Category Archives: Indigenous

Walking in the Footsteps of My Foremothers

Image of Pvska Oti Ibalhto with squash and pinto beans on a table.
Pvska Oti Ibalhto with squash and pinto beans

In this piece, Misty Underwood, Program Coordinator, Indigenous Pathways at Queen’s University, reflects on the transformative power of remembering; remembering her foremothers, homelands, ancestral seeds and foodways.

I walk in the footsteps of my foremothers;  

I carry their stories and seeds. 

I walk in their path, with ceremony growing corn and beans; 

I am given life. 

I walk as they have walked praying, singing, dreaming; 

I walk along my journey, 

Ever spiraling

     I know that my path is never lonely. 

Each step I walk in my foremothers’ footsteps is a step upon the sacred path, 

      for those who walked before me, 

      for those who walk beside me, 

      for those who will walk long after me.

Image of Pvska Oti Ibalhto with salad, Black eyed peas and collard greens on a table.
Pvska Oti Ibalhto with salad, black eyed peas and collard greens

Hesci. Oske Wske cvhocefkv tos. Halito. Chahta ohoyo sia.  

Howdy y’all! I am a Muscogee Creek and Choctaw descendent. I moved from Texas in 2010 for graduate studies. I have stayed for employment and am tremendously grateful and fortunate to be working with folks across Queen’s University with the goal of growing a new pathway for Indigenous learners.  

Image of osafkey a traditional variety of Muscogee ancestral corn seed.
Osafkey_Traditional Variety of Muscogee Ancestral Corn Seed

While I am passionately committed to post-secondary access for Indigenous learners, I am equally passionate about ancestral foodways and Indigenous food sovereignty. In fact, I do not see these as different. In 2014 I had the incredible opportunity to visit the Muscogee Food Sovereignty Initiative. The late Stephanie Berryhill and I spent countless hours gushing over sofkey (a traditional corn variety) and Muscogee pumpkin seeds. We had the shared dream of wide-reaching land-based education. Inspired further by my grandparents’ teachings, I began growing ancestral seed varieties such as corn, squash, beans, tobacco, gourds, tomatoes, chili peppers, and sunflowers.  

This began a journey of remembering. Remembering my foremothers, homelands, ancestral seeds, and foodways has been transformative. The difficult thing is that the life I was remembering is denied by the ongoing realities of colonialism. Further, I was struggling with autoimmune disease. I was unable to balance my coordinator role and teaching obligations with ensuring I could attend to my health. I knew the only long-term therapy was an ancestral diet. Unexpectedly COVID-19 created the conditions for me to begin working from home. This resulted in greater flexibility to do more to care for my health.  

Image of two plates on a table. 
 One plate hasTanchi Labonna on it and the other plate has Pvska Oti Ibalhto.
Tanchi Labonna and Pvska Oti Ibalhto

As we have transitioned back to on-campus work, I am lucky to be able to continue working predominantly from home. Working from home saves 3 hours per day (transit commute and breaks), 12 hours a week (I currently work 4 days from home), and an estimated 564 hours a year (adjusted for vacation and holidays) that I can commit to my well-being. Over my remaining work-life that number could become higher than 14,664 hours. The past two years of COVID have taught me much about balance and how little we have of it in the structures that make up our daily lives. I fear losing all that I have gained someday.  

Image of severl plated food times that include: Pvska Oti Ibalhto with squash, pinto beans, and lemon halves.
Pvska Oti Ibalhto with squash and pinto beans

The simple fact is that for some of us, working from home makes a significant difference in our overall quality of life. Remembering my ancestral foodways is not only healing for myself, but healing for life around me. What could I hope to do personally or professionally that would be more impactful?  

Healing is remembering our ancestral connections.  

Healing is walking in the footsteps of my foremothers.  

Healing is dismantling the systems that deny these ancestral connections, including the very nature of “work.”  


Think not forever of yourself

Image of fire

In this blog piece, Ann Deer, Indigenous Recruitment & Support Coordinator for the Smith Commerce program and the Faculty of Law, shares her story and invites us to think about the importance of building community

Think not forever of yourself, O Chiefs,

nor of your generation.

Think of continuing generations of our families,

think of our grandchildren

and of those yet unborn,

whose faces are coming from beneath the ground.

Words spoke by the Peacemaker founder of the Iroquois Confederacy, circa 1000 A.D.

Wisdomkeepers, 1990


When asked what my job is? I say my title has recruitment and support in it. But what I do is build community for our young Indigenous leaders, expanding their minds here at Queen’s U.

In ceremony we learn about keeping the fire.  It sounds pretty simple and straight forward.  But in my opinion, this simple statement is the heart of what makes a community.  I remember being young and hearing talk about moving the fire from one longhouse to another.  I thought, well, that is simple enough, right?  What they meant is we are moving our fire that came from the first council fire that continues to live and warm our space where council meet, and we gather to celebrate our ceremonies.  Where we pray and offer our medicine.

This fire we must care for lives in our hearts and homes. It is where it begins.  Men are the fire keepers, and women are the fire.  When they create a family, and their child travels from the spirit world through the mother as she is the vessel of life, their home no longer has two souls to keep warm but three. Together they keep their home fire alive. This fire, love, togetherness and prayers extend out to our immediate extended family, friends, and community. When the fire is left to get cold in a person, one will no longer feel the warmth but instead a coldness, anger or grief.

When I first came to campus, I sought to find people who attend ceremony.  We are few here in a concrete world of academia.  I quickly realized that to recruit students and feel good about my work authentically, I needed to influence my surroundings to reflect my roots and other Indigenous peoples living here.  I asked what I would need to commit to three or four years of study, relationship, and life in this community as a young person in my wondering and growing years.  The answer is I would need community and people who understood this need by living it.  A community outside of books and someone’s thesis.  A community that helps one balance their life in two worlds. The Haudenosaunee canoe and the White Man’s Ship.

By cultivating relationships and building community together with my colleagues, we develop an inclusive curriculum, hold space and see visual representations of Indigenous culture across campus.  In doing this work, we nurture safe spaces for our Indigenous students, BIPOC, 2SLGBTQI+ and Ally students to expand their minds side by side.

Today, my favourite title giving to me by my students is Auntie.  These are my words.

Speaking Up with Love (and maybe a glass of wine)


In this blog, Vanessa McCourt, Academic Advisor and Undergraduate Program Coordinator in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies, talks about the importance of having courageous conversations


I’ve never been one to speak up. I get red and flushed in the face, my underarms sweat, the right words don’t come, and I feel REALLY uncomfortable. So, for those reasons, when people have said something that I think is offensive – either directed to me or someone else – I usually keep quiet.

Fast forward 40 years (well, minus the two years before I could speak), I read a Facebook post that made me really upset. Then to my husband’s chagrin, I responded back with my own comments. Of course, this started a commenting frenzy of defending opinions.

The person who posted is my neighbor. The neighbor who is nice to my kids, a great mom, and all-around lovely person.

After about ten comments or so, my neighbor suggested that we needed to sit down together with a glass of wine and discuss our viewpoints on the issue. I agreed.

However, before we had that glass of wine, she posted AGAIN with her support for a certain ex-hockey commentator! I thought to myself, ‘we’ll probably need the whole bottle to get through this!’

We eventually sat down and talked. What I learned from that experience is that in order to undergo a process of unlearning, we must experience an embodied connection. Although we didn’t agree, our talk together cemented that connection – something a Facebook comment could never do.

In the Ted Talk entitled “Get comfortable with being uncomfortable,” Luvvie Ajayi says, “people and systems count on our silence to keep us exactly where we are.” I didn’t want to keep silent any longer. I didn’t want to stay where I was or have my neighbor stay stuck in her thoughts and opinions either.

What I also learned from Luvvie’s talk was the importance of asking myself three questions before speaking up:

  1. Do I mean it?
  2. Can I defend it?
  3. Can I say it with love?

I tried to keep this in mind when talking with my neighbor, and we are both better because of our talk. And, a glass of wine (or two) definitely helps!

Unlearning and Relearning the KAIROS blanket exercise: Culturally safe for who?

Native Students Association KAIROS Blanket Exercise

Native Students Association KAIROS Blanket Exercise -March 2017

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.

Learning, Unlearning and Relearning

Mirror photo

In the first blog of the year, Lauren Winkler, a Kanien’keha:ka student at Queen’s, talks about her journey relearning to love herself in the different roles of her life: daughter, sister, niece, grandchild, and friend


“Education is what got us here, education is what will get us out.” – Senator Murray Sinclair

When I think of university, or post-secondary education, or life for that matter, one word comes to mind: opportunity. Coming to Queen’s I was excited about the opportunity to live on my own, to make new friends, to find myself (because at the time I thought that was something that would just happen… I only wish), and to learn. Sure enough, I have thrived living in my independence, made lifelong friends, and gained a better sense of who I am. What I did not anticipate were the challenges to my own way of thinking that would come from my professors and peers, the different perspectives and life experiences that would be shared with me, and how strengthening my values would shift how I learned and perceived the world. Before university, I always saw learning as linear, but I now understand it to be a lifelong process in which I will learn, unlearn, and relearn. I believe that the more you learn, the better equipped you are to practice empathy, engage in meaningful discussion, and be a catalyst for change.

It was during my undergraduate degree that I first heard the term “unlearning” and it was not until this past summer that I truly understood the concept of “relearning.”

Usually when I tell my story, it heavily focuses on my identity as an Indigenous student. Today, however, I want to embrace my vulnerability and share a different narrative. I want to tell you about how I am relearning to love myself. To love myself as a daughter, sister, niece, grandchild, and friend. To love myself as a woman, as a Mohawk woman, a student, as a law student. To love myself as an advocate for Indigenous peoples, as a student to my culture, as a member of the Onkwehon:we community. To do this, I have had to unlearn toxic pressures and expectations that I put on myself, unlearn my view of vulnerability as being negative, and unlearn stigmas attached to mental health and mental illness. In the past year, I have learned that eating disorders are not solely a result of body image, I have learned that healing is not linear, and I have learned that sharing my own story helps others to validate their own. Struggling with depression, anxiety, and disordered eating, I have had to relearn patience with myself, relearn to validate my thoughts and feelings, and relearn loving myself for who I am.

You will have noticed that at the beginning of this post I included a quote by Senator Murray Sinclair. Where his quote is referring to the residential school system and the power that education has in the process of reconciliation, I think that his message on education can be applied to any situation. I truly believe that we all have so much to learn from one another and that we would all be in a better place if we genuinely listened to and engaged with one another. If we unlearned narratives that we have been taught about one another. If we relearn how to connect with one another to work towards a larger purpose. To me, that is the power of learning, unlearning, and relearning – they are processes that I will be humbly engaging in my whole life and the thought excites me.

Dreamtime and The Seventh Fire

four colors  thunderbird

Four Colors Thunderbird, by Tim Yearington

In our February blog, Tim Yearington, the Algonquin-Métis Knowledge Keeper within the Office of Indigenous Initiatives, writes about the importance of honouring Indigenous knowledge as the key to starting our learning journey 


Lately I find myself pondering, or rather re-imagining, this: A long time ago my Algonquin ancestors saw the future. They did so by honouring and acting upon the knowledge that came to them – directly from the Creator – in what we call “the dreamtime.” One of the interesting things they re-imagined, or rather what they “saw”, was a clear vision of our current time.

To help us face the challenges of today, long ago my ancestors chose to share their vision. They called it the Time of the Seventh Fire.  Their vision revealed that during the time of the Seventh Fire a “New People” will emerge. The New People will be looking to find what our ancestors left behind upon the trail. Aware of the dilemmas of the day, the New People will suddenly wake up and realize they need to find those lost things – very valuable teachings – that were left upon the trail. When the New People finally find those important things, they will need to pick them up. But not just hold these teachings blindly and think about it all as knowledge. Nope, the real reason they are to pick them up is because it’s time to learn how to embrace and use them.

When I think of re-imagining the institution of Queen’s, what I see is that we, ourselves, are the New People. We are slowly waking up to the awareness that, first of all, there is actually a trail; the trail to traditional Indigenous knowledge. Now that we know we’re on this trail, it’s wise to admit we’re lost and often don’t know which way to turn. We’ve reached a fork in the trail yet our own ignorance and fear prevents us from understanding the best way to proceed forward.

How do we make the best choice? How can we proceed up the trail in a respectful way?

The elders from all Nations here upon Turtle Island (North America) – those who still carry the traditional Indigenous knowledge of our ancestors – are given the responsibility of sharing it. Today’s elders are present to encourage the others, the New People, to find the teachings, pick them up and then utilize this wisdom in a good-hearted way. The reason this is now necessary is because we are living in critical times. Could it be that Queen’s is finally starting to re-imagine the truth of the matter that Indigenous knowledge not only still exists, but that it actually holds the key to helping all of us walk up the trail on our learning journey together? This is what I see. This is what I am re-imagining for Queen’s University.

When I was young I was taught, “We go to school in our dreams.” This is because it is believed that this is where the manitous (spirits) come and talk to us and teach us about the knowledge our ancestors have carried since time immemorial to help us be well and have a good life.

So, inspired by the wisdom of my ancestors – wisdom, by the way, that has served us since the time of the last Ice Age – I always feel guided to learn more about our traditional Algonquin knowledge. Additionally, I feel the time is right to embrace it and utilize it in a good way. But more importantly I can admit, from the things I’ve seen during my own journeys into the dreamtime, that what’s most important to our current reality is that we act upon the knowledge and wisdom we have access to in order to consciously create change.

Change is hard. But in this age I believe change is what matters most.

As the creators of our own trails and life paths, I see today we must make a decision at the fork in the trail: We can tokenize Indigenous territory, traditional knowledge and worldview – and even check the box to show we’ve completed the task – but this will only steer us deeper into the darkness of our ignorance. Alternatively, in a respectful way, we can make a real conscious effort to learn more about traditional Indigenous knowledge because, ultimately, it’s today’s Time of the Seventh Fire that will help us change the way we see, grow, believe and think.

My dream is this: I imagine that we, the New People, are now smart enough to realize and accept that Indigenous knowledge holds good medicine to help us learn to be better human beings. And as academic learners, we’d best be wise to recognize our own ignorance first. Because without first acknowledging there is still a cold climate of ignorance, we cannot confidently explore the trail as we seek the true human value of Indigenous knowledge.

Once we do have more awareness about the nature of our life-long learning journey, we will have a critical choice to make: We can either ignore our awareness or we can act upon it.

Tim Yearington