SASKATOON (CUP) — University campuses are populated with students of various backgrounds that come from many different cultures. As universities continue to diversify, the need for cultural awareness is becoming of greater importance than ever before.
Universities in Canada are reporting increasing numbers of aboriginal students and many are advocating the support of aboriginal culture and ceremonies on their campuses.
Aboriginal student associations alongside university administrations invite their broader campus communities to partake in pow wows, pipe ceremonies and local sweats. When hosting any of these ceremonies, the University of Saskatchewan communicates through email not only to inform students, faculty and staff of these events, but to provide some initial information about the ceremony and its protocol.
In 2012, the U of S created the Indigenous Voices Program to educate and develop staff and faculty members’ knowledge of aboriginal culture as it may apply to them at the university. The program was well received and has proceeded past the pilot period. To celebrate, the U of S hosted a pipe ceremony on Sept. 3, 2013.
Controversy arose when the Sept. 13 issue of On Campus News, the U of S news service, published an editorial critiquing the pipe ceremony for “marginalizing women” and for not being an inclusive ceremony.
Assistant professor of English at the U of S, Kevin Flynn, authored the article titled “Honour traditions but with inclusive ceremonies” after receiving the email inviting him to attend the pipe ceremony.
The email included seven guidelines to pipe ceremony protocol. Four of the seven guidelines concerned women, saying that women “on their moon time” — menstruating — should refrain from participating in the ceremony but are welcome to sit outside of the circle. Women were also advised to wear skirts that cover their ankles, not to step over anything and not to sit cross-legged.
Despite the article stemming from an event that promotes aboriginal culture on the U of S campus, Associate Dean of Aboriginal Affairs in the College of Arts and Science Kristina Bidwell said this incident shows that there is still work to do with educating the campus community about aboriginal culture.
“This is not just a case of one professor, there are a lot of people in Saskatchewan and on campus that don’t know very much about aboriginal culture, [or] aboriginal ceremonies,” Bidwell said. “And that’s often what leads to misunderstandings.”
Citing a series of six public discussions regarding the Idle No More movement held from February to April by the university, Bidwell said that now is the time to take advantage of people’s attention to the matter of aboriginal culture.
President of the Indigenous Students’ Council Terri Favel led a forum for all students at the U of S who felt they were affected by the article. At the forum, students expressed interest in positive, educational responses to the article such as having a female traditional healer come teach about women’s moon time and cultural awareness training for staff and faculty.
Rheana Worme, a U of S student, was supportive of sharing information and letting the public know that students are open to educating and answering questions about aboriginal culture.
“We are open to teach our culture to everyone,” Worme said at the forum. “We’re not exclusive at the [Aboriginal Students’ Centre], we’re open to all kinds of students and faculty. There are proper resources here and they should be accessed by everyone.”
Shawna Cunningham, director of the Native Centre at the University of Calgary, said their aboriginal student population — two per cent of all students have identified as aboriginal — is significantly lower than the U of S, which averages just under eight per cent.
With a smaller aboriginal community on campus, Cunningham said that most information regarding ceremonies is shared by word of mouth in a non-public way.
The U of C’s Native Centre has aboriginal awareness training sessions where elders come to campus and teach about cultural parallels between aboriginal and non-aboriginal culture.
Graphic: Cody Schumacher/Graphics Editor