“Year of Indigenous Knowing” begins

Indigenous affairs are finally on the radar at Mount Allison. After last year’s completion of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 97 Canadian universities across Canada, including Mt. A, pledged to offer increased Indigenous support and educational programming. As a result of this pledge, Mt. A’s theme this year is the “Year of Indigenous Knowing.”

Readings by Anishinaabe writer Armand Garnet Ruffo and Stó:lō writer Lee Maracle opened Mt. A’s President’s Speakers Series, which is oriented toward this theme.

Ruffo read biographical passages and poetry that he had written about Norval Morrisseau, the compelling Indigenous painter who shares Ruffo’s Anishinaabe heritage and Catholic upbringing.

The poet’s involvement in Morrisseau’s story began ten years ago when he received a call from the National Gallery of Canada.

“They asked me if I would write something of Norval Morrisseau for the upcoming retrospective they were having,” Ruffo said. The event was Canada’s first solo show by an Indigenous painter.

The richly coloured, spiritually evocative and sometimes-erotic works of Morrisseau served as  an engaging visual companion to Ruffo’s reading. Ruffo’s poetry explored motifs and stories of Anishinaabe heritage and their influence on the painter’s psyche and creations.

Mt. A’s Indigenous Affairs Coordinator Doreen Richard said she saw her Mi’kmaq heritage echoed in Ruffo’s reading.

“For myself there were a lot of connections,” she said. These included the “life scroll with the birchbark…the bear vision…[and] the seven cycles of life, [which] reminded me of the seven grandfather teachings.”

Lee Maracle has written and spoken for decades on behalf of silenced Indigenous peoples. At Tweedie Hall, her storytelling experience and energetic presence demanded full audience attention. When Maracle spoke, everyone listened.

“You could feel the room being literally pulled into the storytelling,” said Christl Verduyn, head of the Canadian Studies department.

 Norval Morrisseau’s “Man changing into thunderbird”. ART CANADA INSTITUTE/ONLINE
Norval Morrisseau’s “Man changing into thunderbird”. ART CANADA INSTITUTE/ONLINE

“[Maracle] is such an emotional speaker. Whenever she says anything she speaks with purpose,” said Ashley Cummings, first-year Inuit student originally from Nunavut.

Maracle’s words provoked many emotional responses, particularly for Cummings. “I haven’t been back to Nunavut, my hometown, for a couple years. Hearing [Maracle] speak about language and issues that Indigenous people face really touched me,” she said.

The question-and-answer session included a moment that epitomized Maracle’s celebrated fearlessness, Cummings recounted.

“[Robert] Campbell asked a question and I guess it rubbed her the wrong way. [Maracle] said, ‘In my mind this young girl in front of me,’ and motioned to me, ‘knows more than you do.’” The room burst into applause, as did Campbell. Maracle stood tall, as always.

Ruffo and Maracle demonstrate how storytelling can improve public understanding of Indigenous cultures and histories.

“Because writers have the craft of words, they actually became among the first activists. They were basically using the tool of English language, of white society, to resist and push back,” Verduyn said.

When asked why these readings should matter to students, Cummings said, “[They offer] a perspective that often non-Indigenous people don’t get to really see. [Non-Indigenous students] get more insight.”

Coming up in the speakers series, Anishinaabe writer Joseph Boyden (Oct. 3) and Mi’kmaq spoken-word artist Rebecca Thomas (Oct. 19) will further Mt. A’s education about Indigenous knowledge.

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