Let’s face it: it’s not every day that you get to learn about indigenous culture firsthand from a First Nations elder himself. The ongoing Indigenous seminar series here at UTM with Cat Criger has been arranged for this very reason.

The seminars are led by Criger, an aboriginal elder and mentor. Having spent many years under the guidance of elders from various tribes, he now shares this wealth of experience and knowledge on aboriginal traditions, ceremonies, customs, and beliefs through teaching and other mediums. Criger is the current Traditional Elder across all three U of T campuses and is also sitting on the university’s Council for Aboriginal Initiatives.

Last week’s segment focused on “promoting and fostering Indigenous inclusion” and “views on diversity and equity through an Indigenous lens”.

From the onset of the talk, Criger made the audience feel welcome as he greeted us with an Indigenous prayer before going on to translate it.

Criger not only explained the basic tenets of the greeting, but also what lies at the core of Indigenous culture and understanding: acknowledgement and respect.

He demonstrated the inclusiveness within Aboriginal tradition early on, as he had each audience member introduce themselves by name and origin. This, he explained, was an important practice by which a set of individuals meeting for the first time can better understand one another.

Criger explained that no matter who we are, “we are all indigenous to someone, somewhere”.

Criger then explained the purpose of herbs and certain practices such as smudging, as well as the uses of tobacco and sage, while dispelling some misconceptions associated with aboriginal beliefs. Herbs are used for ritual purposes, towards achieving a spiritual mind state, rather than for simply personal enjoyment or satisfaction. The burning of sage and tobacco is a method used to clear negativity within oneself; a practice of clearing the mind rather than fogging it.

He also stressed the importance of acknowledging the land upon which we live. Through recognizing its importance and how we interact with it, he demonstrated the cyclic nature of life in Indigenous philosophy, as well as our dependence as human beings on this planet, which we continue to destroy at an alarming rate. According to Criger, acknowledging the beauty, spirit, and life that surrounds us is the first step towards respecting it and caring for it. Criger also emphasised the urgent need for us to understand that we must protect and preserve our environment; reminding us that it is humans who need this planet to survive, and that the planet has no use for us.

A major component of the seminar focused on an upcoming sweat lodge ceremony to which he would be accompanying some of his students as part of a class that he co-teaches.

The sweat lodge ceremony is not restricted to only seeking guidance or spiritual experience, but is a sacred cleansing and renewal for the individual. The sweat lodge is a sacred space within which no negativity or intoxication is allowed. It exhibits the foundational value of respecting all that surrounds you, without which you cannot live in balance.

Criger then touched upon the sacredness of women in Indigenous culture in regards to the ceremony—the acknowledgement of their role in bringing life and the free will and respect that is granted to them. He also stressed how diversity and equality, regardless of self-identification, were included in Indigenous culture, but are often misunderstood, especially after the intense westernization that occurred. The seminar ended on this critical point: how viewing Aboriginal practices through a colonized lens had distorted and limited the true nature of their tradition and culture.

Fifth year Environmental Science student

Personally, I was surprised by the fact that had turned up to the event, although a smaller, more cohesive group allowed for a more laidback and involved atmosphere—it signified the importance of holding such events on campus.

Criger remarked that the purpose of holding this specific seminar series is “a way of educating and relationship building […] to help students, faculty, and staff to understand that we have an indigenous population, to not only help them understand but to build relationships between them”.

He went on to say, “We must strive for knowledge of who and what we are, so that when people meet us, they hear our history through an authentic voice and what our people are.”

He pointed out that such series were also important for building intercultural bonds within the campus community, but that this cannot happen until more and more people themselves are willing to go in search of learning more about Indigenous culture and history. This would be the first step in not only acknowledging the existence, struggle, and history of the Indigenous people of Canada for many, but would also pave the way in understanding why their communities have been left disenfranchised and traumatised.