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Armand Garnet Ruffo: Shedding light on contemporary Native issues

Transforming Solo Scholarship into Dynamic Teaching

One of the most important relationships in every academic’s professional life is the one between research and teaching. Research will invariably influence what a professor does in the classroom, since the breadth and quality of their scholarship is what makes the professor an authority in the eyes of his or her peers and students. But the relationship can also work the other way, as when a perceptive or offbeat question by a student leads a professor on an entirely new research path.

Here, we introduce two Queen’s National Scholars – Robert Morrison, who’s been at Queen’s for a while, and Armand Ruffo, who’s new to the university. Both are celebrated scholars of literature. Both have unique ways of employing their research in their teaching. But perhaps their biggest similarity is one they share with every successful academic – a passion for their subject that motivates their research and inspires their teaching.

[Armand Garnet Ruffo]Armand Garnet Ruffo would subscribe to that notion, since he too is constantly exploring new ways to learn and teach. Ruffo is an associate English professor of Ojibway ancestry who came to Queen’s earlier this year from Carleton University, where he’d been teaching since 1996. His research explores the changing relationship between Canada’s Aboriginal peoples and mainstream Canadian society over the past 30 years, and sheds light on contemporary Native issues such as representation, environment, spirituality, education and self-determination.

However, unlike most other Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal scholars in the same field, Ruffo is also a creative writer who conveys what he’s learned through poems, stories, and even a critically-acclaimed feature film about residential schools called A Windigo Tale – which won the Best Picture award at the 2010 American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco. In a way, then, Ruffo’s research – or the fruits of it – is his teaching.

“Rather than continue on that academic path and always publish in journals, I’ve shifted my gaze,” says Ruffo. “I’m trying to rearticulate my research through a creative lens.”

Over the past 20 years, that lens has focused on work in various artistic genres. Ruffo has edited anthologies of literature, such as An Anthology of Canadian Native Literature in English, and published three volumes of his own poetry. He wrote a children’s play called The Stone Canoe, based on an Ojibway myth. He penned an epic-poem biography of Archie Belaney – better known as Grey Owl – an Englishman who came to Canada in the early 1900s to immerse himself in Native culture by living and trapping with “Indians” in northern Ontario and Saskatchewan and writing about his experiences. In his popular books and lectures, Grey Owl advocated for fair treatment of Canada’s Native peoples and respect for the natural world. He also had a close relationship with Ruffo’s great-grandparents, which allowed Ruffo to bring a personal touch to his portrayal of the eccentric, yet influential activist and conservationist.

In his recently published biography of the Anishinaabe (Ojibway) artist Norval Morrisseau, Ruffo draws on his research on Native spirituality and artistic practice and even sexuality to examine his subject’s life. However, the story sometimes departs from fact to tell Morrisseau’s story from a uniquely Native perspective. For instance, when Morrisseau was 12, he undertook a vision quest, a tradition in which young Native males spend a few days alone in the wilderness and, with luck, emerge as a man. The mystical rite of passage is difficult to describe in traditional narrative, so Ruffo imagined Morrisseau’s first-person experience of the quest.

“I tried to infuse the book with an Anishinaabe world-view, which is all about spirituality, thunder, the Manitous, that whole pantheon of demi-gods. The text has Western influences, because I’m Western educated, but at the same time I wanted to bring the Anishinaabe world-view to the text by breaking with realism and showing this spirituality where other Mishipeshu, Windigo, all these Manitous are in there to inform Morrisseau’s life.”

Ruffo also brings an Aboriginal perspective to the classroom, where he uses the notion of the “talking stick.” In Native discussions, the talking stick denotes the person who has the right to speak.

“In academia, we constantly think about the standard hierarchical model where the professor is the wise man on the mound and the students are empty vessels. I look at it as a reciprocal relationship.”

“I can share my knowledge because I’m older than most of my students, and in my culture we certainly respect age. But I expect my students to share their energy. What do they feel about these things? They’re coming from a very different time, so how can they make what I say relevant to them? So our relationship has to be reciprocal. When I hand them the symbolic talking stick, it allows them to articulate where they come from and what they bring to the course. It’s more of a communal approach.”

Alec Ross
(e)Affect Issue 6, Fall 2014