New era of inclusivity for NAIT's Aboriginal students and staff

Traditional teachings guide staff and students in unique strategy

Coby Steinhauer loves going to school, but loves going home again, too. For the 20-year-old Management student, they’re different worlds. Steinhauer grew up in Saddle Lake Cree Nation, a community of about 5,000 people 170 kilometres northeast of Edmonton. He stays with an aunt, a university professor, during the week and heads back on weekends.

“I like nature,” he says. At home, Steinhauer picks sage and berries, and goes for walks. In the fall, he hunts deer. “It makes me feel happy. It makes me feel like a true nehiyaw (ᓀᐦᐃᔭᐤ) – native person.”

Nevertheless, Steinhauer’s two worlds are closely connected. His education drives his ambition. “I always wanted to be a leader,” he says. “I want to become chief of my reserve.”

Coming from a small community, “You have to adapt.”

The teachings he was brought up with help ground Steinhauer in the sometimes unfamiliar environments of a big city and a large school. He likens it to “culture shock.” Coming from a small community, he says, “You have to adapt.” What’s more, often being the only Aboriginal person in a classroom, he’s done that mostly on his own.

Released in fall 2019, “Connecting the Four Directions” is a NAIT strategy meant to guide and inspire staff to find ways to honour Aboriginal knowledge and to be more inclusive of Aboriginal people and communities. Led by the Nîsôhkamâtotân Centre, a resource and campus gathering place for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students, it aligns traditional teachings with NAIT’s vision to be a leading polytechnic, and seeks to remove barriers to education.

That is, the strategy strives for an open environment in which cultures can acknowledge and celebrate their uniqueness, and the needs that come with that. “We’re all working toward the same goals,” says Steinhauer. “Let’s get there together.”

Learn more about the Nîsôhkamâtotân Centre

Tradition as a guide

nait nisohkamatotan centreNîsôhkamâtotân Centre manager Derek Thunder agrees that NAIT has worked to support Aboriginal students, but never quite like this. Four Directions is intended to speak to staff and instructors in their efforts to foster truly inclusive education. It was created with input from Aboriginal Elders and cultural advisers from the NAIT community, students, staff at the centre and instructors from across the institute.

“We are a part of Canada,” says Thunder, who is Cree, “and our institutions and education system are not inclusive of Aboriginal people in terms of how we talk about them.

“This will guide us toward removing those barriers and fostering those relationships with communities and Aboriginal people to better their experience in a post-secondary institute.”

Often inadvertent and subtle, those barriers can be hard to identify. In some cases, suggests campus life associate vice-president Alison Lewis, who oversaw the development of Four Directions, they arise from classroom discussions of land usage that don’t include the values some cultures ascribe to that land. In others, says Bachelor of Technology instructor Kristine Kowalchuk, those barriers result of not pausing to challenge our assumptions about other cultures and the way they see the world.

“I think this is an excellent first step,” says Kowalchuk, who was part of an advisory committee early in the development of Four Directions. “It helps to orient instructors and points them gently toward another way of looking at things.”

derek thunder, nait nisohkamatotan centre managerFour Directions is not prescriptive, Thunder points out. It contains no precise steps for instructors and staff to take. Instead, it enlists tradition as a guide. “Our culture is our teaching,” says Thunder, “so we embedded that within the strategy.”

Named for the four directions held sacred by some Aboriginal cultures, including Cree, the heart of the strategy is the seven grandfather teachings on wisdom, love, respect, bravery, honesty, humility and truth. “These gifts were to help the people live a good life and to respect the Creator, the earth and each other,” explains the strategy.

They’re followed by NAIT’s promises to Alberta, students, industry and staff. Four Directions closes with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Calls to Action regarding education.

When asked, Why now?, Lewis says that Four Directions was long overdue. “We didn’t have something that said out loud, internally and externally, that this was an important aspect of who we are as an institution. It’s a direction that NAIT needs to head in.”

Looking back at his university education, Thunder feels such an institutional declaration would have helped him, too. “Anything that empowers any community … makes them more confident in the things they do. I think anything that empowers Aboriginal students – Aboriginal communities – is a positive step.”

“This is who we are and what we value”

centre for applied technology and tipi, naitThunder expects that Four Directions will unfold at NAIT differently in every classroom. Throughout, however, he believes it will help ensure “an understanding of Aboriginal culture and how Aboriginal communities do things” that will support a better experience for students.

What’s more, he adds, “This is teaching that we’re equal partners in everything that we do.”

As Kowalchuk suggested, Four Directions is a starting point. “It’s important to be informed and this is something the document reminds everyone of.” She points to the TRC’s Calls to Action or the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as places to begin learning.

“It’s also a reminder for us as educators to remain humble in what we know,” she adds. “I think that’s where the obstacles can sometimes arise unintentionally. Humility is one of the best checks on that.”

Kowalchuk knows it will take time for Four Directions to truly point the way for NAIT as a whole. Lewis acknowledges that the strategy will grow over time, as “a living document [that will] guide us as we learn and move toward that inclusive and supportive community.” For Thunder, however, it has already achieved success by granting space for respectful, informed dialogue.

The biggest impact of that should be felt by students like Steinhauer. Leaving home to come to the city or to school, he admits, required that he “learn the môniyâw (ᒨᓂᔮᐤ) way.” (“White man,” he translates, then adds, "no offence.") But he is adamant that that should not mean leaving anything of himself behind.

For Steinhauer, Four Directions is a kind of advocacy. “This is who we are and what we value,” he says. “What this means to us is that we can feel included.”

Just as importantly, it’s an invitation for him to include others. Steinhauer wouldn’t hold it against anyone if they couldn’t identify a wild sage plant near his home in Saddle Lake. He’d happily point it out – just as he would any aspect of Aboriginal culture should students or instructors ask in the way that Four Directions encourages.

“I want them to experience my world, my culture,” says Steinhauer. “I want to show them.”

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