Tekanerahtá:sens tanon tewake’nikónrhare (The leaves are falling, and I am worried)
Updated: Nov 5
For Indigenous students, stepping onto campus kannena’ké:ne (in Autumn) once meant diving headfirst into student-life while challenging the inner-turmoil of not knowing whether we will be othered while achieving our degrees due to the bloodline we were born into and the culture we were raised in. It meant finding other Indigenous students to find comfort with, finding a routine with the new course schedule and environment, and taking in the changing colours of the scenery as the semester rolled on. These days, Indigenous students experience the same feelings, but are now quickly met with reminders across campus and in-class of their family and community’s traumas as the Orange Shirt Day flyers and testimonials are posted to raise awareness for the non-Indigenous students, staff, and faculty that remain uninformed. The classic campus experience is already different in this way alone, when comparing a normal September month of a non-Indigenous student to an Indigenous student, as the typical first few weeks of classes for the rest of the student body has likely not involved having to read, listen to, or speak about the individual and common attempts of government-funded destruction perpetrated onto their families and communities spanning across multiple generations. For non-Indigenous people, the Indian Residential School system has only been a widely discussed topic within Canadian society over the past couple years since our relatives’ remains were beginning to be located during the early months of 2021. For Indigenous people, we could not and cannot celebrate these findings, there was no “aha!” or “I told you so” moment, as this was not news for us, but verification as to the grim histories that we have shared amongst ourselves in our communities for generations. The stories went untold for the longest time. The memories far too soon to look back on, despite being decades ago. The emotions remain all too raw for our survivors that are here today, and for those descendants that continue to withhold the traumas that have been passed down.
While the news of gravesites being found at former Indian Residential School sites were shocking the non-Indigenous demographics across colonially called “Canada”, the First Nations, Inuit, and Metis people and communities were grateful. The Indian Residential School system has been the crux for Indigenous families across the nation, including my own, who were unaware that a cause of our family’s intergenerational trauma was the Indian Residential School system until confirmed through stories shared by my great-aunties. Being a student at the time of this realization helped in making my family dynamics make sense, and I went from questioning my family members’ past actions to being grateful to be together at all. I mean, do you consider your great-grandfather lucky if he was not killed while attending secondary school? My tóta ronikénha (deceased great-grandfather) was one of the lucky ones who made it home to Akwesasne after attending Thomas Indian School. Let me repeat that. My tóta ronikénha was one of the lucky ones... because he made it home alive. This is a mutual feeling shared by many Indigenous people, an experience that we don’t expect many to understand, a journey that Indigenous students must be supported through as they place themselves in the long chain of historical attempts on our livelihoods. We should not have to feel gratitude for our relatives surviving secondary school, and yet three generations later, we experience a twisted sort of survivor’s guilt for being here when so many of our community members are only now being located and released from the weight of the land that has been developing around them for generations.
The legacy of the Indian Residential School system is much deeper than the western eye can handle, it seems. There are hidden anxieties that Indigenous students face when uprooting their lives to pursue post-secondary education; moving from community to a big city or small town, submerging yourself in a campus of all new faces, being unsure of whether you will be accepted by your peers and professors, and attending (and putting the effort in to flourish at) an institution where you feel completely out of place due to the culture, history, architecture and general student body across campus. While attending the first-year of university is an exciting opportunity for non-Indigenous students to take advantage of their newfound freedom from their parents’ judgement or boring hometowns, arriving at campus for move-ins or first day of classes for Indigenous students looks quite different. The excitement is mixed with worry, worries that are often scoffed at or go unacknowledged by their non-Indigenous classmates, professors, and supports. These worries are valid, as they are concerns over whether they will face hateful rhetoric based on how they appear, worries over the potential immediate judgement when donning big beaded earrings, worries over whether their professors will treat them with the same respect as the other students, the fear of being treated as a walking encyclopedia in class, unease over the idea of not finding community in familiar faces, fears of being mocked over mispronunciations and rez accents, and feeling unsure of when you will hear familiar comforts like your own language, dialect, stories, or songs again. Indigenous students taking the major leap to attend post-secondary education are courageous and should be recognized as such by their non-Indigenous peers – not challenged, questioned, belittled, or made to feel as though they must prove their Indigeneity, knowledge, expertise, or worth over and over and over.
Our bloodlines have survived unsurmountable traumas since settler contact, blood memory that lives on within us and prevails during hard times. We withhold ancestral knowledge that has been passed down from generation to generation, living through various genocidal tactics, demonstrating how strong and engrained our traditional practices are on these lands. This knowledge on oónwara (plant life), onékanos (waterways), otsiténa (birds), kontírio (wild animals), karakwa (sun), enníta (moon) and otsísto (stars), kaianrénsera (law), all of it transcends and overpowers any colonial ingenuity that sought to industrialize and destroy our Iethi’nisténha Ohóntsa (Mother Earth). Our lived experiences on-reserve, in the city, and in small towns are what make our journeys that much more unique, as what we are taught from our parents and grandparents is formed by who, where, and how they were raised. Non-Indigenous students should feel lucky to have the opportunity to learn from their Indigenous classmates, for free, on the traditional customs and practices of their nation if they choose to share. Non-Indigenous faculty should feel lucky to have the presence and participation of Indigenous students in their lecture halls, as their inherent knowledge predates any writing that is mandatory in the syllabus. The general non-Indigenous campus community should feel lucky to be attending classes or working on the traditional territories of the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte, Alderville First Nation, the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan, and Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg. Remind yourself of where you are, and who flourished here before the emergence of limestone buildings and cobblestone roads.
For those of you that are lucky enough to not have to connections to the Indian Residential School system, I urge you to take this opportunity to do your own research on the origins of Orange Shirt Day/National Day for Truth and Reconciliation and the histories of the Indian Residential School system. The Indigenous student experience is difficult enough as it is without the unnecessary backhanded or outright racist remarks being made to our faces, behind our backs, or from across the lecture hall. It is not difficult to be silent, listen, and retain the knowledge being shared by those Indigenous folks choosing to share the intelligence they withhold. Wear your orange shirt around campus and encourage others to do the same. Share informative posts on the day to your social media. Bring up the topic in class if it goes unannounced. Commit to using your expertise for the breaking down of barriers that are used to challenge Indigenous people and their sovereignty. Use your network to raise awareness or funds when an Indigenous-led demonstration requires mutual aid. There are many appropriate ways to demonstrate allyship during this time, and throughout the year, without tastelessly seeking guidance from Indigenous students, staff, and faculty. Indigenous students shouldn’t be viewed as spokespeople of the Orange Shirt movement, but listened to when they decide to supplement the teachings of the day with their own stories and understanding of what it means to them and their home community. This is a time of deep heartache and sorrow for our communities, a time to witness and honour our survivors, those we lost, and their families on their healing journeys. This is a time of reflection, to discuss the effects of the Indian Residential School system and its legacy on our people. Indigenous students attending post-secondary walk with a deeper knowledge of the Indian Residential School system because they were surrounded by its vile reminders their entire lives, and the last thing they need during this month is to exert themselves carrying your ignorance.
Akwé:kon ratiia’tanó:ron ne ratiksha’okón:’a.