Using Indigenous Content in the Classroom?
Planning a Workshop or Conference
That Incorporates Indigenous Perspectives?
Here’s What You Need to Know
Gathering or evaluating resources on the basis of “authenticity” is challenging and open to interpretation. Indigenous cultures are diverse, so what is authentic to one person might not be authentic to another. Within a culture, there will also be varying cultural practices among families, communities, and geographic regions, and because Indigenous cultures and spirituality overwhelmingly favour an independent relationship with creation, 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 Indigenous worldviews, situate Indigenous peoples as connected to contemporary times, and portray Indigenous 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 Indigenous person to a classroom or event as a resource person, or approach a local Indigenous 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 Indigenous peoples, so authenticity does not mean using one Indigenous person to represent the viewpoints of all Indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples 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 Indigenous cultures.
There were more than 500 Indigenous 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 Indigenous groups: across nations, as well as between communities, within communities, from family to family, and within families. For instance, some Indigenous nations have clan systems, but many do not. In many reserve communities, there are those who practice pre-colonial spiritual traditions and those who observe Christian religions. Some Indigenous peoples observe a combination of the two. In some communities, there is a schism between pre-colonial governance structures and the elected (colonial) band council system. 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 Indigenous peoples as stereotypically alike.
Although Indigenous peoples honour and respect old 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 Indigenous nations. What is customary practice in one region or for one family or community may not be customary for other Indigenous peoples. Do not assume that what is said or shown applies to all Indigenous peoples.
Finally, do not assume that all Indigenous people are experts on their own or other Indigenous cultures. Some Indigenous people are survivors of residential schools, or descendants of survivors, and have never learned their cultures. Many Indigenous people have had to relearn their cultures, and may not be 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 Indigenous cultures, some Indigenous 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 Indigenous culture as a set of rules, rather than as a doctrine for life. Be understanding about the effects of colonialism and cultural genocide on Indigenous cultures, and choose a resource person who lives by the doctrine of the 4 Rs (respect, responsibility, reciprocity, and relationships), and who can answer your questions without making you feel like you’ve done something wrong. Beware the person who spends more time explaining the “rules” than modelling respectful, reciprocal ways of being.
Sacred objects and medicines include but are certainly not limited to eagle feathers, braids of sweetgrass (or other medicines), and tobacco ties. Non-Indigenous people should not conduct Indigenous ceremonies without the presence of an Indigenous 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.” This limited context is reductive and tends to confirm existing stereotypes, portraying Indigenous peoples as all-knowing spiritual guides but not as entrepreneurs, academics, or artists. The study of Indigenous 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 Indigenous art and 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 Indigenous peoples. Instead, create objects that mean something to students’/participants’ own lives, cultures, or communities and connect that insight/theme into your discussion of Indigenous issues.