Decolonizing research on educational leadership through land-based writing retreats: an Indigenous/non-Indigenous partnership

May 31, 2023
Dave Hazzan

By Dave Hazzan, writer and academic, completing his PhD in History at York University

Several years ago, Pamela Osmond-Johnson got SSHRC funding to explore non-Indigenous school leaders in the prairies, and how they were supporting TRC calls to action. The University of Regina professor diligently went about her project, until two events turned her world upside down – COVID-19, and the discovery of mass graves at Kamloops Residential School.

“Of course, these [mass graves] are things Indigenous people knew,” Osmond-Johnson said. “They were not discoveries; they were just verifying what people already knew.” That is when Osmond-Johnson started to think her project needed to shift focus. From this point on, she decided, the project needed to shift focus onto Indigenous leaders, with their voices at the fore.

“But as a non-Indigenous researcher, I did not want to continue with extractionist methods of telling their stories,” Osmond-Johnson said. “Better to use the funding to allow them to tell their own stories, in their own voices.” 

Thus began a series of Indigenous Writers’ Retreats, which is now coalescing into a book project. The book will be filled with the stories of Indigenous people, mostly women and mostly from Saskatchewan, visiting traditional lands to write while in congress with the earth. 

Shannon Fayant is a teacher and graduate student at the University of Regina, and an Indigenous woman. Osmond-Johnson approached her about the project, and after some initial hesitation – “Who is this woman and what does she want from me?” – Fayant saw an opportunity. With this project, she could pursue her work on de/colonization, “that liminal space between Indigenous theories, decolonialism, and western knowledge.” Fayant sees this de/colonization, and the writing retreats Osmond-Johnson proposed, as a way to disrupt the hierarchies that oppress Indigenous people. 

Fayant and the other participants insisted that any writer’s retreat be held on the land, reflecting land-based pedagogies, in communication with Elders and Knowledge Keepers from those lands. At the first retreat in Lumson Beach Camp, writers walked with Elders, participated in ceremonies, and grounded themselves in the land. Writers worked through the winter, using the sage they picked as a family of writers as part of their spiritual journeys. “Economic reconciliation, peace, and good medicine for the body,” Fayant said. “And it was amazing!” 

The writers gathered together for all their meals, sitting, praying, eating, and making offerings. In between meals, they would “be on the land,” writing, thinking, napping, and gathering around a sacred fire. (“No hot dogs or marshmallows!”) They built kinships, learned and shared about medicines from the land, shared memories and reflections, and wrote with the guidance of the Elders. 

Only a few weeks ago, May 12-14, 2023, they held their second retreat at Beaver Creek, another great success. “There was lots of laughter, teasing, and not knowing everything,” Fayant said. 

Jess Madiratta, Deanna Pelletier, and Celia Deschambeault are all Indigenous women and scholars who attended the last writers’ retreat and spoke of how it impacted their lives. Madiratta said that she always smudged before writing, thinking of family, friends, and community, “and all they’ve done so I can stand here and be here today.” Madiratta started to own the idea of “quiet leadership,” observing how an Elder always sits back, listens, and then thinks of what to say. “I’m trying to do that in my own practices, and writing my own chapter in this book,” Madiratta said. “Ceremony is part of writing.” 

Pelletier appreciated being surrounded both by strong Indigenous women and by “PhD Powerhouses.” Throughout the retreat, Pelletier said she could feel her ancestors walking with her. She participated in traditional ceremonies, which affected her writing. “Laying down that tobacco, giving that offering, really guided me,” Pelletier said. 

Deschambeault said the whole journey changed the foundation of her thought process. It caused her to, “look more to the land and what it offers,” she said. Deschambeault felt the experience led her to connect with her spirit name, which the Elders gave her when she was fifteen – it translates to Strong Swampy Cree Woman. 

The University of Regina Press will be gathering the participants’ writings in a book. As of now, the book is untitled. “We don’t know what it will be called yet,” Fayant told me. “We must consult with the Elders first.”