Edgewood professor teaches through cultural connections

Students helped plan upcoming conference
Edgewood professor teaches through cultural connections

Kathy Heskin’s classroom at Edgewood College is not confined to four walls.

Heskin, a theologian who has taught Native American spirituality for more than 20 years–including the past three semesters at Edgewood–says she tells her students they must interact with native people to understand what tribes hold sacred.

“My belief is they learn by speaking with and working with people,” says Heskin, who, in a twist of fate, taught this subject for a decade before learning she was part Native American.

Heskins says she believes it’s important to not only take her students to visit tribal members in their own communities but also bring Native American speakers to her classes to share their views.

Last spring, she invited Maryellen Baker, a spiritual elder from the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe reservation in northern Wisconsin. It was Earth Day and the entire class met outside on Edgewood’s campus. Among the topics was the significance of water.

Baker is planning an international symposium called “Women and Water Coming Together” to be held August 7 to 11 on her reservation near Hayward. Heskin and four students have been involved in the planning of the conference, which will explore perspectives of indigenous people on issues of water resources. Many of those views will be through the eyes of women who, according to the organizers, are “the carriers of life and the traditional protectors of water and Mother Earth.”

Heskin says she met Baker, who is the main organizer of the symposium, more than 18 years ago.

At the time, Heskin was teaching a native spirituality class at Dominican University, a sister school of Edgewood in River Forest, Illinois. It was a teaching opportunity she “slid” into after her predecessor left. Her only prior connection to native people was on field trips to reservations in Montana, which were great experiences.

“One of my teachers said I should call Maryellen, so I did,” says Heskin. “And Maryellen said, ‘If you want to talk to me, come up to Lac Courte Oreilles.’ So I did.” That started a mentoring relationship that has lasted nearly two decades–through a time 10 years ago when Heskin was diagnosed with cancer.

Heskin, who was adopted as a child and didn’t know her lineage, wrote to the adoption agency from where she had been placed and was surprised to learn that her birth mother was of Native American descent. She says her mother’s tribal affiliations were Lumbee and Navajo.

Through her relationship with Baker, Heskin says she feels closer to the Anishanabe people, also known as Ojibwe.

“My spiritual home is with the people,” Heskin says, referring to the Anishanabe.

Through the years, Heskin has collaborated with Baker. For the last two years, their main project has been planning the women and water symposium.

“People everywhere are concerned about water,” says Heskin, adding that water resources around the world are becoming scarce. “If we’re not concerned, we’re not paying attention.”

Heskin says she hopes women who attend the symposium will discover their strong connection to water as an important element and realize they have a responsibility to care for it.

“We have a lot of power,” Heskin says. “We just don’t use it.”

In a video about the symposium, Baker says the focus will be to instill a new outlook on water and how it impacts our lives, especially for women.

“Women are the backbone of the nation, the heart of the family and life givers, like Mother Earth,” Baker says. “We have to protect her [Mother Earth], honor and respect her, because without her we have nothing.”

The conference, which is open to the public, includes panel discussions as well as healing lodges, ceremonies and traditional singing and dancing.

For Heskin, it will be the culmination of two years of work. It also represents a chance to practice what she preaches to her students about the value of interacting with native people in their own communities.