By Kristen McEwen
As former students, faculty and alumni gathered on the main floor of the Gordon Oakes Red Bear Student Centre, current students pulled up chairs on the second floor to listen to special guest speakers.
The Department of Indigenous Studies celebrated its 40th anniversary on Sept. 22, in recognition of its establishment at the University of Saskatchewan (USask) in 1983. The purpose of the day was to celebrate the department’s alumni, and to reflect on four decades of ‘indigenizing the academy.’
“A lot of what happens in the past, we don’t always know how things came to be or the role that individuals play and it seems that things just happen, or they’ve always been there,” said Métis scholar Dr. Allyson Stevenson (PhD), Gabriel Dumont Institute Chair in Métis Studies, and chair of the event organizing committee.
“That’s not really the case when it comes to Indigenous Studies,” she added. “It’s something that was very deliberately created by Indigenous people, Indigenous students in particular, that saw gaps in their education, and knew the importance and power of Indigenous knowledge and perspectives.”
The first panel of the day was The Students that Made Indigenous Studies Happen. The discussion featured three of the Indigenous students who were instrumental in the creation of the department: now well-known Indigenous educators Dr. Verna St. Denis (PhD), John Dorion and Keith Goulet.
“It was incredible to hear how instrumental the students were and how organized and committed they were to the creation of Indigenous Studies as a department,” Stevenson said. “It was quite empowering and really interesting to have that perspective.”
The three former students reflected on the impact they had in their youth, and outlined the processes they were required to follow within organizations like Métis Nation-Saskatchewan, and USask.
Prior to the creation of the department, Indigenous students in Saskatoon were advocating for education funding for Métis and non-status Indigenous people, St. Denis said during the morning’s panel. That movement led to the formation of the Saskatoon Native Students’ Association, which led to the Métis Local 126 in 1974.
Once students began discussing the creation of a formal Department of Indigenous Studies, a letter campaign began led by Dorion. The letters requested that the department have equal status with all other departments on campus.
St. Denis spoke about the history of how the grassroots movement started. In January 1979, discussions about creating a department of Indigenous Studies began. Another former Indigenous student, the late Dr. Earl Cook (PhD), collected meeting minutes that documented how ad hoc committees were set up. The committees advocated raising the standard of quality research for Indigenous people by Indigenous people.
The panelists noted that the 40th celebration was taking place at the Gordon Oakes Red Bear Student Centre—a building that hadn’t existed when conversations began to create the department.
“We thought we couldn’t change institutions, but we did,” Goulet said, addressing former and current students and faculty in attendance. “You sitting there, you continue to create change.”
Since its establishment in 1983, there have been constant improvements and changes to what the department has offered over the years, from classes, to course, to programs.
The rest of the celebration featured additional panels, and a gala in the evening that featured keynote speaker Dr. Rob Innes (PhD) and Dr. Brenda Macdougall (PhD), as well as performances by Tristan Durocher, Joseph Naytowhow and Lindsay Eekwol Knight.
“It was quite inspirational to have the entertainment, the food, the visiting and the more celebratory and joyful side of (the event) as well,” Stevenson said of the evening gala.
After reflecting on the past 40 years, the department is looking ahead to what the next four decades will bring.
“A few people had mentioned the importance of language,” Stevenson said. “They want to see more language integrated in our programs, into our courses, into the department itself.”
The department does have a Cree language speaker and instructor, but there are also many Indigenous languages, she said.
A few people also mentioned at the event the importance of land-based learning and connecting students with the land.
“It’s important people see that our department continues to move forward and bring that form of delivery for students where they’re on the land, connecting with the language and culture,” Stevenson said.
She noted that feedback for the 40th anniversary event was positive overall, with support from organizing committee members, including Drs. Winona Wheeler (PhD), Leonzo Barreno (PhD) and Adriana Juárez. The event also received support from the USask College of Arts and Science and the Office of the Vice-Provost Indigenous Engagement.
“We’ve had some very good feedback from people that attended about how much they enjoyed getting together, and the speakers,” she said. “Thinking about Indigenous Studies being in existence for 40 years, and the contributions that it’s made to the university and to individual lives.”