Kaeliana Smoke is a fourth-year UTM student completing a double major in biology and anthropology, and Professor Jedediah Kuhn is an assistant professor within the department of historical studies. Smoke and Professor Kuhn are uniquely involved in the Indigenous community—a community which lacks support from UTM’s faculty and students.
First, it is crucial to take a moment and understand the history of specific terms to recognize and respect the members in whose traditional territories we reside.
“Aboriginals” refer to Canada’s first inhabitants, including First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples. This term is not commonly used in the United States. Instead, the term “Native American” is commonly used to describe Aboriginal peoples. The term “Indigenous” encapsulates various Aboriginal groups and is most frequently used in a global context. The term “native” and “Indian” can hold negative connotations and is not convenient for a wide range of populations.
This year, Kaeliana Smoke founded the first Indigenous book club at the UTM campus to enable Indigenous students to connect and bond through discussions about a particular book they are assigned to read for the semester. She explains that “it is a club that focuses on allowing a space for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students to come together and speak about books that are written by Indigenous authors.”
Working for the Centre of Student Engagement (CSE) as an Indigenous initiative engagement assistant, Smoke was able to put her idea into fruition, establishing The CSE Indigenous Book Club.
She believes that reading fiction novels can help individuals understand and relate to Indigenous experiences. She explains that students typically read a certain number of pages every week and later meet via Zoom to answer guided questions and participate in a productive discussion about a range of topics. Participants are also welcomed to share their own experiences and listen to what others have to contribute.
This semester, the CSE Indigenous Book Club is reading The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline—a novel about Indigenous peoples being hunted for their bone marrow and the intergenerational trauma they face as a marginalized group. The club will continue next semester with a new novel. Smoke encourages individuals interested in signing up for the club to check out their website.
When asked why she pursued this club, Smoke indicated that the lack of resources and initiatives available for Indigenous peoples was at the root of her motives. Compared to other U of T campuses, UTM faces the largest shortage of resources catered to supporting Indigenous students. Although UTM is experiencing a gradual increase in Indigenous faculty, Smoke believes the institution can do more for her community. The absence of interaction with other Indigenous members can sometimes lead to a feeling of “disconnection,” as Smoke expresses.
For instance, “smudging” is an Aboriginal tradition that consists of the burning of sweetgrass, sage, and cedar for purification—a routine that establishes a positive mindset. However, UTM has a policy that prevents Indigenous members from practicing smudging unless they provide a 48-hour notice in advance, despite not knowing when their practice is needed.
In terms of her ethnicity, Smoke’s Mohawk name is Katsitsianentha, which means “when the wind blows over the flowers.” Her name represents that she was born in Spring. She is a Mohawk woman from the reserve of Akwesasne.
The Mohawk peoples are an Iroquoian-speaking North American Indian tribe and also the easternmost tribe of the Iroquois Confederacy. They are the keepers of the Eastern Door of the Iroquois Confederacy and are also known as the Six Nations Confederacy or the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.
The Mohawk territory of Akwesasne is geographically unique as it consists of regions in Ontario and Quebec and the state of New York in the United States. Smoke explains that she was born in Ontario and spent her earlier years of school in New York, but currently resides in Quebec.
Smoke discusses how the acknowledgement of land is the first step in non-Indigenous people’s attempt at respect and mindfulness of the Indigenous community. It is crucial to engage in research to understand what treaty number we all reside in, indicates Smoke. The city of Toronto pertains to Treaty 13, known as The Toronto Purchase Treaty. “Even such little things like knowing whose land you’re on; it means a lot to Indigenous peoples,” says Smoke.
Individuals can provide support by learning current events on what is happening with Indigenous communities, sharing this information, donating to certain organizations, and signing essential petitions.
Professor Jedediah Kuhn teaches courses in the women and gender studies and history programs while researching the intersections of race, Indigeneity, gender, and sexuality in the U.S. West and Mexico borderlands.
Professor Kuhn indicates that he is Chicano, a term used to describe Mexican Americans of Indigenous descent living in the United States. However, he notes this is not necessarily the same as identifying as Indigenous or other terms, such as Hispanic or Latino.
Currently, Professor Kuhn is working on his book called “The Traces of Intimacy: Native Americans and Mexican Americans in the Trans-Sierra West.” In this project, he studies the dynamics of ethnic groups and Indigenous groups and how they might influence each other and, if so, in what ways.
Professor Kuhn indicates that typically, Western culture faces difficulty in comprehending complex cultures. “[Western culture] has this phenomenon where it is thought that to be Indigenous, people need to be racially pure or fit into this specific box of how we might expect somebody to look and act.” In his research, using a historical case study, Professor Kuhn observes Mexican Americans and Native Americans and attempts to identify a relationship between them.
When asked what pushed him to pursue his project, Professor Kuhn answers that his own lived experiences motivated him to focus his research on studies of ethnicity and Indigeneity.
“It was interesting to me when I got into graduate school and started to think about these questions more deeply from an academic perspective that Latinx studies and Indigenous studies kind of ignore each other and operate completely differently. This segregated way of lived experiences was so different from my own, where so many people I knew were both Native and Mexican American.”
With respect to how non-Indigenous people can support Indigenous members and allow them to flourish in society, Professor Kuhn explains that “a good place to start is to know who the Indigenous peoples are in your hometown,” and provides a valuable resource to do so—a website referred to as nativelands.ca. Also, he explains that it is crucial for an individual to contribute in any way they can to be inclusive of Indigenous peoples and think about ramifications of daily interactions, especially in political proceedings like voting.
Employing an idea on how to provide further support, Professor Kuhn states, “If you’re in the position to hire people one day, [you] can think about how you’re going to go about that in a way that creates a more equitable society [and] what kind of work you can do [to support Indigenous individuals and their communities].”
As Professor Kuhn highlights, among countless misconceptions and oppressive authenticity is one major fault of large institutions placed toward Indigenous peoples. It encompasses the idea that one must be racially or culturally pure to truly identify as “Indigenous.” He emphasizes that this concept erases and oppresses their culture as it operates as a mechanism of exclusion. It pushes for the belief that if an individual is able to identify with more than one category, they are considered impure or inauthentic.
However, Indigenous cultures can change with the advancement of new technology and policies. Professor Kuhn emphasizes that Indigenous individuals should not be held accountable or considered “impure” for adapting to these changes if they choose to adjust their practices as other cultures do.
Additionally, Professor Kuhn encourages individuals to think about Indigeneity in a broader hemisphere instead of limiting their awareness and knowledge towards Indigenous peoples. For instance, he raises awareness toward a current crisis happening on the U.S.-Mexican border where children are being separated from their families, and women are being given hysterectomies without their consent.
He points out that many of these people are Indigenous from Central America, signifying how imperative it is for society to expand their knowledge systems and be more conscious of these groups.
Professor Kuhn and Kaeliana Smoke both emphasize how it is crucial for non-Indigenous individuals to do what they can to respect and recognize the community whose land they occupy, and this can be done in many different ways. Indigenous communities should not be neglected on university grounds and by contributing what we can as individuals and reflecting on how we can provide support, we can make them feel less excluded.