Course rewrite ‘Frames’ experiences in new way

Rick Fehr felt it was important to put his students’ work into the public eye to continue the teaching and learning about representations of Indigenous Peoples.

For the past few years, Fehr has watched several students in his class participate in events and protests to raise awareness about current situations facing Indigenous Peoples, including Idle No More. Recognizing this activism called for a higher level of classroom engagement, the First Nations professor realized he couldn’t just teach a regular lecture-style first-year course. Instead, he invited his students to help develop a creative assignment together to address issues of decolonization and representations of Indigenous Peoples.

“I was noticing this massive uprising of creativity and expression of Indigenous self-determination and solidarity through Idle No More through my students. I knew I had to re-write the syllabus and allow them more autonomy and say in what happens with the course,” Fehr said.

Called Decolonizing Frames: Questioning, Critiquing, and Celebrating Indigenous Representation, the resulting students’ projects are currently on display at the Museum of Ontario Archeology until Aug. 29.

This is a unique opportunity for first-year students to participate in an experiential-learning model that gives them an opportunity to design and create an exhibit of their work.

“This was the most engaged group of students I have seen because they rolled up their sleeves and composed a very visual and tactile essay,” he continued. “I asked them to address decolonization and how they would want to communicate their thoughts, feelings and attitudes of what decolonization means to them either as Indigenous or non-Indigenous students with a growing knowledge set of First Nations studies.”

The 42-member class, of which about two-thirds identified as Indigenous, produced 19 exhibits, including an intricately designed cradleboard, a traditional baby carrier; a sculpture of ‘The Indian’ made from newspaper highlighting misrepresentations and stereotypes of First Nations Peoples; and double-exposure photography depicting ‘natural’ landscapes and industrialized and colonialized landscapes.

Some students drew on their cultural backgrounds, including connecting with language speakers from local First Nations communities. The exhibits incorporated First Nations languages of Cree, Oneida, Ojibwa, Mohawk and Lenape.

“They are dealing with the material at a deeper level in ways the community was ultimately very proud of,” Fehr said. “It doesn’t just give them a theoretical understanding of the material in First Nations Studies; it gives them the potential for an outcome that exists post-graduation. They are learning design and aesthetic; it presents an alternative career choice.

“Students are much more animated and engaged in the process if they’re in the community. I am very proud of the students because they demonstrated they are more than capable of being leaders and community members fully engaged with topics – they don’t need to be lectured to,” he said.

About 90 people attended the exhibit opening in April, the largest opening in the museum’s history, noted curator Nicole Aszalos. Leaders from local First Nations communities attended this event, along with family and friends of the students.

“Having the hands-on community learning experience is really eye-opening and wonderful for the students,” Aszalos said. “With decolonization in general, what we are presenting here isn’t something you would necessarily see at any other museum in the area. It is about bringing in those voices and bringing them to the wider community that comes in here.

“This project was so phenomenal; I’d like to do it again.”

One of the misconceptions about the Museum of Ontario Archeology is that it is a study of the past. But, archeology is only one component of the broader idea and meaning that the museum represents, Aszalos noted. Its goal is to present Ontario’s history in engaging and insightful ways, she said.

Fehr notes First Nations Studies is subjected to similar misconceptions as being a study of the past and ignores the communities still thriving today.

“They (Indigenous Peoples) are not just in the realm of archeology, history or anthropology; they are fundamentally shaping and reshaping Canada itself in the 21st century,” Fehr said. “They are reshaping it through acts of decolonization because Canada is a colonial state which actively sought the assimilation and complete erasing of Indigenous Peoples through residential schools, through the Indian Act, social norms held by non-Indigenous society, that actively oppressed and suppressed Indigenous voice.

“That’s the material that students in First Nations Studies confront on a daily, weekly basis and they confront it outside the classroom too. The whole idea of Decolonizing Frames was to offer a vehicle to speak against that history of colonialism by addressing decolonization.”