Ancient roots recognized in new First Nations graduation scarves

Posted on Friday, June 3, 2011

Paige Isaac (B.Sc, 2008) Interim Coordinator First Peoples' House presents Loanna Zacharie (B.SW) with the new red scarf. Looking on is Linda Gabriel who is wearing a white scarf for her Certificate in Education for First Nations and Inuit. / Photo: Adam Scotti

By Tamarah Feder

Graduating from McGill will take on a deeper meaning for both the University and many Aboriginal students as a new scarf is introduced into convocation ceremonial dress. The scarf also represents an historic and symbolic gesture acknowledging the importance of Aboriginal students and their ties to the University.

The scarf, presented to graduating students at a ceremony on Tuesday evening, was born from one offered by the McGill’s First Peoples’ House to visiting Aboriginal alumni during the annual pow-wow. The combined efforts of First People’s House and Aboriginal outreach and awareness programs by the University administration and funding from the Quebec Ministry of Education led to a broad consultative process that now offers a specially designed scarf for graduating Aboriginal students.

“We are absolutely pleased to be hosting such a special event in honour of our 2011 Aboriginal McGill graduates. It is so important that we distinguish and highlight the achievements of our Aboriginal students as they are role models for our communities and are paving the way for more First Nations, Inuit and Métis people to join us at McGill and to be our future leaders,” said  Paige Isaac, Interim Coordinator of McGill’s First Peoples’ House.

Kakwiranó:ron Cook, Aboriginal Community Outreach Coordinator and Career Advisor with the Office of the Dean of Students, also welcomes this historic initiative. “It is a custom in many Aboriginal communities to honour graduates with a special remembrance of their accomplishments as they move forward in their lives. Wearing these scarves at Convocation
carries tremendous significance for graduating Aboriginal students.”

Kahnawake-based designer Tammy Beauvais from the Mohawk Nation created the scarves so that they incorporate symbols important to indigenous culture. Red scarves will be offered to degree recipients and white ones to diploma and certificate recipients. The eagle, thought to serve as a messenger between First Peoples and the Creator, is represented with a feather on both scarves. The bestowing of an eagle feather recognizes the good work of others and is a gesture expressed with great significance.

In honour of the traditional Mohawk territory on which McGill University sits, an appliqué of the Hiawatha wampum belt is sewn onto the red scarves and represents the founding of the League of Six Nations, which includes the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca and the Tuscarora nations.

“As a member of the Mohawk Nation, I am honoured to see McGill University acknowledging the traditional custodians of this territory with the inclusion of the Hiawatha Belt on the scarf,” Cook said.

Turtles and martlets

The turtle, a symbol of creation for many first nations is represented on the white certificate scarves and is meant to represent all the Original Peoples of North America. The Iroquois, who tell that the earth was created on the turtle’s back, inspired the reference of North America as Turtle Island by Indigenous People.

The McGill crest is placed at the centre of the scarves.

Jane Everett, Dean of Students and chair of the University’s Aboriginal Affairs Work Group, has been a strong supporter of the symbolic recognition of the scarves. “Incorporating a new tradition into this momentous event in the lives of our First Nations, Inuit and Métis students recognizes their contributions and achievements,” said Everett.

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