USSU Elder-in-Residence position finishes trial run, stays for 2019-20

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As the Elder-in-Residence has been approved to move beyond the pilot phase, the outgoing Elder says campus policies need to be changed to allow for smudging indoors.

The University of Saskatchewan Students’ Union resident Elder project ran from Jan. 24 to April 12, with two-spirit Métis filmmaker Elder Marjorie Beaucage filling the role. The USSU will keep the paid position in the 2019-20 school year, though next year’s Elder has yet to be decided.

The USSU’s partnership with Beaucage provided students with access to teachings and discussion in the weekly “Elder Time – Tea With Kokum” events held across campus. In addition to giving presentations centred around the teachings of the medicine wheel, Beaucage provided guidance and instructed USSU executives in ceremonial protocols.

Former USSU President Rollin Baldhead says he invited Beaucage to be the USSU Elder because of her reputation as a storyteller, Indigenous leader and as someone “who could hold their own.” Baldhead originally intended the position to be primarily for mental health support and says he never would have predicted the student engagement sparked by the project.

“I thought we needed Indigenous ways of knowing in the USSU and why not create a position that can help bring a holistic approach to learning,” Baldhead said. “What we found out was there was a huge demand for this, not only from the Indigenous community but from the non-Indigenous students too.”

Beaucage says the position is a step towards Indigenization, but that her potential to fulfill the role has been hindered by the university’s smudge ceremony guidelines that limit indoor practice.

“It should be available anywhere on campus to professors and students when they need it,” Beaucage said. “They have to accept that we have a different worldview. I couldn’t use my smudge and the policy has got to change if they want Elders to come to campus.”

Beaucage says smudging is an instrumental part of Elders’ work and having to go outside limits her capacity to fulfill her duties.

“It’s a shame if I can’t bring my tools into my work,” Beaucage said. “If the students need spiritual and cultural support, that’s part of the medicine.” 

Baldhead says the position can enrich the university by respecting Indigenous perspectives as valid alternatives to Eurocentric approaches.

“We need to start recognizing our Elders — Elders meaning knowledge-keepers of human life,” Baldhead said. “They matter; their voice matters within this university and holds weight. It helps us research and create different avenues to get to our end goals.”

Beaucage appreciates the USSU student leaders taking the initiative to launch their own Indigenization projects.

“I think it’s great that the students are taking on things for themselves because they are freer than the institution,” she said. “This way the students can be more self-governing, and they can choose what they need and make it happen.”

In her time as the Elder­-in-Residence, Beaucage says she has built relationships through discussion circles aimed at fostering a sense of community through storytelling in a culturally­-safe place.

“Story is medicine, and when we share our stories, we understand each other fully and build new relationships,” she said. “You have to know each others’ stories, and that is part of Indigenizing, if you will, because people need to reflect together on our history.”

The position will continue to be developed in the future and Baldhead hopes to see the program expand to having more Elders providing knowledge across colleges. He is also pleased to see this Indigenization program surpass his term as USSU president.

“As an Indigenous person, having an Elder on campus is unimaginable. It’s essential for Indigenous people to be within our organizations and closing the education gap,” Baldhead said. “It’s all about looking for how you could move the needle a little bit more for your successors to have that much easier of a time.”

Noah Callaghan / Staff Writer