings, Flynn (2017) particularly highlighted the importance of “a dialogical process in partnerships with students, where all parties in this dialogue acknowledge that their roles are that of ‘learners'” (p. 29).

We are four non-Indigenous educators (settlers and/or visitors to Turtle Island) who participated in the course called “Indigenous Field Studies” at McGill University in Spring 2018 in different roles—as undergraduate student, graduate students, and instructor. Our entry points and positions/roles differ, yet we share the similar goal of reflecting on our lifelong learning processes with Indigenous communities around the world. Thus, we all situated ourselves as learners throughout the course. Acknowledging the importance of learners’ voices, in this article we share our experiences and recommendations for higher education institutions in developing courses that include partnerships and collaboration between academic disciplines and/or local Indigenous communities through land-based pedagogies. In sharing our stories and recommendations, we adopt a cogenerative dialoguing and metaloguing approach (Roth & Tobin, 2004)—described shortly—to continue our engagement with ideas from this course. We use the work of Opaskwayak Cree scholar Shawn Wilson (2008), who wrote that “research is all about unanswered questions, but it also reveals our unquestioned answers” (p. 6) such that “the process is the product” (p. 103, italics added). Thus, instead of focusing on specific research questions to derive explicit outcomes, in writing this article, we focused on the process of reflecting and engaging in conversations about land-based and interdisciplinary approaches to learning with local Indigenous communities. We focus on higher education settings and draw implications for classroom teaching from our reflections. We invite J-BILD readers to deeply engage with us in this conversational process.

Course Description

The goal of this course was to give students an opportunity to learn about Indigenous cultures and worldviews, with a particular emphasis on Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) teachings and how they connect to the students’ areas of practice. The course takes an interdisciplinary land-based approach (in Kahnawá:ke, Mohawk territory) to introduce students to Indigenous customs, values and ways of life through daily activities and workshops led by an Elder from Kahnawá:ke, as well as other community members, with support from McGill instructors. In 2018, McGill’s Department of Integrated Studies in Education joined this interdisciplinary course for the first time. We are among the first education cohort to participate.

The course included three weeks of lectures in Montreal, provided by instructors from different disciplines (e.g., Medicine, Anthropology, Law, Social Work, and Education), and one week of field experience in Kahnawá:ke. The field experience included morning prayers led by Elder Amelia McGregor, a Medicine walk, a Sweat Lodge, guest lectures by community members, visits to community organizations (e.g., Longhouse, Mohawk immersion school, economic development commission), sharing circles, and a closing ceremony. During the field experience, students and instructors stayed in the community, slept in tents, and worked together to cook meals, clean, and reflect as a group.

This land-based approach provided an experiential and collaborative pedagogical model that emphasized participatory learning in the Kahnawá:ke community. This approach also emphasized interdisciplinary teaching and learning. Students and instructors from diverse fields came together to discuss the influences of social location and power dynamics, as well as the effects of ongoing colonization in relation to their own cultural and professional identities and practices. Additionally, working with an Indigenous community allowed the learners and instructors alike to continually reflect on their assumptions and biases stemming from dominant Western paradigms of teaching (Strong et al., 2016).

By engaging in diverse land-based, interdisciplinary learning experiences, this course attempted to move beyond linear, compartmentalized approaches to teaching and learning. Working with Kahnawá:ke allowed us to begin what Mi’kmaq scholar Marie Battiste (2013) called a “two-prong process” of decolonizing education, which entails “deconstruction of (neo-)colonial structure and strategies and reconstruction that centres and takes seriously Indigenous, diasporic, and other post-colonial ways of knowing and ways of being towards reshaping the place-based process and priorities of education” (Battiste, 2013 in Higgins, 2016, p. 13, italics in original). We consider this course a stepping stone for reflection and engagement in the “two-prong process” of decolonizing and lifelong learning in relation to our professional identities (educators and educational researchers) as well as our divergent cultural identities. Our reflections may prove helpful to those who similarly want to contemplate their roles in decolonization but may feel isolated in the process.

We are also cognizant of the need for reflective feedback on course experiences to aid academics who are involved in higher education course planning, especially in light of commitments to the Accord on Indigenous Education (ACDE, 2010) and the final report of the TRC (2015). As educators, we understand that the goals for teaching a course do not always match students’ experiences; we feel it is important to contribute to the dialogue about the tensions we perceived as learners in a land-based interdisciplinary course to help with future development.


Cogenerative dialogues were developed as a method for reflecting on co-teaching experiences by student teachers, co-teachers and whole classrooms as a community, thus allowing multiple perspectives to be presented without hierarchy (Roth & Tobin, 2004). Metalogues involve another layer, engaging dialogues both with theories and one’s own reflexivity (Bateston, 1972). Roth and Tobin (2004) have argued that cogenerative dialogue and metalogue “benefits from the diversity among authors” in a collective remembering and theorizing process (para. 16). They further explain that:

It is not just a genre for preserving voice and presenting multiple perspectives on some issues that we have experienced in different ways. Rather, at the level of writing research, it reflected the same kinds of processes that we were part of in the field. And then, it became reflexive of learning at the writing stage, when we learned again from our previous learning. (Roth & Tobin, 2004, para. 17)

Cogenerative dialoguing and metaloguing allows us to “re-wire and [then] come together in a different way” (Tanaka, 2016, p. 23). In this article, we continue our collective reflecting and theorizing on the ideas we gained from the interdisciplinary land-based course. Through a cogenerative dialogue and metalogue, we contemplate interdisciplinary and land-based learning, grounded in our collective experiences in Kahnawá:ke and in relation to our diverse professional and cultural identities.

To collect our data for this article, we shared our reflective final papers from the course and looked for common themes. We then met in person and via electronic messaging to further discuss our responses, revising on an online document platform. We received written feedback from J-BILD peer mentor Taylor Ellis, which was very important as it helped us to clarify our core concepts. In a way, the J-BILD peer mentoring process furthered our cogenerative dialogue and metalogue. What follows is conversational and we hope the format remains accessible to a wide audience of students and academics alike.

Introduction of the Authors

We begin by briefly introducing ourselves to give readers some context on our entry points in the learning we did through the course. We each have different levels of background knowledge and experiences that necessarily influence our thinking.

Adrienna: I am a teacher from Winnipeg with nine years of classroom teaching experience. As a white settler-trespasser born in western Canada, I want to better understand my personal implications in settler colonialism. My teaching experiences with Indigenous students have been rich in relationship and learning, but I am troubled by my failure to resist the deficit discourses prevalent in the school system. Consequently, I returned to university to pursue my Ph.D. I entered this class with extensive background reading but lacking the experiential and relational learning crucial to Indigenous knowledges (Castellano, 2000).

Annie: I am a fourth-year undergraduate student in the French Immersion program in Kindergarten and Elementary Education at McGill. I was born and raised in Montreal and am of white French settler ancestry. I took this course because I feel that to become a successful teacher, I need to know more about the peoples and the history of what is now known as Canada. As a white French Canadian, Indigenous perspectives were not part of my formal education. There is only so much I can learn by reading and I hoped this field course would bring me a more current and concrete understanding than what I could find in books.

Yuwen: I am a first-year Masters student in the Education and Society program at McGill. I was born and grew up in Anyang, a small city in China. When I arrived to study in Canada, I gradually became aware of Indigenous issues after several class projects on anti-colonial education. I wanted to explore this area further as both a cultural outsider/visitor and future educator. When I registered for this course, I was also hoping to understand interdisciplinary approaches to collaborative work and was curious about how they relate to education.

Amy: I am a first-generation immigrant-settler from South Korea, in the process of becoming an ally to Indigenous peoples (Bishop, 2015). I joined the field course as an instructor from the faculty of Education. I had previously volunteered in Kahnawá:ke as an after-school tutor and had friends from the community. I was interested in collaborating with the other instructors from different academic disciplines and Kahnawá:ke community members, including Elders. I always situate myself as a lifelong learner along with my students. This course rounded out my recent Ph.D. journey through a land-based and interdisciplinary way of coming to understand the Kanien’kehá:ka people.

Our Current Understandings of Land-Based Pedagogy and Interdisciplinarity

Amy: I think it would be helpful for us to begin by sharing our current understandings of a land-based and interdisciplinary pedagogy. Sharing will give us opportunities to reflect on these ideas individually and give us a collective starting point for our dialogue and metalogue.

In conceptualizing “Land-based” and “Land,” I am following Styres’ (2017) explanation of the Land (capital L), “‘Iethi’nihsténha Ohwentsia’kékha’: Land as an Indigenous philosophical construct is both space (abstract) and place/land (concrete); it is also conceptual, experiential, relational and embodied. Land is an expression of holism that embodies the four aspects of being: spiritual, emotive, cognitive and physical” (p. 49). To learn about Land that encapsulates all the aspects listed above, I believe that following the knowledges/practices of one’s academic discipline is not sufficient. Therefore, to employ a Land-based pedagogy, an interdisciplinary approach is a must.

Interdisciplinarity is conventionally understood as “an interaction among disciplines that may range from simple communication of ideas to mutual integration of organizing concepts, methodology, procedures, epistemology, terminology, data, and the organization of research and education” (Klein,  2013, p. 190).  In coming to know the Land, I believe educators and researchers need to not only engage in conversation with experts across different disciplines, but move beyond the existing, and often compartmentalized, Western dominant paradigms. Teachers and learners together should remain open to multiple ways of coming to know nature and also acknowledge that they are a part of nature—that “we are all related” (Cajete, 2000).

Annie: Simpson (2014) wrote about land as pedagogy with a story of a young girl who “learn[s] the sheer joy of discovery” and explained that learning “takes place in the context of family, community and relations. It lacks overt coercion and authority” (p. 7). Being part of a small community (the students and professors from the course) and camping for a week was a form of land-based pedagogy to me. Land-based pedagogy came to mean accepting the land, nature, environment and community as a teacher rather than as a tool, challenging my current relationship with land. This process is not always explicit. Students are not told they are engaging in a particular way of learning; they are learning by way of presence, experience, curiosity, and relationships.

Camping in Kahnawá:ke, I started paying more attention to birds and their sounds, and the medicine walk we did on our last day made me realize how rich our immediate surroundings are. I never paid much attention to the land I was living on before, but I have a new interest in things that grow and live around me, and I plan to use this learning in my teaching. Our land-based experience was also interdisciplinary, as our learning community was comprised of students from different disciplines. We were deliberately mixed together so we would interact by bringing ideas, values, and ways of thinking predominant in our respective fields, and find ways to make them work together.

Adrienna: For me, land-based pedagogy also includes an element of self-reflection because land education is both “centring indigeneity and confronting educational forms of settler colonialism” (Calderon, 2014, p. 24). This differs from place-based pedagogies that occur on the land but do not sufficiently interact with the implications of settler colonialism and indigeneity (Calderon, 2014). As a settler educator, I think this means reflecting on my own relationship to land as a settler. To teach with land-based pedagogies is to commit to examining my role in settler colonialism and how my actions and understandings erase Indigenous peoples in both past and present. I cannot separate my personal self from this process. I also cannot separate the political, social, cultural, and historical contexts from this learning, which further speaks to an interdisciplinary approach that encourages a big-picture view of how these contexts relate to each other.

Yuwen: It is the inherent ability to wake up one’s emotions that differentiates land-based pedagogy from other educational approaches. During our camping experience, I found that we did not treat the land as separate from us but viewed ourselves as part of it. This intimate connection with the land encourages strong feelings such as empathy, joy, and nostalgia. Before the trip, we read papers and watched documentaries, but it felt totally different when we sat on the grass of the canal bank, watching the sun dancing on the flowing water while listening to Professor Loft telling us the stories that happened next to the canal. All my emotions and the relation with the land at that moment became real to me in a new way. I believe these emotions and the bond with the land can serve as a perfect starting point for self-reflection and even personal transformation. As Luig et al. (2011) stated, “education is not only a period of learning facts about one’s environment but means becoming knowledgeable and being able to reflect on oneself within one’s environment” (p. 21).

Educating Minds, Hearts, and Hands

We decided that we needed an organizing theme for our cogenerative metalogue and dialogue to continue collective reflections on interdisciplinary ways of learning and land-based pedagogy. The notion of land-based and interdisciplinary pedagogy in the course was about learning from an Indigenous community about an Indigenous culture (more specifically Kanien’kehá:ka) on its land. We drew upon a lesson Amy learned through her PhD project on the integration of Indigenous knowledges in education (Kim, in press), that it is not simply the integration of Indigenous content that matters. Amy spoke of the importance of having a strong foundation which involves one’s mind, heart, and hands prior to and during the process of engaging with Indigenous communities (Kim, in press). Amy further describes this process in what follows.

Amy: In preparing one’s head (mind), one should remain open to multiple ways of coming to know nature. In coming to know nature, rather than studying nature, one should ask questions about “how to be with all relations” (Dr. Laara Fitznor, Spirit Matters Gatherings, April 20, 2007 as cited in Kim, in-press). Thus, one should be mindful that “we are all related” (Cajete, 2000) and nature should be seen as a living thing, rather than a commodity for resources. However, the “brain gets turned off until the heart gets pumping away” (Glen Aikenhead, March 24, 2016, personal communication as cited in Kim, in-press).

To prepare the heart, having a true, authentic learning opportunity with Indigenous peoples is important. My use of “authentic learning” refers to learning that “pumps the heart” and involves emotional engagement and the commitment to ethics and responsibility that comes with knowledge and learning. Such authentic learning only happens when one builds consensus-based relationships through trust.

Meanwhile, as Tanaka (2016) suggested, the “notion of reciprocity, ‘Giveaway,’ and using ‘good hands’ by having a clear mind and healthy intent are deepened through a focus on physicality and doing” (pp. 22-23). In this light, I argue that teachers (and educational researchers) need to act and teach what they have learned from Indigenous peoples, thus they can walk the talk and “use their hands.” I suggest that teachers focus on creating a sharing place where students and teachers can together reflect on their assumptions and biases to resist the hegemony of a Western dominant paradigm of studying nature. As well, teachers should try to offer authentic learning opportunities for students that further build relationships with Indigenous peoples. This process of engagement means acknowledging one’s status as a lifelong learner and not an expert. Also, it requires continual relationship-building with Indigenous peoples and nature and continual reflection on one’s assumptions (Kim, in-press). I hope that our cogenerative dialogue/ metalogue here will strengthen our own individual processes of building a strong foundation to engage with Indigenous peoples, as well as engaging a larger academic community in their own reflections.

Educating Minds for Multiple Ways of Coming to Know

Yuwen: Talking about my major (education) with my friends, one of them asked me, “So what exactly do you study? I mean, what does the domain of education cover?” It seems to them that education is an area which does not have specific boundaries to differentiate itself from other subjects. Indeed, education connects to sociology, language, literature, mathematics, and more. For example, when we learned about Wampumin Kahnawá:ke, we could also appreciate the beauty of Mohawk arts and learn history, as well as integrate education throughout our learning and reflections. It occurred to me that education may be a field that can be viewed as interdisciplinary in nature. I also realized that interdisciplinary work, connecting the relationship between fragmented individuals and disciplines, is more critical than to differentiate disciplines with boundaries that exclude them from one another.

Amy:  Indeed, the fragmentation of knowledge has been critiqued by many Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars and educators. Battiste and Henderson (2000) critiqued the fragmentation of knowledge as being based on objectivism stemming from Western modern scientific thought, which is used as a method of education transmission whereby knowledge is broken down into grade levels and disciplines. Blades and Newbury (2014) called the compartmentalization process within education “technical-rational” which focuses on learning goals rather than the students’ lived experiences (p. 196). Aoki (1991) also critiqued that such outcome-focused “curriculum-as-plan” thinking leads to a rigid structure of curriculum where the focus of education is only on “empirical-analytic knowledge” (p.159). Of course, such empirical-analytic knowledge of the Land is important. However, too much compartmentalization might lead to decontextualization of knowledge, which then loses the physical, metaphysical, and spiritual connection to the Land (Afonso, 2012; Battiste & Henderson, 2000; Keane, 2008). To move forward, educators should understand that the knowledge introduced in each discipline has undergone a technical-rational process of decontextualization and compartmentalization. As Yuwen said, we should focus on the relation of ideas across disciplines while remembering the connection and relation back to the specific Land where the learning/teaching is happening, and where the knowledge is from.

Adrienna: As a teacher, I am a strong advocate for building connections between ideas and blurring the lines between subject areas. However, I agree with Amy that the norm of Western education is to separate knowledge to such an extent that it is hard to communicate across disciplines (Macedo, 2006). When my group in the course was working on our final presentation together, I noticed these tensions in how we worked.

Witteman and Stahl (2013) explained that interdisciplinarity is more than people splitting up a task. Interdisciplinarity involves approaches of different disciplines to encourage dialogue and work toward new ways of understanding. I am not sure my group managed to do so, but our work habits were certainly more collaborative than what I often experience as a student. Still, the time restrictions of the class made interdisciplinarity a challenge; to complete our project on time, we had to make concessions that didn’t reflect group consensus. I think the structural aspects of a course have a major impact on what students actually learn, and while this course challenged some Western academic epistemological frameworks, time constraints still largely dictated the structure.

Yuwen: I also noticed that different disciplines possess varying approaches to engage with issues. During group discussions, I observed that disciplines such as law are more reactive while education and social work are more preventative in nature. Interdisciplinarity, in this course, is not only an approach to problematize or seek solutions to certain issues, but also a context for disciplines to work together on a daily basis. This eventually nurtures us to take off our “disciplinary hats” and try to engage in issues via another lens.

Adrienna: This relates back to my teaching experiences, because I noticed how younger students were less bothered by the ‘rigidity’ of subject-area scheduling and could more easily approach their learning in interdisciplinary ways. My older students were often confused when we drew from other subject areas. These observations make me realize how our entire system trains people toward the compartmentalization of knowledge, even in the physical organization of schooling. I find this idea depressing because it hinders an ability to see the bigger picture and to build connections between concepts.

Amy: Adrienna, I had a similar experience. Using local Indigenous peoples’ knowledge in my grade 10 science class, students were puzzled because I brought what they considered ‘history’ materials into the science classroom. I also found that educators separate disciplines and these ideas are deeply rooted in their minds. For many pre-service teachers I have interacted with, the notion of interdisciplinary learning and teaching is very much an ‘add-on’ approach. For example, if they are in ‘science’ class, learning about flora and fauna in a local place, they focus on biology and chemistry; ‘arts’ would be used only as a teaching hook to engage students. To move beyond compartmentalization, as educators, we need to examine the biases and assumptions that come from our own learning experiences. We need to understand how a compartmentalized approach works to silence Indigenous knowledges and practices.

Annie: The interdisciplinary aspect of the course, as well as the multitude of guest speakers we met with, reminded me of the importance of inviting guests into the classroom and letting them speak for themselves so my students learn more perspectives than my own. This also made me think about how education is political, whether we notice it or not. By prioritizing certain subject matter, and by inviting certain guest speakers and not others, we highlight some narratives and exclude others. There is no way to cover every point of view; it would be ridiculous to even try. But, as educators, we need to make it clear to our students that we are not teaching them “the truth” or all there is to know.  We should explicitly position ourselves as learners and not as holders of infinite knowledge. There are as many “truths” as there are people, and just because someone’s truth is not printed into a textbook does not mean we should disregard it. Indigenous voices have been absent in school material, and it is important to make the effort to bring them in.

Amy: Indeed, the notion of “truth” is tricky. I was given a lesson by a Chickasaw scholar, Dr. James Sa’ke’j Henderson, that “knowledge does not give you certainty but possibility” (shared with permission in a personal communication, May 27, 2017). In sharing what we know with our students, we as educators also should focus on the “possibility” of the knowledge we share: that it may transform based on students’ lived experience, their own worldview. The nature of knowledge should not be seen as rigid, universal truth.

To Haraway (1988), knowledge from every culture and academic discipline offers situated and partial views of nature. As educators, I think it is important for us to recognize the possibilities of co-existence and the interconnectedness of ideas, thus following a more holistic view of nature and the Land. However, such a holistic view can be obtained through balancing different ways of coming to know nature. As Graveline (1998) stated, “wholeness or holism is equated with balance” (p. 76, italics added). We need to introduce the balance of multiple perspectives and ways of coming to know the Land; we need to acknowledge there is no superior knowledge based on one discipline’s criteria.

Educating Hearts by Focusing on Emotional Engagement and Relationships

Annie: For the mind to come to know and understand, the heart needs to be positively engaged and new knowledge needs to resonate with prior knowledge. The first time I heard about residential schools and its legacy of trauma was three years ago, in university. I was shocked by how little I knew about my own country’s past or the ongoing effects of colonization. During the lectures preceding our field week, I found the coursework interesting but difficult to follow because I lacked the background information necessary to fully understand it. I participated a lot less than I usually do in my education courses because I did not understand the material well enough to formulate questions and opinions, or share reactions.

Another thing I found challenging was how packed the schedule was, and how little time we had to process new information before moving on to more content. The mind needs time to breathe and process new ideas if it is to learn successfully and be engaged. When I start teaching, I will try as much as possible not to overwhelm my students with too much content. This means I will inevitably have to choose what to include and what to exclude based on what I think is best. I am bound to omit important things and make mistakes, but it is important I make it clear to my students that I cannot teach them everything, and I choose to teach them what I believe is most important.

Amy: Annie, I agree with you. While learning content through the mind is important, you need to let your mind relax to learn from other senses. Here, I am again reminded of Sa’ke’j Henderson’s wisdom that it is not only physical space that is constrained and assimilated, but also cognitive space. “Let your mind relax,” he said (personal communication, May 29, 2017). Graveline (1998) also suggested that one can find one’s “own personal meaning from any educational experience” when one allows for a “quieting [of] the rational mind, relaxing and moving into another state of consciousness” (p. 77). Dr. Henderson told me that:

The path between mind and heart is very complex and tangled. In order for you to connect your mind and heart, thus, one must not forget that it is a lifelong learning journey and through continuous reflection and strengthening relationships with peoples and land, one can move towards understanding their path between their hearts and mind. (personal communication cited in Kim, in-press, p. 275)

In learning with the mind, content knowledge is important, but learning with the heart is also very important in one’s learning process with Indigenous peoples. I am not too sure how much the course focused on educating “hearts.” That said, the course was intended to provide a beginning point for all students to start building relationships with each other, and to the people in Kahnawá:ke. I am not too sure if such “continual” learning with the heart happened for most students after the course. That is one of the drawbacks of traditional course timelines.

Adrienna: After the course, I have continued to reflect on my personal experiences and emotions. For me, the camping element of the course was anxiety-inducing. I wasn’t sure what would be expected of me and I wasn’t sure whether the tenuous relationships I had built would be enough for me to have a positive experience. But if I’m honest with myself, I think the biggest challenge was to relinquish control. The inherent power differential of being an educator, along with my age difference and graduate student status, means I often inadvertently position myself as expert. At the same time, I feel dishonest not acknowledging these differences because I am at a different place in my life and learning. My experiences working with the Elder from the community and the course instructors reminded me that many Indigenous teachings include an understanding of different life stages, such as Medicine Wheel teachings of the Cree (Hart, 2009; Manitoba Education and Youth, 2003). There is value in experience-as-knowledge, and while Elders are positioned with great respect in communities, I did not notice them indulging in overt self-positioning as experts either.

This idea connects to my understanding of the teacher/ student power dichotomy, especially where teachers position themselves as “experts.” My tendency is to be a competitive know-it-all. As a teacher, it is helpful to instead position myself as a learner, like Amy and Annie mentioned, and to be open to different ways of knowing as well as to challenge the power dichotomy through humility (Freire, 1970/2000). The concept of humility reminds me to be an “exquisite listener” (Tomlinson, 2014, p. 90) who takes student ideas and understandings seriously. My students teach me as much as I teach them; by valuing their ideas, I model multiple ways of knowing and build stronger relationships with them. I appreciated how often the people I met in Kahnawà:ke ended their lessons with, “But that is just how I understand/see it.” This constant reminder of multiple perspectives is an important one in both my teaching and studies.

Annie: Adrienna, although I am an undergraduate student and not yet an experienced teacher, I also had difficulty positioning myself in our diverse group. I was surprised by how little I could open up, to myself and to others, during the field week. I think I have a barrier of guilt and shame that I need to work through, stemming from my ignorance of my privilege and unconsciousness of the history of ongoing colonization in Québec and Canada. I had never even thought of questioning what I was told and taught throughout my life. If anything, the field week helped me realize that. I think the best way for me to work through that barrier is by meeting people and building relationships with them. I am more easily able to open up to people one-on-one, or after I become comfortable with them. I then become more open to my own emotions and opinions, and also more prepared to challenge my unconscious settler biases.

Amy: With regards to building relationships with Indigenous peoples from diverse communities, I have learned the importance of knowing and honouring protocol. Protocol is not a perfunctory thing that people do or a checklist. It is about “establishing a really sacred trust and it’s a way of handling sacred knowledge, a way of sharing sacred knowledge. It’s a really significant relationship that you’re establishing with them” (Ted View, personal communication, November 10, 2016). Without relationships, true authentic learning would not happen with Indigenous peoples. Thus, in engaging with land-based pedagogy with Indigenous peoples, the first steps should be about learning the protocol, building relationships, and being open to learn and listen.

Annie: Amy, what you say here about the importance of building relationships reminds me that it is important to understand as people/students/educators that we can learn from everyone, not only licensed experts. It also suggests the importance of listening to different voices, considering different points of view as equally valid as our own, and critically looking at how and why we think a certain way. Learning through the mind, hand and heart also helps understand new learning on a deeper level because we engage more deeply than if we focused on one of these dimensions.

Yuwen: In the beginning, I found it hard to understand Indigenous issues as a cultural outsider. I was trying to figure out a way to relate myself to Indigenous peoples in the Canadian context. I realized this when the class was asked to write reflections after Professor Mike Loft (personal communication, May 7, 2018) explained the detrimental harms of residential schools on Indigenous peoples for generations. Indigenous classmates shared profound connections of hurt, frustration and support. Non-Indigenous classmates reflected on their white settler privileges. After hearing them share, I found what I wrote was as if I was standing at a distance. I felt outside of the context and disconnected from it.

This changed when the course coordinator, Ben Geboe said, “Colonization is everywhere,” and not just restricted to Canada. The cruelty and bloodiness of colonialism has become an irremovable part of many peoples’ histories around the world. This was clearer to me when we learned that Indigenous medicine faced tremendous difficulty being accepted by mainstream Western-dominated medical science, because the same thing happened to Chinese medicine. For a very long time, Chinese medicine was seen as superstition by the science community because it did not follow the Western science paradigm (Ng, 2000). As a supporter of Chinese medicine, I wanted to stand up and defend it; as a teacher in China, I advocated the importance of traditional Chinese legacies. On this point, I began to reflect on colonial implications for Chinese culture and thought about anti-colonial educational approaches, such as land-based pedagogy in a Chinese classroom.

Educating Hands by Honouring Reciprocity and Action

Amy: Tanaka (2016) mentioned that “using ‘good hands’ by having a clear mind and healthy intent [heart] are deepened through a focus on physicality and doing” (p. 23). Indeed, in continuing our lessons from Kahnawá:ke, we now need to focus on ‘doing’, learning with hands.  Dr. Henderson once told me that “if knowledge is not shared with others, then it is not knowledge” (personal communication, May 29th, 2017). As learners, who have been gifted with wisdom from the Elders from Kahnawá:ke and lessons learned by being in Kahnawá:ke, we have a responsibility to share what we have learned, by using our ‘good hands’ (Tanaka, 2016). So now that thinking about learning with hands and respecting reciprocity, in what ways do you think we can actualize these lessons in sharing with our students?

Adrienna: Thinking back to our experiences in Kahnawá:ke, I remember that we learned from children and Elders, bringing intergenerational learning approaches into our course as well as interdisciplinarity. It makes sense to learn from older people who can role model for you, and to learn from younger people who remind you of your past learning. I think this approach was important to the field course, with greater implications for education.  Because of time restrictions of the course, we were not individually able to build authentic lasting relationships with people in Kahnawá:ke, but the experiences did highlight for me the centrality of those relationships. I would love for schools to be built in proximity to seniors’ homes with an intergenerational focus. Just think of the possibilities for reading buddies, storytelling, community gardening—regular relationships that tap into the emotional and spiritual wellbeing of all involved!

I would also love for schools to have stronger relationships with Indigenous Elders from local Indigenous nations, which would further promote intergenerational connections. In my teaching experiences, I feel I have formed strong relationships with many Indigenous students, but I have also fallen short in seeking out relationships with other Indigenous peoples in my community. There are challenges involved—for example, not having pre-existing personal connections with Elders and not being sure of protocols (see Kanu, 2005, p. 60), but I have a responsibility to try and to learn. To me, humility also means trying new things and admitting when I am not sure how to do something, but it doesn’t mean that I avoid doing something altogether.

Yuwen: I agree with you, Adrienna. Teachers’ humility comes from the acknowledgement of a lifelong learning journey. This learning can be from Indigenous colleagues, from Elders, and also from students. I think sharing circles could be a good choice for educators as a pedagogical technique because in the circle everyone is equal. Everyone has a chance to share their experiences and emotions, and everyone’s voice is heard and recognized. In the sharing circle that we did, students, professors, and the Elders all shared their thoughts. I could see this was an education moment that happened in a meaningful way; we were listening as well as learning. I believe sharing circles in the classroom would be an effective way to deconstruct a teacher’s traditionally authoritative figure and build a more organic and harmonious teacher-student relationship.

Amy: While it is important for educators to open their minds and hearts for teaching and learning—”in the circle everyone is equal” as Yuwen mentioned—we, as educators still have a responsibility for our students to teach. I think it is very important for educators to provide continuous opportunities for students to reflect on the biases and assumptions coming from dominant Western paradigms that frame Land as a commodity, not as a relation (Lamb 2015; Stewart 2005). Focusing on relationships and the notion of a sharing circle, in what ways can educators facilitate discussions on the assumptions and biases stemming from dominant Western views, including neoliberal capitalist perceptions of the Land, without demonizing such ideas, making sure that we create a safe sharing space for all to contribute and challenge each other?

Annie: Amy, what you say about the importance of having the teacher’s responsibility to teach and guide the students reminds me of something Leanne Simpson (2014) wrote about the experience of Kwezens in her story: “the adult practitioners of Nishnaabeg intelligence were teaching her through modeling how to interact with all elements of creation” (p.14). To me, this speaks to the role of a teacher as one of modeling to students how to learn, rather than teaching them information. I find that idea beautiful and do hope to apply it in my teaching by positioning myself as a facilitator rather than as a keeper of knowledge and truth. When you talk about the importance of providing opportunities for students to think and reflect critically on what they hear and read, I think of Castellano (2000) when she explains that universal truth, “something that holds for all people,” does not exist in Aboriginal ways of knowing. Rather, there are “perceptions, which are personal, and wisdom, which has social validity and can serve as a basis for common action” (pp. 25-26).

I was educated to believe in the validity of the published written word, or the expert-backed record as the truth. But there is no universal truth, is there? Each of us must build our own understanding of the world by listening to people, processing what we learn with our current understanding of the world, and critically reflecting and adapting our truth as we discover new knowledges and points of view. Currently, the Quebec Social Studies curriculum shows good intentions to include more Indigenous voices. However, from my experience, it is up to the teacher to find ways to include those voices in the classroom. We are encouraged, but neither obligated nor guided in how to do so. To me, my responsibility as an educator is to guide my students in opening their minds to ways of learning outside of classrooms and textbooks, and to bring them voices that are otherwise silenced in the current curriculum.

Yuwen: Yes, Annie, I agree with you that there is a need to bring different voices into a classroom, and to respect differences and individuality. But I think we should also pay attention to how these differences affect group work situations. In my course experience, different personalities and ideas in my group collided every day during the camping week; that said, there was a whole new space created where group members learned from each other. In the end, each clan group had its unique atmosphere, and I call it clan spirit. We formed an invisible but strong bond that derived from the land which we are all part of, and from the relationships that we gradually built with each other during daily tasks, discussions, and collaborations. I felt we were building a tighter learning community where it was not only our minds and ideas, but also our hearts and emotions, that were connected together.

Adrienna: I agree with Yuwen that we had a stronger learning experience because of camping together, but I think we should also remember to examine our assumptions about land. I fall into an easy trap of separating wilderness from urban spaces and reifying an ’empty wilderness’ narrative that erases Indigenous peoples from the land (McLean, 2013). While urban spaces are quite different from rural ones, I am reminded of the medicine walk we did around our campsite and the possibilities for what Simpson (2014) called “land as pedagogy” in an urban context. During the medicine walk, it was striking to be awakened into noticing the small plants growing between the grass. It was almost like a camera lens shifting into focus for me. Nature continues and adapts regardless of what humans build in spaces. As a teacher, this means I have a responsibility to learn about the land in my space and my complicities in the production of settler colonialism through my relationship to that land. While Simpson’s (2014) article called for radical educational change in Indigenous communities beyond the regular school system, she also mentioned how city spaces need to be re-examined, which to me implies the importance and responsibility of urban educators to work with land as pedagogy too.

Annie: Adrienna, I often fall into this pattern of separating wilderness from urban spaces myself. One way I was able to apply the concept of land as pedagogy to an urban setting was when we visited the Adult Education Centre in Kahnawá:ke. One educator, named Tiio, talked about his student-centered and student-driven projects, in which the students had come up with their own project ideas and ways to make them happen. The educator acted as a facilitator and the students used their prior knowledge and their environment and relationships to find ideas. I thought those were amazing examples of land as pedagogy applicable to urban settings, and great ways of developing creativity and problem-solving skills.

Conclusion: Tensions and Recommendations

Our experiences in this course encouraged us to learn about ourselves, our communities, and how we are currently positioned in relation to Indigenous peoples and the land in Canada. We really appreciate the course instructors who developed our course experience and guided our learning. However, we also noticed that, as Styres (2017) pointed out, there are structural boundaries in place in educational contexts that serve as limitations for land-based and interdisciplinary learning.

Looking back on our reflections, time was a major restriction, both in the difficulty for us to build authentic relationships with individuals from Kahnawá:ke, and in how little we were able to deeply reflect on our learning together without being rushed. If repeated over many years, the course instructors will likely build strong relationships with people from the community and across academic disciplines, but as students, we were much more limited in this regard. Also, there were no other courses that students could follow up to continue the learning process with the support of the institution. In this regard, we suggest universities consider practical ways to build courses that facilitate students’ lifelong learning processes and relationship building, both with participating Indigenous communities and between students from diverse academic disciplines. Based on our reflections on the Indigenous Field Studies course, we would like to make specific recommendations for future land-based interdisciplinary courses.

Recommendations for Universities

  • Allow vertical/horizontal planning of courses to allow for a sustainable and collaborative model. This likely involves structural and interdisciplinary planning so as not to replicate the problem of tokenism through add-on curricula. Courses should be designed to consider students’ previous knowledge and interests, which may mean having students write personal statements before the course begins.
  • Instructors should be given sufficient time to plan collaboratively before the course begins. Also, in planning the courses themselves, it is important to pursue collaborative and not consultative processes with the participating/ partnered Indigenous communities. The difference between the collaborative and consultative process lies in the willingness of the universities/instructors “to enter into relationships where they relinquish some genuine authority to Indigenous Elders to make contributions and take ownership of those contributions” (Glen Aikenhead, May 13, 2013 as cited in Wiseman, 2016). Consultative processes do not necessarily involve relinquishing that authority.
  • Take seriously the notion of reciprocity with collaborating Indigenous communities. Communities should dictate what they would like to gain from the relationship, for example monetary honorariums for session speakers or student volunteers to work at local community organizations, so the relationship does not become extractive. In thinking of the reciprocity, again, the university has to go through a collaborative process rather than a consultative one.

Recommendations for Instructors

  • Engage Indigenous community members in curriculum planning, taking into consideration local land-based knowledges and the goals of the community. Think about possibilities for students to continue/contribute to the relationships built during the course. Take the relationship seriously and view it as a long-term commitment.
  • Engage students in curriculum planning. This may mean explicitly asking for input through course evaluations but could also be structured as student reflections or focus groups of past students.
  • Focus on creating a “sharing place” rather than “teaching space.” A “sharing place” allows instructors to position themselves equally as learners and co-creators of knowledge (Kim, in-press).
  • Use this as an opportunity to work in an interdisciplinary fashion. This means collaboratively designing the course to build on ideas of multiple disciplines focusing on the “balance and harmony” of the content.
  • View learning as lifelong learning and look for opportunities where the course can invite students and instructors to further grow and reflect. This might mean offering several courses at different levels, extra-curricular interdisciplinary study groups and establishing social media connections.
  • Think about reciprocity and ways students might give back to the Indigenous community.

Recommendations for Students

  • Be reflective about your own role in settler colonialism. This involves rethinking personal relationships with the land as well as your own history.
  • Be willing to listen with an open mind and open heart. This can take patience for yourself and for others.
  • Take opportunities to build relationships, with other students across disciplines as well as with Indigenous community members, remembering that reciprocity and protocols are crucial.
  • Consider taking these courses in the university as a starting point for your lifelong learning process. Understand the limitation of the higher education settings and actively seek ways to continue learning outside of the university.

We acknowledge that there is no quick fix, or no utilitarian way of achieving the ACDE and TRC recommendations. However, it is only by collaborating, not consulting, with partner Indigenous communities that will allow true partnerships where Indigenous communities have ownership of the course as well. Meanwhile, we emphasize the notion of relationships in developing these courses. As Styres (2017) mentioned,

Adhering to protocols and building relationships can and often does take time–it is a necessary and critical part of doing the real work. It is far better to take time necessary to build relationship and attempt to respect and follow protocols–and risk possibility making some mistakes along the journey–than to do nothing and risk offence by replicating dehumanizing and de-renationalizing research and education. (p. 169, italics in original)

We hope that our stories and recommendations help others who might be engaging in such land-based interdisciplinary courses in universities to do the real work through a true collaborative process.


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