Katherine Blouin discusses her fall 2020 graduate seminar, ‘Sprung from the Earth: Indigeneity and the Classics.’

Kat Furtado (KF): Can you tell me about your fall course ‘Indigeneity and the Classics’?

Katherine Blouin (KB): I wanted us to reflect on what it means to be classicists here, so really being ‘on the land,’ and in a more concrete way. What does it mean for us to be classicists here, and to study other lands, often in areas that have also been colonized. These things are kind of given, and I don’t think many people in the field really stop and think about them. And I have been kind of on a journey to think more about my own positioning here in the past few years, from about 2018. So this course was a sort of starting point.

I wanted to do it through a variety of themes. The first part of the course was focusing more on the context of the land we are on, so that we can, as a group, have a better sense of our place here, of our positioning. I wanted us to discuss the relationship between classical education and classical references, so the reception of classics and settler colonialism here in Canada and North America. We know for instance that the Jesuits were really infused with classical knowledge, and they read the landscape and their encounters with indigenous peoples through a classical lens. That was the first theme I wanted to explore, and we did that for a few weeks.

I also invited students who were outside of North America or who were here but from elsewhere to think about this in terms of their own home, where they’re coming from. So these students were able to engage both with learning about North America, whether they were here or abroad, but also they really each brought in very potent reflections about the place and land they came from, and did research on the histories of these places and the different peoples who lived there, all the way back to antiquity. That was interesting – it kind of opened it up, because I knew from the start that not everyone would be able to be here. And they certainly had different perspectives.

Then we moved to antiquity and ancient history. What can we say and what do we know about ancient indigeneities? And how have they been interpreted and instrumentalized in modern times? And this can take so many shapes! I opted for regional case studies, and ended up covering almost the whole spectrum of the Mediterranean, and covering different types of indigeneities: from obviously the Athenian conception of autochthony, to Numidians, Gauls, Iberians, Jews and Egyptians, and it also posed questions about the very curated nature of the traditional classical studies curriculum.

I wanted us to think about some of the ways of knowing, teaching, and learning that come from indigenous peoples here, what they can teach us about how we make history or how we are classicists, and how their practices of storytelling can help us access ancient stories or ancient voices in a way that so-called Eurocentric education cannot.

I was also lucky enough to have several guests come into the class, including indigenous speakers (who received honoraria):  Craig Williams, Hilding Neilson, Rebecca Futo Kennedy, Alejandro Paz, and David Wallace-Hare all visited our classroom, and John Croutch offered an indigenous cultural competency training.

KF: What were some of the different ways of knowing, teaching, and learning that you encountered in the seminar?

KB: I tried to take a more embodied approach to learning, inspired by indigenous ways of learning and teaching. Including the work of Lee Maracle and my colleague Karina Vernon at Scarborough, who also taught a course on Indigenous Literature in Canada/Turtle Island (ENGC01:). Karina allowed me to borrow and adapt some of her assignments. What does this mean concretely, and through Zoom? The idea was to disrupt what Lee Maracle calls the “knower’s chair” model of European education, which is where you have the teacher on the pedestal in front of everyone, and all the students are recipients of the knowledge, and you test them to make sure they have absorbed the knowledge well. Instead, Indigenous ways of teaching and learning are more collaborative and embodied. And it’s about learning not only from the head, but also from the heart.

During class time, we would offer the format of a talking circle. It’s a circle, there’s no hierarchy, and everyone would talk in turn (and since it was a group of 11 students, we would have time for everyone to talk every week). Everyone would start by saying ‘I was struck by’, and I found it transformative. Some students found the format unsettling at first, but by the end of term, the feedback was very positive. What the talking circle does is it really leads to a more trust-based environment, and it worked on Zoom very well. Students have been telling me they didn’t have to fight for speaking time or worry about having to ask a ‘bouncing’ question or having to ‘destroy’ someone’s argument. I think it also led to a deeper learning that was also affective, because a lot of the material really triggered deep feelings of discomfort and guilt, and as we progressed through the term, students were able to articulate that, and they felt comfortable enough and safe enough to do that.

That was the first activity, and then we had more experiential learning assignments. One was called ‘learning from the outdoors’, which I copied from Karina Vernon. Students would go outside for twenty minutes: you go outside, you do not engage with technology, you do not talk to anyone. You can sit, stand, walk, lie down, your choice, and then after we would come in and do free writing. The idea is to process the learning, but to do so on the land we were each on at the time. The students really loved that; some said it actually saved them during the term. And I loved doing that too, so that was good for all of us.

We also did what is called a ‘Monument Field Trip,’ which was developed by a group in New York called the Monument Lab. This assignment requires of students to reflect on classical resonances in our landscape, whether in Toronto or elsewhere. There was also a museum exhibit review assignment. And then at the end of the seminar, students had to propose a work of art and interpretive essay on any topic linked to the course. You can see their work online.

Overall, the difference was really that we were learning together, and learning from the head and from the heart, which is generally not valued or seen as professional or serious. But this lack of value is culturally constructed.

KF: Did these different ways of knowing and learning with the heart as well as the head change the way you approached texts? Were there any methodological takeaways you would want to carry forward, or would want others to know about?

KB: I would maybe mention three things: story, the land, and oracy. Indigenous knowledge is typically transmitted orally. As Doug Williams shows in his wonderful book Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg: This is our Territory, Indigenous conceptions of time, history, and who counts as historical subjects, are different than ours. So I’ve really been asking myself, what happens when we think of ancient works or what we call ‘myths’ as indigenous stories? I think it can really help us understand how they [myths] might have been received by people in antiquity.

And this is linked to the question of land as well. Because a lot of these stories really center, in addition to humans, non-human beings. What I’ve learned from indigenous knowledge-keepers is that what is central to indigenous peoples in North America is relations and kin. And humans have a duty to care for the land, and that is a relationship, a give-and-take. There isn’t this Abrahamic notion of the hierarchy of beings; we are all kin, and we are all in relation: the sun is a being, trees are being, animals and so forth. It was very much like that in antiquity too, in the antiquities that we study — I work on Egypt, but it also applies to the polytheistic Greek and Roman world at large. What happens, for instance, in the story of the she-wolf and Romulus and Remus? What happens if we look at the Tiber as a being, the she-wolf as a being, the tree as a being? It changes the way we understand the story. It forces us to de-center, or rather embed, the human within a more complex array of beings and relations. I think this is something we can really learn from, and that ultimately will kind of complicate and disrupt a lot of the stories conveyed by traditional classical scholarship.

And the last thing is oracy, or oral tradition. Indigenous teaching and learning really occurs in and through oral practices. It doesn’t mean that there were no written traditions in North America prior to European colonization, because there were. But oracy is very important, and once again there is no [explicit?] hierarchy. In the European enlightened system of knowledge production and reproduction, there is this dominion of the written word, which is also tied to Judaism, Christianity, and even Islam. I’ve been thinking a lot about the orality of the ancient world lately, and how we are very dependent on written sources, especially literary ones. How can we find traces of the oral in the non-oral texts we’re using? And how can this change our understanding of certain textual traditions, or even the whole area of cultural and religious practices?

KF: So what do you think are some of our responsibilities as classicists, here in Tkaronto and elsewhere?

KB: I’m a huge fan of Lee Maracle, and she once said at a meeting something along the lines that we “Euros” (as she and many indigenous people call settlers) have a very short memory, that we’ve been kind of uprooted and disconnected from our land and stories. I’ve been thinking a lot about that. I myself am a French settler. My family arrived 400 years ago on what is now the Île d’Orléans. I’ve been reflecting on how I’ve been able to carry myself here, and go to Europe, and come back and find a job, all of this without having to be confronted — truly, deeply — with whose land I’m on and why I’m here. I was able for almost 40 years to go on like this, and most of us carry ourselves that way, with a kind of collective amnesia. And obviously this amnesia allows settler colonialism to continue. And we are in a settler colonial state that has committed genocide. The Indian Act is still in effect, residential schools only closed in 1996, and they’ve been replaced by far too many indigenous children being put into foster care. My understanding is that our responsibility, as individuals who live here, is to really make the effort to learn the truth. The fact that we are able — most of us who are settlers, anyway — to go on without even bothering with this is in itself a sign of how privileged we are. I think we have a responsibility to acknowledge the truth and process it properly, which comes with a lot of uncomfortable feelings.

And if you add on the classicist layer, well, we must acknowledge that classics as a field is an instrument of white supremacy. And I’m aware that a lot of people in the field, when they hear ‘white supremacy’ think ‘Nazi’, and I thought that five years ago, so I’m not virtue signaling. But we have to acknowledge this, and we cannot fully do that if we don’t take the time to think about why it is a given and why it is unproblematic to have a classics department in Toronto, in a neo-classical building downtown, and why it is absolutely unproblematic for me to be here, and then to fly and work on ancient Egypt at the French School of Oriental Archaeology in Cairo, and for others to go to the British School in Athens or the American School in Rome, and so on and so forth. I think our responsibility is to be honest with ourselves and to acknowledge the histories and the power relationships that have led us here.

KF: Is there anything important you’d like to add, an important takeaway for the field?

KB: I think it’s important for the next generations — and as a teacher teaching students, both at St. George campus and in Scarborough — that students be allowed to really be aware of who they are, where they are, whose voices they work on, and why this is all coming together. I think that as a field established in settler colonies, classics has traditionally been surfing on a mix of colonial aphasia and settler innocence. For me, it’s an ethical choice, as a teacher and a historian, to complicate things by researching and teaching the field’s history and political positioning.

That being said, I’m optimistic to see how much of a growing interest there is among Classicists for questions that pertain to the intersection between our discipline and settler colonialism. There is also a push for more engagement with scholarship and content from Indigenous scholars and knowledge keepers. This is notably visible in the work of Aven McMaster, Dan-el Padilla Peralta, Lisa Pieraccini, Emily Varto, David Wallace Hare, Craig Williams, and Zachary Yuzwa, and it was at the core of the latest RaceB4Race conference.

As for the takeaway of my seminar, I don’t know, you’d have to ask the students. For me, I wouldn’t go back to the more traditional ‘knower’s chair’ model of teaching except in a big lecture course, and I’d especially maintain going outside and the talking circle. It really works, including on Zoom. I suppose the other takeaway is that, together, with the students, we have been able to sit with our discomfort for twelve weeks. That was the most powerful, rewarding pedagogical experience I’ve had in my teaching career, and I owe it to them.

Katherine will be teaching this course at an undergraduate level in Scarborough next term. She has also composed “Doing Classics on Indigenous Land,” which she presented at the 2021 CAC. It contains relevant resources and links.