Reflections on the Anishinabe Law Camp (Bkejwanong Territory)

image1_05By: Valarie Waboose and Gemma Smyth

We write from the Faculty of Law at the University of Windsor, located on unceded Anishinabe Territory, the territory of the Three Fires Confederacy, Windsor, Ontario. We write, here, about experiences we had in organising and delivering an Anishinabe Law Camp for the Faculty of Law at the University of Windsor, on Bkejwanong Territory (Walpole Island First Nation) with Professor John Borrows (UVic), Professor Heidi Kiiwetinepinesiik Stark (UVic) and Hannah Askew (West Coast Environmental Law). The camp was held over a four day period between April 14 – 17, 2016. We have divided this blog into two voices: one from Professor Valarie Waboose and the other from Professor Gemma Smyth. We hope these two contrasting voices will shed light not only on our experiences in the Camp, but also on the roles and experiences of Anishinabe and settler peoples engaging in reconciliation-related teaching and learning experiences.

First, reflections from Professor Valarie Waboose.

I am an Anishinabe-Kwe from Walpole Island First Nation, the second oldest child of two residential school survivors, a mother of two, grandmother of 7 and great-grandmother of 1. I am a 1st degree member of the Three Fires Midewiwin Lodge. My life and worldview centres around the Anishinabe teachings of the Midewiwin Lodge. I have resided on Walpole Island First Nation most of my life and have worked within this community for at least 20 years. During my lifetime I have completed a bachelor’s degree, a law degree, masters of law degree and a Ph. D. From 1996 – 2002 I worked as In-house Counsel to the Walpole Island First Nation and served for two terms on Walpole Island Council. My familiarity with the community was key to organising the Camp and ensuring it proceeded in a good way.

I offered to host an Anishinabe Law Camp in the spirit of reconciliation and a movement towards understanding and sharing an Anishinabe way of life. Windsor Law faculty and staff, as well as Elder and residential school survivor Susie Jones had been working together over 2015-2016 on a Truth and Reconciliation Steering Committee. This Camp was key as a first step in introducing faculty members more deeply to Anishinabe law and legal traditions.

Bkejwanong Territory (Walpole Island First Nation) is located in a secluded area adjacent to waterways leading to Lake St. Clair and surrounded by miles of untouched marshlands and natural habitat. The land was an important teacher throughout our time together.

The agenda for the camp was developed using a template by Professor John Borrows of University of Victoria and included stories, songs and circle discussion. Approximately 10 faculty members and their families attended to learn about Anishinabe epistemology from a number of invited guest speakers, each knowledgeable in a different area of Anishinabe life. The agenda included as many aspects of Anishinabe life as possible including history of Walpole Island First Nation, the legacy of residential schools on Walpole Island, a medicine walk, cultural teachings, storytelling and ceremony, circle sharing, boat tours, songs and dance.

In our reflections on the camp, it was clear that it was well received by all in attendance. The personal transformations in each participant was profound. An important aspect of the camp was the spirituality present during this four-day event. Within Anishinabe lifeways, spirituality is a major component of every aspect of personal and community life; as such, this aspect was important to understand the teachings shared during this event. Having members of the Midewiwin Society present and sharing their Indigenous knowledge during the camp enriched the participants’ understanding and incorporation of Anishinabe spirituality.

In my view, the spiritual realm within the four quadrants of the medicine wheel is one quadrant that is rarely touched within the practice of law. For some, entering this space may feel frightening but for others can be insight into their ways of being and understanding Indigenous law. As an Anishinabe Kwe teaching in a colonial institution I feel that young and aspiring lawyers need to learn how to get in touch with all quadrants of the self as reflected within the medicine wheel: mental, emotional, physical and spiritual. Taking this step and learning about oneself and how self fits into the natural order of the universe is a very humbling experience and can make a difference in their future practice of law.

Another highlight of the camp was having John Borrows, Heidi Stark and Hannah Askew share methodologies of incorporating learning from the land into the classroom setting. Their use of song, Anishinabemowin (Ojibway language) and storytelling was an incredible experience even for me as an Anishinabe Kwe. The work that they are currently doing in relation to Indigenous Legal Traditions is cultivating a new path towards understanding and teaching law to future lawyers. Perhaps, this new path is so far removed from the current norm and many will not be comfortable using these new methodologies. However, if one wants to fully understand and appreciate Indigenous Legal Traditions the person must embark upon this transformative journey. Reading about Indigenous Legal Traditions is only part of the equation; to actually be in a natural setting, experiencing the spiritual aspects of Anishinabe lifeways and learning about Indigenous legal traditions from Indigenous teachers is central to a deeper understanding of Anishinabe Law.

Second, reflections from Professor Gemma Smyth.

I am a settler whose family originally landed in Treaty 6 territory having been “granted” land in Saskatchewan. I grew up in Anishinabe territory not far from Bkejwanong First Nation (Walpole Island). My late father taught high school at the town nearest Walpole Island and I attended high school with kids from Walpole Island. It is with a mixture of regret and excitement that I am only recently discovering more about the teachings, histories, and peoples of this incredible place. It has been an honour to work with Professor Waboose on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Steering Committee as well as the Anishinabe Law Camp. Before engaging with what I learned during the Camp, I must first confess to a deep degree of cultural incompetence, much of which I learned about through experience. My ignorance was treated with kindness and gentle correction, rather than rejection. I am indebted to all the teachers and community members for their patience in helping the camp go in a good way.

There is a significant volume of literature on transformative learning experiences and, writing as someone who has crafted them for students and in a professional context, this experience has given me a much deeper understanding of what “transformation” can really mean. The learning environment at the Camp unfolded in an entirely non-threatening, non-judgmental and emotionally open way such that even the most cognitive-focused among us were affected. For me, this emotional openness was key to unlocking my own colonial ways of feeling, thinking and acting. For example, we had a working agenda with times assigned for particular activities. However, the Camp proceeded as it felt right rather than by the prescribed agenda. If members of our group were struggling, everyone supported the experience of that member and adjusted as needed. Nothing was more important that the wellbeing of the people and the environment around us.

Most of us are familiar with the cognitive-behavioural-affective triangle of learning, and many of us have critiqued lack of attention to the affective in legal education. As Professor Waboose writes, above, the Camp challenged me to take seriously a fourth dimension – the spiritual. As someone who works primarily in clinical and experiential legal education and employs feminist pedagogies, the Camp taught me about how to better connect with students (and myself) through reflective space. Critical reflection, reflection-on- and in- action are commonplace concepts in feminist and clinical and experiential education. I often wonder, however, how deeply I allow myself and my students to engage as emotionally, and particularly spiritually, engaged people. The process of learning with and from community deeply challenged the individualistic, neoliberal tendencies in education that have sneakily entered my understanding of law and my work as a teacher and activist. The Camp reminded me of how uncomfortable Western educators are with engaging with whole person in the classroom. The Camp also helped to reconfirm the value of some of the teaching methodologies I use but worry are too “alternative” for students to take seriously.

There were also a number of activists in attendance (myself included). Because of the “white saviour” tendencies common to some activist communities, I had to deeply deconstruct my own instincts to jump into a problem without fully understanding it, and without honouring the community’s own ability to support themselves. As we were reminded, Indigenous communities need allies, not saviours. I am indebted to the community for teaching me how to be politically engaged in a more thoughtful way.

So where to go next? What began as a response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has refocused on the relationships we have with surrounding Indigenous communities, and also with our missions as educators, and with ourselves. I don’t want to be naïve about the challenges ahead. As one Elder rightly noted, colonizers have a deep history of learning in the moment and forgetting once back in their ‘natural habitat’. The tug between a more expansive and flexible vision and enactment of time, a more intimate connection to the visceral experiences of land and animals, the connectedness of all beings from the very young to the very old, is virtually absent from my work life. I would be disingenuous to pretend that this will immediately change, but I now find myself consciously working to challenge these ways-of-being.

In future, members of the Windsor Law faculty, staff and students hope to work with the community to expand this opportunity to staff and students. We also hope to maintain relationships built during the Camp and introduce more creative placements. It became clear through this Camp that relationships must guide our work.

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