Carla Singer admits that, as a student new to the University of Alberta, she’s still finding her way around campus. But as a Cree speaker and traditional knowledge holder, Singer has been blazing new trails by becoming the first student in the Faculty of Education at the U of A to take some of her exams for required courses orally and in her first language.
Singer, who hails from Big Island Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, is pursuing her Bachelor of Education degree through the Urban Secondary Aboriginal Teacher Education Program, having earned her Bachelor of Arts in Cree language from University nuhelot’įne thaiyots’į nistameyimâkanak Blue Quills in St. Paul, Alberta, where she did a practicum at Racette Junior High.
“For me to come to the city is a big change for me—I’m like the country mouse in the big city. It’s like a big maze for me to find my way around. I’m still learning,” Singer said. “I’m 43 with five children and two grandkids, and I’m still on a learning path to figure out my place, where I have to be, who I have to be. It’s up to me, if I’m going to be who I want to be.”
With her sights set on teaching all subject areas in Cree to high school students, it made sense for Singer to be tested on the educational concepts that underpin her teaching in her language.
“Giving answers orally is my own experience, it’s how I understand the subject and it’s made me realize how I can teach it to the next generation of students,” Singer said.
She enlisted the help of ATEP director and professor of educational policy studies Dr. Evelyn Steinhauer, herself a fluent Cree speaker, to translate her answers to the final exam in Dr. Randy Wimmer’s Educational Policy Studies class on law and ethics in education.
‘How you’re supposed to live is in the language’
Steinhauer said that, though it’s not possible to give direct translations of Cree in English, enabling Singer to provide exam answers orally in Cree was essential to fairly assess her knowledge on the subjects she was tested in. She added that acknowledging Indigenous epistemologies and the languages in which they are embedded is an important part of pursuing reconciliation in educational settings.
“We often hear Indigenous languages are very spiritual. They connect back to creation. All our laws, all our stories, all our ways of being are in the language. How you’re supposed to live is in the language,” Steinhauer said. “Carla’s knowledge base is deep in Cree.”
Wimmer said he was receptive to the idea of assessing Singer’s knowledge based on oral answers translated from Cree and was more than satisfied by the command of the material Singer demonstrated in her responses.
“I agreed to do our assessment as a sit-down conversation with Dr. Steinhauer as a translator. It was clear to me Carla knew the material in a very holistic way,” Wimmer said. “I often ask myself, does this person have what it takes to be a beginning teacher, and there was no question Carla had an excellent grasp of what I expect of a student completing the course. She spoke like a teacher to me, rather than as a student. She spoke as an educator or a colleague.”
Steinhauer was likewise impressed by the scope of Singer’s knowledge.
”I don’t know what her final marks were, but I knew when I was talking to her in Cree that her answers were beyond what I would have expected. Her depth of knowledge in law and ethics of teaching are more than she could have articulated in English,” she said.
Honouring Indigenous epistemology
Steinhauer also translated Singer’s answers for the final exams in an Educational Psychology course taught by PhD candidate Misty Underwood, and a writing studies course taught by Dr. Lucinda Rasmussen, an associate lecturer in English and writing studies, and instructional assistant Corinne Riedel.
Underwood, a descendant of the Muscogee-Creek and Choctaw Nations, doesn’t speak Cree but said she was deeply moved by seeing an Indigenous language and the epistemology it carries honoured in a university context.
“It was a different experience because it invited in spirit. Many Indigenous people believe there are four aspects to our being — mind, body, spirit, and heart — and the spiritual element is completely erased within the university. But from our ways, it’s embedded in the culture and language. So it allowed for the fullness of her being to be present in that place. You can’t deny the presence of that spiritual aspect, and that’s what brought it to a deeper level of analysis.”
Rasmussen said she saw no disconnect in a student providing answers for an English composition exam orally and in Cree.
“I thought about the course goals and objectives, some of which are about tailoring acts of communication to particular rhetorical situations and that was one of the main ways I thought her responses were very successful,” Rasmussen said. “Carla did a lot of extra work to make up for the deficits I have in relation to her language.”
“Carla had to do the extra work, but she did that and I think that’s just another example of her taking care of the next generation,” said Riedel, who is Metis, adding that the university should provide whatever supports are necessary to help Indigenous students find their place in post-secondary settings.
Making space for traditional knowledge holders
All the participants in Singer’s exams emphasized they didn’t view the oral assessments as an accommodation but as a responsibility on the university’s part to honour Indigenous knowledge and to help repair the relationship Indigenous peoples have with educational institutions.
“It’s not just a language, it’s a consciousness, it’s an entire way of knowing and being that’s embedded in the language,” Underwood said. “It’s enshrined in policy now that this is what we should be doing. We have policies like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action and treaties in place. We have to privilege our own Indigenous languages in these spaces or there is no reconciliation.”
Underwood, who serves as the Urban ATEP Secondary Support Program Coordinator, added that Singer has helped start the work of building capacity for traditional knowledge holders to share their gifts in a post-secondary setting.
“I think this is a good conversation for the university to have because we’re going to have more fluent language speakers, we’re going to have more traditional knowledge holders coming here, we’re going to have more elders. Because this space has been opened, we need to widen it as much as we can, to create the space where our languages can flourish here,” she said.
“Carla is making the way for all of us to follow in her footsteps behind her. We’re very, very lucky.”
Feature image: From left, ATEP co-director Angela Wolfe; ATEP program coordinator Misty Underwood, ATEP student Carla Singer; and ATEP director Evelyn Steinhauer. (Photo: Laura Sou)