(COURTESY VALERIE GABRIEL)
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Safety and openness was exactly the feeling Valerie Karonhiatakwen Gabriel wanted to share with her fellow students, when she entered the contest aimed at choosing a new name for the Aboriginal Student Resource Centre (ASRC) at Concordia University.
More than a year ago, when the Kanehsata’kehró:non started her Bachelor of Arts in human environment, one of the very first things she did was to stop at ASRC.
“I asked a lot of questions,” said Gabriel. “I knew it was the reason why I would succeed and every time I went there, I got the help I needed.”
With the help of family members, the word Otsenhákta came naturally to Gabriel as a way to describe the space.
“Food, safety and warmth, when you need a place to rest and quietness, you get all that in the centre,” she added.
For the past few years, Concordia has had a set plan to decolonize itself. This time, it took extra steps to honour Kanien’kehá:ka culture and language. The latest measure implemented by Indigenous Directions was to rename the ASRC as the Otsenhákta Student Centre.
“We hear the words of decolonization and reconciliation – these are just words if there is no action,” said Vicky Boldo, the inhouse cultural support worker at ASRC. “Recognizing, acknowledging and building relationships with the nation(s) where we live, learn, work and play is the right and good thing to do.”
For Boldo, this change was about time. She said that over her four years at the ASRC, she has often overheard and engaged in conversation with students about their desire to have a name that felt like home.
“Bringing local language and knowledge into Concordia is important in supporting Indigenous students on their academic journey,” said Boldo.
By using Otsenhákta, a Kanien’kéha word that refers to a place near the fire, which provides warmth and safety, it gives a deeper meaning to the centre, she continued.
“This visibility shows Indigenous students that they are welcome. Not so long ago, this is something that was not possible because of colonization,” said Boldo.
Manon Tremblay is the senior director of Indigenous Directions, the organization whose mandate is to Indigenize the university. She explained that while in the process of renaming key offices, it made complete sense that the first, and most important one, should be the centre that offers a safe space for Onkwehón:we students.
“It was the only unit left at Concordia that still carried the word Aboriginal and it bothered us,” said Tremblay from the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation. “We wanted to get rid of that word once and for all, everyone is using Indigenous all over the university.”
Along with the 12 other members of the Indigenous Directions Leadership Council (IDLC), Tremblay looked at more than 10 options and was naturally drawn to Otsenhákta – similar to how one can be captivated by fire. Not only did IDCL want to erase colonial terminology, but Tremblay also explained that they wanted to honour the language spoken in the area, which drove them to choose Gabriel’s proposal.
“We are after all on the traditional land of the Kanien’kehá:ka’ people so it was natural for us to go in that direction,” she said.
Gabriel‘s words resonated with this, but she went even further in explaining why she felt compelled to bring a new name.
“Aboriginal is a settler name, it’s not in our language, we don”t call ourselves like that,” she said.
“The word itself, it’s a word that belongs to everybody. I hope that the Kanien’kehá:ka will be happy to see that we have another name change in our language,” she added.