Indigenous cultural production course brings unique pedagogy to Augustana students

Professor Erin Sutherland's course explores Indigenous cultural production through experiential learning.

Tia Lalani - 27 November 2018

By Melissa Wilk, Augustana Medium

From tanning a deer hide to exploring Edmonton's art galleries, professor Erin Sutherland's Introduction to Indigenous Cultural Production course offers a unique experience for Augustana students.

Originally from Northern Alberta, Sutherland joined the Augustana community in 2017. Sutherland has undergraduate degrees in psychology and native studies from the University of Alberta. She completed both her master's degree and Ph.D. in cultural studies at Queen's University.

While creating this course, Sutherland was inspired by Cathy Mattes and Sherry Farrell Racette's Kitchen Table Theory that explores how we can learn around a kitchen table. "Cathy and Sherry talk about how when you come together to bead or make things, as you are working, you are sharing knowledge."

Sutherland said that these practices are used in many Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. "Instead of just lecturing, I wanted to put some forms of Indigenous pedagogies that I know of into practice," said Sutherland.

Sutherland sees Kitchen Table Theory as a way to share knowledge and to allow space for students to share experiences and opinions. "Sharing food makes it an easy space for that to happen," said Sutherland. "It's about creating a community learning space. It takes the traditional lecturing system and shakes it up a little bit."

During the course, the class worked together to tan a hide. "We did it for the first time last year. While I'm teaching the practice, we talk about Indigenous ways of knowing that I'm familiar with," said Sutherland. "We think about our relationship and responsibility to kinship with the land and its creatures, as well as our responsibilities to each other."

As an Indigenous student, English-drama major Karen-Beverly Dumas said she had previous experience with hide tanning and other practices explored in the course.

"I was able to step back and enjoy the practices in ways different from my Nation's practices, which I found enjoyable and challenging," said Dumas, who took the course last year. "Sutherland's class changed my perspective on how Indigenous studies could be taught and was one of the first classes where I could appreciate my own culture in a way that was more than just providing the Indigenous perspective."

Dumas said that the kitchen table methodology was reminiscent of the ways she gained knowledge growing up. "I often found that dialogue and discourse were in-depth and more retainable because of how we sat around, laughed, ate and learned."

"The course was unlike any class I had taken in my university experience," said Dumas. "I got to share my Indigenous experience and identity with a group of students who genuinely wanted to learn about them."

Throughout the course, Sutherland hopes to demonstrate to students the variability and impressiveness of Indigenous contemporary cultural production.

"The aim of the course is for students to engage in practicing an alternative form of pedagogy that is based on my understanding of Indigenous methodologies," said Sutherland. "It shows students the diversity of Indigenous cultures."

Fifth-year global and development studies major Kaytlin Lee said that she is enjoying the course. "Erin provides a safe environment for topics that can be difficult to approach and to discuss. The challenging readings, seminar-style discussions, documentaries and various activities like hide tanning have been my favourite parts," said Lee."It has been really fun, but also an amazing learning experience that I have never had before at university."

Sutherland relies on many scholars and creators to support the course content. Students watch documentaries and videos, listen to poetry, explore visual art and exhibits and read creative and non-fiction writing.

The course is organized around topics such as indigenization, decolonization and sovereignty. Through an anthology project, students are given the opportunity to research examples of Indigenous cultural production surrounding a theme that interests them.

Sutherland sees the anthology project as a way to break down stereotypes of Indigenous peoples and directly engage students with a variety of cultural productions. "Students explore what kind of work is being done by Indigenous creators. For example, if a student is interested in rap music, they may want to explore Indigenous rap artists," said Sutherland.

Next year, IND240 will be offered in the fall three-week semester to accommodate for the hide tanning. "We're going to try it, mostly because of the hide. It will give us more flexibility," said Sutherland.

This article originally appeared in the November 2018 issue of the Augustana Medium.