Part of my Master’s Degree in Anthropology involved taking several courses, but the most important part of the training was doing independent fieldwork. I was interested in learning about the lives of Indigenous teenagers in northern communities, and I was fortunate to live in a remote Naskapi reserve in Quebec for four months to accomplish this goal.
It was just me, myself and I staying with an awesome local family and although they were kind and welcoming, entering this new environment was hard!
In fact, it took me about three weeks to leave the house for more than a few minutes because I was so nervous. What would they think of me? Would they want to talk with me about their lives? HOW do you actually DO this?
Fieldwork is never a 9-5 job because life never stops, and I eventually build up the courage to get out of the house. I began to meet people, who then introduced me to another whole network of youth and others interested in my study.
When you begin fieldwork you don’t really know too much about life on the ground, so your job is to observe everything you possibly can until themes rise to the surface, and then those help you narrow your focus. It’s exhausting because it’s so sensory driven; you’re not just looking with your eyes, but engaging all your senses (smelling, tasting, listening).
Your memory also gets into great shape because you’re in the field for 7-10 hours a day and can’t always jot things down at the time; recall is a remarkable tool that gets better the more you use it.
Spirituality is a foundational aspect of life in this community, and many Indigenous settlements. Many family and friends would often marvel at the fact that I wasn’t baptized, which is pretty uncommon in most ‘Southern’ Canadian places too. Maybe marvel isn’t the right work, they were surprised and a little worried for my salvation.
It was so important to them and considering the transformational nature of this experience, I decided to get baptized! I engaged in classes, received a bible and the local Anglican priest (“Father David”) wrote out the songs of Solomon before I completed the baptism.
I chose an outdoor setting for the event, a lake, and it was me and a teenage girl getting baptized on the same day. It was such a meaningful experience and many elders came to the lake to watch, some of whom made the cross on my forehead after the event. After the baptism, my family cooked a traditional meal of goose, vegetables, bread, and they made a special Happy Baptism cake!
It’s hard to imagine what other fields of study involve such intimate integration into the lives of others. I affected the people I engage with, but they also greatly affect me. In big and small ways, they completely shifted my way of seeing the world and I am so thankful for these experiences.
It was gratifying to know that they thought that my study was a valuable record of the lives of the youth, which was reflected in requests for copies of my thesis from every Indigenous community in Quebec.