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Submitted by alumni on Thu, 11/06/2014 - 00:03.

Unite Community

Studies in a tipi to the latest model of “water trusts” — a look beyond classroom walls.
by Deb Cummings, Jennifer Allford

A few students gather in the tipi before classes.

Unconventional Classrooms — from a Western Perspective
To approach Social Work Among Aboriginal Peoples with intellectual rigour, says a team of instructors, is to play with fire. They stoke the embers — in a tipi


Twenty-five of us sit on lawn chairs in a white tipi on the forested skirts of Edmonton. The sun slivers through the smoke-flap and fire pops and hisses from its central cradle while a student conducts the smudging ceremony. Holding a small cast-iron frying pan with burning sage, a student moves from person to person. In turn, each student cups the smoke in their hands, passing it over their faces, ears, mouth, body and heart, murmuring “ay, hay” when they finish.

Professor Ralph Bodor begins, not with a 9 a.m. lecture; he’s just seeking feedback on last night’s assignment.

L-R: Program Leads, Ralph Bodor, Sarah Friesen, Amber Dion, Leona Makokis, Carly MacArthur.

And again, following protocol, the communication moves in a circle, with each student sharing passages from their daily journal. One girl wrote 20 pages; another is worried about “re-entering a Western world after this course”; another confesses she is re-examining her role as an “ally.”

Bodor, BSW’94, MSW’95, PhD’04, and fellow professor, Leona Makokis, read each journal every day, searching for the “mind flip.” Explains Bodor: “The mind flip is when a non-indigenous person begins to understand things from an indigenous world view. And that’s our goal — to be able to see indigenous people differently.”

This five-day block course is really about immersing Social Work students into iyiniw (First People) approaches to social work practice, through the teachings of elders and the use of nehiyaw (Cree) language and culture. From traditional values to ceremonial roles, students gain knowledge in iyiniw pre-contact and post-contact life, with a focus on the residential school era, the Indian Act, oppressive social policies and the impacts of colonization.

Involving students from all three campuses (Edmonton, Calgary and Lethbridge), this not only takes place in a tipi, but includes using traditional protocols: circle process, smudging, pipe ceremonies, the sweat lodge and feasts. For example, indigenous protocol requests that women wear skirts or wraps during pipe ceremonies, and that rings, watches and eyeglasses are removed during smudging.

It’s also about conversations that explore the embers of deep-rooted beliefs, that probe the personal reserves of tolerance and empathy, and that respect the power of indigenous ceremonies. It’s about the challenging dialogue between 21st-century social work scholars and iyiniw beliefs, between indigenous experiences and today’s often unrecognized and unacknowledged powers of assimilation and colonization. But don’t think this course is all about time travel to bygone times — there are PowerPoint lectures, laptops and computer screens in the tipi.

“We can’t get these kind of teachings in the States,” admits Jennifer McClendon, associate professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Reno, Nev., who attended the course along with fellow prof Heather Gough. “There are a couple of U.S. universities that have centres for indigenous studies that are related to social work, but they tend to be more research-focused.”

Adds Gough, “This is a very necessary course that questions how things are done and helps develop courage and a strong sense of self in social work, which we don’t often do.

This tipi served as a classroom for a five-day block course.

“It’s a profession of young women who are full of empathy. We need to turn them into warriors, in a sense; into critical thinkers who can break down age-old structures and patterns.”

And that starts right here in this tipi, that also doubles as a symbol for so many other unconventional paths this faculty has taken since its inception, 48 years ago. Now the largest faculty of social work in Canada, it supports 800 students at its three campuses. It also operates virtual learning circles in Medicine Hat, Red Deer, Lac La Biche and Fort McMurray and collaborates with First Nation’s Colleges such as Blue Quills First Nations College that, in partnership with the Faculty of Social Work in 2012, produced the largest class of graduate-level First Nations (and Metis) social workers in North America.

A self-described “ally,” to the iyiniw, Bodor says what makes this course unique is the wide range of traditions, methodologies, dispositions and commitments that all come together in a spirit of critical debate. Challenging another’s belief system and interpretation of history goes to their very heart of that person’s self-identity, their sense of morality and justice, and, ultimately, makes them question their place on Earth.

Makokis hopes this course prods conversations — whether in a tipi or in a campus food court — that unite rigour and respect for all persons. “Sitting in a circle in a tipi removes the competition that we’ve had for centuries. We’re not here to compete for marks or a place — we are journeying together.”

Deb Cummings