Graduate school continues to break new ground
From an unassuming address in Canada’s smallest province, NAIITS: An Indigenous Learning Community has an influence that reaches across Canada and around the world.
"Decolonization is at the heart of much of what we do," says Terry LeBlanc, director and founding chair of NAIITS, from his home in Montague, PEI.
Since 2000, NAIITS (formerly known as the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies) has offered Indigenous-designed, -delivered and -governed programs that break traditional Western narratives.
Last year NAIITS received accreditation from the Association of Theological Schools, but its origins reach back to the 1970s when many Indigenous Christians were disillusioned with the Eurocentric version of Christianity.
"There was a prescribed set of behaviours rooted in Western Christianity that said, ‘You must look like, walk like, talk like, act like, think like, pray like, sing like us in order to be authentic followers of the Jesus way,’ " recalls LeBlanc. "We began to investigate both biblically and theologically, as well as missiologically, what it might look like if we were to take hold of our own destiny with respect to how we lived our Christian faith."
Together they asked, What would it look like to be authentically Indigenous and authentically Christian?
Writing groups and research articles were undertaken, and then in 1996 the first World Christian Gathering of Indigenous Peoples was held in New Zealand.
"Out of this 1996 gathering, we began the work that led to the incorporation of NAIITS in 2000," LeBlanc explains.
Today NAIITS offers one PhD program and four master’s – the MDiv program features a trauma-informed spiritual care focus, and then there’s an MA in Indigenous community development, MA in intercultural studies and Master of Theo logical Studies–Indigenous.
The new accreditation NAIITS received last June puts it on par with other accredited schools like Tyndale University and Harvard University Divinity School. Before the accreditation its degrees were issued through partnership schools like Sioux Falls Seminary in South Dakota and Tyndale in Toronto.
However, NAIITS will now be issuing its own degrees for all its programs.
The current student body is 43 Masters and eight PhD students from around the globe who attend a three-semester school year. The first two semesters are virtual. The third is in-person and wraps around the annual symposium NAIITS delivers each year, rotating at its partner schools.
The 2022 symposium will take place at Acadia Divinity College in Wolfville, N.S. It gives students a chance to present alongside, learn from and engage with scholars and field practitioners from around the world about Indigenous matters.
A peer-reviewed journal, currently in its 18th volume, is produced from the presentations and papers of each symposium, exploring the ideas, experiences and concerns of field practitioners, while also incorporating theological reflection, biblical study and missiological principles from scholars.
NAIITS alumna Alana John son graduated in 2019 with an MTS–Indigenous degree. As a Haida woman, she says the school allowed her to explore her faith through a non-Western lens, embracing an Indigenous perspective.
"I was able to feel safe while I delved into questions about who I am as Haida, British Canadian, and how history and religion have made it complicated for me to hold a healthy relationship between my identity and the Church. I found a community of co-learners who did not chastise me for stepping outside of the rigidity of the box that Western theologies and churches place Creator God into," Johnson explains.
Now an educator in the public school system on Coast Salish territory, she has been equipped to speak out against inequalities that continue to affect Indigenous students in her school district. "The NAIITS community has given me language, relationships and assuredness in my faith that I can continue working towards right relationships between Church, government, and Indigenous students and nations in a good way."
Postsecondary schools work to indigenize curriculum
Christian postsecondary institutions across Canada are acknowledging the past and pursuing a future of reconciliation by decolonizing their curriculum and introducing Indigenous perspectives. These actions are direct responses to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission 94 calls to action (www.FaithToday.ca/94calls) published in 2015.
Kathleen Lounsbury, a nursing instructor and Indigenous consultant at Trinity Western University’s school of nursing in Langley, B.C., is already seeing an impact on students. She graduated from the program in 2002 and is from the Kwakwaka’wakw First Nation.
From engaging students with a poignant blanket exercise that frames Canadian history with an Indigenous perspective, to hosting workshops with Indigenous elders and residential school survivors, to teaching the importance of trauma-informed care and cultural awareness in a clinical setting, Lounsbury says strong partnerships between her nursing students and nearby Indigenous communities are already forming.
Lounsbury emphasizes the importance of integrating Indigenous perspectives throughout the four-year program. "We have a Western model and an Indigenous model, and we want to see from both perspectives," she says. "Going forward, the heart of what we desire is to increase Indigenous enrollment in our nursing program. We strive for the day where Indigenous nurses are commonplace."
At Horizon College and Seminary in Saskatoon, president Jeromey Martini says the school’s goal is to graduate leaders able to bring about reconciliation. In response to the 94 calls, every Horizon graduate must complete an Indigenous ministries course. The current instructor is Horizon alumnus Jimmy Thunder, an Oji-Cree man. His brother Andrew Thunder, also a Horizon alum, helps with staff development on Indigenous matters.
"Jimmy and Andrew represent a solutions-based approach to reconciliation, so that solutions-based approach marks our class interactions," explains Martini.
At Tyndale University in Toronto, Terry LeBlanc is an Indigenous elder (Mi’kmaq/Acadian) for the Bachelor of Education program. LeBlanc worked with Tyndale’s Carla Nelson to ensure an Indigenous approach would be a "throughline through the entire curriculum," he says.
"I developed a way to talk about mathematics, science, language arts, classroom discipline, history, geography and so forth, inserting Indigenous content, cultural and historical content, as well as underpinnings of science and mathematics without having to create a second and separate lesson plan," he explains.
LeBlanc is also an advisor on indigenizing theological education at Acadia Divinity College. He says that school "has taken great strides to decolonizing theological education. Period. Not just incorporating Indigenous ways of knowing and being in the theological educational enterprise, but decolonizing it overall."
Christian Higher Education Canada offers a list of resources for "Integrating Indigenous Studies into CHEC Schools’ Curricula" at www.CHECanada.ca. –JFG
Julie Fitz-Gerald is a writer in Uxbridge, Ont. Opening photo shows a graduation ceremony at NAIITS, which is now fully ATS accredited. All photos: NAIITS. Visit www.FaithToday.ca/GCollins to see a poem by Trinity Western student Gabriella Collins in honour of the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation (Sept. 30, 2021), a new annual event inspired by call #80.