U of S students take part in unique ethnocultural field experience
By David Hutton
University of Saskatchewan master’s student Heather Watson never imagined that her history research would entail sleeping on the dirt floor of a traditional Aboriginal longhouse, fishing in the mighty Fraser River Canyon, climbing trees to collect licorice fern, wading through patches of metre-high stinging nettles, and interviewing Aboriginal elders.
Watson is one of six U of S students currently immersing themselves in the Sto:lo (pronounced “Stahlow”) community in British Columbia as part of the only ethnohistory field school in Canada.
“It’s been a fantastic experience,” says Watson. “Rather than reading through mountains of secondary sources, we’ve been able to talk to people who actually experience what we’re trying to understand and describe.”
The four-week ethnohistory field school, which combines research into historical documents and the Sto:lo oral tradition, takes place in Chilliwack, B.C. Students earn credit for the course, co-taught by U of S professor and Sto:lo history scholar Keith Carlson and University of Victoria professor John Lutz.
For the first week, each student is billeted with a Sto:lo family.
“They become connected to the community as part of this cross-cultural experience,” says Carlson. “The family is participating in a traditional healing ceremony, the students are invited, and if they need an extra for a softball game the students gladly fill in.”
The remaining three weeks of the students’ time is spent in a traditional longhouse. They sleep on raised platforms around open fires and dirt floors. Tribal Council employees provide introductions and direction for the research projects.
They also receive an orientation to Sto:lo territory, a workshop on the Sto:lo language and archeological and historical boat tours through the Fraser River canyon.
“In the longhouses, the students have to live communally,” says Carlson. It gets them into a different head space and shows them a different world view. The power of the collective within the First Nations people is so strong and this gets the students thinking differently.”
Student research projects are pre-identified by the Sto:lo Nation but can take on many forms, ranging from important political projects to matters that elders have wondered about.
The projects are designed to fill scholarly voids while meeting the research needs of the community, and in particular those that the host Sto:lo do not have the staff, resources or expertise to carry out.
This year, U of S students are investigating and documenting a variety of projects, including preparing biographical notes and life stories on Irene Alex, an elder, who is the daughter of academy award-nominated actor Chief Dan George.
“You walk into the Alex’s house and there are photos of her father with Clint Eastwood, Kevin Costner, and Dustin Hoffman,” says Carlson.
At the end of the field experience the students are expected to produce a research paper on their findings that will be kept in the Tribal Council’s archives.
“The course is both challenging and rewarding,” says master’s student MacKinley Darlington. “It goes beyond regular courses because there is no down time, and because the community puts so much value in our work. We need to be conscientious and scholarly.”
“Many students make and sustain long-term friendships and often turn their field experience into scholarly work,” Carlson explains.
This is the fourth year for the class, which runs every two years. Carlson hopes to start a website where the students’ experiences and research can be accessed.
Sto:lo Cultural advisor Sonny McHalsie discusses heritage matters with students on an island in the Fraser River
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