Indigenous studies program off to a fast start

by Jonathan Montpetit, BA'03

McGill’s new Minor Concentration in Indigenous Studies is barely a few months old, but it's fast become a popular offering for undergraduates in the Faculty of Arts. The fall semester courses filled up quickly—in one case, in less than 24 hours—and those involved in the program have high hopes for its future.

Though McGill has long had a selection of courses dealing with Indigenous issues, the minor concentration bundles them together in a coherent way. Housed within the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada (MISC), the program will be launching two brand new courses in the winter semester: "Introduction to Indigenous Studies" and an upper-level interdisciplinary seminar in Indigenous studies.

Heading both these courses is Allan Downey, MISC's new academic associate in Indigenous studies and a member of the Nak’azdli First Nation. Downey is collaborating on another course this fall, "Decolonizing North American Indigenous History," which he is co-teaching with Ned Blackhawk, BA'92, a Yale University professor of history and American studies and the award-winning author of Violence Over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West. "This is a really exciting class and I was overwhelmed by the positive response to it, I think it took 24 hours to reach capacity," says Downey. "[It] is about re-imagining the narrative of North American history, focusing on Canada and the United States, and placing Indigenous perspectives, knowledge, and voices at the forefront. The goal is to challenge students to not just think of Indigenous peoples as a new part of each nation's multicultural or multi-racial mosaic but to reconsider the terms of these histories altogether."

Fresh from finishing his PhD in history at Wilfred Laurier University, Downey joins McGill at a moment when universities across the country are keen to make Indigenous knowledge part of their educational experience.

“Indigenous studies has quickly become one of the fastest growing fields of study in Canadian universities,” Downey says. “There seems to be a momentum in Canada to re-evaluate and improve the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples and I think the discipline's growth is a by-product of that.”

For Downey, the positive reception the program has received so far is a sign of students’ desire to learn about Indigenous cultures. But the aim of the minor isn’t solely to provide an orientation through various histories and social issues. It’s also to spur undergraduates “to consider worldviews that aren’t their own.”

The program was announced earlier this year, and is the product of a collaboration between MISC and the University’s First Peoples’ House, which had conducted research on similar programs at other universities. Alongside the new course offerings, the program also brings together a range of different approaches to Indigenous issues. As part of the minor, students will be able to take courses in anthropology, English, law, history and social work, among other disciplines.

MISC director Will Straw acknowledges the minor was an idea whose time had come. He is optimistic the program will be able to expand in the near future, given the importance of Indigenous issues for the study of Canada. “It is less and less easy for Canadians, and Montrealers, to think of these as issues that exist far away and have nothing to do with us,” he says. “These issues are at the core of a whole debate over environmental policies, questions of education, and medicine. It is impossible to deal with these questions without confronting with the status of Indigenous peoples.”

Downey’s own research revolves around the history of lacrosse, which he sees as a useful entry point to understanding the often troubled relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities in Canada. If the game has been considered one of the country’s national sports since the 19th century, it has played a central role in Indigenous culture for even longer than that. “Following Confederation it was a critical link between Canadians as one of the country's most popular games,” Downey notes. “Similarly, in many Indigenous communities such as Kahnawà:ke, the game's importance has not wavered and players, teams, and the Indigenous game itself continues to be a great source of pride.”

That said, Downey simply has a soft spot for the game itself. He started playing when he was 10. By the time he completed high school, Downey had developed a prowess with the lacrosse stick that earned him a scholarship to Mercyhurst University in Pennsylvania. He was even drafted professionally, but in the end opted for the academic route, turning his passion for the game into a PhD dissertation. “As an Indigenous person, I had always connected with the game because it was common knowledge in the ‘lacrosse circle’ that it was an Aboriginal game and I took a great deal of pride in that as a kid.”

This interest in the exchanges between settler and Indigenous cultures is what Downey hopes he can pass on to his students. He sees the program in general as a chance to create dialogue between groups that haven’t always spoken to each other as equals. “I think the Indigenous studies program at McGill can have a positive impact and help facilitate relationships between the University and Indigenous communities.”