Saturday, May 3, 2008

An Indigenous Spin on Academia

As an academic, we are expected to participate in conferences, a place and time in which you present your research and/or writing. I do enjoy conferences - sometimes the papers given are really good, but the real fun comes in just hanging out with fellow colleagues interested in the same things that you are.

But this symposium I participated in yesterday and today, well, it was different than usual academic conferences. I'm going to try to do a play on an old saying, but I may not be successful . . . so bear with me.

This symposium was like a wolf in academic clothing.

What I'm trying to say is that on the outside, it looked like a normal academic gathering. But it took place at the Many Nations Longhouse on the UO campus. The whole group consisted of either 1) indigenous people or people of indigenous descent; 2) academics who have long-standing relationships with indigenous communities and/or literatures; or 3) faculty and/or students interested in indigenous literatures. Some, if not most, of our conversations revolved around colonialism and how that affected indigenous communities. As you can imagine, this sometimes brought up tears.

I lost it myself, though, when two of our Maori participants, Jo and Alice, presented their "conversation" about museums, using the metaphor of the Maori "tukutuku". The tukutuku are the woven panels in geometric designs that adorn the walls of traditional Maori meeting (?) places - I think they are called the marai, but my memory is not sure I got that right. These tukutuku are placed between the "poupou" which are wooden carved poles that depict various ancestors. Women weave the tukutuku and men carve the poles, generally speaking, although there is some flexibility in gender roles.

Tukutuku are woven by pairs of women, each of whom usually work on just one side. Each one creates their own pattern on their side, but pass the flax (what they weave with) to the other woman, who then creates her own design. In order to do this, the two women have usually established a fairly good rapport, enough so that they trust the other that the pattern they are weaving works well together.

So, what Jo and Alice did is that they pretended to pass the flax from one to the other and once one received the flax, she discussed her own individual perspective on museums and collections as indigenous Maori women. There is no way I will be able to report here what they discussed. I know the gist of what they were saying. But suffice it to say that it was powerful.

What touched me the most was that instead of doing a typical academic presentation or conversation, they instead did the presentation that was grounded in Maori tradition and culture. It was uniquely Maori and by doing it that way, they communicated a lot about colonialism and its various affects. It was really amazing and I teared up when I told them how much I appreciated what they presented.

The symposium was really good for me - I met some amazing and interesting people here and I believe we created friendships (and some were able to maintain already established ties) that might last the rest of our lives. I want to end by thanking each of them for being here and for engaging in some intense conversations and for also taking time for laughter and humor. So, thank you to Chad (for organizing the conference), Susan, Tanya, baby Sassa, Jo, Alice, Craig, Allison, Michele, Lisa, Shari, Hugh, Gail, Emily, and Phoebe. There were others, but I can't remember them all. Thank you for very interesting conversations and I hope we continue these conversations for years to come.


Carver said...

That sounds very powerful Dee.

Dee said...

Hi Carver,
Yes, that particular event left quite an impression on me and its getting my mind thinking about indigenous studies in different ways. I was also able to hang out with two of the Maori and two other women who went to school with one of the Maori for a bit yesterday -took them to a local brew pub that they enjoyed. It's got me wanting to go to New Zealand soon! Anyway, they were neat people and the event was something I won't forget.
Hope you're doing well.

Michelle said...

Dee is way too modest here! Her collaborative performance/talk with Tanya Lukin-Linklater was amazing and really set the stage for everything that followed. Dee did a beautiful narrative dance whose meaning and movements she explained beforehand. And throughout the symposium her questions and comments on the presentations were incredibly helpful, generous, and insightful. I hope to see her present again! --Michelle