Carly Christensen is a third-year PhD student at the  Faculty of Education in Cambridge. In this blog post, she writes about her research on indigenous education and disability in Canada and reflects upon culturally appropriate and decolonising research dissemination practices. Carly’s research is inspired by her experiences growing up and working as a teacher in the subarctic of Canada.

I have recently returned from my doctoral fieldwork in Northern Canada. My research includes six Anishinaabe[1] secondary school students who attend an Anishinaabe-controlled school. The students attending this school live in four different self-governing Anishinaabe communities contending with the ongoing consequences of colonization, including; displacement from tribal land, rural isolation, food scarcity, dependency on natural resources, and wide-spread environmental pollution.

My research explores conceptions of disability held by Anishinaabe peoples with the purpose of designing culturally-guided special education programming. One’s beliefs regarding what makes a person whole, the purpose of life, and an individual’s role within a community are key in understanding conceptions of disability. I explored this topic using photovoice projects, semi-structured interviews, talking circles[2], and my research journal. Early on in my fieldwork, I learned that many Anishinaabe people believe that, people, animals, ideas, and objects have spirits. The belief that ideas have a spirit has significant implications when considering culturally appropriate and decolonising research dissemination practices.

The functions of ceremony

During my data collection, I looked for ways of authentically disseminating my research findings. I knew that sharing my participants’ photos required honouring Anishinaabe ways of knowing. However, I was unsure what this type of dissemination entailed until a discussion during a talking circle made the link between ceremony and dissemination apparent. As one student explained, “For our photos to be seen as new knowledge, the photos need to be shared through a ceremony.” The students explained to me that that

Drumming and singing to begin the Powwow at the student-planned public event.  In the background, the students’ photos are being displayed.[3]
any public display of their photos should fulfill what a ceremony facilitates which includes, sharing new knowledge through strengthening relationships (Wilson, 2008) and engaging in collective healing (Linklater, 2014). As such, the students planned a public exhibit of their photos within the spiritual ceremony of a Powwow. A powwow is a sacred gathering that includes drumming, dancing, feasting, and the sharing of gifts.

 Building relationships

In Anishinaabe societies, ceremonies usually serve the function of strengthening relationships (Wilson, 2008). In my fieldwork, for example, community elders explained traditional practices to the students planning the Powwow. In return, the students explained their photos to the elders, resulting in the reciprocal interchange of knowledge and thus cross-generational exchange. Many Anishinaabe people believe all things are embodied with a spirit, that is to say one’s

Student dancing at the Powwow.

relationships include connections to ideas (Cajete, 2000). Indeed, one student participant explained how the Powwow facilitated the development of her relationship with the idea of hope. She said, “The ideas in our photos about overcoming and how to help each other are exactly what a Powwow is about. So instead of people seeing drugs, suicide, sexual violence, and pain in the photos, I feel the spirit of hope.” Showcasing the photos through the Powwow seemed to encourage the participants relationships with each other and the idea of having hope.

Encouraging healing

The final objective the students sought to achieve via their Powwow public display was to promote hope. For nearly a century, the Canadian government utilised residential schooling[4] to disenfranchise, devalue, and demonise Anishinaabe populations. Indeed, residential schooling effectively destroyed traditional education systems and threatened traditional knowledge systems. This is significant because most of the family members of my student participants were residential school attendees. As such, many of my student participants were the first individuals in their communities to attend an Anishinaabe-controlled school.

When seeking healing in relation to this past, ceremonies can serve the function of restoring balance, which in turn promotes community well-being (Cajete, 2000). In fact, one of the points agreed upon during the talking circles, was that the public event needed to occur inside their school because it was “time to make the school a safe place” for their family members. One of the grandmothers at the event explained that she’d been a student at a nearby residential school. With tears in her eyes told me, “I never thought I’d see the day where a school could have a Powwow and be proud of our heritage. It feels like a whole new world.” Seeing many family members enter a school for the first time since being a student themselves seemed to be an example of collective healing experience.

Photo of family members and students giving gifts at the end of the Powwow.

Participating in this student-planned dissemination event was a powerful step towards decolonising the school, ways of knowing, and my own research practices. Authentic dissemination activities, like the Powwow, shared new knowledge in a manner that built relationships and promoted community healing.

Through my student participants, I discovered that decolinising dissemination techniques seek to share ideas within the knowledge systems involved in the research. As such, the possibilities for research dissemination practices should be explored and the influence of these authentic dissemination activities should not be underestimated.


Brady, P. (1995). Two policy approaches to Native education: Can reform be legislated? Canadian Journal of Education / Revue Canadienne de l’éducation, 20(3), 349–366.

Cajete, G. (2000). Native science: Natural laws of interdependence. New Mexico, United States: Clear Light.

Linklater, R. (2014). Decolonizing trauma work: Indigenous stories and strategies. Winnipeg, MB: Fernwood Publishing.

UNESCO. (2010). Indigenous Peoples and boarding schools: A comparative study (Ninth Session No. Permanent Forum on Indigenous issues). New York, United States: United Nations Economic and Social Council.

White, J. P., & Peters, J. (2009). A short history of Aboriginal education in Canada. In J. P. White, J. Peters, D. Beavon, & S. Nicholas (Eds.), Aboriginal Education: Current Crisis and Future Alternatives. Toronto, Canada: Thompson Education.

Wilson, S. (2008). Research is ceremony: Indigenous research methods. Winnipeg, MB: Fernwood Publishing.

[1]Anishinaabe means the first people. The Anishinaabe are a tribe located in central Canada.

[2] Talking circles are similar to a focus group. In many Anishinaabe cultures, talking circles are used to bring people together for the purpose of teaching and listening. Each member of the circle is considered equal.

[3] The photos featured are used with the oral and written consent of the school, community leaders, and individuals. 

[4] Residential schooling removed indigenous children from their communities to attend schools that prohibited traditional dress, spiritual ceremonies, and languages (Brady, 1995; UNESCO, 2010). While under the care of these schools, many students were victims of verbal, physical, and sexual abuse (White & Peters, 2009); poor sanitation, malnutrition, and physical labour led to high rates of disease and death (Brady, 1995).


Carly Christensen is a third-year PhD student at the Faculty of Education in Cambridge who just returned from spending a year researching in the subarctic of Canada. This research was inspired by her experiences growing up and working as a teacher in this region. Her research explores indigenous education and conceptions of disability. She is a member of Gonville and Caius College. You can follow Carly on Twitter: @ccarlybeth.

Carly is a student representative for the British Association of International and Comparative Education (BAICE). You can sign up for this organisation and see upcoming graduate student events here.


Posted by:fersacambridge

One thought on “Seeing Sacredness: Dissemination and Ceremony

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