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Humans of INKspire

Dr. Kathy Absolon | Storyteller & Director, Centre for Indigegogy

Kathy is a story teller and knowledge carrier

Kathy is a storyteller and knowledge carrier

For those who don’t know you, what is your story?

I’ll begin by introducing myself in my own language and my own way, with the spiritual greeting Boozhoo—from my spirit to your spirit. My name is Minogiizhigo kwe, I’m from Flying Post First Nation Treaty nine, and I live in Kitchener. Right now, I’m a professor, and I teach at Wilfrid Laurier University in the Indigenous Field of Study, MSW Program.  I’m also the Director of its Center for Indigegogy. The Centre for Indigegogy offers Indigenous-centered professional development and training across many social sectors. I work with a strong  Indigenous team and wonderful Elders to provide decolonizing knowledges and training for settlers who want to unpack colonialism in themselves or their practices. I’m also a Kokom, a grandmother of three, and a mother of three. 

For those of you that don’t know me, I’m Anishinaabekwe, which translates to mean an Anishinaabe/Indigenous woman. My mother is Ojibwe or Anishinaabe, and my father is British. I grew up in an in-between world of not living on a reserve and not living in a white town but living in the bush. We lived in a little place called Cranberry Lake along the CNR railway tracks, about 50 miles south of Sudbury and north of Parry Sound. My mother has had a strong influence on my earth-based knowledge and my life; she is now on her spirit journey.

I’m also a first-generation survivor of the Indian residential school system. My mother went to the St. John’s Anglican Residential School in Chapleau, Ontario from age five and stayed for ten years. I say “went,” but she was, like many other Indigenous children, forced to go. And that system impacted my whole family—we’re all survivors of that. So, my story is informed by two things: growing up in the bush close to the land and the story of colonial violence in Canada. This violence entered my life through the Indian residential school system and the ongoing systemic racism I experience in Canada.

What is one aspect of your culture that you feel people should know about?

In my Anishinaabe culture, we see ourselves as extensions of the earth. The earth is our mother, the sun is our grandfather, the moon is our grandmother, and we, the people, are made up of elements of the earth. So, since the time of contact and pre-contact, Anishinaabe people have always lived a life in accordance with the natural law of the earth. Without the earth, sky, air, and water, we have no life. 

We also know life comes from creation, and human beings are connected to the Great Spirit. What we stand up for in terms of protecting the water and land is embedded in the core belief that the land gives us life and has a spirit. We see ourselves as helpers and facilitators to live life in a way that doesn’t bring harm and continues to restore the balance within all of creation. My relatives are not just human beings; they are the tree beings, the medicines, plants, and sacred animal helpers. Today, land acknowledgements and the resistant movements to stop pipelines are not about gaining power or notoriety but about standing up to our responsibilities as stewards of the land. 

Related to your career, how did your interest in academia begin?

In terms of Indigenous peoples’ place in Canada and the history of Indian education, we weren’t socialized to take leadership roles in this country because of colonization. In fact, colonial education and this government have done everything in their power to exterminate our knowledge and being. Today, you see that in terms of the genocide that happened at the Indian residential schools and the policies in place to govern us. 

I didn’t think that I would go into academia because I was socialized and conditioned to take my place in a secondary role as a servant, in a sense. Indigenous children did not have positive cultural mirrors in school, nor were we encouraged to pursue post-secondary education. In public school, I experienced a lot of institutional racism and personal racism. The message was that I didn’t belong and I wasn’t smart enough, which impacted my self-esteem and what I thought I could do in the world. However, as a young woman and single mom, I was encouraged by my elders and a group for single parents to invest in my education. I wanted to make a better life for myself and my daughter. I also knew that I wanted to work with my own people and be part of a solution to make things better for Indigenous peoples.

Going to university in the mid-1980s wasn’t easy for an Indigenous person because there were no Indigenous student services, faculty, or curriculum. I was determined to be a positive change agent and to help my people. And it was pivotal for me to take Indigenous Studies courses to begin connecting the dots between my personal experience and the political agenda of colonialism in the country. I wanted to know what happened to our people and why there was so much trauma and violence in our lives. I have a curious spirit and mind, so I ended up studying questions that I had throughout my life, like what caused this trauma and pain and despair amongst my people. I found answers for those in university, and I graduated with my MSW degree in 1991. 

However, I was really doing two kinds of education at the time. The colonial education system helped me get the credentials I needed to be taken seriously, but I also went through my cultural re-education. I sought out traditional knowledge carriers, elders and teachers, as well as went to traditional elders gatherings and ceremonies. There, I received my true cultural education that nurtured my Anishinaabe spirit, heart, mind and body. I relearned about who I was in a positive, healthy way because Canadian society and colonial education perpetuated stereotypes and racism that I internalized as a negative self-belief system. Academia gave me a place to begin exploring personal questions and how to take my place in my communities in a way that does not recolonize but brings healing to individuals, families, communities, and nations.

What lessons have you learned during the COVID-19 pandemic?

I’ve been in the Indigenous field of study in the MSW program at Wilfred Laurier for 15 years now in various roles, and I’m the Director of the Center for Indigegogy. The COVID pandemic impacted my work there because Indigenous ways of learning are all done in person, on the land, and in ceremony. Indigenous spaces are often steeped in experiential learning, where we bring elders to educate grad students about holistic healing practices, protocols and ceremonies. So the pandemic caused us to move into virtual spaces like everybody else which was a big change. 

I’ve learned that we can still thread the core values of our teachings and knowledge in virtual spaces and weave in spirit and heart into how we work. For example, in my circles in classes, people all have their cameras on because we still have teachings that we want to transfer. It’s not just about cognitive knowledge, but also spiritual, heart knowledge, relational knowledge, and giving people that gift of presence. Before, I wouldn’t have thought we could do that online, but the pandemic has taught me how powerful spirit is—spirit transcends time and space. Even though we’ve been learning virtually, we’re still generating transformative learning spaces within our graduate program, which has been a phenomenal experience for me. 

Also, being an earth-based philosopher and Indigenous person, I see that the earth is in charge. With this pandemic, the earth has had a chance to breathe, and it’s like it sent everybody to their rooms. But people don’t see that it’s our responsibility to do better. We’re in a relationship with the earth and all of creation, but we haven’t been fulfilling that responsibility in a conducive manner to life. So that’s been a huge wake-up call. 

Kathy is a leader in Indigenous social work education

Kathy is a leader in Indigenous social work education

How do you balance your research as an academic and community work as a social worker?

I approach my work from who I am as an Anishnaabe person, so I’ve learned not to check myself at the door of the academy. I don’t leave myself at the door, and I bring my experiences into my work. I’m a living library, after all, with a life of experiences and knowledge. Who I am and what I do as an Anishinaabe woman is central to my teaching and community practice. It’s been an act of resistance and leadership to bring my whole self into my doctoral work, as a community helper and holistic practitioner. I balance all of those things by living my teachings. In all aspects of my work, what you see is what you get because I bring my spirit, heart, and intellect. 

When doing talks, I also bring my heart and humaneness with me. I share my self and my experiences as examples. I don’t shy away from being a human being with all my own follies and faults, strengths and gifts. I’ve been working in decolonizing knowledge for 30 years, so I bring that critical consciousness to my work and help my communities understand the impact of racism with creativity and humour in healing spaces. I am who I am, and I don’t apologize for that. 

You mention that your academic journey has been a pathway of unlearning, healing, and re-learning. Can you discuss this in more detail?

When I say my academic journey has been a pathway of unlearning, I think about a moment during my undergraduate Indigenous Studies course when I read about the history of the Indian residential schools in Canada. Up until then, I didn’t have a name for what my mother talked about when she said she had to go to a school and couldn’t come home. They were her stories of defiance and disobedience, which I later reframed into stories of resistance and resilience. 

But as I read about the role of the Canadian government in handing over education to churches to resocialize the Indian out of the child, I realized that that was my story, my mother’s story, my aunties’ story, my uncles’ story, my grandparents’ story and the story of the people in my community. At that moment, all of the dots connected, and then I called my mother, who told me the name of the residential school she attended and the number 26 they gave her. I finally understood the chaos and trauma that we went through in our family, such as alcoholism, so I had to unlearn the negative self-belief that the education system and racism gave me. 

Since then, it was the elders, traditional people and my community who healed my heart and helped me love myself. I turned to my community and started to see the beauty of my people, of the culture I come from, and the beautiful teachings from grandmothers, grandfathers, and the elders who held me up and told me we belong as Indigenous people, that creation would be incomplete without us. 

My journey of unlearning then led me to be mentored by critical Indigenous scholars who were activists and part of resistance movements. I read critical people’s work, like Bell Hooks, to learn about Indigenous peoples movements, as well as read about the Black People’s Liberation Movements out of oppression. All of this learning helped me create space to embrace the beauty of who I am and where I come from.

I also happen to work in the academy and have enjoyed my time there, but it hasn’t been an easy place to work. The academy has been a mechanism of aggressive assimilation, where we have constantly had to fight and carve out spaces for Indigenous students, curriculum, and faculty. Even so, we’re still fighting the omission and unbalanced ratio of Indigenous peoples knowledge and values. For example, many students are confronted with professors who don’t understand the history and turn to Indigenous students to explain everything to them. We’re also still battling the basic right to practice Indigenous traditions like smudging.

It’s always going to be a journey of learning and creating authentic spaces within the academy for Indigenous students to come. So in our study space, it’s important to stand up for how we teach and hold the academy accountable. 

Is it possible to have a constant path of learning to move forward instead of taking steps back?

To know how to move forward, you have to understand where you’ve been so you don’t repeat the past. In order to know where you’re going, you must know where you’ve come from and this means that we have to teach and understand the truth of colonial history and violence. There has been so much erasure and amnesia that this is much of our work to combat the erasure of truth. However, there’s a point of frustration for Indigenous scholars in such a colonized society because we cannot take for granted that people understand the context in which we are moving forward. That’s why we do our work.

The colonial machine is everywhere in popular culture, literature and curriculum, as well as in the values and beliefs of people you’re learning from. And in this contemporary society, with the influx of technologies, social media, and the ongoing disconnection of people to the natural world, we’ll have to contextualize our work in our practice until society understands that there’s no movement forward without acknowledging what’s happened in this country. 

So today, more than five thousand children were unearthed in a massive graveyard in Kamloops. Subsequent to that, more and more children were unearthed at another gravesite in Manitoba, and every residential school in this country (about 135) has a mass unmarked grave. Our work as Indigenous people will always have to be recognizing the injustices of the genocide that has been accepted because of the ignorance perpetuated within an education system that has omitted this history. Until every Canadian understands the history and can live in respect of the treaty relationships in the country, we will always be unlearning the colonial rhetoric.

Is there anything else that you’d like to add?

With humility, I’ve been blessed with many teachers and helpers who have shared their knowledge with me. My beautiful mother, who is on her spirit journey, taught me so much. Now it’s my responsibility to carry their beautiful knowledge bundles forward. I wanted to add that today, after 60 years in this earth lodge, I’m a knowledge carrier within my nation and my community, so I have a responsibility to make sure the knowledge that I have is passed on to the next generation of helpers—my children and grandchildren. I want my kids, as well as the students and people I work with to be proud of who they are. A big part of my story is fulfilling my responsibility in restoring that beauty and that pride within our families, our communities and our own people.

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