Worldviews, Languages and Community Development: “Hospitality for the Gift” of Indigenous Worldviews at OLA 2016

In the last week of January 2016 I travelled to Toronto to attend the Ontario Library Association Superconference to present my paper A Little Matter of Genocide and attend as many of the sessions in the Aboriginal sector as I could. It promised to be an intense week, not only because the Aboriginal stream looked so rich, and that I was also attending the editorial team meeting for the journal Partnership,  (for which I edit the Viewpoints section) but because I actually hadn’t finished working on my talk yet.

(I was also really please to learn while I was in Toronto that The Decolonized Librarian is listed as a required resource for an online course through the University of Alberta School of Library and Information Studies – LIS 541 – Library and Information Services in a Culturally Diverse Society, taught by Moyra Lang, while that the students in LIS 592 – Intellectual Freedom and Social Responsibility in Librarianship, taught by Toni Samek had been particularly introduced to my work on LCSH and genocide).

As it turns out, given all the pressures and commitments with which I was dealing, I was only able to take in five sessions from the Aboriginal stream – (not including, owing to my scheduled flight, Wab Kinew’s closing keynote. But check out this amazing graphic by Liisa Sorsa!) The impressive Aboriginal sessions were organized by Feather Maracle Luke of Timmins Public Library, and I will attempt here to respectfully share some of what I learned.

The first session I attended, on Indigenous Worldview Education was an engaging, sometimes humorous and always fascinating introduction to Indigenous understandings of the world and universe and our place within them, and how these are only now beginning to be adopted by Western sciences. The session’s leaders Maria Montejo and Jordan Teshakotennyon’s Miller offer youth programming through the R.E.A.L. School (Reality Education & Applied Lifeskills Leadership Development Program).  Maria (Deer Clan) described how she had come to Canada when her family escaped the horrific Guatemalan Genocide, in which 20,000 people (most of them Indigenous Mayans) lost their lives over a 36-year period. Her personal journey helped frame the session in a powerful way: in her search to understand peace and change she had learned the violent history of Guatemala and went to visit the ruins left by her people, but it made her angry; to which her father told her, “your mind is twisted; you’re trying to understand your people with the mind you have.” She ended up in university for two years studying racism which mostly involved working in a circle discussing the shared experience of racism with others.

She and Jordan compared three world views, the Newtonian (reductionistic), Quantum (holistic) and Indigenous (holographic) worldviews. The differences are profound: in the first only the evidence of the physical world as detected by our senses is considered real; in the second, everything both seen and unseen are connected; but in the third all material essences represent an invisible spiritual dimension. At the REAL school they teach that we need to decolonize to learn the things that we have forgotten. Our Western education is based on linear, Newtonian categorizing. Think of a box, said Maria: we know what is “normal” by what is inside the box. Our minds according to this worldview only know what is separate, and so our minds create strategies and structure and hierarchy to help us make sense of it. But in the Indigenous, holographic worldview, the inputs of the five senses support only very low-level thinking. Instead, she says, we are actually “heart people” and the heart only understands connection.

In the holographic view, we are projection systems, and what we see is what we project. Accordingly, change only comes when we are uncomfortable.

Maria asked, we’re all Indigenous to planet Earth – which Indigenous peoples refer to as “all my relations” — but why is it so many of us can’t remember Her teachings? Where are our original teachings? The Drum is the heart of the Earth, which has a magnetic field, just like each of us. Maria and Jordan demonstrated this through the use of a handheld device that lit up and glowed when they held both hands, closing a circuit with their mutual fields. Drumming, we were taught, connects to our magnetic fields through the heart.

Another major difference between the Newtonian and Holographic world: the first sees a world of scarcity over which conflicts must be waged; the Indigenous world is an abundant world. Why, then, would we fight over it? The Nation-to-Nation relationship we need to move to reconciliation was demonstrated by Jordan, who held up a Wampum belt showing two courses of water, one for a ship and one with a canoe. You can’t steer one from the other, he said.

After such a rich morning — with so much to absorb — I was eager to hear what our keynote speaker R. David Lankes had to say. I’ve been intrigued by his work – mostly in thumbing through his imposing The Atlas of New Librarianship. His topic was innovation (the conference theme) and in addressing the common myths around it. Innovations, he said, should be out of quest for social equality and highlighted the work of the Ferguson Missouri and Baltimore Public Libraries which had offered such services as free food and diapers for families dealing with militarized policing and racial conflict. This was a powerful message, but was undermined somewhat at the end by his unfortunate exhortation for us to think of ourselves as “missionaries”. I imagined there was a lot of cringing in the room around me.

The following day, my colleague Monique Woroniak from Winnipeg Public Library spoke on the theme of Choosing to Walk a Path: Library Services to Indigenous Peoples with a Purpose. She began her talk with a particularly sincere land acknowledgement to the Territory of the New Credit First Nation of Mississauga Ojibwa, stressing the importance of these – that acknowledgements are not to be uttered by rote as an obligation, but that they mean a great deal. She then set the stage for her work in Winnipeg by reviewing the contexts: the one year anniversary of “the article” in Maclean’s naming Winnipeg as the country’s most racist city, which started a still-ongoing conversation in our city. Current initiatives such as the Bear Clan Patrol, my own university’s mandatory Indigenous course requirement, and the recent launch of Red Rising Magazine all point to the vitality of Indigenizing efforts in Winnipeg.

This led Monique to next reflect provocatively on the key terms (which I’ve of course used heavily on this blog) of “decolonizing” and “indigenizing.” In the first place, she stressed, we need to understand colonialism as a structure, not an event, and referred us to Patrick Wolf’s 2006 article in the Journal of Genocide Research, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native” (which I noted as a must-read for my own research).  She believes the term “decolonizing” needs to be used with a lot of caution, as nobody knows what a “decolonized” Canada would look like. (As Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang argue, “decolonizing” isn’t just a metaphor, it actually requires the return of land). For her part, she prefers to frame her work in terms of Indigenizing — giving over significant control to Indigenous persons or bodies, to let them have the last word.

Other oft-used phrases in public libraries include “outreach” and “diversity”. She sees diversity as existing on the most basic end of a spectrum, with genuine anti-racism efforts the most complete realization. “Diversity” she argues celebrates differences but doesn’t challenge power or change the structure. Institutional (systemic) racism is structured racism, which requires something more focused. Anti-racism work acknowledges power differences, privilege and works to address injustices, she said. A library can only go so for with “diversity.” Outreach as well doesn’t involve divesting power, as collaboration is minimal. But in Community Development efforts the Library is a partner, an ally, and decision-making is shared. (For more of Monique’s thoughts on these ideas, check out her chapter in the book I edited for ALA Editions, Public Libraries and Resilient Cities).

Monique’s most important message: Indigenous people know what they need. It’s the job of institutions and professionals to listen, or get out of the way.

The metric here she says is on relationships: How many relationships did you build? (This also resonated with me in my own on-campus outreach work: on some days I might not actually get a lot of students wanting help with their papers, but just by being out of the library and in a student centre I am building relationships with students and staff),

Following these theoretical foundations, Monique highlighted some of the amazing Indigenous placemaking efforts at WPL, including the Aboriginal Reading in the Round which was renamed Ah kha koo gheesh or “Children emerge from learning.” The new Adult space renamed Wii ghoss or “birch bank place,” and now features installations of art loaned by community groups. With this sort of collaborative, thoughtful Indigenizing processes, she said, the Library doesn’t actually have to do so much outreach anymore, when you invite people in. A real achievement was the Library’s 2012 Last Word on First Words contest, in which at a featured poet’s suggestion the Library chartered a bus to Winnipeg’s North End for poetry reading, stopping at locations referred to in to poems, with bannock served on the bus.

There was a vigorous discussions following Monique’s talk, including Feather Maracle Luke urging us to check out the Ojibwe and Cree Cultural Centre Library in Timmins Ontario, which has developed its own classification numbers – an exciting development on which I determined to follow up for my own paper.

On Thursday afternoon I attended two back-to-back sessions on Revitalizing Indigenous Languages — the first hosted by Iehnhotonkwas Bonnie Jane Maracle, Alex McKay, and Tw^tahawiht Dawn Antone and the second by Maracle, Sara McDowell and Melanie Ribau. McKay offered extensive greetings in Anishnaabemowin – deliberate, he said, because he knew we would feel frustrated – as frustrated as he felt learning English when he was younger!

Language revitalization, we were told, is not only mandated by the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (which recognizes the rights to languages, knowledge, place names, and education in own culture & language) but is a significant part of the Calls to Action by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It’s not just the responsibility of Indigenous Canadians to learn these languages but is an obligation of the rest of us to support (but not lead) these efforts.

We then learned of the Ciimaan/Kahuwe’yá/Qajaq Indigenous language initiative at the University of Toronto which offers space, programs and support (e.g., events, workshops, presentations) for Indigenous Language learners. It features a Language Cafe open to anyone wanting to come in and use their language.

In the second Language Revitalization session, Melanie Ribau from the Toronto Public Library introduced herself in Ojibwe adding every Indigenous word spoken is one more step towards revitalization. Toronto has Ontario’s highest population of Indigenous peoples, from a diverse range of cultures, and to support Indigenous readers the Spadina Road Branch has a dedicated Native Peoples collection, replaced English street signage for Spadina with its Ojibwe name and has initiated an Elder in Resident in the branch library. We were also urged to seek out The Green Book of Language Revitalization

The University of Toronto’s Sara McDowell then showed us how the University of Toronto’s Robarts Library created some outstanding language displays taking visitors through the seasons and has LibGuides features resources in multiple languages.  Her commitment to language revitalization is that she feels an obligation as one within a system that oppressed and sought to eradicate Indigenous languages to do what she can to revitalize it. Next steps to include permanent Indigenous language signage.

I was only able to take in less than half of what was offered in the Aboriginal sector, but was most impressed with what I learned of the profound worldviews of Indigenous peoples, and how these are being incorporated into brilliantly designed Indigenized spaces and collaborative community development efforts at the Winnipeg Public Library, as well as innovative and responsive language revitalization projects at Toronto Public Library and the University of Toronto. I believe we can see in these institutions’ acceptance and incorporation of Indigenous values the beginning of a realization of what Indigenous scholar Rauna Kuokkanen (Sami) refers to as “hospitality” to the “logic of the gift” of Indigenous epistemologies, a gift with the power to transform our institutions from their former hegemonic Eurocentrism to “tolerance to engagement and to active participation in the logic of the gift.” She writes (and I would suggest that we could easily swap out “the library” for “the academy” in the following):

[T]he future of the academy is dependent on the recognition of the gift of Indigenous epistemes—recognition as understood within the logic of the gift that foregrounds the responsibility in the name of the well-being of all. As in Indigenous epistemes, the future of the academy is dependent on its ability to create and sustain appropriate reciprocal relationships grounded on action and knowledge. In other words, recognizing the gift requires acquiring and adopting a new logic that is grounded on the responsibility toward the other that is defined as the ability and willingness to reciprocate at the epistemic level, not only at the level of human interaction. The call for the recognition of the gift of Indigenous epistemes is a call for an epistemic shift grounded on a specific philosophy and as such, a more profound transformation than efforts toward the inclusive university seeking to “democratize” the traditionally Eurocentric curriculum and the canon.

These sessions had certainly given me a great deal to think about in terms of my own work, and renewed my confidence in incorporating Indigenous languages into my presentation. The Friday morning keynote by writer and actor Darrell Dennis, “Peace Pipe Dreams: The Truth About Lies About Indians” also gave me a perfect lead-in: In his entertaining and sobering speech he pointed out that he’s seeing more Native people going online to combat ignorance and racist comments by saying, “Read a book. Don’t google, don’t go back to school. Just read a book.”

As I would argue in my talk (and describe in my next post), this excellent advice does come with a caveat: You have to be able to discover the book exists first.