Portraits of Northern Academics #2: Paul Michel
Paul Michel has been a central leader in this aspect of UNBC’s development since 2002. He is a Secwepmc (Shuswap First Nations) educator, and has been the Director of the First Nations Centre at UNBC. He is also an Adjunct Professor for the First Nations Studies Program. These two departments provide support and programming (for First Nations students and non-First Nations students) in a wide range of models and topics, from PhDs to community outreach, from intensive academic study to storytelling workshops. UNBC offers world-class First Nations language and culture courses. In a region with such powerful and diverse First Nations, UNBC has answered a challenge to represent and support those communities.
Michel’s specific interests lie in storytelling and specifically the power of orality, that non-Western/non-European tradition of First Nations knowledge and scholarship. He did his MEd at Simon Fraser University with his project title being Orality vs. Literacy: Sharing the Breath of Mother Earth. He has visited my classes many times, always with a generous and open presence. He tells stories and passes on ways of thinking about how storytelling differs from some of our conventional senses of “knowledge” and “learning” but also he suggests ways to enter and appreciate the oral story form. I like the way he takes the time to tell students where he’s from, the sources of his stories, and their importance to his family and community.
My main contact with Paul has been participating in the organization of an annual festival, the Ut’loo Noye Khunni /Weaving Words Festival that is now in its seventh year. It has become one of the most active and consistent First Nations literary festivals in the country and is special in its emphasis on oral storytelling. Paul works hard to encourage and respect local elders who annually share their wisdom and words. The festival has had famous Canadian First Nations authors such as Tomson Highway, Lee Maracle, Jeannette Armstrong, Richard Van Camp, Eden Robinson, and many others. It is the interaction and sharing culture that the festival creates that is its main strength. And Paul Michel is the main architect of that tone.
In a time of land sovereignty issues, threatened First Nations culture and language, and social unrest around government policy regarding First Nations rights, the activity of Paul Michel becomes more and more important. It is his view that “First Nations traditional wisdoms can merge with contemporary educational curricula in unique dynamic and powerful ways.” His wise and positive words create a message that can be heard by many.
In a region with such powerful and diverse First Nations, UNBC has answered a challenge to represent and support those communities.
Twenty years ago, First Nations storytelling would not have been a concern of a major university except as a subject for anthropological study. Today, First Nations culture is one of the pillars of UNBC’s mandate and storytelling is a living, breathing vitality in its halls.