Spring 2003,
Volume 24, Number 1

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Native Art

"Thunderbird and Man" by Charles Elliott
Making Minds Stronger
By Mike McNeney, editor

IN 1854, CHIEF SEATTLE SAID THAT “THERE IS NO DEATH, ONLY A CHANGE of worlds.” If you believe those words to be true then imagine how many worlds must exist on the lands now occupied by the university campus. In this place—in the heart of Coast Salish territory—how many memories and how many generations echo in the plants and soil? How many spirits come from across the water, with the wind?

It is often easy to overlook the traditions of those who were here before. Maybe that’s partly because the standard university structure of learning is so much different from the way knowledge is traditionally passed along in aboriginal cultures. The post-secondary structure encourages open debate and critical thinking. But many aboriginal students, particularly those from traditional backgrounds, are raised to listen rather than question. To challenge the word of others, especially elders, is disrespectful. This is the sort of cultural issue that—along with the challenges that face all university students—many aboriginal students encounter.

Only two decades ago, the university’s aboriginal students were an extreme minority—less than a dozen. The city and the school were sometimes perceived to be too English, an unwelcome environment to students who often came from remote communities.

Things are evolving though, and now 250 aboriginal students study at UVic. They are still a small minority. Yet the fact they have made it is a credit to their strength and ability to beat the odds, considering that in Canada, the drop-out rate among aboriginal students from kindergarten to Grade 12 is between 60 and 70 per cent. Tragic, but better than the 95 per cent drop-out rate common from 1950-80.

Aboriginal students at UVic are supported by a contingent of aboriginal advisors, counsellors, staff, faculty and specialized programs of study. As well, the university has made it a priority to increase aboriginal enrollment while diversifying curricula and teaching methods to accommodate aboriginal traditions and values. Planning is also under way to build a First Nations House for learning, solitude and healing.

This issue’s cover feature is about a form of healing. I first heard about Gloria Frank when a research paper of hers captured my attention. But by the time I caught up to her, she had moved on to something much deeper and more important. At the core, her story is about perseverance and will. It is about the triumph and empowerment that an educational experience can spark. Like a vision in a dream later emerging in reality, it can cause a person to be transformed. Perceptions change, self-awareness changes, and the past and present become connected in bright new ways.

The days of the season are getting colder now, the nights longer and we are near the time of the Winter Dance—the private, almost secretive ritual gatherings staged by the Coast Salish (and other tribal groups) to celebrate the time of year when supernatural ancestral energy returns from the mountains. At the ceremonies, when young people are gathered, the speaker might rise in the Big House to say in the Halkomelem language “Qwam Qwum Tun Shqwalawn”—make your mind strong. And he might remind them to gather the best from both worlds—the one of their ancestry and the one offered by the university. It is a place where they—we—are not alone. It’s a place that, in the words of Chief Seattle, does “throng with returning hosts that once filled and still love this beautiful land.”

In April, everyone involved in producing the Torch was honoured to receive from the Canadian Council for the Advancement of Education a silver medal for the best magazine among the smaller budget publications of the country’s universities. We are grateful for the award and delighted by the judges’ decision as we continue to strive for a magazine that uniquely reflects the quality of the university and its alumni.

The Seven Flames editor's column is named for the seven flames of the torch in the university's coat of arms.

e-mail: mmcneney@uvic.ca


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