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Robert Innes and Renae Watchman

McMaster Welcomes Two Indigenous Scholars

Notable Indigenous scholars, Renae Watchman and Robert Innes will join McMaster University on July 1, 2021.

Mar 29, 2021

 

Notable Indigenous scholars, Renae Watchman and Robert Innes will join McMaster University’s Indigenous Studies Program on July 1, 2021. 

Watchman, a citizen of the Diné (Navajo) Nation, comes to McMaster from Mount Royal University where she taught literature and film courses, specializing in North American Indigenous Literatures. Watchman will join McMaster’s Department of English and Cultural Studies while jointly appointed with the Indigenous Studies Program. Watchman’s teaching and research interests include Indigenous literatures (from Turtle Island as well as international Indigenous literatures), experiential and land-based pedagogies, and Indigenous film and visual storytelling.

Similarly, Innes will join the Department of Political Science while jointly appointed with the Indigenous Studies Program. Innes is a Plains Cree, Saulteaux, and Métis member of the Cowessess First Nation and comes from the University of Saskatchewan where he was the Department Head of Indigenous Studies. His areas of research include First Nations history, First Nation and Métis relations, and Indigenous masculinities.  

We sat down with Professors Watchman and Innes to discuss their upcoming move to McMaster University and plans for the Indigenous Studies Program.

 

Why did you choose McMaster University?

Rob: For me, there were several factors. McMaster is one of the best universities in the country and has a reputation for being a world-leader in terms of research. There was also the attraction of the development of the Indigenous Studies Program, which has an incredible mix of emerging and veteran scholars.

I also saw a genuine excitement going on right now regarding the hiring of more Indigenous scholars across the campus and the support being offered to Black scholars. I was happy to see the same type of attention being paid to Indigenous and Black scholars. There was also the attraction of the location. I did my undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto, so I know many people in the area, some of whom are teaching at various universities. Also, my family are huge Raptors fans, so it will be amazing to see some games when that is possible again. 

Renae: I echo all of what Rob said, and am also excited for the Raptors games! It’s also very impressive that McMaster has a Mohawk chancellor, Santee Smith. The location of the campus was a huge draw for us. The campus being in Hamilton also means that it is near to the Six Nations of the Grand River, the largest Indigenous community in Canada. My teenage daughter is Anishinaabe and Mohawk (from Kahnawá:ke) on her father’s side. I can give her the tools and teachings to understand the history and culture of her Navajo side, but it is important for her to understand her paternal side, too. Being close to kinship relatives is important.

McMaster’s Indigenous Studies Program offers language courses, and that gives me hope she can also take advantage of similar courses or programs at the high school level.

 

What do you hope to achieve at Mac?

Rob: For the first time in my career, my home department will be Political Science and not Indigenous Studies. I am really looking forward to the new exchanges and discussions that will happen with the various scholars and to work in the Political Science Department. There are a lot of things to be excited about because we are coming to McMaster during this time of Indigenization, and during a time where there is much more being done to attract and keep more Black students and faculty. Hopefully, we can create more synergies between Black and Indigenous scholars on campus.

Renae: I want to take the first year to understand how McMaster works and to see what the school is prioritizing in terms of Indigenous initiatives and everything that will entail for faculty, staff, and students. I expect that there will be a slight learning curve for me, since I have not worked in a research-intensive university since I left the United States 11 years ago. So, I am returning to a very robust place of learning and I’m looking forward to that.

 

Is there any research that you are working on or planning?

Rob: For the last few years, I have been working with Kim Anderson from the University of Guelph on Indigenous men and masculinities and issues surrounding that topic, and we will continue that research. Right now, I am also looking at issues around Indigenous genocide. This issue has come up a lot since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada issued its 94 calls to action in 2015. The Commission determined that residential schools were cultural genocide, which has been controversial because we have not always recognized cultural genocide as true genocide and as a result, that made hearing about it a lot more palatable for many people. This led to a debate in Canada about what we should consider genocide. While that is an important debate, it has implied that mass killing did not happen in Canada.

So, what I have been looking to research we have known as ‘The Starvation Policy’ which was implemented by the Canadian government in the 19th century and led to hundreds, if not thousands, of deaths of First Nations and Métis people. Canadians are aware of it, and others have written it about, but we rarely call it genocide. So, I’m trying to find out the number of people who died because of that policy, and the government’s responses to this prior to the implementation of residential schools. 

Renae: I am finalizing a long-term project: Tsé Bitʼaʼí (Winged Rock): Kéyah (land) Dislocated in Visual Storytelling. Tsé Bitʼaʼí  is a local monolith that is well-known in my community. There are many oral stories about her, but in film, she is dislocated as Mars, alien, other, and enemy, rather than as a site of Navajo and Dene survival, resilience, and presence. What began as a critique of Hollywood movies that displace Indigenous origin stories has evolved.

Navajo and Dene linguistic relations and our stories affirm Navajo and Dene relationality and in my early research and discussions with Navajo and Dene, I was encouraged to shift my initial focus from a strictly Navajo one to include more oral and visual stories of our Dene relatives in the north. This requisite work, which I am tentatively calling “Dene/Diné Stories in Landscape” will conclude my sole authored monograph by synthesizing and consolidating Navajo and Dene literary arts,  Navajo methodologies and philosophies, and Indigenous land and film scholarship.

 

What do you enjoy most about what you do?

Rob: My favourite thing is the interaction with students. I teach several courses a week and I really enjoy the interaction with students and pushing them as well as having them challenge me. 

Renae: Having to teach remotely because of the pandemic has shown me I prefer in-class teaching. I have managed with the required lockdowns of institutions because I want us to be safe, but long term I am excited for when we can return to in-class teaching. So, for me, it is being in the classroom with students and engaging with the material. I also really enjoy taking students to learn on the land, and leading Indigenous community-based field schools (travel and study abroad). That is one of my favourite things to do. It is amazing to learn from people in the community and to learn from Indigenous traditions with the land, in the land, and from the land. 

 

What is your approach to teaching?

Rob: Until this point, my entire academic career has been in Indigenous Studies. I have studied and taught in a discipline   which has as its only reason for being in existence the improvement of the lives of Indigenous people. That is also how I approach teaching the subject. It is our responsibility to find the best way to transmit the knowledge and information that we gain from our research to students in the classroom in order to provide students skills that can lead to improving Indigenous people’s lives.

Renae: A model I use is based in the Navajo language and is the motto of my former high school, Navajo Preparatory School: “Yideską́ą́góó Naatʼáanii,” which translates to ‘leading into the future.’ I have always tried to encourage Indigenous young learners to be brave and to use their languages or to learn and recover Indigenous languages to lead now and into the future. Our languages hold philosophies and worldviews. It is going to be exciting to take this motto into another context, and to learn from the other leaders at McMaster.