New initiatives lead to meaningful agency for CMU's Indigenous community
How do Indigenous students experience CMU? What does it look like to be a community engaged in ongoing reconciliation and to be on-campus allies with Indigenous students and staff? As questions such as these begin to saturate the classrooms, seminars, offices, and public spaces of the CMU community, initiatives to further welcome and include Indigenous voices are gaining momentum.
One leading voice in these initiatives is that of Christy Anderson, Instructor and Indigenous Engagement Advisor, hired in the summer of 2020 to provide institutional support with Indigenous initiatives and teach courses in Indigenous Studies.
Anderson, a CMU alumna (2011), recalls her experiences over a decade ago as a student at CMU: "My experience at CMU was very Christian-centered. There were no Indigenous history classes and no real conversations about colonization." Now, in the spring of 2021, Anderson reports "I notice already that there is a lot more happening in terms of building more awareness of our shared Indigenous-settler histories and CMU is doing more for Indigenous students in terms of resources and programming."
In addition to offering Indigenous perspectives as a guest lecturer in CMU classes, Anderson is currently facilitating a faculty workshop where CMU professors and student life staff will have an opportunity to learn about anti-racist practices, decolonizing education, and how to become better allies as persons who actively shape students' educational experiences. Anderson explains that "this is an opportunity to have people who are in positions of power work together to speak a common language in which to have conversations about Indigeneity so we can further reconciliation initiatives in our community."
Many, if not most, of the Indigenous initiatives on campus have been put into action by the Indigenous Student Group, whose recent impact on projects such as the new Indigenous Student Lounge, and a four-day ceremonial fire in the Assiniboine forest commemorating MMIWG (murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls), and planned construction of a tipi on the campus have proved transformational for many Indigenous and non-Indigenous members of the CMU community.
The Indigenous Student Group, led by current students Bryna Link, Nicole Ternowesky, and Peeta/Indigo, has continued to be active and meet regularly throughout the pandemic.
Ternowesky, a fourth-year student in Peace and Conflict Transformation Studies, shares that "the pandemic put a halt to a lot of our plans, but when restrictions began to lift, we held a smudge, led a beading workshop, spoke at about Indigenous experiences on campus, and were able to gain greater visibility in the student body by becoming an official part of student council."
Conversations about the construction of a tipi began in 2018, led by Clairissa Kelly, Coordinator and Student Counsellor of The Peguis Post-Secondary Transition Program, and since then has been adopted by the Indigenous Student Group who are bringing the project to fulfillment. The tipi, expected to be erected in late spring of 2021, is said by Charlie Peronto, Dean of Student Life, to "be a place to gather, to be Indigenous-led, to receive teachings from elders, to demarcate a place on campus for Indigenous people, to decolonize our land and space in a way that makes Indigenous students feel more welcome."
The tipi will also be used for educational purposes, as a space for elders to teach non-Indigenous students about Indigenous history and culture. Anderson expounds that "The tipi is a symbol. It is a symbol of what we value as a community at CMU and a symbol of relations with Indigenous peoples. It really acknowledges whose land the institution is built on. It is symbolic of reconciliation and building, renewing relationships between settlers and the First Peoples of the land."
The creation of a new Indigenous student lounge, painted with the dazzling colours of the medicine wheel and enclosed with a new ventilation system favourable to smudging, will be used as a safe location for students to practise their spirituality, host elders during the winter months, eat lunch, and study.
"Something that hopefully can come from these types of initiatives is the ability to educate non-Indigenous allies about how to educate others so that the responsibility is not solely on us as Indigenous students," says Ternowesky. "We invite non-Indigenous students to join us, but we also invite them to not be paralyzed by shame or guilt. We ask that they know what happened on this ground in Canada and to work towards doing better."
While the Indigenous Student Group continues to advocate for institutional supports for Indigenous people on campus, the CMU community is ready to explore what this might look like. As of [insert date], CMU has partnered with Indspire, an Indigenous national charity that invests in the education of Indigenous students, to maximize funding for Indigenous students at CMU. The Indigenous Student Group has also petitioned for the hiring of an Indigenous Engagement Coordinator on campus who could help facilitate safe spaces for Indigenous students.
Ternowesky states that "so often, there is a large burden on the Indigenous students to carry the responsibilities of representation, but students sometimes just want to be students, and while we care so much about advocacy, we will need more structural supports to keep these initiatives going."
The CMU community is looking for other meaningful ways to support Indigenous students. Anderson notes, "CMU has come a long way since I was a student—but this is a journey, not a destination. We still have much work to do."
For information about Indspire and funding for Indigenous students, visit indspire.ca.