Skunk Girl Goes to School: A Literacy Practitioner’s Return
By Nancy Cooper
The night before I was to start graduate school at the Ontario Institute
for Studies in Education, University of Toronto (OISE/UT), my dog
was sprayed by a skunk on our evening walk. Needless to say, she
wasn’t the only one who smelled offensive after our altercation
with the potent little creature. Great, I thought, my first day of
school and my new nickname is going to be skunk girl. But people
were kind and said they could hardly smell anything. Looking back,
I think this experience was a perfect metaphor for my fears about
going back to school after a long absence of twelve years. I was
going to stick out, to not belong, but I was going to try my best
and get what I came for. And, fortunately for me, my experience has
been a wonderful, affirming one that has helped me to become a better
person and educator.
For the past decade I have worked in Ontario within the Native literacy
community. I began my career as the literacy coordinator at a downtown
Toronto Native women’s resource centre. At that time, the literacy
program was in the basement of a building and in the mornings I would
sometimes have to clear out the dead rats before getting to my day.
From day one of being a literacy practitioner, I was hooked because
I was working with people who were finding a stronger sense of self
through skills building. These were people, who, despite the odds
stacked against them, had dreams and goals and knew that literacy
was one of the ways to achieve them. Building a culture-based literacy
program allowed me to learn more about myself as a Native woman while
setting the stage for learning to take place in an environment that
affirmed Indigenous knowledges and cultural practices. From there
I moved on to work provincially and nationally in the Native literacy
community. The work I do now is with a provincial literacy resource
centre and the numerous Native literacy programs all over Ontario.
I am involved with curriculum development, computer training, distance
learning, and program evaluation. It is and has been very rewarding
work, but two years ago I felt the need to return to school. I needed
to take a break and focus my attention on building my skills in an
academic setting so that I could return to the community energized
and refreshed and able to tackle old and new issues in new ways.
To see the world with new eyes.
Many of us, as Aboriginal people, are alone most of the time. In
our workplaces and in our communities of choice we often find ourselves
the only one or one of only a few. Living in the city as I have for
the past thirteen years, I’ve been fortunate to work in my
community in a variety of ways. For the past five years I’ve
worked in an organization in which I was the only Aboriginal person.
So it was with great longing and excitement that I began graduate
school because I knew that I would have a community of people around
me who knew who I was and where I came from. I could just be in a
way that opens up the mind and allows one to grow. I researched schools
with this in mind. I knew I couldn’t go back to school without
this kind of community to help me. I knew that I wouldn’t be
able to succeed in my course of study without these faces, these
experiences, this knowing around me to buoy me up and keep me grounded
with both feet on the ground and my eyes on the stars. On my first
day and in my first class I experienced this community of peers in
a wonderful and profound way. The professor spoke in her language,
other Aboriginal students located themselves by language, location,
spiritual practice and culture, and I felt at home in a way that
I’m sure not many people feel in academic circles. I was surrounded
by the language and culture of the Cree of Manitoba and Saskatchewan,
the Algonquin of Quebec, and of my own Ojibway background.
These things were acknowledged as important parts of knowing and
of who we are as Aboriginal scholars. This naming of ourselves and
placing ourselves in the world would continue and become an integral
part of several of the courses I was to take at OISE/UT. In this
way, we were and are claiming our rightful place at the table and
acknowledging that we are not alone in the pursuit of our degrees.
Our ancestors sit at the tables with us, watching, smiling and even
goading us on sometimes. Our descendants sit at the table too, watching
and cheering us on.
By Sarain Stump
Don’t break this circle
Before the song is over
Because all of our people
Even the ones long gone
Are holding hands.
Aboriginal people have a knowledge base that is ancient, one that
has been threatened by colonialism and racism throughout the past
500 plus years. During my time at OISE/UT, I’ve come to see
that it is our job as educators to recover and uncover this knowledge
and celebrate all the ways of knowing that make us, as Aboriginal
people, who we are. We need to learn and relearn how to read the
signs, read the wind, read the world in the ways we were always meant
to in addition to picking up the very important learning and skills
found in graduate school. This kind of literacy/knowledge is something
that has long interested me as a literacy worker in the Native community.
It is the unspoken for many adult learners because of years of being
made to feel ashamed of who they are and what they know. Because
of the educational system and its effects on our communities, whole
generations of people have grown up believing these very things.
Knowing about our past, how we got here, what makes us who we are
enables us to place ourselves in today and look to the future with
clear eyes and a knowing heart. This is what literacy means to me.
This is what Aboriginal education means to me.
As an educator working in the Aboriginal community, I believe it
is my duty to continually create an environment whereby learners
can learn about the richness of their cultures and about the many
contributions to mainstream society our societies have provided,
both willingly and against our collective will. My sadness and anger
go hand in hand when I think of the way that I was educated to believe
that Aboriginal people were a simple people, conquered and needing
to accept being assimilated for any good to happen for them. Aboriginal
people had simple traditions, folklore, and a belief in the great
mystery or Creator, but they didn’t have science and technology
and ‘advanced’ knowledge. As educators, we have a lot
of unlearning to do for ourselves in order that others can unlearn
as well. Decolonizing the education we received is a long and arduous
but rewarding journey. For at the end of that journey we return to
a knowing that sustains us in the face of those who would tell us
we are less than, quaint and primitive, a vanishing part of Canadiana.
Aboriginal people are reclaiming this knowledge and in some part
reclaim that which was stolen/suppressed through forced relocation
to residential schools, adoptions, and by simply being part of the
mainstream education system. I was taught to, yet again, appreciate
the knowledge system that I come from that is tens of thousands of
years old, and to open myself up to continue learning from this system.
I am reminded that knowledge comes in many forms, including learning
that cleansing and healing happens in the body as well as in the
mind and that one is not more important than the other. I see Aboriginal
literacy as a type of archaeological recovery work in the sense that
we need to uncover, celebrate and learn from the gifts people already
have and work towards healing and recovery while helping people learn
the skills needed for survival in the mainstream community. We need
to relook at what is commonly accepted as valid knowledge (found
in white, colonial, mainstream educational practices), and cherish
all the ways we learn and know.
Looking back over the past year and a half, and with a thesis looming
large on my horizon, I sit and smile at the memories that were stirred
up while writing this article. Going back to school has had its struggles
and its triumphs. I’ve cried and shared my pain with others
and they with me. I’ve held an eagle feather in my hands and
spoken my truth in circle. I’ve participated in ceremony. I’ve
learned so much about myself. I’ve pulled at least one all-nighter
writing up against a deadline. I’ve laughed, a lot. The Trickster
has lived within me during my time at OISE/UT and that’s been
good. I’ve made some dear friends. I’ve learned and enriched
my mind, my body, and my spirit. What better way to continue on my
Portions of this article first appeared in a paper I wrote for an
Aboriginal World Views course in my first year at OISE/UT.
Stump, Sarain (2001). Round Dance. In Native Poetry in Canada: A
Contemporary Anthology. Edited by Jeannette C. Armstrong and Lally
Grauer. Peterborough: Broadview Press, p. 83.
Nancy Cooper is from the Chippewas of Mnjikaning First Nation in
Ontario. Nancy has been a literacy practitioner in the Native community
for the past decade. While at school she has been looking at how
Native literacy learners access Indigenous knowledges in culture-based
literacy programs. In addition to being a photographer and performance
artist, Nancy is also a published author and poet. Her work can be
found in Strong Women Stories from Sumach Press.