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Laurier Aboriginal community-based research project has far-reaching impact
Songide’ewin, Ojibwe for strength of the heart, is an Aboriginal narrative research project led by Wilfrid Laurier University’s Faculty of Education researcher Kristiina Montero. The project brought together student teachers in Laurier’s Faculty of Education with Aboriginal secondary school students to create works of art as a way to “learn about each other in a non-hierarchial manner.”
The idea for the project was born when Montero met Elder Rene Meshake, an Ojibwe artist, author, storyteller and community activist, when he was invited to participate in Laurier’s Faculty of Education homecoming activities in 2010.
Finding a home for this community-engaged project in the Native Studies program at Sir John A. Macdonald Secondary School in Hamilton, Ontario, involved much consultation with Aboriginal elders, secondary-school students, their teachers, and Laurier teacher candidates.
“Working with the community and for the community, things grow organically,” said Montero. “The product of the research impacts lives at the community level while at the same time instigating change at higher levels, such as school board programmatic and policy levels.”
The project became a unit in the Native Arts and Culture course at the high school, facilitated by Elder Meshake, in which “we all became students and teachers of art,” with the ordinary classroom roles of student and teacher minimized.
Using reflections on their cultural, linguistic, or musical heritage, the students explored the meanings of their clan symbols, their visions of the creation story, and other important cultural artifacts. They then went on to create 12-inch square paintings that represent each artist’s distinct identity. Montero and the teacher-candidates from Laurier participated, painting side-by-side with the secondary school students.
They put modeling paste on the blank canvas, covered that with a burnt umber wash, and worked with the images that arose in their paintings.
“Automatically,” wrote Ojibwe student Adam Marsh, “the eagle jumped out to me.”
His finished painting, Eagle Flying, helped Marsh understand his First Nations identity.
“The eagle is the highest-flying bird, and we use its feathers during our ceremonies. It seems that everywhere I go there is always something to do with an eagle. It is always there to help me.”
As a second stage of the project, students in an eleventh grade Aboriginal English course chose a painting and responded to it. Students wrote about their feelings and ideas of the painting they chose. These “identity texts” were an opportunity for the student writers to recognize and name their own identities.
Cassandra Bice-Zaugg, an Ojibwe student involved in the program, wrote “See What you Choose,” an identity poem in response to a painting titled Unity.
“The process helped me develop who I thought I was born to be. If I am able to say ‘I know who I am,’ then my kids will be able to do the same, as will their children, their children’s children, and so on and so forth.”
More than 70 paintings and poems were displayed at the Art Gallery of Hamilton in April and May. Video of the show opening at the Art Gallery of Hamilton: http://youtu.be/Tk5tTtVM2jQ.
The Songide’ewin: Aboriginal Narratives art exhibit was also hosted in Laurier’s Robert Langen Art Gallery during Congress 2012.
An article on the project, published in the Journal of Language and Literacy Education, is available online.