Coll Thrush’s Global Seminar “In Search of Indigenous London"

 

 

Coll Thrush’s book Indigenous London: Native Travellers at the Heart of Empire served as the groundwork for an exciting Global Seminar that took place for the second time this past summer. The six week Global Seminar “In Search of Indigenous London” was offered by UBC’s First Nations and Indigenous Studies (FNIS) and taught by Prof. Thrush. This seminar allowed students to reimagine the history of London — placing Indigenous history at the centre of empire.

 We caught up with Prof. Thrush to discuss his recent trip to London. He provided thoughtful insight into the seminar itself, what he learned from his students, and the value of studying abroad in the following Q&A.

 

Why did you choose London as the site of your book and Global Seminar?

I was married to a Londoner when I wrote my first book Native Seattle and we had often travelled to London. On every trip I would lament the fact that I wasn’t a British historian. Finally, Simon suggested in an off-hand comment that I might try writing a book like Native Seattle but about London, and once I started looking at the literature, I realized there was a major gap: what would it look like to “Indigenize” the “centre” of empire? The project that resulted was a steep learning curve for me since I am not trained in British history, but I realized there was an important story I could tell about how imperial urban identities were tangled up in Indigenous histories.

Then, as I was completing the book, Daniel Heath Justice, a dear friend and colleague from First Nations & Indigenous Studies, suggested that the content might make for a great place-based course within their curriculum. And so In Search of Indigenous London was born!

 

What was the structure of the Seminar? What types of activities did you do in London?

The first two weeks of the course were spent in Vancouver preparing for our time in London — and the students read my book. Next, we went to London for two weeks and this was a pretty intense and hectic schedule for the students. We returned to Vancouver for the final two weeks where students completed their final assignments.

We spent a lot of time wandering the city! We did walking tours to retrace sites of Indigenous history and students learned to read the urban landscapes. For example, we visited Trafalgar Square where we identified buildings with Inuit, Hawaiian and Mohawk history.  Students also experienced a walking tour of black history as a comparative story and visited a slavery exhibition.

We went to several London institutions including the National Maritimes Museum, the British Museum, the British Library, and the Museum of London. In each case, we met with staff, looked critically at representations of Indigenous history and cultural belongings, and brainstormed alternatives coming from our more critical angle. Students also gained practical research experience by doing some archival work at the British Library, where we encountered materials related to, and sometimes produced by, Indigenous visitors to London.

At the end of the course, students presented final projects that explored both the history the group had looked into and their own subjective experiences. Projects ranged from paintings to podcasts and poetry, and even a few more traditional papers. Staff and faculty from across campus joined the group as they shared their learning - it was a quite a celebratory occasion.

 

What was a highlight from the experience?

The highlight of our trip was being welcomed by the London Māori community. There are several hundred Maori living in London and they have an organization called Ngāti Rānana London Māori Club.  We joined them for one of their sessions and we shared in their singing tradition. First the Maori group sang for our group and then my co-lead Tanya Bob from FNIS and I sang on behalf of our group. I was pretty stressed out about singing, but it turned out to be an incredibly welcoming experience and it was then that we really felt as though we had “arrived” in London.

 

Who were the students that participated this past summer?

This year we had 16 students in total and they came from seven or eight different majors at UBC.

About half the students came from Indigenous backgrounds and it was powerful to hear their critiques. The culture of death is alarming in Britain where it’s not uncommon for playgrounds to be built on top of old cemeteries or for human remains to be placed on display in museums.  This was pretty shocking from an Indigenous perspective. We also had students from across the globe including Uganda and India — and students with Anglo and other settler backgrounds. Each of the students brought interesting perspectives from the culture they came from. This was also a pretty politically-engaged group of students and they asked hard questions of the museum professionals in particular. 

 

What did you learn from your students?

I learned about the importance of listening to students and being available to them as whole people. Studying abroad and exploring sensitive histories can bring up trauma and difficult feelings, and it was important that we take some time to attend to this.

When we were at the Great Court in the British Museum, for example, a Haida student realized that the cedar poles on display there belonged to her family. This was an upsetting moment.

Another troubling event was when we were in the British Museum and the curator took a hard line against repatriation (which is also the position of the museum.) The students found this very difficult to process. But between myself and my co-leader Tanya Bob, who is from the Tahltan Nation, we were able to support students through the more difficult moments.

 

Why should students consider a Global Seminar course?

It’s really powerful to think about events in the place or places they happened. For example, we stood where Pocahontas lived while she was in London four centuries ago. Whether it’s London, Sardinia, Hong Kong or Auschwitz, there are unique learning opportunities that you can only gain in the physical place. 

The community building aspect of Global Seminars is also worth mentioning. Our students this past summer bonded through the experience and continue to meet up and stay connected to this day. I believe many will be lifelong friends. Professors taking part in Global Seminars also become part of the community and we get to know our students in a meaningful way. 

Lastly, Global Seminars are not as expensive as students might think! There is often financial assistance for seminars with a research component and I encourage students to look into them.

 

For more information:

Interview with Coll about his book Indigenous London: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5bBPc573DWs

Coll's UBC History Profile: http://www.history.ubc.ca/people/coll-thrush

Information on Go Global Programs: https://students.ubc.ca/about-student-services/go-global

Information on Global Seminars: https://students.ubc.ca/career/international-experiences/global-seminars