Filmmaker Melissa Santoro Greyeyes-Brant Talks About 'Kinamagawin: Aboriginal Issues in the Classroom'

Martha Troian
1/16/12

Post-secondary institutions are supposed to be places of learning and critical thought. But what happens when a class begins discussing aboriginal issues? According to Melissa Santoro Greyeyes-Brant, a graduate student at Carleton University in the Canadian Studies department, a classroom can become “emotionally charged.”

Greyeyes-Brant is the director of Kinamagawin: Aboriginal Issues in the Classroom, a 45-minute film premiering January 19 that takes a hard look at some of the challenges confronting aboriginal students, non-aboriginal students, faculty and staff when it comes to broaching aboriginal topics in a classroom setting.

This film provides the space for stories to be shared and creates greater awareness of the difficulties and challenges a university may face when dealing with aboriginal issues. It also symbolizes the strength and resiliency of a university’s aboriginal community during a time that is meant for growth. The young filmmaker, of Italian descent with extended family in Six Nations, Mohawk Territory, made the work with filmmaker/Carleton alumnus Howard Alder.

Indian Country Today Media Network caught up with Greyeyes-Brant to find out more.

Why did you see a need for Kinamagawin: Aboriginal Issues in the Classroom?

From my personal experience and because my major is focused on indigenous content, with almost every course I took these sorts of problems would come up, with people making problematic and offensive comments and discussion not necessarily being well facilitated within the classroom. What I've heard from other friends is that it has become a real big barrier in achieving higher education.

What can you tell us about the participants in the film?

There were 23 participants. They ranged from students, to faculty, contract instructors and one staff member. They were aboriginal and non-aboriginal, from first-year undergraduate to doctoral students, and they came from various disciplines. So we had people from anthropology, journalism and human rights, to public affairs policy management. Just as with the instructors that we interviewed, they ranged across the board too.

What are some of the themes that came up?

A lot of indigenous students talked about the discomfort of being tokenized within the classroom—that was a major theme. Another theme was identity. For instance, students who do identify as aboriginal but don't necessarily visibly appear to be aboriginal or really conform to the stereotypes that are held of what an aboriginal person should look like. Oftentimes in the classroom setting, people would be challenged on their identity and their authority to speak to aboriginal issues—and this was coming from both aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students.

Many of the non-native students reported fear. Fear in asking questions, fear in wanting to learn more because they did not want to offend people, or having this fear of looking racist.

Instructors had several themes: One was a real predominant theme since Carleton only has two self-identified [aboriginal] faculty members. Many non-aboriginal faculty felt insecure and unsure about having to teach these issues, being non-native.

What are some of the recommendations that came out of Kinamagawin?

We had very concrete recommendations, and they are very specific to Carleton. The one that was most cited was the need to recruit more indigenous faculty across various disciplines and not necessarily just to teach about issues of their identity. Another recommendation was to have a centralized space on campus that could make a huge improvement such as providing a counseling service for indigenous students because currently there is no one for them to call on if there is a problem.

What is next for you?

My next plan is to develop a series of workshops to accompany the film to have something in terms of a teaching and training tool.  The next phase is distribution. We received so much interest in having copies in the film, so that is next on the agenda.

Below, a trailer for the film, which premieres at the Kailash Mital Theatre in Ottawa.

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