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Call me Bebaminojmat ~ Leland Bell

Loosely translated to Anishinaabe, it means “when you go around, you talk about good things”

– let’s talk about good things. Leland Bell

 

In my life, I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to make choices and have the freedom to explore different paths to learning which has helped me get where I needed to be. I haven’t always known who I am or understood where I am going, but in retrospect, I knew I needed to discover where I came from to appreciate that every journey does not follow a straight line. My educational journey has taken me many places, but it has always led me back to my community. I am an Anishinaabe; my history is artistic and musical; it is the foundation of my journey, and my learnings are shared through my stories, as are those of my ancestors and others yet to come. 


In the early 70s, many influences were at play in the world. A growing awareness of biases and impressions, shifting societal behaviors, and ways of thinking were taking root, but it was still a disheartening space for many Indigenous men. During these times, I encountered the Manitou Arts Foundation, dubbed the Indigenous Group of Seven and created by Tom Peletier in 1966. It shifted the path I was on. I attended a summer school on Schreiber Island in 1973, where I first met Daphne Odjig. For me, the Foundation was a place to belong; it is where I learned how to belong. I met many of my mentors and teachers at the Foundation, life-long friends who taught me what it meant to learn in a safe space and that there was more to life than wandering aimlessly. At Manitou, I knew that art could be a connection to the community that strengthened my identity as an Anishinaabe man – it was a way to ground my being and visualize my potential. Daphne helped me understand my potential. She was like a hero to me, not in the way one would imagine but in how she noticed me and recognized me as a person rather than a stigma. Because of that, I learned to see and understand art differently - as a means to connect people, much like in ancient times when art was used to bridge and reconcile our people; I used my art to reconnect to culture and identity.


I also strummed with the late Willy Dunn in those days, he taught me to tune down to a “G”. People say Willy was ahead of his time but really, he was in tune with time and his anthology work is a fundamental lesson that has come full circle. I met many Indigenous artists during that time, all clearing trails for others to follow. Through the art and the music, I realized that I didn’t just arrive at these places; I chose to be there, sharing that space with those people. It was an essential part of my journey and where I learned to be a link in a chain, a stroke of a brush, a note in a song, an open chord. It was where I reconnected to my ancestors' power of connection and recollection.


This is how I came to know my heritage as a way of life, how I settled into it and allowed it to guide me. I traveled from the Manitou Foundation to Wasse-Abin College, a transformative transitional program created by the late Sara Peletier. The program offered Indigenous community members a bridge to mainstream education. I attended for a year and discovered my authentic voice in a group dynamics course, where I gained the confidence to use my words to speak my truth. Towards the end of the year, I attended a recruitment session with Laurentian University. Dr. Newbury was prominent at the time, and he did the presentation; I was intrigued and immediately started exploring ways to get to Sudbury.

 

Painting by leland bell


I might have hitchhiked; I had only scraped together enough cash to rent a motel for a week making this more a mission than an adventure. I took the city bus to the University; coming from Toronto, catching public transit was comfortable; however, that comfort turned to fear when I arrived at campus. I was scared of the building, the people, and the stereotypes – I was just generally scared. As an Indian, you assume different things and forget the things you should understand; allowing self-doubt to take hold – what am I, what am I doing here, am I worthy of being here? All things I was conditioned to experience every time I entered a public building or place. It took all of my courage to make my way through the body of students to register. Still, I knew that I needed to be there and that I wanted to be more for my children, my family, and my ancestors, and that’s how I entered the University of Laurentian and why I registered in the Humanities discipline. Later, I would create the “Bravery” survival mural outside the Fraser Auditorium because, for me, that first day, I had to find my courage and be brave.


As a mature student, I began to ask questions as I explored pathways to the truth. During this time, I made a spiritual connection, I knew how to be a proud Anishinaabe, but at Laurentian, I discovered how that defines me as a person, an artist, and a conduit for learning. There are certain things in your life you have to answer for yourself; I was already part of a land base; at Laurentian, I became part of a system of thought that drew from and contributed to a pool of wisdom. Art itself is sourced from the pool of knowledge, the well of teachings that tell the story of our people, through the learnings gathered from the ancestors. This formed my lifelong dedication to bimaadizwin, the circular movement of all things, the path that, no matter where I am, attaches me back to my land, my community.


One of my earlier and most impactful memories of bimaadizin occurred during a Sunrise Ceremony on the lands of my people. The Ceremony was conducted by Elder Alex Fox, who used the pipe. As soon as I joined the circle on the land, I knew I was in that safe space, where the knowledge of our ancestors flows through the earth, through the smoke, and into my consciousness. I gifted my asemaa and let my body and mind join the Ceremony, and at that moment, I knew where I belonged and understood what made me an Anishinaabe. After that, I enjoyed a deeper awareness of land-based learning. I am a reader of humanism in general or existentialism. Still, this way of thinking was more profound than words or sentences – it was exploring and communicating through concepts, stories, and connected wisdom that requires the use of all of the senses, a way of learning that was augmented when I attended ceremonies in the portables at U of S with other students, Jim Dumont and Edna Manitowabi.


I involved myself in university life not so much to achieve the status of having an education but to gain knowledge and wisdom. Like having a land base, having a knowledge base requires a commitment to a lifetime of learning by becoming part of the pool, the eternal journey. That is how you form relationships with the community; if you are insulated from the land and the community, you need to reconnect because the energy is connected to place; that is where the pools of information and innovation are found. Yes, books are important, but you lose momentum and often your way without connections.
My purpose has always been to connect and reconnect. I believe in creating space for other people, highlighting different ways of knowing - whether this is through my art or my music, I create and share space, share my knowledge. There are no deficits in the pool of knowledge – some people don’t understand the concept of sharing – they see sharing as a deficit. When I say that I will share this space with you – I don’t mean that I am giving it to you; native people made that mistake many moons ago.

 

Painting by leland bell


Throughout my educational journey, I have learned that the Indigenous approach to learning is not two ways of thinking; it doesn’t require a deficit to exist. We don’t need to assimilate or integrate our G’giikendaaswinim (our knowledge systems) to grow Indigenous intelligences in our institutions – we need to respect it. Our methods of gathering and sharing knowledge and our research is learned from many intelligences, such as animals, water, and the sky. We are grounded by the land but not bound by it; we are at one with its spirit. I have had the fortune of meeting and studying under many people on my intellectual journey. The following are a few I credit with decolonizing education. Dr. Jim Dumount, one of the founders of the Native Indigenous Studies Department, created and taught “The Native Way of Seeing,” among other programs at the University of Sudbury at Laurentian University. I cannot cite them all, but Dr. Art Soloman-ba, Dr. Ed Newbery-ba, Dr. Thom Alcoze, Dr. Edna Manitowabi, and Mary Recollet are a few influential Elders that laid the path and created a safe space for Indigenous students and allies, I want to talk about that space.


At Laurentian, I was permitted to ask questions at different levels of awareness. Not just because of the professors or the programs but also because of the other students and the connection to the community. Our culture is not a hindrance – it is powerful, and our circle is never-ending. Knowing who we are and why we are, were answers we discovered for ourselves within the circle. Bringing people into the circle gives them a voice and provides them with space – we are all part of the circle, a community of learners discovering the past, experiencing the present, and visioning the future.


As a people, we have our own understanding of our philosophies. We have our stories, and we use them to reflect, to plant seeds of curiosity that lead to discovery. It doesn’t need to be more complicated than that. Our people discover in nature, through ceremony, academia, and the reciprocity that finds its movement within a circle that never ends. Today, we have large cannons of Indigenous research to inform land-based knowledge. We have waves of people discovering and reclaiming their Indigeneity, and we have allies who choose to lead the way to reconciliation. We need to celebrate this. 
So, when you ask what Laurentian University Indigenous Programs mean to me, I share this thought with you; when I was young, perhaps ten, I told my foster mom that I wanted to be a doctor. When I graduated from Native Studies at Laurentian University, she was so proud – no achievement could have made her prouder, and I was proud too. Laurentian University is a part of my circle and my community – it is a safe space for Indigenous students to discover G’giikendaaswinim and reconnect to their culture.