Undertow: Swimming in Blood Memory

Indigenous students sit with a lot of ugly history while attending school on Turtle Island
Undertow Drag Gravity. This visual suggests danger from an undertow.
Undertow Drag Gravity by Pixabay

Whether it is reinforced via course content or by professionals discussing problematic ideologies, Indigenous students brave potential dangers while developing their academic skills. In Indigenous Studies, non-Indigenous students learn about Indigenous students' family histories. Even in the celebration of our successes, there is the tendency for academia to pull us back into negative bias. I like to visualize this through the metaphor of an undertow. An undertow is a current under the surface of water that pulls away from the shoreline as the surface water pushes towards the shoreline. Have you ever swam through waves of water and felt something pull you back? That is an undertow.

While attending university, I have been searching for mino-bimaadiziwin (Ojibwe for the good life). It has come to me in many forms, such as my relationships, art, health and specifically my education. This is not to say that education has not been challenging at times. For Indigenous students, sometimes the bad such as negative bias, comes in waves.

Every time I find myself braving the academic waves of Western curricula, I must be careful not to allow the undertow to pull me back into dangerous waters. It can be easy for me to lose my sea legs and feel like I am drowning in negativity bias because of a Eurocentric standardization of academia that tends to focus on harmful stereotypes and pain narratives.

We search for external resources to help us develop and bring them into our communities to see them flourish. The University of Calgary has outreach programs that are considered external resources for local organizations, communities and institutions. The Ótáp ímisskaan program is a free Indigenous youth outreach program that operates with the support of the Writing Symbols Lodge.

The program offers learning opportunities for local schools and nearby communities, on and off-reserve, to share Indigenous youth leadership skills. Participants receive a parchment of completion from UCalgary, which they can pour into their resumes, cover letters and school applications. Current UCalgary Indigenous students facilitate and develop the program, which allows them to grow their own leadership and team-based skills. All the content is age-appropriate, humorous, playful and most importantly, shared through an Indigenous lens. The program highlights artwork from prominent Indigenous artists across Turtle Island and facilitators practice speaking their traditional language and partake in ceremony. Ótáp ímisskaan is a wholistic resource for Indigenous youth in Treaty 7 Territory. One program is a drop in the bucket, but we hope the rippling effects will help change the world around us and keep the hope for mino-bimaadiziwin afloat.

Programs like Ótáp ímisskaan help Indigenous youth to anchor their values and ways of knowing against the torrential waves of historical trauma. But if we continue to give more attention and weight to negative information, this will create harmful tendencies towards Indigenous people. We cannot ignore the past, nor the continued oppression and neglect of Indigenous peoples. It is important that we focus on positive bias and celebrating Indigenous deadliness.