Interview with Leslie Wexler, Senior Educational Developer, Indigenous Knowledges and Anti-racist Pedagogies

Monday, December 13, 2021

Leslie WexlerTo help introduce her to the University of Waterloo community, Trevor Holmes, CTE's Associate Director, recently interviewed Leslie Wexler, our new Senior Educational Developer, Indigenous Knowledges and Anti-racist Pedagogies. 

TH: Welcome Leslie – as you can tell from the number of requests already coming across your desk, our campus has a lot of pent-up demand for support in your new area. What drew you to a role explicitly supporting individual and departmental curriculum and teaching development in Indigenization and anti-racism?  

LW: In a single word: Change. I was very attracted to theories of change that were just coming alive in the culture. When I started to see that the academy was wanting to transform along these lines, I got involved immediately, and the place where it was happening fastest and with the most uptake was in centres for teaching and learning. And so I started doing the work of Indigenizing my own course and then immediately started sharing it with others. As I think about educational development, what draws me to the role is the personal journey I’m on that’s directly connected to Indigenization. I’m a Treaty 6 Métis woman in the Alberta homeland and I, like many students, came into my Indigeneity in higher ed. 

Learning about personal Indigenous cultural history through higher education has been an experience for a lot of students, which means that the higher ed landscape can be very transformational for urban Indigenous students. I was an urban Indigenous student who didn’t actually come into my indigeneity in my Alberta homeland. I came into it at the University of Toronto, and so much that was offered to me came through the Anishinaabe, even though I was Metis. At that time, I was deeply influenced by the work of Chantal Fiola, who wrote a book called Rekindling The Sacred Fire. It was about the experiences of Métis people connecting to Anishinaabe spirituality. This was a research project in the early stages of Indigenization that asked a question I was interested in: how do Métis people connect to spiritual practice? When Fiola did her research in the Métis community around Red River, she found that people were engaging in Anishinaabe spiritual practice, and that just made complete sense to me because in Ontario I was in Anishinaabe culture so it immediately brought me to greater engagement in Anishinaabe teaching. So that's where I have found most of my spirituality inside of Indigeneity, learning the world view from the Anishinaabeg.  

TH: It's great that you made these connections through Fiola’s research exactly in the journey you yourself were going through. 

LW: Yes, and it expanded from there. When I was a PhD student I read a book called Research is Ceremony, by Shawn Wilson, and as I read it I realized that research projects themselves could be a form of cultural healing, a form of reconnecting, and higher ed was actually offering these kinds of projects with scholars that students had access to. 

TH: Higher ed is quite different from the K to 12 scene perhaps because of the active research component. Certainly, a lot of work on curriculum and pedagogy is happening at the K-12 level. But this piece where research is a kind of pedagogy and active learning is active research is active teaching and so on really seems appropriate in a higher ed setting. 

LW: The teaching centre at the University of Toronto is called Centre for Teaching Support & Innovation. They were offering all these workshops on active learning, and so as I moved forward as an educator, almost everything that I did inside the classroom was based on active learning principles, which aligned perfectly with my own journey. 

TH: At Waterloo we have a lot of faculty, staff, and teaching assistants who are genuinely eager to move forward with Indigenization, or decolonization, or anti-racist pedagogy. Or all of that. But they often express fears that they're going to get it wrong or do or say the wrong thing. So what would you say to instructors, teaching staff, and teaching assistants who want to get things right but aren't sure how, or maybe even how even to start? 

LW: Yes, many people feel uncomfortable or uncertain about giving a land acknowledgment because they don't want it to seem token – they don't want it to seem like “check the box” and it’s done. But I think: do it nonetheless. What I mean is, don't feel held back by the fear that you're just repeating the same thing over and over again. To illustrate this for you I’m going to say something in Anishinaabemowin:  

Aanii, Boozhoo. Wabigwan baaskaa-gwanni nindigoo Anishinaabemowin. Leslie nindizhinikaaz zhaaganaashiimong. Tkaronto nindaa niin nindoonjibaa besho zaga’igan Ontario. Gaawiin (mashi) ningikenimaasii nindoodem. Miiwii.

Here’s what I just said translated into English: “I’m called Flowers Blooming in Anishinaabemowin. Leslie is my name in English. I live in Toronto by Lake Ontario. I do not know my clan yet. That is all.” 

So what I just said is a greeting but it's specifically a traditional or protocol greeting in Anishinaabemowin. Whenever I say it, I say it in exactly the same way. To me, part of its importance is to simply speak the language, to keep trying and keep doing it. It's about language preservation. It's about following the traditional protocol. It's just important that I do it, and so when people are feeling concern that land acknowledgements are starting to sound trite or mechanical, they need to remember that what they are really doing is something that is more like ritual – something that gains meaning as it repeated.  

So it’s important to try to understand the cultural significance of words and actions. Let me give you another example – it’s the word “Miigwech.” I’d like to tell a little story about that word. First, I have to say, I love languages. I'm an English literature major and because of that the etymology of words is of personal interest to me . And so I was looking at a very particular word in Anishinaabemowin that we use all the time. I think it's a word that even settlers feel comfortable using: Miigwech. Many people think this word means “thank you,” but that’s not what it originally meant. Before contact with Europeans, it meant “it is enough.” 

Imagine this: a group of settlers and a group of Indigenous people are beginning to trade – the Indigenous people offering beaver pelts or otter pelts to settlers in exchange for things like copper kettles and cloth blankets. When that act of trading comes to an end, the settlers would say “thank you,” and they assumed that what the Indigenous people said in their language also meant “thank you.” But when the Indigenous people said “miigwech,” what they were actually saying was “it is enough.” In other words, you don’t need to give me more. But settlers mistakenly assumed it meant “thank you,” and that’s how it continues to be used now.  

But all this also raises another question. If “miigwech” doesn’t mean “thank you” in Anishinaabemowin, then what word does? And the answer is, there isn’t one.  

TH: And what does that say about the Anishinaabe culture? 

LW: Well, I think it means that something can be given without a need for an acknowledgement in return. You just give or share. And when you receive something from someone else, you don’t take more than you need – “miigwech” – “it is enough.” That happened on a much bigger scale, too. When the settlers came it was difficult and the conditions were harsh. They needed food and they needed to know more about the land in order forage and hunt for what was needed. And they encountered people who were willing to give and share what the land offered. They called this “mashkaki,” which means “the strength of the earth.” The strength of the earth belongs to the earth, not to any one person or group of people. It’s not “mine” or “yours.” We share and take only what we need. We stop when it is enough – miigwech.  

So miigwech has a spiritual aspect: you give without expecting anything in return and with no sense of indebtedness or reason to exalt another in any way above you. This is how we can respect the sanctity and the dignity of equal relations: we are peers in life.  So, next time you say this word, “miigwech,” bring back the cultural origin. For me, it brings me back to my own relations, those people from the past. In the time of the first contacts, there was a misunderstanding about a word, about “miigwech,” because the cultures had different assumptions, different values. And now we are being asked whether 400 years after that first contact if we can get a better understanding of one another once again. 

So, to get back to your question about what do I say to people who are eager to do the work of indigenization? I say that we have stuff to share. If you want to hear it. 

TH: My instinct is to thank you for your sharing, but what I’m learning is that the sharing itself is enough. The thanking happened before we started, with the offering of tobacco. This is less … extractive, I guess, and a better way to share, 400 years later, than we did at contact.  I have a question for you now about interdisciplinarity, because I noticed on your CV that some of the listed lectures were like, the full-on literary canon, like they were total dead, white, male British authors. And then you switched gears and you started working on what might be called a literary history of scientific knowledge. 

LW: Yes, I entered into my graduate studies with one question top of mind: why do I feel such a disconnect from nature? Both sides of my heritage were deeply connected to nature. My ancestors on my dad’s side were all farmers, going way back to before they left England. They tilled the land and grew food and knew how to look after seeds and plants. And the ancestors on my mom’s side were all Métis and they knew how to hunt, fish, and forage. And so here I'm coming from two lines of people who have so much knowledge about how to survive and thrive survive in what we would now call now sustainable way. So as I began my PhD my main question was, Why am I not the inheritor of that knowledge? Why don't I know anything? Why do I feel so disconnected from my environment? 

That question led me back to my Indigenous roots but also back to the oldest works of English literature. In a meeting with an Elder who was teaching me in my Masters, he asked me, “Why don’t you know your stories?” At the time, I thought he meant my settler stories, but by learning my settler roots, I was also being led to my Indigenous ones. Over time I studied the literary canon. I'm an early modernist, so I started reading basically in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and worked backwards to classical literature. What I found, with the guidance of my professors who were on the cutting edge of thinking about decolonizing, was more colonizers. When I went back into Roman and Greek literature, I found colonizers and their colonizing worldview and culture. After reading in that classical vein for years, I moved into reading the earliest works of English literature like Bede’s Ecclesiastical History and I found the way that the Roman juggernaut met the ecclesiastical law of Catholicism and its mandate for conversion of pagan nations. After that, I started to learn about travel narratives, discovery narrative, the Doctrine of Discovery and how it all shifted the way people in England thought. That was the best thing that I found inside of my PhD. As I learned about it, I began teaching from that perspective and that's how and why I started to really love teaching.

I feel like the teaching I do is way more important than anything I've written in a research project, because teaching is about the way you share with another. My research project is on early empiricism in scientific method and how the scientific method, when it began in the 1500s, was actually an amalgam of arts and sciences. Proto-science before it split into discrete disciplines was alchemy, chemistry, astrology, poetry, folklore, botany, fine art. It was all thought of as natural history, which was the beginning of science. And so in my dissertation I consider how natural history influenced poetry in England.  

TH: What's one thing that you hope for Waterloo's teaching and learning landscape in the next three to five years? 

LW: That it changes. That it changes in a way that Indigenous students can come to this space and see themselves here.  

More information about Indigenization is available at Waterloo's Office of Indigenous Relations