Armed with curiosity, a small team of MacEwan’s students, faculty and staff travelled south last month, eager to learn from students at the Intercultural University of the State of Mexico (UIEM) during a four-day knowledge exchange trip.
MacEwan’s kihêw waciston Indigenous Centre coordinated the initiative alongside Katie Sinclair, assistant professor of anthropology. The team submitted a successful grant application to the Mexican Agency for International Development Cooperation to fund the trip, which ran from November 12 to 15.
“In our application, we proposed that our team go down to an established intercultural university to see what decolonizing post-secondary education looks like there,” explains Katie. “We wanted to bring back those experiences and reflect on what that means for MacEwan.”
Mexico is home to a dozen intercultural universities, created specifically to welcome more Indigenous students to post-secondary and enhance Indigenous languages, cultures and traditions through education.
“One of our goals as a post-secondary institution is to implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action. In Mexico we were able to share the approach we've been taking to ensure non-Indigenous people know about who we are, and why land acknowledgements, cultural practices and ceremony are important.” – Roxanne Tootoosis, Indigenous Knowledge Keeper
The experiences I had on this trip really affirmed my place at MacEwan. One afternoon a group of students taught us a traditional dance, then I was able to teach one of the students some jigging. Now that I’m back at MacEwan, I’m trying to wear my Indigeneity a bit more. At MacEwan, I am very aware that I don't look Métis, but in Mexico my Métis side was never questioned, so I’m bringing that confidence back here. I wouldn’t normally wear my moccasins around university, but I wore them in Mexico, so I’m wearing them today. I'm figuring out how to balance my settler and Métis roots.” – Christina, fourth year, history
“I've been on my own journey of reconnecting to my Cree culture – learning and growing within that culture and embodying it as much as I can. It was really powerful to go on this trip and see the way the students are immersed in their language and their medicine.” – Cheyenne, fourth year, sociology (left)
”I was really intrigued by the idea of cultural exchange. As I get more in touch with my culture, I am really interested in learning more about other Indigenous cultures.” – Shawn, third year, sociology
“We felt so welcomed from the moment we arrived on campus at UIEM. They set up an opening prayer for us and a number of different traditional dances – that was really powerful. Over the next few days we saw how Indigenous ways of knowing, being and learning were embodied in their institution – from the infrastructure to the courses. Now I’m thinking about what we can take from there to incorporate here.”
– Katie Sinclair, assistant professor, anthropology
Students wore GoPros throughout the trip, and are now editing the footage to create a short film highlighting the lessons and insights from the knowledge exchange. The film will be shared throughout MacEwan and with the UIEM.
“There's still a lot of work to be done, and I don't know if MacEwan can ever be a decolonized institution, because at the end of the day it is an institution, but sending us to go and live these experiences puts us on the right track.” – Cheyenne (far right)
Three MacEwan students, Shawn McCarthy-Daniels, Christina Hardie and Cheyenne Workman, travelled to UIEM, alongside Katie and Roxanne Tootoosis, an Indigenous knowledge keeper and facilitator at MacEwan.
“This is about being visible,” says Roxanne. “It’s about Indigenous students going abroad to a different country to say, ‘We're still here. Despite colonization, despite residential schools, we're still here.’ And it's our youth, these students, who will acquire the true history of Indigenous peoples before colonization and become immersed in ancient traditional knowledge and land-based education to complement their quality western education."
Upon arriving in Mexico, the team immediately made their way to UIEM, which serves five groups of Indigenous people – Mazahuas, Otomíes, Matlazincas, Náhuas and Tlahuicas.
During the visit, UIEM student groups held presentations and workshops for their MacEwan guests, introducing their languages, customs and traditional food and dress.
Alongside the organized knowledge exchange, the UIEM students also shared about the colonial history of Mexico and some of their personal challenges with connecting to culture. Shawn, a Cree third-year sociology student, says it was important to have these conversations, and note some of the differences, and similarities, between the colonial models in Canada and Mexico.
“I talked to one student who explained she had Indigenous roots, but did not identify with her culture growing up because she was so removed from it,” says Shawn. “But she still chose to go to the Indigenous university to get closer to her culture. A lot of people in Canada have also felt disenfranchised, and are anxious to find out who they are – it was so valuable to share and compare our stories.”
While the students found opportunities to informally exchange ideas, Roxanne also offered her knowledge, sharing foundational Cree creation story teachings and a song before entering into ceremony with the Indigenous students and staff from Mexico.
While it was an honour to share her knowledge, Roxanne emphasizes that Shawn, Christina and Cheyenne led the way. “This initiative was beautiful because it was student-focused. Their words and perspectives are so rich and powerful.”