|October 1, 1999||Volume 7, Number 3|
Acoose builds bridge between university and community
By Cassandra Phillips
Janice Acoose, a graduate student in the University of Saskatchewans PhD program in English who also teaches at the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College, uses her indigenous roots and teaching abilities to build a bridge between the university and the community-at-large.
Her approach to teaching is to point out that "there is no truth: the students become their own authorities and I act as a conduit toward their self empowerment.
"Whenever possible, I make the classroom alive through storytelling, and each student takes his or her own truth away from that."
Janice, an indigenous woman whose roots stem from the Sakimay-Saulteaux First Nation and the Marival Métis Communities in Saskatchewan, completed an undergraduate degree in Native Studies and English at the U of S in 1989.
As she reminisces on these early years, Janice describes a time when the images of indigenous people were misrepresented, both in literature and in the classroom.
She notes, "I made up my mind there and then that my peoples ways of knowing would be given a voice through me."
And to that end, Janice completed her masters degree in English, also at the U of S, under the supervision of Dr. Susan Gingell, in 1993.
She later turned her masters thesis into a book titled Iskwewak Kah Ki Yaw Ni Wahkomakanak: Neither Indian Princesses Nor Easy Squaws.
Janice is excited about the book, which is gaining in popularity across Canada.
"In the book, I took a critical approach to the way that prominent writers like Margaret Lawrence and William Patrick Kinsella represent women in their work," she adds.
"In Lawrences The Bird in the House, for example, women fall into the traditional native trap of being in a dysfunctional relationship. Kinsella also reinforces this image.
"There is so much more to the native woman than being unemployed, alcoholic or in an abusive relationship."
In her teaching, Janice wants to expand these images to include those from works of other Saskatchewan and Canadian writers, like Louise Halfe, Richard Wagamese, Emma La Roque, Howard Adams, Maria Campbell and Marilyn Dumont.
"By giving these new writers a voice," says Janice, "we can immerse the students in other ways of knowing, ways that encompass other indigenous peoples lives.
"Only then will students become empowered to believe in themselves in ways that far surpass traditional belief systems."
Meanwhile, Janice has exceeded expectations: As the first aboriginal student to graduate with a masters degree in English from the U of S, she is well-known in literary and journalistic circles.
Besides her book, published by Womens Press, in Toronto, Janice has several articles published in Gatherings, Playmaking and Canadian Women Studies.
She has also written for numerous publications, including New Breed magazine, Windspeaker, the Star-Phoenix, the Leader-Post, and the Saskatchewan Native Womens Association.
Today, as Janice works on her PhD dissertation, predictably on works by indigenous writers between 1960-1990, she takes them to task on their reliance on the native construct and peculiar colloquialisms.
Janices research focuses on a selection of Cree, Ojibway and Métis authors.
Her own journey has been simultaneously exhausting and stimulating: "I have had to earn the right to speak," she smiles.
"I have also let go of some of my own baggage, particularly things that influenced me when I was growing up in residential schools. In many ways, I feel like Emma La Roque, a Métis writer from Manitoba, who says She knows from a place of knowing that is not documented.
"I am finally beginning to understand myself."
Janices long-term goals are to spend more time on creative writing: "I feel there are so many stories inside me that I want to tell."
Until then, the classroom will resound with her own storytelling, as well as those by other indigenous writers that encourage students to become stronger intellectually, spiritually and emotionally.
Cassandra Phillips writes profiles of U of S graduate students as part of a fellowship with the College of Graduate Studies and Research.
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