Indigenous Studies INDG 3025: Storying the Land
Joeann Argue, Assistant Professor, Indigenous Performance
A landscape can be about more than geographical formations: you could view it as a reflection of the stories belonging to the people who have lived on that land. It’s a concept that underpins Professor Joeann Argue’s Storying the Land course, a performance-based storytelling course in Trent’s Indigenous Studies program.
“There are layers of stories on these lands,” says Prof. Argue. “Indigenous stories followed by stories from settlers, immigrants and visitors. They all fit together — though sometimes not so easily. But that’s why I wanted the course to focus on talking about all these stories, as opposed to studying Indigenous stories as some kind of monolith that have no bearing on lands and peoples today.”
Building a story
Storying the Land is primarily about telling, not writing. Close listening to storytelling podcasts (as well as studying texts such as the University of British Columbia professor Dr. Jo-ann Archibald’s account of learning storytelling via working with her community’s elders) helps hone students’ analytical skills. It also helps them to build their own stories. One key is learning the difference between an anecdote and a story — and discovering how to craft the latter from the former.
Indigenous Studies major Laurel Van Luit, who refers to herself as a “settler colonial Canadian,” says what stands out for her is learning how stories are the medium people use to make sense of the world.
“Everything is a story, everyone is making and creating and telling stories all the time,” says Ms. Van Luit. “The thing I’ve taken to heart is that I’m writing my own story and adding to other people’s stories without even realizing it.”
Mackenzie Kathrine Bodnar, a third-year Indigenous studies major, says oral storytelling helped her to learn more about her Haudenosaunee culture and history, prompting her to want to become a more effective storyteller — something she’s made use of at jobs requiring workshop facilitation and public speaking.
“Stories help people identify with the content, personalize it, and think about how it relates to their own lives,” says Ms. Bodnar. “The wonderful thing about stories is that each listener will take what they need from it, and that could be different for each person.”
Performing in person, online
With the course being conducted primarily online this year, Prof. Argue tweaked the performance aspect – storytelling games played seated in a circle were no longer possible, for example. But many key aspects remain the same — for instance, each week students are given a prompt they use as the basis for a story, which they then perform. And students still critique each other’s work — just in Zoom breakout rooms. Prof. Argue says that for some students this creates privacy they might not have in person. Also, Ms. Bodnar notes that while having to focus on telling a story to a computer camera is challenging, there’s a level of comfort to performing in your own space.
Ultimately it all comes back to the land, and Prof. Argue says she hopes final performances for this year’s course can safely take place outside. Either way, she says she knows the stories the students will come up with will be “amazing.”
Learn more about the Chanie Wenjack School for Indigenous Studies at Trent University.