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Aboriginal Awarenss: "We exist!"

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

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  • Marcel Labelle talks to students during Aboriginal Awareness Week about the art of making boats.

    Marcel Labelle talks to students during Aboriginal Awareness Week about the art of making boats.

  • Rene Meshake spoke with students during Aboriginal Awareness Week..

    Rene Meshake spoke with students during Aboriginal Awareness Week..

  • Rene Meshake spoke with students during Aboriginal Awareness Week.

    Rene Meshake spoke with students during Aboriginal Awareness Week.

  • Rene Meshake spoke with students during Aboriginal Awareness Week.

    Rene Meshake spoke with students during Aboriginal Awareness Week.

  • Rene Meshake spoke with students during Aboriginal Awareness Week.

    Rene Meshake spoke with students during Aboriginal Awareness Week.

  • Rene Meshake spoke with students during Aboriginal Awareness Week.

    Rene Meshake spoke with students during Aboriginal Awareness Week.

  • Marcel Labelle talks to students during Aboriginal Awareness Week.

    Marcel Labelle talks to students during Aboriginal Awareness Week.

  • Marcel Labelle talks to students during Aboriginal Awareness Week.

    Marcel Labelle talks to students during Aboriginal Awareness Week.

  • Marcel Labelle talks to students during Aboriginal Awareness Week.

    Marcel Labelle talks to students during Aboriginal Awareness Week.

Written by Oriana Tahireh Marsh

A talk on Two-Spirit, storytelling and a journey around the Medicine Wheel were all part of Aboriginal Awareness week at the University of Guelph. 

The week-long event, ogranized by the Aboriginal Resource Centre, focused on Aboriginal culture, arts and identity.

Natasha Smith, Program Facilitator at the Centre said the even provided an opportunity bring awareness about Aboriginal issues to the entire campus community while celebrating the diversity of students and faculty from Aboriginal, Innuit and Metis backgrounds.

"[The Aboriginal Resource Centre is] here for everyone, not just Aboriginal students - people don't realize that they don't have to have experience or knowledge about Aboriginal people to attend our events," Smith noted. 

The preservation of history was a key theme during Aboriginal Awareness Week."We should put a giant sign outside that says: 'We exist!'" joked Rene Meshake, a Guelph-based author, illustrator, storyteller and musician who taught  a class on Ojibwe language and storytelling Wednesday night.

A oral historian for more than two decades, Meshake's words are filled with imagery, like his description of a canoe, or jiimaan; "It glides through the water and sews it up behind.”

His entertaining prose also helps keep alive the oral history of Ojibwe storytelling. Passing such traditions to future generations is important in order to learn from history, Meshake emphasized.

He should know: as a participant in The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Meshake spoke about his experiences in a residential school after being taken from his home in a Northern Ontario reserve as a teenager in 1965.

The experience left him physical and psychological scars, but also the opportunity to contribute a narrative that would help in the healing process.

"History doesn’t always tell the whole story,” he said. "Strap me again, and I’d fight back.”

Jessica Yee, a self-identified Two-Spirit youth and founder of the Native Youth Sexual Health Network, also contributed a lost piece of history with a talk about the diverse history of Two-Spiritedness among First Nations people.

“I want to bust myths about the romanticization and glorification of Two-Spirit people” said Yee, who is also is also the first Chair of the National Aboriginal Youth Council at the Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network and the North American Chair for the Global Indigenous Youth Caucus.

Two-Spirited is a relatively new term, having been coined in the past 25 years. While the group is often lumped together with the gay and lesbian community, Yee emphasized that Two-Spirit is a complex identity that predates the modern ideas about sexual identity.

“It’s not like we were waiting for Christopher Columbus to come teach us about sexuality,” Yee pointed out.

Two-Spirited people in particular were thought to have essences of both male and female. This trait made them valued as shamans and mediators in certain First Nations groups.  

Their distinct identity also made them targets of persecution by European colonists, who strongly discouraged the expression of non-traditional gender roles.

As a result, much of the knowledge about Two-Spirit people was repressed, and those who took the label were often shunned by their communities. 

The loss was a blow to the identity of many Aboriginal communities.

“What more powerful thing can you take away from a people than sexuality?” Yee asked rhetorically

Slowly but surely, Aboriginal youth are beginning to regain some of their lost history, which Yee said would help them “come from a place of strength” when finding their place in the world.

“Indigenous youth are caught between worlds….it’s a jumping game, not just to fit in, but to know where you come from.”

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