Trauma in the Classroom for Indigenous Scholars: How Should We Respond? (book review)

This is the second in a series of book reviews written by FAUW’s Indigenization Working Group.

Book cover: Colonized Classrooms: Racism, Trauma and Resistance in Post-Secondary Education by Sheila Cote-Meek

Cote-Meek, Sheila. Colonized Classrooms: Racism, Trauma and Resistance in Post-Secondary Education. Fernwood, 2014. 175 pp.

—Shannon Dea, Department of Philosophy

Earlier this year, in the days and weeks following the devastating one-two punch of the acquittals of two White men on trial for the murders of Colton Boushie and Tina Fontaine, many post-secondary educators asked themselves how they should respond in the classroom. To discuss the topic, CBC Radio One turned to Sheila Cote-Meek, whose 2014 Colonized Classrooms addressed the matter square-on.

Sheila Cote-Meek is a professor of Indigenous Relations, and Associate Vice President of Academic & Indigenous Programs at Laurentian University. In Colonized Classrooms, she reports on and extrapolates from her doctoral dissertation, for which she interviewed fifteen Indigenous university students, faculty members and Elders. Cote-Meek uses Indigenous, post-colonial, feminist, and critical race scholarship ranging from Frantz Fanon and bell hooks to Gregory Cajete and Laara Fitznor to frame and expand upon what she learned in those interviews.

The book is organized around two central questions:

[H]ow do Aboriginal1 students confront curriculum on colonial history that is marked by violence, in the classroom? And, what pedagogies, healing or otherwise, might be useful for Aboriginal students in post-secondary classrooms that cover the topic of colonial violence on Aboriginal peoples when those students have suffered from colonial violence, a violence that remains ongoing? (9)

Colonized Classrooms is distinctive in a number of ways. First, it focuses on both Aboriginal students and educators, as opposed to other works in the field that have assumed White educators. Secondly, “the work is different from others in the field in that it is [sic] links current-day racism in post-secondary classrooms to longstanding and ongoing colonial experiences” (11). Finally, the book stands out from others in the field by drawing connections between the experience of racism and psychological trauma.

In Chapter 1, Cote-Meek shares her own background. Cote-Meek is an Anishnaabe-Kwe, originating from the Teme-Augama Anishnabai of Northern Ontario. She is a member of the Bear Clan, a clan whose members are known for their work in justice and healing, she tells us. She received both a formal education from mainstream institutions, and an informal education from Elders and members of the Anishnaabe community. Cote-Meek describes the internalized self-doubts she experienced as a person of mixed Anishnaabe and Irish heritage. Reflecting on her own experience, Cote-Meek writes that “it is a daily struggle for many Aboriginal people to retain their identity and stay grounded in their beliefs and values in the midst of a society where they are inundated with racism, discrimination and a Western value system that is diametrically different from that of their own” (13).

Daily colonial violence

In subsequent chapters, Cote-Meek works through her doctoral research data and various theoretical perspectives to capture the daily colonial violence that Indigenous faculty and students experience in the mainstream post-secondary system. For both groups, argues Cote-Meek, the impact of the colonial encounter is violent, ongoing and traumatic.

In the classroom, Aboriginal students variously experience shame and silencing, but also pressure to perform the role of “Native informants” (14) to their professors and fellow learners. Cote-Meek reports:

The most profound finding in the analysis of the data from Aboriginal students interviewed in this research is the extent of the racism that they must negotiate while in post-secondary classrooms. This negotiation is especially profound in classrooms where narratives of ongoing colonial violence are discussed. It also became evident that Aboriginal students are constrained by existing racialized constructions of Aboriginal peoples. (16)

When White professors introduce content about colonialism—even its most violent aspects—they often do so carelessly and end up retraumatizing Indigenous learners. When White professors seek to introduce Indigenous content into their courses, or when departments and universities seek to introduce Indigenous content into their curricula, they frequently skew toward “cultural” content—Indigenous peoples as anthropological artifacts—rather than toward Indigenous scholarship. Thus, much “Indigenous” content reproduces stereotypes and omits critique of colonialism.

Struggles and coping mechanisms

For Aboriginal scholars who go on into faculty positions, Cote-Meek finds that the struggles persist. She recounts Indigenous professors’ experiences of being tokenized and being discouraged from pursuing critical research agendas, and of undergoing enormous stress from working in a racist environment. She quotes Patricia Monture-Angus on “the numbness and pain that results from experiencing contradiction on a daily basis” (66). Eventually, Monture-Angus left her faculty position in a law school and found relief in a Native Studies department. While Cote-Meek finds that Indigenous professors feel more supported in Native Studies departments, the effect of this is that Native Studies departments are where the post-secondary system “puts” Indigenous scholars.

Just like faculty, Cote-Meek finds that many Indigenous students find respite in Native Studies programs or within Indigenous student centres. While some Indigenous students cope with the effects of institutional racism by seeking out Indigenous spaces, others Cote-Meek spoke to “disassociate” themselves from their Indigenous heritage. Still others resist the conventions and expectations of formal education, or withdraw from formal education altogether.

What Can We Do?

Having throughout the book surveyed the experiences and coping strategies of Indigenous professors and students, Cote-Meek devotes her final chapter to sketching a transformational pedagogy aimed at supporting Indigenous university members. Since there is a paucity of pedagogy literature aimed at supporting Indigenous students within the colonial university, Cote-Meek draws on the critical and anti-racist pedagogy literature and applies it to Indigenous learners. The book closes with four pedagogical considerations for professors and three pedagogical suggestions for institutions.

Professors should:

  1. Adopt anti-racist and anti-colonial pedagogies in the knowledge that Indigenous students live in a state of ongoing colonial violence;
  2. “Engage in holistic pedagogical approaches that give attention to the emotive aspects of a student’s being” (164);
  3. Demonstrably engage and confront racism in the classroom setting;
  4. Create opportunities for Indigenous students to connect with other Indigenous and racialized learner

Institutions should:

  1. Change policies and practices in order to hire Indigenous professors across all disciplines;
  2. Foster anti-racism as part of the institutional culture;
  3. Pursue educational policy changes at all levels, from elementary to post-secondary. (164-165)

“Should be required reading”

Cote-Meek’s book is packed with data and theory, but it is an engaging, accessible read. It is also a great foundation for classroom discussion. Colonized Classrooms was one of the required texts for a Philosophy of Race course I taught last term. The students (and their professor!) learned a ton. They discussed the book with empathy and enthusiasm, and when the course came to an end they agreed that the book had shifted their understanding of colonialism, Indigeneity, and education in ways that will stay with them. One student remarked that the book should be required reading for all professors.

Of course, there is no required reading for professors. But, for professors who want to better understand the experiences of Indigenous students and colleagues, and who want to think about ways to start to decolonize their own classrooms, I recommend this book very highly.

Indigenization Working Group Book Reviews: Colonized Classrooms, by Sheila Cote-Meek. There is a map of traditional Indigenous territories in Canada in the background.

1 Throughout the volume, Cote-Meek uses the (mostly) outdated term “Aboriginal” rather than “Indigenous”. She does so because, in Canadian law, First Nations, Métis and Inuit people are all gathered under the umbrella term “Aboriginal”. In using the term, Cote-Meek intends not to endorse this usage, but to highlight it, and to highlight the way in which the term lumps together peoples who are very different from each other, and exposes them all to the same colonial violence. In this review, I alternate between “Aboriginal” (following Cote-Meek) and “Indigenous”.

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