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An Indigenous approach to education

New professor Damien Lee’s educational philosophy encompasses thought and action
By: Will Sloan
September 07, 2018
Damien Lee

Photo: Damien Lee joins Ryerson’s Department of Sociology this fall. 

Can a style of pedagogy reach both the mind and the body? Damien Lee has some ideas from hundreds of years of tradition. Lee, who joins Ryerson’s Faculty of Arts this fall, brings an Indigenist approach to teaching in his new position teaching sociology.

A cis-gendered, racially white man, Lee was adopted as an infant into Fort William First Nation in accordance with Anishinaabe law, and raised as Anishinaabe by his family on the northern shore of Lake Superior. From this upbringing, he has developed an educational philosophy that promotes decolonization, centres Indigenous People’s worldviews, and destabilizes the received wisdom of colonial culture.

“I’m really interested in land-based learning environments,” says Lee, who explored this approach in his previous teaching position at Lakehead University. “I would take my students to do land-based activities like making maple syrup, or do walking tours of the city to read Indigenous presence—or the erasure of Indigenous presence—on the land.”

For Lee, a tactile experience like this can lead to a deeper kind of learning. “You’re embodying the learning. You’re doing it—you’re not simply sitting back and thinking or reading about it. It’s not a dichotomy—I try to balance the two as much as I can. The emphasis is on the embodiment of the learning process through having it affect your body, as opposed to just your mind. You can experience things in such a different way when you combine those things.”

Lee wants his students to strive for this “embodiment” in the rest of their studies. “How do you describe yourself in relation to either the topic at hand or Indigenous issues? So, what is your position on these things? What is your social relation? Are you a straight, white male in a society that tends to uphold that position above others? How does that affect how you read these issues? It doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t participate, but an Indigenous kind of approach to understanding Indigenous issues would be to include yourself in that learning process.”

Lee’s philosophy is a natural outgrowth of his own educational journey, which includes both a PhD in Native Studies from the University of Manitoba and the first-hand insights of Indigenous knowledge holders. His research interests are Indigenous legal and governance systems and their relationship with current colonial law. At Ryerson, in addition to teaching in the Department of Sociology, he is an associate fellow with the Yellowhead Institute, the Ryerson-based Indigenous-led think-tank.

“Yellowhead Institute was a big draw, because its work is really aligned with my work,” he says. “I was also drawn by the social justice feel of my department. I believe that academics should serve communities and not be extractive. For me, seeing a department that was all about serving community in their own particular ways was a big draw for me.

“I got into academics because I wanted to serve my own community, not because I wanted to go on this ‘quest of knowledge’ or that kind of thing. I asked myself, ‘How can I best serve my community?’ and this was one way that I could do that.”

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