Learning through Unlearning in Undergraduate History Education

This is part of an ongoing series of reflections from the Manitoulin Island Summer Historical Institute (MISHI)

By: Natalie Cross, Alyssa Kaminski, and Urvi Maheshwari

Beginning an undergraduate education can be uncomfortable. After several years of attending classes, however, the experience becomes common, perhaps banal. For the most part we attend three hours of classes per course each week. They are located on a relatively quotidian university campus and the lessons are anchored in readings, discussions, and lectures; all of our learning is structured around a fairly formal in-class meeting. Even the most radical of classes tend to stick to a relatively standard format.

This summer at the Manitoulin Island Summer Historical Institute (MISHI), we were introduced to a learning experience rooted in Anishinaabe pedagogies. With the majority of the programming centred at the Ojibwe Cultural Foundation (OCF), we had the opportunity to listen to Elders and knowledge keepers, learn from the Land and its people, and develop an understanding of Anishinaabe history and culture.

MISHI is the complete opposite of our typical university experience; we were uncomfortable, we were engaged, but more importantly we learned the ability to unlearn.

Our introduction to this process of unlearning was through the book Centering Anishinaabeg Studies, which focuses on the power of stories, and how they can be the foundation and framework for the field of Anishinaabe Studies. It teaches readers to unlearn the settler idea that stories and oral traditions are not a legitimate way of learning.

The book begins with a reflection of ‘Nanaboozhoo and the Flood’ by legal scholar John Borrows, then goes the editors – Jill Doerfler, Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair, and Heidi Kiiwetinepinesiik Stark – frame the book as ‘Making an Offering’. In their introduction, the editors describe their book through dialogue, framing it within what they describe as the seven Rs: roots, relationships, revelations, resiliency, resistance, reclamation, and reflection. The 7 Rs provided us with a road map to contextualize each of our experiences and learning at MISHI, while encouraging us to consider and practice unlearning.

The 7 Rs, and the process of unlearning, demonstrate the critical importance of ethical engagement. At MISHI, York University Professor Deb McGregor, who is also from Whitefish River First Nation, spoke of this within the Manitoulin Island context: a researcher, working with Indigenous communities, must be aware of their positionality and power relationships that exist – and especially aware of how those are defined by the local communities and their own knowledge.

Research ethics discourse, which is not often engaged with deeply at the undergraduate level, constantly framed our reflections at MISHI. On our first full day at the Ojibwe Cultural Foundation, Anishinaabe historian Alan Corbiere spoke about the concept of having the heart to help. As humans, we connect our hearts with our minds, and we can also connect to the Land.

Bridging this lesson with unlearning in research, having the heart to help requires reciprocal relationships where the community is involved in the product and the process, and local knowledge is rooted and centred.

It is important for researchers to recognise and utilise the tools at their disposal to make unlearning and relearning possible. The structure of MISHI was one that helped us move beyond our expectations about how to learn. The teachings that occurred during our time together emphasized being present to each other, listening carefully, and – much like the introduction to Centring Anishinaabeg Studies – was dialogical in its framing.

We saw this most clearly on a medicine walk at Wiikwemikoong, where Phyllis Williams introduced us to the healing power of the Land, and as we dug clay to make pots with artist David Miigwans. Later in the week, Alan Corbiere introduced us to the Cup and Saucer trail where he emphasized the importance of relationships to the Land by narrating stories as we made our way to the top; giving us a sense of Anishinaabeg cultural practices and pedagogies. These, among other experiences, such as a quill work workshop, and visit to the Providence Bay excavation site, gave us the opportunity to be active participants in diverse, inclusive, and immersive undirected learning environments. Stepping outside the traditional pedagogical framework was in itself, beneficial to the process of unlearning and relearning in keeping us present to each other.

David Miigwans discusses how to make a clay dish at MISHI 2019. Photo by VK Preston.

MISHI encouraged us to bridge the ability to unlearn with previous undergraduate research learning opportunities and shaped our subsequent research projects over the past semester (Fall 2019).

Last year, we visited the Shingwauk Residential School Centre (SRSC) in Sault Ste. Marie with one of our history classes. We learned about the history of the Shingwauk Home and Wawanosh School for girls, and worked with late nineteenth century primary documents like the letters of the Reverend E.F. Wilson, a founder of the schools. As we worked with the material, we were encouraged to think about what our presence at the SRSC meant at that time.

The messages we took from the experience in Sault Ste. Marie synthesized with the presentness of MISHI. On the Island, we were always overlooking Lake Huron – from our journey over on the Chi-Cheemaun, our hostel at Providence Bay, to Josh Manitowabi’s talk at Wiikwemikoong about the importance of Anishinaabe navigating the Island’s waterways. The Great Lakes are a reminder of how much the Land and Waters must be respected if we are to learn from them as well.

Bridging these moments of unlearning, from the SRSC to MISHI, helped inform how current research on the early history of residential schools in the Great Lakes Region could practice having the heart to help: understanding how participating in experiential learning opportunities shape a researcher’s positioning. MISHI may have only been for a week, yet as undergraduate students we were gifted with the opportunity to come to better understand the responsibilities we hold as student researchers.

The theme for MISHI 2019, “Anishinaabekwe Ogimaawiwin/Women’s Leadership” played a central role in our pursuit of holistic experiential learning. The need for an intersectional lens to examine policy, ethics and research was the subject of recurrent discussion throughout the week. We were given the opportunity to listen to the former chief of the Whitefish River First Nation, Leona Nahwegahbow, as well as a panel including Chiefs Patsy Corbiere, Elaine Johnston and Linda Debassige, who defined their work, not by the extent of their power and authority, but by their rootedness in community. The key takeaway from these talks, was that agency can be created, where it is absent.

Three Manitoulin Island/ North Shore chiefs: Patsy Corbiere (Aundeck Omni Kaning), Elaine Johnston (Serpent River), and Linda Debassige (M’Chigeeng). York History Professor Carolyn Podruchny is on the far left. Photo by VK Preston.

Learning about this idea of created agency in response to the obstacles challenging Indigenous women’s power challenged us to explore similar themes within the nineteenth-century writing of five Indigenous women. In one of our research projects, we situated Anishinaabe writer Jane Johnston Schoolcraft beside several of her contemporaries: E. Pauline Johnson, Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins, Susette La Flesche Tibbles, and Sophia Alice Callahan. Taken together, we can see in these Indigenous women’s writings the ways in which they created agency, and exercised power in their personal and professional lives. Though written over a century ago, they drew out themes explored over our week on Manitoulin. As such, MISHI gave us an opportunity for ethical engagement in experiential learning and research by allowing us to refocus our thoughts, challenge existing ideas, and re-purpose our work as undergraduate students.

MISHI showcased the importance of ethical engagement and giving back to the community with the research we conduct. Talks throughout the week on projects that involved reciprocity and community feedback, community-based participatory research, and current archaeological work, displayed how research should be conducted when working with Indigenous communities.

Our walk on the Cup and Saucer Trail, where we saw the devastating effects of quarry-excavation, further conveyed the need for community consultation before irreversible scars can be made to the Land.

The scarred landscape along the Cup & Saucer Trail. Photo by VK Preston.

These ideas informed how future archaeological work on Manitoulin Island and the surrounding islands should look: consultation with communities; Indigenous-led initiatives; and research “with, by and for” a community rather than research done “on or about” a community. MISHI gave us the opportunity to learn from the land and people of Manitoulin Island in a respectful partnership; it showed us how respectful research can be conducted through examples of initiatives at the OCF.

Our individual and collective experience at MISHI informed three distinct research experiences, which are representative of MISHI’s diverse learning outcomes. Some core teachings of ethical engagement, reciprocity, positionality, as well as the centrality of Land and story to exploring Anishinaabe history and culture, remain with all of us.

Though, it is unrealistic for us to make experiences like MISHI a core universal component of an undergraduate education. What our experience reminds us, though, is the need for discomfort, relationality, and presence in our universities. There are lessons from MISHI that can and should be applied broadly within the post-secondary classroom.

Natalie Cross, Alyssa Kaminski, and Urvi Maheshwari are undergraduate students at Huron University College and participated in MISHI 2019.

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