Return to Turtle Island

by John posted October 5, 2017 category Travel, Work
WIPCE 2017

WIPCE 2017

In July through to August I spent several weeks on Turtle Island, otherwise known as the United States and Canada. I was there primarily to present a paper at WIPCE 2017 – The World Indigenous Peoples Conference on Education, held in Toronto on July 24-28. My presentation was titled,’65,000 Years in 45 minutes’ and was a discussion around the education programs I’ve developed at Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre at Melbourne Museum.

The idea wasn’t to try and condense over 65,000 years into a short presentation, it was to highlight that it’s an impossible task and that our primary responsibility in providing education on Aboriginal history and culture is to create a door for students to walk through and engage. Ensuring that there is an interest and willingness by students to continue learning after the book has been closed or after the field trip has ended is the key to future engagement and understanding.

During my trip I also stopped in at a number of other locations for meetings and learning opportunities. In all I visited Chicago, Toronto, Six Nations Grand River, Montreal, Kahnawake, New York, Baltimore, Washington D.C, Santa Ana and Los Angeles.

I’d never been to Chicago before, so I was looking forward to visiting the “windy city”. Culture, history, new friends and great food – Chicago certainly didn’t disappoint. Highlights include meeting with a number of staff at the Field Museum, who were very kind with their time, a visit to the home and studio of Frank Lloyd Wright in Oak Park, where I also had an opportunity to tour the childhood home and associated museum dedicated to my favourite author – Ernest Hemingway. The personal highlight however was meeting the extraordinarily talented and warm Deb and Chris, who kindly took me to their favourite Chicago style pizza joint after having met me during one of my meetings.

The exceptional art of Chris Pappan

The exceptional art of Chris Pappan

According to reviews on Trip Advisor Toronto is a rather boring city. It was widely suggested that spending any more than a couple of days there would be a waste of time. I’m thankful then that the reviews are wrong and that I had been given the opportunity to spend 6 days there.

Toronto reminds me a lot of Melbourne. It’s an artistic, vibrant city, with a great many things to do. The city is alive with movement and colour (at least it is during their summer). The neighbourhoods are fun to explore and walk down, the people are friendly, with a nightlife that delivers.

Five days in the city were dedicated to attending the WIPCE conference, including time spent at Six Nations Grand River reservation, where the conference opening ceremonies took place, as well as some of the mid-week cultural tours. The conference itself was eye-opening, particularly in getting some first-hand accounts of how Indigenous peoples worldwide are responding via education to the challenges of maintaining their cultures. It was also an odd experience to an extent, when being on the other side of the world I ran into over a half-dozen cousins, who are all educators and were presenting on their own roles and programs.

The beautiful Lois Peeler, Principal of Worawa Aboriginal College, Singing Sapphire, Indigenous fashion pioneer and my cousin

The beautiful Lois Peeler, Principal of Worawa Aboriginal College, Singing Sapphire, Indigenous fashion pioneer and my cousin

Sami, Ainu, Scot, Koori, Inuit, Hawaiian – there were so many cultures and stories being shared, I could never unpack what I learnt in a brief post. Suffice to say – I came away with much food for thought.

The cultural tours on the Wednesday were a great opportunity to take part in some local culture and familiarise ourselves with the people on whose land we were visiting. At Six Nations Grand River territory I a sweat lodge ceremony, delivered by Elder Isaac Day, an Ojibway Medicine Man. A fantastic experience, but also a very personal one.

Back in town, with evenings to spare I can definitely say it’s well worth your time to catch a Blue jays game, or stop in at the Reservoir lounge, for great swing and jazz music.

My time in Toronto closed out with a grand closing ceremony at Fort York, featuring spectacular performances by First Nations artists from across Canada and other parts of the world. A particular shout out to Jo and the talented dancers at Wagana, from the Blue Mountains in New South Wales.

A beautiful city with a lot of history. The poutine was good, the museums were excellent, the old quarter was amazingly beautiful, but it all just acted as a backdrop to my visit to Kahnawake.

One of the primary goals for my visit to Turtle Island was to pay my respects to the community at Kahnawake, as they had done when my Uncle Cecil Patten passed away in the early 00’s. They had remembered and celebrated Uncle Cecil’s life as a brother who had helped them during the difficult times of the Oka Crisis in 1990. Another personal story that I won’t go into too much detail about here, but Sovereignty is a common struggle and one of many that First Nations people in Australia and North America share. Hearing stories through the years of Uncle Cecil on the front lines, helping to fight for the rights of Indigenous people at home in Australia, being tear gassed in Kahnawake, held as a captive by guerrilla troops in Guatemala, or invading England by boat in the 1970’s, it was important to me to meet with a community who valued my Uncle just as I do.

Highlights in Kahnawake were spending time with Kenneth and family, discussing sovereignty, land rights and community structure, seeing the monument to the amazing Mohawk steel workers, seeing the castle that some dude built just because he could, oh and the Navajo taco followed by a deep fried Oreo and ice cream chaser at the giant Poker Palace were pretty mad as well.

New York
Meetings and museums. This was my second visit to the Big Apple, so I knew where I was going and what I wanted to do. I was there only for a couple of days and it was all work and sleep, save for whatever I was able to see along the path to each of my appointments. The Highline was a nice stroll on my way to the Whitney, although it didn’t have much going for it other than a bit of greenery and an occasional artwork. I did buy this badge though. An absolute highlight on a Wednesday night however was my visiting the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, for their Amateur Night. An amazing experience and world class entertainment on the cheap.

Amateur Night at the Apollo

Amateur Night at the Apollo

Washington D.C
A sea of museums and a great host and guide marked my second visit to the U.S capital. As a host, guide and a friend, Terry helped to both maximise the value I could pull from my museum visits and meetings, but also knew his way around the best steak houses and an evening ball game at Camden Yards in Baltimore. Again, my trip was marked by the quality of the people and friends I had the opportunity to spend time with. I greatly appreciated the time I was afforded with staff of the National Museum of the American Indian and the visits to other institutions, including the National Air & Space Museum and the National Museum of African American History & Culture.

Los Angeles
L.A is a weird city. It’s hard to get around. Or it was until I tried Uber for the first time. Sharing rides around LA was surprisingly my favourite thing this time around, meeting some great people and enjoying some very unique conversations. Last time I was in the city I based myself out of Santa Monica at the Hotel California. Such a lovely place. It gave me a very different perspective to this visit where I split my time Downtown.

Downtown was surprisingly slow. I had heard that it was undergoing a bit of a renaissance following some very bad years, but I don’t think there’s much to be said for the place. Although the Broad Museum was amazing – despite having to fucking wait in line for over an hour. LA Brea’s tar pits were cool, the Museum was OK, but could do with some work, especially on the animatronics. It kind of reminded me of the animatronic band on the Simpsons that sings “you’re the birthday, you’re the birthday boy or girl..”.

Some highlights: The Melrose Trading Post is a great way to wind down a sunny Sunday and the So-Cal Hoedown in Santa Ana, featuring Jello Biafra and Southern Culture on the Skids, in great company with a crew of awesome locals was a great way to draw my trip to a close.


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