In our End of Year special, Paige Van Tassel, an Anishinaabe and ᓀᐦᐃᔭᐤ (Cree) registered with Grassy Narrows First Nation doctoral candidate with the Department of Art History and Art Conservation at Queen’s University, tells her experience facilitating the KAIROS blanket exercise and shares the importance of re-learning indigenous lived histories
Paige Van Tassel nindizhnikaaz, Timmins nindoonjibaa. Niin omashkigoowi Anishinaabekwe. Gaawiin inendoodemin. I volunteer a part of my time to co-facilitate Cultural Safety Training within Queen’s University. This training is a three-part workshop involving the KAIROS Blanket Exercise, Relationship Building, and Terminology and Legal Definitions. The KAIROS is kinesthetic learning experience which involves participants walking on blankets while an indigenous narrator and role-playing Europeans conduct a story to learn about 500+ years of indigenous histories and current experiences across Canada. This is an exercise in unlearning colonial perspectives of history taught in the Canadian public education system and re-learning indigenous histories in Canada from an indigenous point of view.
In my years of volunteering, I have experienced various reactions from participants, mainly emotional, as some are learning for the first time while others are experiencing that history in a different setting. Due to the heavy content, there is a talking circle after to de-brief on the things the participants felt while going through the narrative. This is where facilitators de-role as a European, and for the participants to de-role as an indigenous person experiencing the loss of land, culture, and loved ones, as well as a chance to unpack your experiences so that you can carry on your responsibilities for the rest of the day. For some indigenous facilitators, this exercise is lived history in which we have been directly impacted by these critical and ongoing issues discussed in the narrative, therefore, crucial that we must unpack our feelings, reactions and thoughts to people’s reactions. Otherwise, these feelings, reactions, and thoughts will manifest to impact our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health. There was one instance where I had not been open and honest to myself and to others in circle, and it bothered me for weeks after it had occurred. The following is a story about that incident and what I learned from the experience.
In a DEVS 200 level course, I was playing the role of the European in the blanket exercise. During the kicking of the blankets, I had been aggressive and exaggerated in my movements to show the loss of land and the huge power difference between European and indigenous people. As I passed a student while kicking the blankets, they resisted by stepping on the edge of the blanket and proceeded to mutter b***h under their breath. I was shaken by the hard and fast response but did not address it immediately because I did not want to guilt, shame or blame the student for their reaction. After the exercise, I was the facilitator for one of the talking circles, so it was my responsibility to de-brief and discuss the things I had been feeling so that I could carry on the other responsibilities I had. However, due to the nature of the comments made at me as the European, I left those comments out of circle, at my own expense, so that the person would not feel guilt or shame when I was speaking about the comment.
After the incident, it had impacted my well-being and so this blog post is a chance to critically reflect on the situation from multiple perspectives. From the student’s perspective, I can understand the anger and frustration that you had felt when I was kicking the blankets because despite your resistance, the blankets – the land you stood on to represent Turtle Island – was forcibly taken from you. I can also understand the anger and frustration to the Canadian public education system because you may have not learned this history in elementary or high school, and it can be overwhelming to learn all this information in the span of two hours.
From my perspective, your hard and fast reaction is a result of the privilege and positionality you hold. You have not been affected by these colonial policies; these acts have not directly impacted your life, your family, your community, and therefore, your anger and frustration are validated by your ignorance. From my perspective, if I had not considered the white fragility – the discomfort and defensiveness on the part of a white person when confronted by information about racial inequality and injustice – of the student, I would have said the things I needed to say in circle. But, because I feared for the student’s reaction to my comments, I did not say what I needed to say in circle.
I had thought that I was conducting cultural safety training so that I could create a safe space for myself to talk about my culture in a university setting – a setting which has historically made it unsafe and shameful of being an indigenous person – however, I am beginning to realize there is no such thing as a safe space if these heavy topics are to be discussed. Because these topics were historically not safe, they were dangerous and highly traumatic. I am beginning to re-learn for myself what is cultural safety training and how do I want to effectively facilitate a circle by addressing intense emotions (fear, guilt, anger) experienced in the exercise into the broader discussion of colonial violence and policy. My hope is that all who read this reflect on the positionality and privilege you hold as it will better inform on how to conduct yourself in situations such as the KAIROS exercise.
It is important to re-learn indigenous lived histories and harsh colonial systems put in place to supress indigenous peoples because the Canadian public education system has historically given a one-sided narrative. The KAIROS exercise is emotionally, physically, mentally, and spiritually heavy, so while participants immediate emotions are valid, the context in which those emotions (guilt, fear, anger) are presented can be taken as a re-packaging of colonial violence that is extremely harmful to the facilitators both indigenous and non-indigenous who volunteer their time to facilitate this exercise. This is a re-packaging of violence because these emotions of fear and anger are what settlers had when they first came to this land, fear of the indigenous peoples and anger that indigenous peoples have and continue to resist the colonial power. So, for participants to project these emotions onto indigenous facilitators in a setting where we are teaching you an indigenous history, it is viewed as violent and harmful.
So, to the student who reacted in a way that unleashed violence towards me, let me say I was only playing a role of the European and your emotional reactions to Europeans kicking the blankets are not about my person, but rather the harsh systems that were put in place upon the arrival of the Europeans. In other words, I am not the b*tch, colonization, oppression, and years of inequality is a bitch.