Using Aboriginal Content in the Classroom?
Planning a Workshop or Conference
That Incorporates Aboriginal Perspectives?
Here’s What You Need to Know
Gathering or evaluating resources on the basis of “authenticity” is challenging and open to interpretation. Aboriginal cultures are diverse, so what is authentic to one person is not authentic to another. Within a culture, there will also be varying cultural practices among families, communities, and geographic regions, and because Aboriginal cultures and spirituality overwhelmingly favour an independent relationship with the Creator, cultural practices will be different for every person. Concentrate instead on evaluating resources on the basis of bias and agency – that is, whether the resources honour Aboriginal worldviews, situate Aboriginal peoples as connected to contemporary times, and portray Aboriginal peoples and cultures as having changed and adapted to circumstances including but not limited to identity, sovereignty, and challenges such as colonialism. “Authentic” should never imply without change or prior to European contact.
If you invite an Aboriginal person to a classroom or event as a resource person, or approach a local Aboriginal organization for information, remember that what is shared is one way of understanding a particular issue, one way of practising a particular cultural teaching, or one way of approaching a particular concept. There is a wide range of perspectives among Aboriginal peoples, so authenticity does not mean locating one Aboriginal voice to represent all Aboriginal voices. Aboriginal people are not stereotypically alike; they are different and they disagree. All cultures – colonized or not – change over time. Understanding this fluidity is the authentic study of culture.
There were more than 500 Aboriginal nations living in the Americas at the time of contact, speaking hundreds of different languages. Today, there is still a great deal of diversity among Aboriginal groups: across nations, as well as between communities, within communities, from family to family, and within families. For instance, some Aboriginal nations have clan systems, but some do not. In many reserve communities, there are those who practise traditional spirituality and those who observe Christian religions. There are also those who observe a combination of the two. In some communities, there is a schism between traditional governance structures and those who work within the band council system. One must consider this diversity when studying or including the perspectives of Aboriginal peoples. It is always best to attribute ideas and materials to the culture from which they originate, whether Coast Salish or Mi’kmaw or Plains Cree or James Bay Cree. Avoid generic terms or ideas that portray Aboriginal peoples as stereotypically alike.
Although Aboriginal peoples honour and respect elderly people as part of an holistic worldview based on healthy relationships and responsibility to others, becoming an elder is based upon whether a person understands cause and effect, relationships, and patterns – the “why” within the “how” – and can translate this deep understanding of the world that surrounds us into wisdom that they can share. Likewise, a “traditional teacher” must not only have considerable knowledge of cultural beliefs and practices, but must also demonstrate the wisdom associated with elder status and be able to share their teachings in a good way.
If you ask a resource person to visit your classroom, school, or organization, be aware that there is diversity within and among Aboriginal nations. What is customary practice in one region or for one family or community may not be customary for other Aboriginal peoples. Do not assume that what is said or shown applies to all Aboriginal peoples.
Do not assume that all Aboriginal people are experts on their own or other Aboriginal cultures. Some Aboriginal people are survivors of residential schools, or descendants of survivors, and have never learned their cultures. Many Aboriginal people have had to relearn their cultures, and many are not in a place where they can ask critical questions about what they’ve relearned. As a result of the intergenerational trauma created by residential schools and other colonial forces that attempted to eradicate Aboriginal cultures, some Aboriginal people have a great deal of internalized shame and hatred. Some Aboriginal people have internalized the myths and stereotypes created by the dominant society. If a resource person seems rigid and unable or unwilling to answer questions, do not assume that it’s because you shouldn’t ask questions. Due to colonial influence, some people have relearned Aboriginal culture as a set of rules, rather than as a doctrine for life. Be understanding about the effects of colonialism and cultural genocide on Aboriginal cultures, and choose a resource person who lives by the doctrine of the 4 Rs (respect, responsibility, reciprocity, and relationships); someone who can answer your questions without making you feel like you’ve done something wrong.
Sacred objects and medicines include but are not limited to eagle feathers, braids of sweetgrass (or other medicines), and tobacco ties. Non-Aboriginal people should not conduct Aboriginal ceremonies without the presence of an Aboriginal resource person and unless they relate directly to the context. However, even if a resource person is available, teachers and conference/workshop organizers should avoid scheduling a “cultural show and tell,” as doing so limits the study of Aboriginal peoples to the study of anthropology and artifacts. That limited context is reductive and tends to confirm existing stereotypes, portraying Aboriginal peoples as all-knowing spiritual guides but not as entrepreneurs, academics, or artists. The study of Aboriginal peoples should include the study of their contributions across a range of fields in both historical and contemporary contexts.
“Cultural appropriation” describes the adoption of cultural practices, symbols, objects, and other elements from a specific culture by another culture, usually a dominant culture. This is problematic because the dominant culture has already marginalized the non-dominant culture, and is in the position to further oppress that culture by misrepresenting, changing, or even controlling these cultural elements. Creating sacred objects (such as drums) or other objects (such as dreamcatchers, medicine pouches, or walking sticks) – especially ones with Aboriginal-themed crests or designs – during classroom or workshop activities is appropriation, and it will not help students or workshop participants understand the histories, perspectives, contributions, or contemporary challenges of Aboriginal peoples. It’s much better to create objects that mean something to students’ or participants’ own lives, cultures, or communities as an extension to a lesson on or discussion of Aboriginal issues.
Using Symbols to Create an Inclusive Classroom or Workplace
The use of symbols such as the medicine wheel, the Métis infinity symbol, and the Inuit inukshuk is encouraged, as they contribute to inclusive classrooms and workplaces. Such symbols reflect the diversity of Canada and may reflect the diversity of students in a school or staff in an organization. However, these symbols should only be posted if they’re contextualized. For the education sector, that means using them in instruction across the curriculum. For the non-profit and government/public sectors, that means offering staff the chance to participate in professional development workshops that focus on Aboriginal experiences, perspectives, and histories. Posting these symbols does not create an inclusive classroom or workplace – posting them and understanding the perspectives of the people who use them does. Images and symbols should always present Aboriginal peoples in a variety of historical and contemporary contexts (on-reserve, rural, urban), across a range of socio-economic circumstances, and acting on their agency in a range of fields including the arts, politics, science, business, and health care/medicine.
Many people say there are “protocols” or “laws” for the gathering, storage, and use of sacred objects and medicines. However, this reflects a colonial influence. In most pre-contact Aboriginal societies, a person’s relationship with creation was a personal one. There were certainly customs and traditions within families, communities, and nations, but Aboriginal spirituality was doctrinal, not dogmatic. Gathering, storing, and using sacred objects and medicines should be done with respect and a sense of responsibility to oneself, to the Earth, and to creation. What this looks like will vary from culture to culture, region to region, and person to person.
When a group of young people travelled to the home of an elder in Northern Ontario in the 1990s for some teachings, they were shocked to discover that the elder disposed of the ashes from the smudging ceremony by flushing them down the toilet. When someone asked about it, he said, “We have the septic. It goes back out there, into the dirt. Same thing.” He meant it was the same thing as taking it outside and burying or scattering it. Although some people might not be comfortable using his methodology, it is logical. And equating smudge ashes with the other things we put in toilets isn’t disrespectful: after we smudge, the energy of every person who took part – or the energy that was cleansed from the room – is present in the ashes. It contains energy we no longer want to keep. So why not flush it away? As the old man said, “Same thing.” It’s not the way others do it, but it worked for the old man, who found it difficult to get around outside on his own.
Doctrinal thinking is different from dogmatic thinking. Aboriginal ways of knowing and being are centred around principles, not on rigid, authoritarian beliefs that others are expected to accept without argument. Beware the person who spends more time explaining the “rules” than modelling respectful, reciprocal ways of being.