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Grad scholars continue their Lunch n’ Learn series with research on Indigenous lands and Asian diaspora

By May Domingo, October 4 2021

The University of Calgary’s Graduate College continued its Lunch n’ Learn series in April 2020 by utilizing a new online format. The series is free, monthly and one-hour long. With the new format, it was open for attendance regardless of whether or not you were a U of C student.

On Sept. 7, two Graduate College scholars presented their research over Zoom. The first presenter was Kelsey Pennanen, a Ph.D. student for the Department of Anthropology and Archeology at U of C. Pennanen explored the South Yukon ice patches, capturing its beauty using 3D modelling and photogrammetry technology.

Her goal was to bring landscapes back to communities by exploring how people have used the South Yukon mountains for years. While many have called the Yukon territories “untouched,” she claimed that the land has been cared for by First Nations that lived nearby.

Pennanen consulted three First Nation groups for her study titled Receding Ice, Revealing History: Climate and culture in southern Yukon. For the “first time in 23 years,” ice patches in the Yukon mountains have been melting at a substantial rate and are revealing parts of history people would otherwise have known. Ice patches, she explained, are the layers of hard ice just below the deep snow layer. When melted, they exposed hunting artifacts that are so well-preserved that even the arrowhead, sinew and wood itself remain intact.

The mountains are difficult to travel to and Pennanen recalled having to travel by helicopter just to reach the North-facing side of the mountain. Therefore, she claimed that all such artifacts, like the arrow her team had found, are human-carried. This further supports her claim that the southern Yukon mountains are not untouched.

As they walked along the mountain-top, they found layers of snow boulders that formed what is known as a “game lookout.” It overlooked the ice patches at the edge of the mountain, which were covered with mountain sheep and caribou dung. With the help of photogrammetry, Pennanen and her team also noticed that the lookouts were deliberately placed beside trails of animal footprints. This placement made it easier for hunters to follow their game towards the ice patches.

Pennanen’s team was accompanied by a few Indigenous peoples who reminisced about hunting with their fathers. Her goal to “bring these landscapes back to the communities” is still in the works as she finishes up her writing.

The second presenter for the afternoon was Shuyin Yu, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English at U of C. Her research focuses on Asian stereotypes displayed in the media. Titled “My Damned Butterfly: Representation and (Re)Imagination Asian Diasporic Media”, Yu explored the opera Madame Butterfly and its influence today.

Madame Butterfly, an opera by Giacomo Puccini, is based on John Luther Long’s short story of the same title. The three-act opera focuses on Cio-Cio-san, or Butterfly in English, a 15-year-old Japanese girl who excitedly marries an American Naval officer in 1904. Yu stated that the girl’s youthful, innocent persona has been used as a stereotype on Asian women, making them seem “submissive,” as Yu explained.

The presentation began by analyzing Butterfly’s attire in the last act. She wore a white kimono, with a red Obi — or wide sash — surrounded by darkness. Yu explained that the white represented Butterfly’s innocence, the red portrayed the immense grief that the character was experiencing as she prepared to take her own life, and the darkness to focus on the character and her grief. While it does not discredit the sacrifice the Butterfly made, death by suicide is often used to portray the deaths of Asian characters in movies and plays. She said that this is a literary decision that derogatively dismisses Asian characters as objects made for emotional or dramatic impact and nothing more.

Yu claimed that stories with Asian characters during the pre-modern era are written by Europeans and based on stereotypes. She says these kinds of literature and media make it challenging for researchers to find proper, unbiased history and for the Asian community to fight against racism. 

“Stories are the writer’s responsibilities,” Yu said. 

Through the creation of the writer, characters are made to reflect the world they reside in and teach us about the world we live in now. This imposes a great responsibility on the writer to provide adequate representation of our culture and the people in our society. Representation has increased in the media since Madame Butterfly.

Yu believes that this movement is driven by the voices of Asian artists, and encourages the audience to indulge themselves in Asian-made stories, such as Avatar: The Last Airbender, American-born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang, The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang and The Black Tides of Heaven by Jy Yang.

Yu said, “the world is built based on stories,” and it is necessary for the literature and entertainment industries to understand that proper representation is important for the sake of the communities it hopes to portray and for researchers to provide objective studies.

As in-person events are resuming places, the Graduate College has transitioned back to in-person Lunch n’ Learn events, which take place on the first Tuesday of every month from 12 p.m – 1 p.m. in downtown Calgary. They say that the series may go back to online format if necessary.

For more information on the Lunch n’ Learn series, visit the Graduate College website. To watch previous online Lunch n’ Learn events, visit their YouTube channel.

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