Native elder keeps the peace

April 24, 1998

ABORIGINAL students at a Canadian university have discovered that campus life and tribal traditions do not have to be mutually exclusive with the appointment of their own special mentor.

Roger Armitte is fondly known as elder-in-residence at the University of Manitoba, where he conducts the same rituals as he does for the people of O-chi-chak-ko-sipi, or Crane River, his community near Winnipeg.

The 52-year-old Ojibway elder has been holding pipe ceremonies, sharing circles and counselling native and non-native students and staff at the prairie campus.

The university is now thinking of building a traditional sweat lodge on land designated sacred.

Sharing circles, in particular, have solved some classroom problems, including one where a native student felt slighted by an unintended insult from a non-native professor. The two successfully worked out their problem at a small gathering with Mr Armitte.

"Many people are beginning to recognise what elders can provide," said Mr Armitte, whose sharing circle has spawned a women's circle.

Manitoba is not the first university to have an elder's office. The University of Toronto has one and Brandon University has several.

Elders are an added attraction in the drive to recruit native students. They can also encourage the urban aboriginal student to get back in touch with their community.

"Here is a respected person in the community saying 'Come to university'," said Florence Bruyere, Manitoba's aboriginal centre coordinator.

The move to bring in elders is part of Canada's efforts to redress decades of assimilationist policies. A Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, which reported after a five-year study of native life in November 1996, called for sweeping changes. One recommendation was the creation of an aboriginal peoples' international university to promote traditional knowledge. The government has not taken this up, but it has issued an official apology and set up a Can$350 million (Pounds 145 million) healing fund for those who suffered under the country's often-abusive residential school system.

Aboriginal study is flourishing. The University of Regina has a semi-autonomous aboriginal school, called the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College and Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, has a popular native studies programme. Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario recently launched a bachelor of theology degree in native ministry. There are native friendship centres in several universities.

Mr Armitte's role can sometimes mean simply hanging out with students. He gets paid with a small honorarium and the traditional tobacco but will also receive gifts from visitors, as is the custom. Mr Armitte laughingly admits that although the cologne he was recently given is not native, he puts it on everyday before he goes to work as a native elder.

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