14 August 2017

As part of the Foundation’s targeted areas of inquiry initiative, 2014 scholar Aaron Mills received support in 2016-2017 to carry out a project entitled Revitalizing Anishinaabe Innakonigewin. This community-based and community-led project, grounded in Couchiching First Nation, consisted of a series of bi-weekly sharing circles where elders and other community members exchanged knowledge and experiences about Anishinaabe thought, governance, law, history, relationships, and ways of being and knowing. The project’s aim was to revitalize Indigenous constitutional and legal systems that have been suppressed through colonialism. The project’s final sharing circle took place in April, and in a recent report to the Foundation, Mills reflected on the successes and challenges he faced in undertaking the project.

Project outcomes

Mills described four main project outcomes:

  1. Internal community building: Revitalizing Anishinaabe Innakonigewin normalized sharing circles, an ancient Anishinaabe tradition, and provided a space for community members to connect across experiences and generations.  Elders voiced delight at having a space to reflect on past times, and younger people were keen to learn the knowledge offered.
  2. External community building: The sharing circles were open to those outside of Couchiching First Nation, allowing more knowledge to be shared and more connections to be made.
  3. Connecting with identity and history: Younger people learned how to engage with elders and how to ask questions. They were taught about the purpose of sacred objects, and how that purpose connects to their own lives. Terrific questions emerged and were answered.
  4. Giving back to the community: Revitalizing Anishinaabe Innakonigewin both taught Mills as well as the community. It also gave Mills the opportunity to give something back to a community that had given him tremendous support.

Lessons learned

Mills reflected on his experience doing this deeply community-based project, and shared a few lessons learned that might help future research in Indigenous communities:

  1. The impact of tone and spirit: Leading the circles with an elder who is knowledgeable and welcoming, opening the sharing circle with a ceremony, and allowing for a slow pace were essential for setting the right tone.
  2. Learning to be comfortable with tension, even conflict: In a community-based project where participants come to the table with different opinions and perspectives, the facilitator must learn to balance interests and resolve differences.
  3. Necessity of maintaining adequate support: It is important to have support structures in both the community and the academic world so that a project facilitator has places to turn to for support.
  4. Labour intensity: Considerable administrative, academic, logistical, communications, and planning work is associated with community-based and -led projects such as this one.
  5. Working with communities under stress: It is essential to understand what it means to work with a community under stress. This includes being sensitive to the community’s needs, planning for limited human resources, and adjusting expectations for efficiency.
  6. The necessity of flexibility: It was necessary to be flexible in the planning and project stages to adapt to the needs and wants of the community, and to be flexible with the academic advisors who have other commitments.
  7. Partner engagement: It is important for the partners, such as the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, to engage with communities and build relationships therein.
  8. Difficulties of communication: Communication is challenging and labour-intensive in a community project, but communicating through various mechanisms, no matter how labour-intensive, is vital to ensuring that interested parties in the community take part.

The idea behind the Foundation’s targeted areas of inquiry came about in late 2014, when the Foundation asked itself how it might better harness its efforts to multiply its impact. After consulting its community, the Foundation decided to support events and project in three targeted areas of inquiry: diversity, pluralism, and the future of citizenship; Indigenous relations in Canada; and water, energy, and food security.

Learn more

Aaron Mills

Aaron is examining the Anishnaabe legal tradition and how a revival of Indigenous legal orders will help Canadians to better understand Aboriginal issues.

2014 Scholars