By: Ania Bessonov, RSJ ’18
The School of Journalism has worked hard to incorporate Indigenous education into their curriculum. As of this week, they’ve taken it one step further and are making tobacco offerings available to students.
Students can assemble a traditional tobacco offering as a symbolic gesture of appreciation when they interview and meet members of Indigenous communities.
“There’s a tradition in many Indigenous communities of making a symbolic offering to recognize that somebody is giving you something of value,” said Joyce Smith, a journalism professor and the instructor for the Reporting on Indigenous Issues course.
Sharing information in Indigenous communities is different than the traditional practice for many reporters.
“There’s a sense of reciprocity,” she said. “Like saying, I appreciate what you’re doing.”
While the offering can be various modest gifts (even a cup of coffee) it’s traditionally loose tobacco. As Smith began to teach this tradition and encourage students to take offerings on assignment, she realized it may be difficult for them to obtain loose tobacco.
“The more I thought about it, I’m thinking where are they going to get tobacco? Am I really asking my students to go to the corner store and buy a pack of smokes?”
She turned to the farm found on top of the George Vari Engineering Building on the Ryerson campus. To her surprise, they were already growing tobacco for the Aboriginal Student Services on campus and provided her with a bag-full.
“It reinforces the idea of the relationship between journalist and Indigenous peoples and that this is a relationship that needs special attention,” explained Smith.
Smith sees part of the experience is having students assemble the tobacco offering themselves.
“The idea is that there should be some intentionality when you’re doing it.”
Smith said she will provide students with a piece of cloth about the size of a hand, some ribbon, and the loose tobacco. The students will then follow a one-page protocol provided by Carleton University on how to properly assemble it.
As Smith acknowledges, the offering signals a shift to journalism students.
“When I was in first-year, we were told never to give your sources gifts,” said Linsey Raschkowan, a fourth-year student who has been focusing a lot of her reporting within the Indigenous community. Now she understands why it’s important.
“I think students having the tobacco offering available as a sign of respect to the Indigenous culture is a way to build a relationship with their community and establish trust— something that is sometimes hard to come by.”
CTV Saskatoon reporter, Laura Woodward (RSJ ‘17), who also focuses much of her reporting on the Indigenous community, has been learning about cultural practices.
“For sensitive stories about mourning or grief, generally I will bring tobacco to show respect,” she said. But her advice is to always seek guidance prior to entering the community.
“I suggest anyone entering an Indigenous community, who is not familiar with the culture or etiquette, to ask your on-site contact or someone who is familiar with the community. It’s best to ask, and not assume, because not all situations are the same.”
Beyond the symbolic meaning of the offering, Smith says she hopes it will allow students to reflect on the journalism practice in general.
“I think it’s a good reminder that you know… what do we offer people? We don’t pay them for their time. We don’t guarantee that they’re going to get a story that’s glowing and happy, so it’s a big thing to ask someone for their time but also to share their experience and expertise,” she said.
“I think this might be one way of making people think about that.”