Faculty today

Learning in relationship

In today’s blog post, professor Aaron Mills continues sharing about his approach to teaching an Anishinaabe law course [LAWG 508D, Indigenous Constitutionalism]  in the McGill Faculty of Law. (Here is the previous post.) This is an abbreviated version of our conversation, during which Aaron shares more about setting the tone as a facilitator, addresses concerns about cultural appropriation, and frames teaching and learning around relationship and gifts. In the current remote teaching and learning context, such reflections have particular resonance.

Setting the tone; learning in relationship

Aaron (A): One of my tasks as the facilitator of the circle (see description in previous post) is to set the tone. I don’t have a list of rules that I bring in, but I work every single class to try and model the behaviors that I hope students will emulate, in the way they’ll interact with each other, listen to each other, make space for each other’s perspective but again, still express dissent. In this approach, you have to be confident that you can run your discussion. You have to respect everyone, no matter what their views are and how much effort they’re willing to put in. You have to be willing to create something, to see across difference, to bring perspectives together and work with them. It requires really taking the time to see where folks are at, and not speaking to them as if they’re at a point that you expect them to be at.

I attribute my knowledge to where it comes from, to that relationship with my teachers. I mention Bessie, my grandmother, and also Fred Major from Mitaanjigamiing, Harry Bone from Keeseekoowenin, and Sherry Copenace, from Onigaming, to remind me of their teachings, to keep me grounded as I’m teaching others. I share that all mistakes, however, are my own. I try to bring my circle of elders into the room, by sharing stories about those relationships and in the case of Harry and Sherry, who are able to travel, by inviting them to attend one week.

I share stories about how I was able to learn from my teachers, and mistakes I made along the way. If my purpose in a particular moment is to get folks to relax, then I might talk about those mistakes and how they were responded to by my grandmother. I try to draw out the kind of relationship and trust for one another that was a condition of me learning in the first place. And, to the extent possible in this context, to try and replicate that. I want students to see from how I’m interacting with them that I see them as full people, who have contributions to make as full people, and I don’t want them to just know it up here [pointing to the head]; I want them to feel it. I want them to leave my class at the end knowing how valued they are – not just by me, but by one another. And we work hard for that. That’s not automatic, and it’s not guaranteed.

In our own contexts, where the circle is a critical institution in our community governance, the person running it would be in that role by virtue of the community’s recognition that they have a certain skillset that enables their effectiveness. In my work, I’m sure there’s a better technical term for it, but I call it “persuasive authority.” This is different from coercive authority. Persuasion turns on respect. You hold it only so long as folks buy in. It’s deeply contingent on how you live your life, how you interact with others – so you have the respect necessary to occupy that role, by virtue of what you’ve demonstrated and what folks accept about you. So I can’t really slip up. I had a bad week once. A student made a comment, actually an outstanding student, about treaty. I wasn’t rude – but I failed to sustain, in Anishinaabemowin [in the Anishinaabe language], kizhewaatiziwin, “a way of kindness.” It might not have even been remarkable in a lecture format, where if someone asks a question that’s a bit off-side, they often get sort of a curt reply. In the space of the circle, I thought that it required me to speak to it; I offered an apology.

Challenge and rigor in learning

A: Each student finds their strengths where they’re (1) most comfortable contributing, and (2) most able to challenge themselves. Because comfort isn’t necessarily the test. Some students are very connected with their feelings, and comfortable sharing, while for others this may be the greatest challenge they’ll face in the course. Sometimes students explain connections with their own family histories, with things that have been shared. Something happened in class, that helped an insight to crystallize, and it’s an insight of extraordinary significance for them. Perhaps deeply emotional, but it enables new forms of action, new connections to be made – between understandings, between people.

There are a lot of feelings involved in particular moments, when we’re being our whole selves. But it’s not a space to just unload whatever’s happening, unconnected from our shared community purpose. I’m careful to make sure that students all understand that the space is one that allows them to really be people, not just thinkers, but also that there’s a certain respect we have to afford each other within the context of a law school course, which is about taking our shared project seriously, and not using the circle for other purposes. It’s not a group counselling session.

I’m very clear to the students about having to work really hard. And I have been humbled by many of the student responses to their experience. And I can’t speak to the details, obviously, that’s for them. It blows my mind, the effort they put in, for one another and for me.

Students are invited to engage — whether it’s with written materials or videos we’ve watched, maybe material culture that I’ve brought in — through a number of modalities. One of the deepest challenges is to get students to appreciate that other ways of engaging with knowledge and producing knowledge together can be just as rigorous as the forms of engagement which we conventionally expect of them in undergraduate education, including undergraduate legal education.

Transferability and avoiding cultural appropriation

Jennie (J): How can readers avoid cultural appropriation?

A: That’s such an important question, and of course, other Indigenous folks might answer very differently.

I think about cultural appropriation a little bit differently than I think many folks today do (blog post). For me, what we mean when we wield the phrase ‘cultural appropriation’ in the sense of a moral wrong against indigenous peoples isn’t just the fact that someone who isn’t Indigenous (or who is from the wrong indigenous group) is doing an Indigenous thing, or is using Indigenous subject matter without permission. To be sure, those may be forms of appropriation vis-à-vis a western conception of property. But the thing that makes those appropriations uniquely harmful, at least for Anishinaabeg, is that the object appropriated (whether tangible or not) is part of our law.

Inaakonigewin, our conception of law, is a reasoning process in which we draw upon stories, songs, dances, ceremonies, elders’ teachings, and earth experiences, etc., to render the right kind of judgment in the right moment. There’s much to be said about how that practice works, but perhaps the most important starting point is that inaakonigewin isn’t a species of rule-following. Rules are, by definition, abstract and general. They’re meant to apply across the particularities of context. An Anishinaabe conception of law doesn’t do that. Rather, it’s accessed through relationships with land, stories, each other, etc. It can’t be severed from these relational contexts into abstract and generalized propositions.

Yet severance from relational context in which law and governance are at stake is precisely what happens when aspects of our culture are appropriated. Someone assumes that an indigenous cultural object is freestanding and so freely available at least for their re-interpretation, and possibly also for their monetization. If its value is only aesthetic, then ultimately it’s just a song, just a legend, just a carving, just a clothing pattern, just a drum. At worst, then, appropriations are imagined to be harms against an artist’s individual autonomy (his or her moral rights in their property), and not public goods like law and governance. I can’t speak with any authority, but I suspect for many, and perhaps even for all other Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island as well, law and governance are at stake in what the West imagines as art, material culture, or perhaps intangible property in the case of songs and dances.

And in the same vein, the items I talked about previously in my bundle, such as the drum or the feather, they’re beings. Many of them are beings with whom we have relationships, not just things.  And anyone wanting to use those beings in their own stories without understanding how they actually work in our culture is doing real harm.

So for non-Indigenous peoples interested in using the circle, it would be a serious mistake to mimic the bundle – for instance, to have and use a feather that has no meaning for you. That’s an example of a practice I would not support. Same with the drum – you either have to have a vision to receive one, or it has to be gifted to you. You can’t just say, “I want a drum”, and go out and make one. Same with a pipe. I haven’t dreamed of a pipe, or else you better believe I would open the class that way, that first week, you know? But it’s not a gift that I carry. Maybe one day, but not today.

Having heard this, I can imagine that some readers might wonder, “well if I can’t mimic the practice, then what’s the point?” The point isn’t to make Anishinaabe law available to everyone. Rather, it’s to disclose an altogether different kind of law. I refer to it in my work as rooted law, rooted constitutionalism. I’m trying to disclose a different way of understanding how people can act, govern ourselves, have good relationships, ultimately be from the earth, not just on the earth. I think that mode of operating is the one truth that holds across all Indigenous peoples. There is a very deep understanding: Ogichi Tibaakonigewin: The Great Binding Law that was created at Turtle Lodge. Rock Cree, Anishinaabe and Dakota Elders produced this together. And they all say directly that there’s this level of truth that holds across our cultural difference. And it’s not the substance; the substance— the particular ceremonies, the practices, the stories told—varies across the three cultural groups. But there’s an understanding of a way of being in the world, of what a good relationship is, of a fundamental commitment to sharing, which holds across each group. It begins with the understanding that everything in creation is a gift; that the world is a constellation of gifts from the Creator who loves us all. In Anishinaabemowin, the Anishinaabe language, we say miinigowiziwin. And from this specific understanding about how the world works, we develop a politics centred on mutual aid. Mutual aid is structured as kinship, which is why we always want to know how we’re related to you.  

That’s the point. The interesting thing is imagining what that might mean for you. The thing to take, then, is the mode of interaction, not the substance. The circle is one knowledge-production practice built from these insights, and the particular aspects of it which I’ve shared here are a distinctly Anishinaabe rendering of the circle mode of interaction. Other indigenous peoples don’t all have circles, and some of those who do, do them differently. Within somebody else’s Canadian tradition, what would it look like? That’s the interesting question, right? It’s not, “I need to get a feather; I need to get a drum”. It’s, “If I’ve understood the purpose of what’s going on here and what gives it its power, then what do the relevant practices and particulars look like for me? How might the circle change for me, to reflect the way in which these insights are real for me? That’s what I should be doing.”

Relationship and gifts

J: I can imagine instructors being interested in abstracting portions of the class – thinking about, “What does it mean to discuss in a circle?” That might be something that could be done well, or something that could be problematic, depending on why it’s done, how it’s done. I’m wondering how instructors who are not Indigenous, who would like to learn from Indigenous approaches, can do so in a way that is attentive and careful. Do you have suggestions for that process of deciding what is appropriate, what is inappropriate, when things might be a little bit less clear-cut?

A: It’s important for folks to reflect precisely on what running a circle might mean for them. In my view, it is possible for non-Anishinaabe people to learn to run the kind of circle that I’ve learned from my grandmother. However, it requires training and experience, and so it’s an opportunity which must be made available to you, not one you can choose for yourself. However, there’s another way in which learning about the circle sharing method can be of more immediate use to anyone interested in what it might create. Before coming to it, I’ll offer some context.

As for myself, as far as I’ve been able to understand on my journey, here’s the core insight – ultimately it’s very simple: we’re all related. We’re always already related. It’s not relationships of choice – we have those too – but you have to think of ‘the other’, as it were, as a relative. This is the kinship point, and it’s the baseline. We’re always already related to each other, and that’s really important, and that’s going to change just about everything about how we interact with one another.

Everyone’s here with a particular sort of need and a particular sort of gift. Students all bring in their different gifts. That’s how the circle works, everyone brings different gifts to it. And the purpose of the course is to draw those things into healthy relationships, so that we all get what we need out of it. Miinigowiziwin is the critical term for the course, that the world is organized as gifts. What we would call natural law, or sometimes folks would say “original instructions,” that’s the injunction to share those gifts, to offer them up. That you don’t hold them just for you. You hold them for those who need them. It’s a shift from expectation to gratitude, right? And from rights, to gifts. And the context that makes all that work is that we’re relatives. It’s the relationship between those two insights. Anishinaabe people don’t own that; Cree people don’t own that; Mi’gmaq don’t own that. The particular way in which we do that, the particular teachings we have about that, the particular beings who teach us about it and help us to keep it alive – those are things for us and not for others.

But as for the insights themselves, I’ve always understood the elders and knowledge-holders I’ve worked with and learned from to suggest that the world would be a much better place if everyone understood and shared them. Our understanding is that those understandings describe how the earth is. So the question is what can non-Indigenous folks build from those insights? That’s the creative piece: to think through “What would that mean for us?” That’s not appropriating and it’s not affecting our law. If anything, that’s giving life to our law, by taking seriously the underlying assumptions which animate it.

If one pursues this latter approach of applying a teaching in one’s own way, it’s vitally important to be transparent about what exactly one is doing. For instance, don’t say that you’re holding an Anishinaabe circle if what you’re doing is something novel but inspired by the core insights which inform an Anishinaabe circle. This imperative strikes me as obvious and straightforward, but I thought it should be said.

And finally, I don’t think its okay for someone who doesn’t have the proper training and teachings to run any kind of ceremony, including the smudge. Here we’ve strayed into specific cultural teachings and practices, and those are just for us and those we’ve invited into them. It isn’t okay to take a ceremony and make it your own. That is impacting our law, and it’s impacting relationships with spirit beings. What’s at stake in such moments of decision isn’t only respect for cultural difference and for indigenous systems of law, but also ensuring the well-being of oneself and those for whom one is responsible.  

On gratitude, teaching and learning

J: Thank you so much, for sharing all this. Is there anything else you would like to add?

A: The final thing I would share is just the gratitude that I feel for all those who’ve taught me, to bring me even just this far. You know, one of the many things I’m able to do with their investment in me, is this course. I just have extraordinary gratitude for what I have been given to carry, and for how it’s been received by those I’ve been able to share it with, in this course. There aren’t many places, I don’t think, that you’d have a whole year elective. But I made the case that that’s what this course needs, and amazingly, it’s been made available. I started with gratitude, and I think that’s how I should end it.

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