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Learning at Intercultural Intersections

August 31, 2015
Janice Edgar, MAIIC Alum

Being an outsider has its advantages. As a communications strategist presenting at a conference for educators, at times I was on the periphery of discussions, but being on the sidelines offered distinct advantages. I could contribute a different perspective that gave pause for thought.

Discussions around ‘indigenizing’ curriculum were close to my heart since I was there to present my MA research Conquering demons through Spirituality: A life story narrative exploring a 50-year old Metis woman’s healing journey and addictions recovery. Many of my contributions drew attention to challenges that go well beyond curriculum content – I found myself continually raising concerns related to the very ‘system’ that draws on and reflects western values, western thinking and western models of learning.

The challenges being discussed in an education context mirrored the focus of my research in a health context. The research identifies limitations of western-modeled health systems in addressing the mental wellness of Aboriginal clients. Typically western health systems focus on typical western medical interventions to ‘treat physical symptoms’ as opposed to the more holistic medicine wheel approach that respects the connections among the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual realms.

Embedding the approach I am advocating…

Oral storytelling is a widespread methodology in Indigenous cultures, for sharing information and maintaining traditions.  To emphasize the healing strategies I was sharing, my subject suggested I use an Indigenous approach to share my research. It’s unconventional - and to some it may seem ‘un-academic’ but embracing an approach that mirrors the shifts I am advocating for, made sense.

Thankfully, I had tested the approach when I presented my research at RRU’s inaugural Graduate Conference, coordinated by Dr. Phillip Vannini to enable graduating students to share their research. I was ‘first up’ at that event and I must admit, I am ever so grateful for that privilege – I am sure if I had followed others in the schedule, I would have been tempted to revert to a more typical presentation. But given the opportunity to break new ground – I felt the fear and did it.

It seemed to have been well-received but I have no empirical evidence of that and taking that same road at a conference for academics raised the stakes and heightened my anxiety.  Nonetheless, I followed my heart and adopted the same approach.

The power of experiential learning

My presentation begins with one minute of drumming a heartbeat as the 13 images that illustrate the story I am going to tell are projected on the screen. The expressions of those in the room confirm this is ‘unanticipated’ …and for some, uncomfortable.  As the slideshow returns to the presentation title I begin to share my subject’s story. When I quote my subject directly, I raise my drumstick signifying it is my subject speaking through me. 

I trust the approach supported by the power of the story offers a unique learning opportunity for those in attendance, and the combination facilitates an experience that is personal and heartfelt in its impact.  In this way, my academic research has been transformed into a presentation for broad public consumption.

Extending the experience beyond the conference…

My time in Kamloops was magical. Opportunities to share at ‘intercultural intersections’ extended beyond the conference venue. One evening I happened upon an ‘open mic’ evening at a local art gallery/vegan restaurant. I shared a few songs we sing in my drum circle, along with the teachings I had received when I learned them. At the end of the evening one of the audience members approached me and told me she was Ojibway from southern Ontario. She thanked me for sharing the water song and said she had lost her father in a drowning accident just under a year ago and it really spoke to her. 

The next morning, as I walked to the bus stop to catch a bus up to TRU, I ran into a young man who recognized me from the ‘open mic’ night. He too, thanked me for sharing, and told me he was passing through town enroute to a new job on an organic farm in BC, He said, he was one year short of achieving his pipefitting certification and confided that he “didn’t like the scene that he was immersed in” while doing his apprenticeship.

Coincidence? Maybe. Or perhaps it was evidence of Spirit at work.