Interdisciplinary Conversation looks at diverse approaches to community action

Doreen Richard, Juan Carlos Martinez and Susie Andrews speak on how their individual academic and personal backgrounds inform their perceptions of conscious ACT/ION

On Thursday, Jan. 18, the Canadian studies department hosted an Interdisciplinary Conversation in the Owens Art Gallery foyer on the theme of ACT/ION. Three Mount Allison community members each gave a 10-minute lecture, followed by an open discussion.

The first to speak was Doreen Richard, Mt. A’s former Indigenous affairs coordinator. Richard began her talk by asking her two fellow speakers to each hold one end of a long piece of yarn with 10 squares of paper strung along its length. She then flipped the first layer over to reveal words like “dirty,” “lazy” and “addict,” while explaining that they were misinterpretations and stereotypes often directed toward Indigenous people. “When you think about First Nations culture, you also have to think about leaving space for Indigenous people to step up,” said Richard. “If we don’t have space then we’re always going to be thought of in this way.”

She then flipped the papers over again to reveal seven Indigenous teachings, including “love,” “humility” and “respect,” with three papers left blank to symbolise space left. “Once Indigenous people have done this – have used these seven teachings and fought the negative stereotypes put upon us – all of these things come,” Richard said, flipping the papers once again to reveal new words like “chiefs,” “doctors” and “mothers.”

“When the non-Indigenous culture leaves us space, we can show action, and use action, and fill in that space,” said Richard before asking the two other speakers to turn the string around reveal the word “understand.” She concluded her 10 minutes by saying that, if the seven teachings are heeded, “You can understand where we came from and where we’re going, because we are here to stay. Over 500 years of the negative and we are still here.”

Associate Spanish professor and acting head of Mt. A’s Hispanic studies department, Juan Carlos Martínez, began his 10 minutes by acknowledging María de Jesús Patricio, the first Indigenous woman to run for president of Mexico: “She knows that she is not going to win, but she is putting problems on the table that no one has wanted to talk about, and that is very important.” He then spoke about Maria Choc, an Indigenous activist who was recently arrested in Guatemala, without warrant or previous notification, for protesting mining operations on Indigenous land. Bringing it closer to home, Martínez said that the mining companies the Indigenous people of Chile and Guatemala are fighting are Canadian, and Indigenous people in places like Honduras are being displaced by rich Canadians buying land to build their winter homes.

Martínez then moved on to the Indigenous concept of “good living,” saying that every Indigenous group has their own definition, but that they are all “community-centred, ecologically aware and culturally sensitive.”

Martínez said that those Indigenous concepts should be universally understood while their individuality and unique perspectives should be respected for their differences. He gave the example of Ecuador incorporating the Indigenous Ecuadorian idea that nature has individual rights into their constitution in 2008, which meant that nature can now take someone to Ecuadorian court.

Martínez concluded by saying that if more people understood the concept of good living, which Indigenous people have been aware of for over 500 years, issues like climate change or oppressive global trade would be more effectively addressed.

Susie Andrews, associate professor of Eastern religions, closed the presentation portion with a 10-minute lecture on Mount Wutai, a sacred Buddhist site. She opened her talk by asking, “How should you act on a Buddhist mountain?”

Mount Wutai is the home of the bodhisattva (Buddhist deity) of wisdom, Mañjuśrī. Bodhisattvas are infinitely compassionate beings who devote their lives to helping others. Andrews said that “They wake up to the fact that you live in a world of suffering because you want things … and they say, ‘For the rest of my lifetimes I’m going to tell all the sentient beings from the caterpillar to the hell-dweller until we can all escape [that suffering].’ ” Because of the great sacrifice that the bodhisattvas make, they command a certain amount of respect.

Andrews then told an ancient Buddhist parable in which a rich man hosts a large feast at the base of Mount Wutai, and a pregnant woman comes and eats and asks for a second helping of food. The rich man refuses the woman and no one else in attendance steps up to give her any of their food either. Suddenly, the woman turns into Mañjuśrī and everyone is greatly ashamed of their behaviour. She concluded by explaining that the lesson of this ancient teaching is that anyone you meet could be the revered deity Mañjuśrī and you should act accordingly.

The audience-led discussion that followed touched on the struggle of letting others live a “good life” that differs from your own, how to leave space for Indigenous people to fill, nature as a resource to be drained, and respect in action instead of just words.

The next Interdisciplinary Conversation will be in the foyer of the Owens Art Gallery on Feb. 15 and will address the same theme of ACT/ION with different speakers.

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