Indigenous Perspectives in Education: A Personal and Professional Journey

“I think that reconciliation begins with self. There is reconciling at different levels of our being, and it’s not only until we connect with ourselves at those levels—whether it’s emotionally, spiritually, physically or intellectually—that we can also move into other spaces of reconciliation.” ~ Jackie Ottmann, Banff Centre Truth and Reconciliation Summit Participant

indigenous-writesSomething that I regret about my upbringing is how little I learned about my heritage.  I have long known that I am of Mohawk descent, on my mother’s side.  My great grandfather was from the Territoire Mohawk de Kahnawake in Quebec. For my mother, being identified in punitive ways at school as an “Indian” was painful, something that in the 1940s – 50s led to her feeling separate from others in her community.  It’s unfortunate that roots that should have been a source of pride for my mother, instead had become a story she preferred not to tell.  For me it was a missing chapter of my life. On reflection, I realize that I have tried in various ways to uncover this story for myself.  I have incredible family photos. I have done research at the National Archives in Ottawa.  Digging through the Loiselle Marriage Index and Drouin Collection Records was a lot of work, and tracing Indigenous heritage seemed next to impossible at that time.  Today Indigenous Genealogy Records can be found online, which makes finding information easier. Undergraduate courses (in the 80s) related to Indigenous studies opened my eyes to issues that were far bigger than my search for a personal narrative.  Last year (to learn more about Truth and Reconciliation) I participated in a group discussion of the book Indigenous Writes by Chelsea Vowel. Most recently I completed the course Indigenous Canada, Canadian history from a unique perspective – history as I wish it had been taught when I was in school, and as I hope it will be taught to students from now on.  As my exploration expanded, I discovered how much history has been edited… in my life, in my education… and how this has impacted my understanding of bigger issues.

“The land gets inside of us; and we must decide one way or another what this means, what we will do about it.” ~ Barry Lopez

As the initial idea for this blog post emerged, I considered writing about land-basedthis-changes-everything learning (as an extension of my earlier blog posts about nature journaling and forest schools). I spent much of my summer reading the books Horizon by Barry Lopez, This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein, and The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert. These books were both enlightening, and frightening.  They allowed me to imagine the world before exploration and settlement, to imagine the earth before the exploitation of natural resources and the pollution of the air, land and water thrust humans into the Anthropocene. Images captured by Edward Burtynsky enabled me to really see the consequences of human impact on the planet.  Learning more about how Indigenous peoples have been marginalized over the course of history, coping with a lack of potable water, contending with complex environmental issues, fighting to protect the environment, forming such grassroots organizations as Idle No More made me feel the seriousness of the world’s situation.  Naomi Klein suggested that it is Indigenous peoples who might be the ones to save us, through exercising their land rights to reduce further environmental damage.  But it would require our collective voices, and more community and global agency to bring about the changes needed to restore the planet, and to ensure that all people enjoy the luxury of clean soil, water and air. I realized that I had to take a broader view of the world, that as an educator, encouraging children’s concern for the environment  demands including an Indigenous perspective.

We must protect the forests for our children, grandchildren and children yet to be born. We must protect the forests for those who can’t speak for themselves such as the birds, animals, fish and trees.’~ Qwatsinas (Hereditary Chief Edward Moody), Nuxalk Nation

natural-curiosityA place to begin is the book Natural Curiosity, by Doug Anderson, Lorraine Chiarotto and Julie Comay.  This is a resource for teachers that guides us in seeing environmental inquiry through an Indigenous lens.  What makes this book so important  is that it is a response to the recommendations by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, to prioritize bringing Indigenous perspectives into our teaching practices. As educators we must make it a goal to encourage and support students’ intercultural understanding, empathy, and mutual respect. One way to achieve this is to help children make meaningful connections to environmental issues, to care about the environment and to be aware of the challenges that need to be addressed.  Natural Curiosity explains the four branches of environmental inquiry – nurturing a sense of wonder (inquiry and engagement), building a sense of place (experiential learning), making connections to view the big picture (integrated learning, and living and acting in the world (moving towards sustainability). The book also shows how these branches relate to Indigenous perspectives – the spiritual aspects of the world, learning from the heart, the understanding that we are part of the environment, that everything in creation is interrelated, that when we are grounded deeply in a place, we can build knowledge of who we really are. Lastly, the book provides narratives of what is happening in different classrooms as the ideas in this book are put into action. Learning isn’t simply about amassing pieces of information.  It is a journey of personal growth, of becoming. By exploring my heritage, by examining environmental issues and by seeking ways to internalize all of this, and to express it through my teaching, I have been on a journey of my own.  What I wanted to find out about myself turned into an exploration of where I stand in the world, where I stand on environmental and Indigenous issues, and the direction I would like to take with my teaching.  I want to see children begin their own journeys as they learn about themselves, and their ability to transform the world. For me this is a journey that I hope never ends.

“My action is to never stop learning and teaching until the only narrative we hear is harmony and peace in Canada.” ~ Dizon Ericson, Banff Centre Truth and Reconciliation Summit Participant

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