The Faculty of Native Studies teamed up with renowned Métis artist and Edmonton’s current Indigenous Artist in Residence, MJ Belcourt Moses to create an urban land-based learning course NS380 The Porcupine Goes to the City: Quillwork Teachings, Spring 2019. Beyond learning the steps of quilling, the course places the Nêhiyaw (Cree) and Otipemisiwak (Métis) concept of wâhkôhtowin at the centre of quillwork.
MJ began with introductions, her love of teaching and how she came to quillwork and tanning teachings through the late Elsie Quintel. After a smudge and tobacco offering, MJ brought the students through the first steps. For these three porcupines, these steps included salting to preserve them, skinning, and nailing to a board so you could remove the guard and down hairs from the hide. From there, the quills needed to be removed and separated from the fluffy down hairs. That job takes a lot of care and patience. The students jumped right in, worked together, and tried not to get poked by the quills. If you do get a quill in your skin, pull it straight out, and make sure the barb is still attached to the quill. MJ told stories and guided students through the process. You want to grab the quills from their tip and remove them in the direction they’re pointing, being careful not to bend the quills. If you do bend the quills, you can damage the inner “marrow” which is what makes the quill pliable for quillwork.
The second week, the class continued separating the quills from the guard and down hairs. This job is time consuming and repetitious. The students worked and got to know each other, sometimes noting that it was the first university class where they learned about the lives of their classmates. The classroom dynamics was further guided by our guest speakers. Dene Elder Ehtsue Lamothe joined the class and shared stories about growing up and the laws that her family followed around living with and harvesting porcupine. Ehstue made sure the classroom understood the quills as medicine, and subsequently, did not belong on the floor. In urban land-based learning those teachings are crucial. Land based learning requires principals that guide our relationship to the classroom and each other. It also requires those involved to feel responsible for themselves as well as their roles in their small classroom community.
Nakota Sioux and Cree knowledge keeper Donny Rain also visited the class, bringing with him an astonishing roach he made from porcupine guard hairs. The students listened to his process of making roaches by tirelessly studying one of his father’s. Donny explained the historical development of roaches and what they mean to the Stoney people. Both Donny and Ehtsue made sure the class knew the protocol around sharing the knowledge shared with the class. Ehtsue spoke about the process of transferring the rights to do porcupine quilling within her family. According to Ehtsue, not everyone has the rights to quill. The class was gifted the class but it does not mean they have the rights to pass on the technique because that requires further study, ceremony, and consultation with elders.
Not only did Ehtsue and Donny help the students shape the classroom dynamics, they also laid out important groundwork for moving forward with the knowledge they’ve gained from the course. Settler colonialism intrinsically poses Indigenous knowledge and aesthetic up for grabs. That’s why stressing the course as a gift, rather than teaching certification was crucial. There were teachings folks can pass on about quilling that don’t include teaching the actual craft. Students appreciated hearing protocols and gained an entirely different perspective on quilling and Indigenous knowledge.
Elders and knowledge keepers emphasize the importance of regaining Indigenous teachings for the benefit of families and communities, the core element in the Nêhiyaw concept of wâhkôhtowin. According to Nêhiyaw scholar Sylvia McAdams, the process of rebuilding Indigenous nationhood requires the return of gifts given to the Nêhiyawak from Creator (McAdam, p. 83). These gifts include cosmologies and world views as expressed through philosophical concepts such as wâhkôhtowin, which is the complex cosmology of Nêhiyaw kinship and well-being. While Nêhiyaw and Otipemisiwak scholars such as Sylvia McAdam, Brenda Macdougall, Adam Gaudry, and others explore the role of wâhkôhtowin within Indigenous studies, the revitalization of teachings is a complex process due to hundreds of years of colonization, of assimilation policies (such as the Indian Act and residential schools) and the fragmentation of Indigenous societies (urbanization, 60s scoop, etc.).
Indigenous Women and Youth Resilience Project teamed up with the Rupertsland Centre for Métis Research to develop urban land-based learning to give students a chance to experience hands-on learning within an urban context. It’s true that you miss so much of what makes land-based learning unique. Learning to live on the land, chopping wood, building and cooking over a fire, etc which makes the learning experience fully embodied and consuming. This Porcupine Quilling course is a unique opportunity to bring land-based to an urban context and engage with the principals of wâhkôhtowin within a Faculty of Native Studies course. Ekosi.
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