Ask Sara Mai Chitty, BA’14, MA’15, to describe land-based learning, and chances are, the Anishinaabekwe storyteller and educator will share an anecdote to illustrate the concept.
“A couple of years ago, there was a story about a whale carrying her dead calf around on her back for several weeks in mourning. I read a column that argued, if a whale can grieve her loss that long, shouldn’t there be extended parental leave for grieving parents in the (United) States?
“That’s the Indigenous approach to looking at things. What do we see in our environment? How do those relationships work with each other and how can that inform how we can engage with our environment and with each other?”
Through this lens, Chitty considers her role as Western’s first Indigenous Curriculum and Pedagogy Advisor (Indigenous Initiatives). Available to support faculty and staff in Indigenizing and decolonizing their curriculum, she’s also charged with developing and facilitating Indigenous learning opportunities with campus and community partners.
It is work that most across campus are either unfamiliar with or uncertain about – and that’s OK right now, she stressed.
“People are afraid to get things wrong; they’re afraid to mess things up. What I want to say, because dialogue is so important, is, ‘Don’t be afraid,’ ”Chitty said.
“This is why I was hired, to work with people in those places where they are unsure. It is messy, but I hope anyone could come to me and talk. It’s the only way we are going to work through it.’’
Western is among many Canadian universities increasing Indigenous curriculum supports and professional training efforts to educate university members about Indigenous Peoples, in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) Calls to Action.
“It takes time,” Chitty said. “People are at different stages in understanding their role in reconciliation. It’s about meeting people where they’re at and then encouraging them to maybe think about how an alternative future, rooted in Indigenous ways of knowing and being, is possible.”
Currently, Chitty is assisting applicants to the Indigenous Learning Fund and planning an Indigenous learning circle in partnership with Western Libraries. She’ll soon be working with the School of Occupational Therapy to incorporate understandings of Indigenous ways of being and knowing into their curriculum.
Sometimes, she is simply defining terms.
“Decolonization involves looking critically at how colonization has structured the way things are and the way things are done and how that’s negatively impacted Indigenous Peoples,” Chitty explained. “It’s also the same for Black people and other people of colour, depending on their background.
“Indigenization is making space for Indigenous voices and scholarship in the classroom and working to ensure students are going to be able to participate in reconciliation and build relationships with Indigenous Peoples in the positions they reach after university, and even during university.”
A member of Alderville First Nation, near Cobourg, Chitty first arrived at Western to study in the Faculty of Arts & Humanities.
“It’s funny to have done a degree in Comparative Literature and Culture, which is essentially, storytelling, and have Indigenous storytelling completely absent from that.”
She stayed on, earning her Master’s in Journalism, writing for the Western Gazette and working for CHRW radio. Back then, her current role was unimaginable. Today, she sees it all makes sense.
“My experiences, my identity and my education have culminated in this opportunity.”
Her appreciation for curriculum design comes from time spent teaching community journalism and storytelling in two fly-in OjiCree communities, “winging it” without a syllabus, shortly after graduation.
“I learned a lot – far more than I taught,” Chitty said.
She later taught Indigenous storytelling and basic writing at Fanshawe College, and also served as transitions and learning advisor for Indigenous students. Their experiences mirrored her own.
“It’s really frustrating to be in a class where your professor doesn’t acknowledge the continued existence of Indigenous Peoples or the violence that has been enacted against them. It can really make you disengage with the material and doubt yourself. For someone like me, I do have white-passing privilege (her grandmother hails from Great Britain, her grandfather, from Alderville First Nation), so the prof might not even know I’m native. They’re not intending to be cruel, it’s just how people have been taught.”
Chitty is hopeful engaging the Western community to consider the impact of colonization – not only on Indigenous communities but on the education offered here – will bring opportunities for everyone to learn and grow differently toward a more equitable and sustainable future.
“It’s all about building relationships. What fosters knowledge and growth with people are those learning connections.”