Program pairs academic, Indigenous ways

Debora Van Brenk // Western News

The Learning with Head and Heart program aims to integrate traditional knowledge with research rigour in a 14-week summer program for Indigenous undergraduates. Pictured are Erin Huner, Western's Director of Research, Assessment and Planning in the Student Experience portfolio; Zeeta Lazore Cayuga, Indigenous Liaison Admissions Co-ordinator, and Donna Noah, a Learning with Head and Heart program participant who graduated last June from the First Nations program.

Woven into Natalie Hill’s wampum belt are beads of dark sky and bright stars, the piece braided brilliant with gold thread. Woven into her studies are traditional Haudenosaunee stories and scientific understanding of the constellations.

Her wampum belt serves as a tangible reminder that identity and academia are not just compatible but complementary.

“To me, it demonstrated how both Indigenous knowledge and Western ways of knowing could coincide together and both be considered valid and respected,” she said of her participation in the inaugural Learning with Head and Heart program at Western last year.

The summer program pairs Indigenous undergraduates and faculty supervisors/mentors to conduct research that bridges academic and Indigenous ways of knowing.

“The goal is to balance what you know subjectively through your heart and what you know objectively through your head, without one over-riding the other,” said Erin Huner, Western’s Director of Research, Assessment and Planning in the Student Experience portfolio.

Last summer, 17 students received funding for the 14-week research partnerships in virtually every faculty on campus. It includes mentorship from Indigenous Services staff members, with the aim of creating research projects that are respectful, reciprocal, responsible and relevant.

Hill worked in Physics and Astronomy, learning about different origin stories of constellations, which culminated in designing and crafting a wampum belt that shows the Haudenosaunee Celestial Bear, known as the Big Dipper.

Five of the initial cohort decided to continue on in graduate studies, including Donna Noah, who graduated last June from the First Nations program and decided to focus her summer research on developing the framework of an Indigenous music class curriculum. A singer from the Munsee-Delaware nation west of London, she researched techniques and protocols for teaching other nations’ songs in different languages, postures and vocables.

Special to Western NewsStudent Natalie Hill wove this wampum belt showing the Celestial Bear (also known as the Big Dipper) as she conducted astronomy research as part of Western’s Head and Heart program last summer.

“Through this, I figured out I want to teach,” she said. “I’ve become more confident in realizing skills I never thought I had. I never even thought about teaching and now I’m going to apply for Indigenous education.”

Head and Heart is supported by Student Experience and Research Western as part of a larger initiative that supports programming for undergraduate research opportunities and opportunities for Indigenous students.

“The program helps them find their place in the community and their place in the world. I haven’t heard of a similar program to what we have here,” said Zeeta Lazore Cayuga, Indigenous Liaison Admissions Co-ordinator. “This program is really mindful in supporting students financially to do this work,” including bursaries available that help students return home during the program.

She said one unexpected benefit has been that participants became a tight-knit support and encouragement system for each other.

Student Paul Porter, of the Mohawk Bear Clan from Six Nations of Grand River, worked with algae in the lab under Biology professors Norm Huner and Beth Szyszka.

He came to realize he would like to do a minor in Biology. “What I found interesting is how my cultural teachings were able to be integrated into my research and understanding of scientific principles/theories,” he said. Just as in photosynthesis, plants capture light energy and transform it to chemical energy, “at each stage in life you learn something and have a certain job to do. That is like the traditional knowledge being passed down.”

Norm Huner said he believes both he and Porter benefited from the program and were both pushed to answer, “How does one bring together western scientific views of the world and Indigenous knowledge, because they seem to be polar opposites?”

Norm Huner said he challenges students to get to know their organisms through constant observation; detecting and intuiting their subtle changes over time is an essential, but often a subjective, skill. “It’s critical to science but it’s never written in science journals because it’s not ‘scientific’. It’s universal and it’s lost in a lot of western science…Paul has a greater sensitivity to this and I think his Indigenous background did provide a greater preparation.”

This year’s Head and Heart program will have room for 18 Indigenous undergraduate students and applications must be submitted by April 5. Students admitted to the program receive awards of $7,650 each, covering 14 weeks of full-time employment. Students are also eligible for bursaries to offset travel costs to their home communities.

“My advice for future students in the program would be to remember that even though we are in a Westernized institution and more often than not, being taught by non-Indigenous instructors, never forget that our knowledge is just as valid and complete,” Hill said.

“It can be discouraging as Indigenous students to not have our history and perspectives shared but that does not mean that Indigenous knowledge does not exist and that there is not an entire Indigenous community behind you, supporting and rooting for you.”