By Karl Hele
For the third time since the relaunching of the Canadian Indigenous Native Studies Association (CINSA) in 2015, participants attended a three-day conference to explore the past, present, and future of “Indigenous Thought and Mobility in a Contentious World”. For the first time in its history CINSA left Canada and ventured abroad. Fittingly, this first venture abroad, hosted by the Benemérita Universidad Auntónoma de Puebla (BUAP), took place in a restored colonial era building where the growing interest in Indigenous studies in Mexico within the Institute of the Social Sciences and Humanities (ICSyH) is housed in the heart of historic Puebla, Mexico. All events were scheduled within two-hour blocks to allow for ample presentation time as well as to engage in conversations and comparisons between north and south, allowing for a greater educational and learning experience for everyone present. Presenters and attendees took in 63 presentations including academic papers, keynotes, workshops, talking circles, and poetry readings. Various presenters discussed cultural urban landscapes, mobility within the state and across state borders, knowledge sharing in urban environments, education, treaties, partnerships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, Indigenous research methodologies, cultural safety, youth homelessness, and health. All of these topics were explored in the contexts of Indigenous peoples in Mexico and Canada.
Much like ceremonies in Canada, the opening ceremonies, undertaken by a Totonaca Healer, Juan Gero´nimo N., and a Maya knowledge keeper from Guatemala, Eliu Chavajay Martza, called for blessings and asked that our hearts and minds find a clear path so knowledge, friendship, and love could flourish. I will admit that the ceremony was more colourful than those in Canada, as well as very moving. Similarly, the feast on the evening of the second day involved expressions of local culture — a gastronomic delight that blended Indigenous and Spanish cuisine. The meal was a fantastic sampling of a blended cultural diet.
On the first day of the conference two Anishinaabeg from Sault Ste. Marie bumped into each other – Karl Hele and Michelle Hogan. Much to our mutual amusement we were both working on ideas of movement. Hele spoke of how the international border and Canada’s rule from 1876 to 1951 that denied band membership to anyone living in a foreign country for more than five years affected individuals from Garden River First Nation and how they resisted. Hogan spoke of movement within traditional territories, largely within Canada, and how the Settler perspective casts these movements as problematic whereas many of the people interviewed spoke of these shifts in residence from a positive perspective. Our common voice spoke to the idea that people move within traditional territory for a variety of reasons and that the Settlers and their states have attempted to stymie these movements by defining them as ‘problematic’. It was during our conversation, hundreds of miles from Canada, that we discovered our ties through friends, family, and acquaintances. This public discovery prompted an Indigenous person from Mexico in the audience to comment that you cannot go far without discovering your relations.
In exploring education several panels spoke of efforts to extend post-secondary studies that reflect cultural and mainstream knowledge into Indigenous communities – making post-secondary relevant and useful to communities. It seems that there is a concerted effort by several Mexican institutions to promote university education among Indigenous peoples and a great desire by many of the students I spoke with to pursue graduate work about their communities.
A significant difference between Mexico and Canada, many local presenters and attendees spoke of focussed on the treatment of Indigenous languages. While they acknowledged that Canada does not respect Indigenous languages and does not define someone who speaks an Indigenous language and English or French as bilingual, they noted that Canada at least sees our languages as languages. Apparently, the Mexican state views Indigenous languages dialects, which generally limits their teachability in schools as well as legitimacy within the state. Nonetheless, many of the Indigenous students I spoke with knew their ancestral language, Spanish, and English. I also learned that the Mexican state, much like the Canadian state, uses education and the attraction of the ‘common’ language as an assimilationist tool. Yet, much like us, the Indigenous people in Mexico, or the individuals I spoke with and via the presentations I witnessed, are proud of their language, demand the right to speak it wherever, and want its continuance supported fully by the state.
Attendees from Canada also learned of a law program at the Universidad Intercultural de Huehuetla, that offers instruction in Mexican law and traditional law. These courses are offered because Indigenous people have the right to pursue justice in some circumstances via traditional law or the colonial laws of Mexico. The students in this program need to speak their language, Totonaca, as well as Spanish to be able to enter and succeed in the program. Undergraduate Totonaca students from the Universidad Intercultural de Huehuetla and their professor Tania Cuamatzi Cortés attended and assisted with the conference as well. Many of these students from the program were very curious if bilingual and cultural law courses existed in Canadian law schools or programs. They were disappointed to learn that in Canada the Common Law and Quebec Civil Law reign supreme; however, there were excited to learn that brilliant legal minds such as John Burrows and many others were arguing for change.
The 2017 CINSA conference in Puebla wrapped up with a few judicious words from the organizer, Dr. María Cristina Manzano-Munguía, as well as a heartfelt Chi Meegwetch from all participants and CINSA. The conclusion of the conference was followed by a group trip to some archaeological ruins at Cholula. A student of archaeology, Fátima Vega Torres, voluntarily offered an English guided tour to many of us thereby enhancing the enjoyment and educational experience at their important site. Overall the 2017 CINSA conference at BUAP was a great success – it left many participants wondering when and where the next non-Canadian sited CINSA conference would occur. Chi Meegwetch to Drs. Manzano-Munguía, Deance, Valdés, and their wonderful cadre of student volunteers as well as to BAUP for undertaking such a daunting first venture and making it a great event.