How might we understand Métissage as a praxis for life writing? A Reader Response by Lisa Shea

How might we understand Métissage as a praxis for life writing? A Reader Response by Lisa Shea

Humanity’s greatest illusion is that I am here and you are there.

(Ted Aoki)

My most humiliating teaching experience was in 1997 when I was invited to Waswanipi, a Cree community in Northern Quebec, to teach a course through the Faculty of Education at the University of Chicoutimi. The course involved designing lessons and long-range plans, working thematically, and organizing a primary school classroom. The seven students in my class were Cree adults who had been teaching Cree Culture for a number of years. At the time, I was teaching French and Technology in a brand new school in a rich neighborhood in “high-tech” Waterloo. I travelled north in a 6-seater plane with Air Creebec and made my way to Willie J. Happyjack Memorial school. A few days in to the course, we had to focus on lesson plans. I thought of my teaching team back in Waterloo and how we had common planning time to collaborate on a theme that was shared by the entire elementary school. So the next morning, armed with books, I quite stupidly stood before my Cree class and suggested we plan a theme around dinosaurs. Yes, “capacity for self-knowledge is limited because human judgment is flawed and perception weak” (Hasebe-Ludt, Chambers & Leggo, 2009, p. 33). My idea was met with silence. The seven students glanced at each other and turned away. I knew I had offended them but I did not know why.

A few moments went by when Andrew very solemnly said, “Lisa, there are no dinosaurs in Waswanipi.” And for a moment, I thought to myself “Well, of course there aren’t any dinosaurs here – there aren’t any dinosaurs anywhere.” Then it dawned on me: “There aren’t any dinosaurs in Waswanipi – though there very well may be dinosaurs in Ottawa.” The thing was that dinosaurs were not part of their currere, their lived experiences. Dinosaurs were completely irrelevant to the Cree of northern Quebec – and well they should be. I was ashamed of myself. Here I was, a hot-shot teacher from the south, thinking I was going to teach them something and I was forced to think of teaching differently. Andrew’s voice quietly saying “There are no dinosaurs in Waswanipi” haunts me to this day. Anytime I need to be knocked down a peg, there it is. I knew nothing about the local context of their curriculum and even less about the Cree. Here, “the aim of literary métissage – through its literary and storied properties,” Hasebe-Ludt, Chambers & Leggo (2009) tell us “is to make dialogue possible while the dialogue makes possible the rapprochement among disparate, unequal individuals and groups. Literary métissage leads to understanding about the self and other and general insight about the world and our place in it” (p. 38). In order to teach and learn with the Cree, I had to learn their stories, their currere and understand the literacy of the physical and cultural landscape they live in. There was no way I could do this in a summer course.

So we left the classroom and took a bus to the Cree culture centre – a camp in the woods – where Eva put a large pot on the stove to boil tea. And there they taught their lessons. Josephine taught me to make bannock – a recipe I use to this day – and Andrew showed me how to make a bear trap. Anna taught us how to make moccasins. Queenie had us paint rocks she carefully chose from nature and Simeon took us fishing. Their lessons were nothing like what I had expected and my evaluation would have to be adapted to ensure they passed this university AQ course but by then it no longer mattered. My expectations and curriculum remained in my three-ring binder back at the school. Simeon’s fishing lesson was simple: “Throw the line in the water and wait.” What were his expectations? That we catch some fish. The theme that tied all the activities together was Wesakechak, a legendary trickster who figures prominently in Cree culture. “By braiding strands of our own and other’s multiple geocultural and gendered identities,” as Hasebe-Ludt, Chambers & Leggo (2009) suggest, we were able to “rewrite notions of self and other in our collective work with each other” (p. 68). As we ate Simeon’s fish that afternoon, they told stories about Wesakechak and we laughed. “Despite our varied place-based cultures and knowledge systems,” Donald (2010) reminds us that “we live in the world together with others and must constantly think and act with reference to these relationships” (pp. 7-8). The lessons were deeply connected to place and I learned more than I had expected.

I am still learning from those lessons. Upon reading this week’s stories, I was brought back to Waswanipi and have begun to question how geography, autobiography and memory are connected. Hasebe-Ludt, Chambers & Leggo (2009) ask us to consider “what is the curriculum of being human? How do distinctions between space and place inform our pedagogy and our writing?” (p. 2). The underlying theme in both readings this week is that “Each of us has to be open to learn about others without prejudice and with trust in a mutual intent to do no harm” (Hasebe-Ludt, et al., p. 69). What did I learn that summer? I abandoned the institutionalized curriculum and, instead of the ministry of education, I turned to local Cree curriculum and made it relevant. Now I understand that I weaved my story to theirs and created a métissage of my own. I learned far more than they did that summer, though their written plans might have reflected some of what we do here, their lessons were their own. I learned that paper and pencil activities were fine for the south but that the Cree attached more importance to the land – the rocks, the moccasins and the fish taught me about their connection to landscape as this was their literacy. As Huebner (1966/1999) reminds us, “the fullness of the educational activity, as students encounter each other, the world around them, and the teacher, is all there is. The educational activity is life – and life’s meanings are witnessed and lived in the classroom”(p. 17). Would a rubric have changed the lessons they were there to teach? Not likely. That summer, my idea of curriculum changed. My autobiographical experience with the Ontario governmental curriculum as a nomadic text-worker and teacher was reconceptualized. By seeing myself through the other, and by weaving my story through theirs, I was able to learn more about myself. I learned humility and simplicity – that the end of the lesson was also the beginning and the middle. That teaching to the test could work – that if catching the fish was the ultimate goal, what was wrong with teaching me exactly how to catch it? Put the line in the water and wait. Teach to the test. If you catch the fish do you pass? If you don’t, is it a failing grade? There are things learned in the doing. Hasebe-Ludt, et al., (2009) explain that “if curriculum is currere, then autobiography is the theorizing of currere. It is a way for educators to see more clearly themselves in relation to their circumstances, past and present, and to understand those relationships and their implications more deeply” (p. 31). And thanks to Simeon’s fishing lesson, the curriculum asked us to be patient and I learned the importance of patience.

Our last night together, they cooked me a goose. We sat around my rented house as the migratory bird cooked in the oven. And as the smoke filled the kitchen, Queenie’s boyfriend played the guitar and we laughed and told stories.

Encounters with others, especially in the face of radical differences found in postcolonial context, such as Canada, the United States and Europe, invite not just a recounting but an accounting of the self in relation to the other, especially the other who has suffered and in whose suffering the self is implicated. (Hasebe-Ludt, Chambers & Leggo, 2009, p. 33)

I did eventually get to know my students. I moved north in 1998 and spent four years teaching at the Cegep in Chibougamau. Many of my students were Cree adolescents working toward a college diploma. I occasionally bumped into Simeon and Anna and they would laugh and point at me and call me ‘the dinosaur teacher’ and I would laugh too. I was barely thirty at the time, but I proudly took on the name of dinosaur.

Researchers are required to work to create meaning through their interpretations rather than simply recording their findings. To require such meaningful interpretations places added emphasis on the importance of the skilled weaver of the textual braid who employs certain sensibilities in order to make meaning tangible and practical. (Donald, 2010, p. 28)

My respect for their culture in relationship to place was a hard lesson that I learned and in respecting them, they respected me. “From an ethical stance,” Huebner (1966/1999) suggests that “the educator meets the student, not as an embodied role, as a lesser category, but as a fellow human being who demands to be accepted on the basis of fraternity, not simply on the base of equality” (p. 17). The métissage we started that summer would continue to grow throughout my time with the Cree and is now part of my distinct autobiographical narrative.

References

Hasebe-Ludt, E., & Chambers, C. & Leggo, C. (2009). Life writing and literary métissage as an ethos of our times. New York: Peter Lang .

Huebner, D. (1966/1999). Curricular Language and Classroom Meanings. In Vikki Hills (Ed.), The Lure of the Transcendent, Mahwash, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Donald, D. (2010, in press). Indigenous Métissage: A decolonizing Research Sensibility. University of Alberta.

To read more about Wesakechak – the trickster – see the following link:

http://www.warmuseum.ca/cmc/exhibitions/aborig/storytel/crme4eng.shtml