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Part of a special feature focused on celebrating and recognizing the contribution and impact of Aboriginal Peoples in Newfoundland and Labrador and highlighting contemporary topics and opportunities related to Aboriginal Peoples worldwide. This feature coincides with Aboriginal Peoples Week running March 21-24.


By Laura Barron

If you’ve walked through the University Centre on Fridays at lunchtime, you likely noticed a calming rhythm and scent emanating from the open space at the top of the stairs on the third floor.

Memorial University’s Aboriginal Resource Office (ARO) hosts a drumming circle each Friday during fall and winter semesters from 11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m.

Open circle

The ARO has drums available for use, and students are welcome to bring their own. Some weeks, a guest drummer from Eastern Owl Drum Group of the St. John’s Native Friendship Centre joins the circle.

“It really is an educational piece, and is helping bring awareness of Aboriginal students here on campus.” — Sonya Clarke-Casey

The hope is for Memorial to have its own drumming group in the future.

“Right now, we’re just beginning and we’re learning new songs,” said Sonya Clarke-Casey, Aboriginal liaison officer, ARO. “The drumming circle is open for all students. Some weeks, our circle is large and some weeks, our circle is smaller. Sometimes, people stop into the circle for just one song.

“Last week, we had a student from the School of Music drop in who plays the bodhrán. He explained his drum to the group, and Aboriginal students explained their drum and what the differences were. We then had a staff person stop by and say how soothing the drumming was and asked to join for a song. It really is an educational piece, and is helping bring awareness of Aboriginal students here on campus.”

Purification ceremony

Each drumming circle begins with smudging, a First Nations purification ceremony involving the lighting of sacred plants such as juniper, sage or sweet grass. Although these plants have distinct aromas, the smoke associated with smudging is minimal.

Along with social activities and awareness-building events, the ARO offers support and resources to Aboriginal students on the St. John’s campus. Part of this support includes an Aboriginal Student Lounge (UC-4005), culturally safe spaces for students to practice smudging and kullik/qulliq (oil lamp) lighting, and connections to resources at the university and within the larger community.

By students, for students

Throat singers at an Aboriginal Resource Office event.
Students participate in traditional Inuit throat singing at an Aboriginal Resource Office event.
Photo: Deena Riggs

Each semester, the ARO’s social and cultural event planning is student-led. The ARO staff ask the students what they would like to see. Snowshoeing, painting and bracelet-making are just some recent student event ideas.

“We also try to engage students to share the skills they have with other students,” said Ms. Clarke-Casey. “So, just recently, one of our students from Conne River made dream catchers with other students. We also have students who are making sealskin bracelets. They’re sharing their cultural skills with other students. These activities help bring students together.”

From left, Edward Allen, Sonya Clarke-Casey and Sheila Freake of the ARO.
From left, Edward Allen, Sonya Clarke-Casey and Sheila Freake of the ARO.
Photo: Chris Hammond

Past programs and supports for Aboriginal students have included writing clinics, one-on-one tutoring and, an ongoing student favourite: Mid-Week Munchies.

“We do everything from walking a new student to class to one-on-one support for a student who is having difficulty in various areas, to setting up tutoring opportunities for students.” — Sonya Clarke-Casey

Mid-Week Munchies takes place on Wednesdays during the fall and winter semesters from 10 a.m.-12 p.m. in the Aboriginal Student Lounge. Students are encouraged to come to the lounge and meet up with one another, get a healthy snack (or a fun treat), and to build relationships with staff so they feel comfortable coming to the ARO with their questions or for help.

“Students meet new people all of the time through Mid-Week Munchies,” said Sheila Freake, manager, ARO. “You see a lot more students coming to the lounge on Wednesdays. They meet new friends, help one another, share problems and solutions. It’s a great initiative that has become very positive and students look forward to it every week.”

Custom made

While the Mid-Week Munchies program continues each semester, many of the other programs evolve with students’ needs.

“Programming is different each semester, depending on the students and their needs, and then their needs change from semester to semester,” said Ms. Freake. “Students’ needs are also very different. Those from smaller, more remote locations are different from those who live closer to larger towns or cities.

“If students have questions, they can come to the ARO and we can refer them to the appropriate supports on campus or in the community. We’re here for when students need us.”

Tea dolls are an example of Innu traditional craft work.
Students proudly display Labrador tea dolls and tiny moccasins, examples of traditional Innu craft made of wood, wool, cloth and caribou hide.
Photo: Deena Riggs

“We do everything from walking a new student to class to one-on-one support for a student who is having difficulty in various areas, to setting up tutoring opportunities for students,” said Ms. Clarke-Casey. “It’s very broad and every day is different. And there is a real sense of students coming together and helping one another, especially in the student lounge.”

Cultural education development

As well, the ARO recently hired an aboriginal cultural education co-ordinator, a role now filled by Edward Allen. Through presentations and class visits, Mr. Allen helps develop more education on campus about Aboriginal populations.

“It’s important for faculty, staff and students to know that Aboriginal students are here, and that we are here at the ARO to support Aboriginal students,” said Ms. Clarke-Casey.

For more information about the ARO, please visit here or email here.

For more about Aboriginal Peoples Week: Truth and Reconciliation, please visit here.


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