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Indigenous Scholar Dr. Dan Henhawk

Dr. Dan Henhawk. Photo by David Lipnowski

Indigenous Scholar decolonizes sport by returning to a land-based way of learning

Meet Indigenous Scholar Dr. Dan Henhawk

August 11, 2020 — 

Researching land-based education models has faced new challenges since the pandemic for various reasons, including Indigenous communities utilizing their own security models to protect their vulnerable populations by minimizing who comes and goes onto reserve land. This hasn’t stopped Dr. Dan Henhawk from analyzing the different structures in society and how they have inhibited Indigenous people from participating in sport in relation to the land. If anything, it’s pushed his research to adapt to more research using technology as a communication component.

“Digital technology allows us to continue to share stories about Indigenous ways of being and knowing,” he said, “which is primarily what my research is rooted in.”  

Growing up in the community of Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve, Dr. Henhawk comes from a Mohawk family and is a member of the Bear Clan. He is an Indigenous Scholar in the faculty of Kinesiology and Recreation Management with a passion for understanding the ways in which communities are engaging in and utilizing land-based education as a means of cultural resurgence.

Decolonizing sport

Dr. Henhawk’s pursuit of post-secondary education started him on a journey of deconstructing the idea that Indigenous peoples were not participating in sport in the way that Canadian society normalizes or defines participation. By the time he was working on his master’s degree, his research focused on his family’s participation in sport and the significance of race relations and power dynamics.

This sprouted an interest in understanding the relationship between colonialism and leisure through studying how he was personally affected through sport. He wanted to know how colonization has impacted Indigenous people’s understandings of the western concept of leisure. This led to his PhD work at the University of Waterloo where Dr. Henhawk conducted interviews with people in his community about their relationship to sport and recreation.

“There were a lot of tensions between people’s understandings of what sport and recreation was and what I was reading in the literature around how colonization has perpetuated the stories and narratives that we know,” he said. He found himself particularly drawn to narratives that reflected a colonized understanding of sport – and Indigenous society’s subsequent participation in sport – that reflected an internalized colonization.

Dr. Henhawk uses lacrosse as a common example. He explained that the meanings and roles attached to lacrosse as it was traditionally played are very different than how we see the sport in present day. “Today, the modern version of lacrosse is reflective of current mindsets related to sport, yet many would argue it still has its roots based in Indigenous philosophies,” he said. “The challenge, however, is making sense of historical knowledge in the present that hasn’t been influenced through colonization.”

Through this journey, Dr. Henhawk struggled internally with coming to know himself and his role within a westernized understanding of sport and leisure, and subsequently, how to decolonize his work.

Land-based education as resurgence

Growing up, Dr. Henhawk wasn’t entrenched in land-based upbringing, which only furthered his interest in land-based education and how communities began engaging in and utilizing this style of education as a means for cultural resurgence. He began focusing on what communities are doing on the land and how it impacts their emotional, spiritual, and mental well-being.

“Land-based learning is often seen as being about survival skills, but it is so much more than that,” he said. “It is very much about values and a relational way of being for Indigenous peoples.”  

Through his research, Dr. Henhawk has learned that a lot of community members are slower to embrace the terms land-based learning or land-based education because they don’t capture the reality that what people do on the land is actually a way of life or living.

“Land-based learning is about being able to survive, prosper and maintain Indigeneity,” Dr. Henhawk explained.  “It’s about taking one’s Indigenous identity and putting that identity and values into practice and being able to somehow make sense of that older knowledge of who we are. The relationships that we have are everything in the world.”

Dr. Henhawk said that culture is not monolithic or static, but rather it is constantly changing, which influences how people think and live. A common example is how Indigenous people may not be able to be on the land as much as they would like or be able to pass survival skills on to their children because they need to work a job to be able to afford to survive. This compromises a piece of their Indigeneity because they are forced to live a certain way under capitalism.

With culture changing, Dr. Henhawk explained that Indigenous people fundamentally still have a sense of who they are. This has created a desire for more land-based education in communities and he is interested in how the incorporation of more land-based education can affect the emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being of communities.

Embracing a new way of learning

“This is a new way of learning for me and it feels like one of the first steps towards re-engaging Indigenous ways of knowing and being,” he said. “It is definitely gaining momentum in communities as a means of cultural resurgence and healing.”

With the help of colleagues and relationships he has developed, Dr. Henhawk’s hope is to host an international land-based education conference to get students excited and engaged in land-based education. He is also revising his curriculum to incorporate land-based learning in a meaningful and interactive way for the students he engages.

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