Students explore indigenous Montréal during ‘inspirational’ fall-break trip
For students in Ned Blackhawk’s seminar, the study of contemporary tribal communities came to life in a recent fall-break trip to Montréal, Canada.
The field trip was an opportunity for students in Blackhawk’s “Writing Tribal Histories” seminar to gain first-hand knowledge of Montréal’s indigenous history and heritage. The excursion was funded by an undergraduate course enhancement grant provided by the Yale College Dean’s Office.
Six undergraduates and one graduate student teaching fellow participated on the fall-break trip. They visited one of Canada’s largest urban Native Friendship Centres where they were able to see firsthand how government-funded but community-controlled facilities respond to the crisis of First Nations unemployment, homelessness, and substance abuse.
Blackhawk (Western Shoshone), professor of history and of American studies, noted that the undergraduates who went on the trip were able to see the course material in a broader framework. “It enriched and broadened the students, and gave them a perspective that they would otherwise not have gotten simply in a seminar.” The trip also provided them with examples of the numerous professional and intellectual paths open to those who are interested in the study of contemporary tribal communities, he said.
Holly Guise (Iñupiaq), a third-year history Ph.D. student and teaching fellow for the “Writing Tribal Histories” course, said the trip was “inspirational.” “As a teaching fellow I was very appreciative of the opportunity to go on this trip because it showed me not only the resources here at Yale, but also the kind of opportunities I can help to facilitate for my own students when I’m a faculty member.”
At McGill University — Blackhawk’s undergraduate alma mater — the students met with First Nations undergraduates at their First Peoples’ House to see how Native communities are and are not represented within Canada’s highly regarded undergraduate institutions.
“This was an application of one of the themes of this course, which is the importance of the voices and experiences of urban Indians in the 20th and 21st centuries,” says Max Henke ’14. Henke is a history major and Blackhawk is his senior thesis adviser.
Outside of Montréal, the group toured the Kahnawa:ke Mohawk Nation, which has been the epicenter for some of the most visible Native activist movements over the past generation, many of which have garnered global attention. They spent time at the Kanien’kehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and Cultural Center, where Iroquoian scholars have devised an operable library cataloging system based on Iroquoian cultural conceptions, rather than Library of Congress numeric ordering systems. There, the students also met with scholars and community activists who are engaged in tribal commemorations of various kinds.
They also visited a communal library that was founded by Yale alumna Skawenniio Barnes ’10, who grew up in the Kahnawa:ke community, and toured the Kahnawa:ke Survival School. At the Cultural Center, they learned of innovative Mohawk language immersion programs for preschool and elementary-age children. During the 1990s, for example, language instructors developed a “Sesame Street”-type television show featuring puppets that speak only Mohawk that has grown in popularity.
“It was very apparent from even the short time that we were there how committed they were to ensuring that their history is sustained for a very long period of time. Hopefully other tribal communities in the United States and Canada can learn from and implement some of the things the Kahnawa:ke community has been instrumental in developing,” said Justin Riner ’16 (Pawnee).
Christian Brown ’15 (Navajo, Diné) tribe, who is double majoring in geology and geophysics, and ecology and evolutionary biology, explained that he is able to take very few classes outside of his two majors. The option of going on a field trip as part of the course solidified his decision to take the class. “I felt like we got a true picture of what native life is like in Montréal from our experience on a reservation and in an urban environment.”
A pre-med student, Brown was glad to have the opportunity to speak to a nurse and to a tribal elder. “I think this is one of those things that Yale promises and offers is to give students a well-rounded education. If I was only studying science I would have never had this opportunity.”
Originally from the Navajo reservation, Brown noted that “the trip strengthened my resolve to focus on medicine on a reservation.”
“The academic framework was like a lens that we used to understand what we were doing and why,” said Henke of the trip, “It was a chance for us to engage with another community completely different from the Yale community.”