Exploring Indigenous culture in North America
- Written by Alicia Nolan, Bachelor of Communications, Swinburne University of Technology
In a Swinburne first, a group of students travelled to Saskatchewan, Canada, for the Indigenous North American Study Tour.
The six students, who either identify as Indigenous or are completing Indigenous studies, camped on reserve lands throughout Saskatchewan and got to experience North America's Indigenous culture and history in a variety of contemporary contexts. They were also joined on the tour by other students from the University of Saskatchewan and the University of North Carolina.
Between exploring the prairies, trips to indigenous museums, attending storytelling ceremonies and traditional Powwows, and spending time with local elders, Media and Communication student Sarah McPherson says it was impossible to choose just one highlight.
“It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life,” says Sarah.
“Being welcomed into a culture so completely different from my own, with open arms and open minds, to learn from and experience firsthand how Indigenous peoples lived both historically and in contemporary society was incredible.”
Sarah was always interested in undertaking a study tour or exchange but was waiting for the right fit.
“I thought about study tours a lot and had been looking but was waiting for one that suited me,” she says.
“This one really interested me as I had just begun my Indigenous minor and it was something that was turning out to be a passion area for me.
“I thought if I can take what I’m learning about Australian Indigenous culture and apply that to North American indigenous culture that would be an amazing experience that I couldn’t go and do by myself.”
The students attended a traditional powwow, an event for Native American people to meet and dance, sing, socialise, and honour their cultures.
One of Sarah’s most treasured elements of the trip was the time spent with Indigenous locals.
“We camped in two different areas over the trip,” says Sarah.
While staying on Pound-maker Cree Nation land the group was guided by elder Eric Tootoosis.
“Eric shared with us both his life story and the traditional stories passed down to him by his family and the community,” says Sarah.
“He was an incredibly inspiring man who laughed and smiled constantly despite everything him and his people had been through.”
The group felt honoured to listen to elder Eric Tootsoosis share stories.
In the second half of the trip, the group was fortunate to spend time with a Metis woman, Maria Campbell.
“Maria had set her land up as a huge learning arbour, a place where people, poets, writers and spoken word artists can come together to create art and tell stories,” Sarah says.
During their stay, there was a fiddler, a spoken word poet, two singers and a man who writes children’s books about Metis history.
“Maria was such an inspirational woman. Learning about her life experiences and to hear a feminist perspective in an Indigenous discussion was a huge honour.”
The students also learnt about Indigenous medicines and traditional games.
“It was so interesting to see how much these people – even in contemporary times – can make with things around them rather than relying on material things,” Sarah says.
“For example, teas and pastes made from roots, leaves, and barks play a large role in medicinal and healing practices."
"During the trip, we went foraging with, and learned from, a Cree medicine woman. We cut funguses from birch trees to create pain medications, and boiled plant matter like pine needles and wild raspberry root to make traditional teas for healing, or preventative medications.”
The students experienced traditional accommodation while camping on the reserve.
Going abroad with Swinburne
Sarah made the most out of her tour and explored more of Canada than just Saskatchewan.
“Unlike a lot of universities, Swinburne Abroad is super flexible with things like travelling before or after a tour. They allow you to book your own flights so you can add your own holiday plans,” says Sarah.
Sarah travelled through the iconic Canadian Rockies before the tour began.
“There are so many different options to choose from – business trips to Europe, engineering in Hong Kong or teaching English in third world countries, there is something for everyone.
“I’ve never come back from an opportunity or something that I’ve done and thought ‘I shouldn’t have done that’,” she says.
To learn more about studying abroad with Swinburne, please visit: Study abroad for Swinburne students
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