An Aboriginal Perspective on Tribes

On the Process

According to the Tribes Learning Communities book, implementing the Tribes philosophy will make schools “safe, caring and motivational for all,” create “respect among … diverse student populations,” and increase “teachers’ professional competency, collegiality, and collaborative responsibility for students’ learning as well as whole school improvement.” So Dragonfly was surprised when, on the second day of our three-day Tribes certification course, the group went around the circle for a check-in (in Tribes language, that would be a Question of the Day within a Community Circle) and an in-service teacher sitting to our left answered the “Today I feel…” question with the following: “Well, it’s cold out and I really didn’t want to come today. Finally, my husband said, ‘What’s this thing you’re going to, anyway?’ When I told him it was the Tribes training, he said, ‘Oh, like whoo-whoo-whoo-whoo-whoo-whoo-whoo-whoo. Well, have fun.’ And I decided, ‘Yeah, I guess I’ll go.’” As she mimicked her husband’s war whoop, she put her hand over her mouth in what Dragonfly calls the Full Stereotypical Indian. Most people laughed. Dragonfly looked to the right, where a friend was sitting, and then looked at the facilitator, who knew Dragonfly was Cree (this was day two, after all, and we’d already done the introduce-yourself-to-someone-and-they-will-introduce-you-to-the-group thing and the drawing-the-river-of-our-lives thing). She was staring at Dragonfly in abject terror, and she didn’t address the situation then or later. Welcome to life as an Aboriginal person in Canada, where equity and respect exist in the abstract but not in the particular.

The Tribes book says that building a Tribes learning community is a process, and that “most” people discover these benefits “over a period of time.” The Tribes organization is implying that systemic and institutional change doesn’t happen overnight, and that it doesn’t happen simply because teachers or administrators try some new activities. Despite this caution, however, the book fails to provide a full-scale roadmap for implementing change.

Tribes doesn’t mention the word “power” – well, except on page 123, where the book says a “redistribution of power and authority within school and classes” is one way to create a “culturally transformed school community,” after which readers are left to assume that doing Tribes activities will somehow accomplish this. There is no mention of how systems and institutions function – and on who’s model – and no mention of the ways in which the attitudes and beliefs of bureaucrats, administrators, teachers, parents, and others are a reflection of prevailing attitudes and beliefs within society. The book seems to suggest that if we all stand in a circle, everything will be fine.

Most of us learn best by doing, and most of the time, we need to do and then reflect in order to really understand. But although the book says it’s more than a set of activities, it doesn’t give readers any way to analyze the issues the activities are trying to solve. If we look at Bloom’s Taxonomy, the journey from Understanding (in this case, the Tribes philosophy) to Creating (a new way of reaching students) must pass through Analyzing (deconstructing, interrogating, and breaking information into parts in order to explore understandings, connections, and relationships). But because Tribes doesn’t analyze issues of equity or oppression – the “Matrix for Achieving Equity in Classrooms” on page 56 isn’t analysis but simply another activity-driven “solution” to unnamed problems – the book becomes a set of activities divorced from any meaningful reflection. When there is no reflection, there is no change, as the war-whooping teacher at the Tribes training aptly demonstrated. The Tribes activities won’t bring about the change we need in our schools unless we pair them with an analysis of power dynamics and the intergenerational effects of oppression on today’s students.

For Aboriginal peoples, learning is understood as a biological – not purely intellectual – process. It involves a balance of the spiritual (intuitive), emotional, mental, and physical. When people use their spirit, emotion, mind, and body to learn, they engage the whole person, thinking and feeling with their whole beings. Without any information on equity and anti-oppression, teachers using Tribes are unable to engage in deep reflection about their own experiences, attitudes, beliefs, and biases, and are therefore deprived of any emotional connection to the philosophy behind the activities. Learning how to be respectful, responsible, empathetic, inclusive, and how to build healthy relationships starts with self-awareness. If we don’t connect systemic and institutional change to our own attitudes and beliefs, the Tribes activities are just window dressing – not a philosophy for change. It is entirely possible to have Tribes-certified staff, use the activities in classrooms and schools, have regular circles, and still have an oppressive environment. This typically happens when those in power haven’t examined their own biases or unpacked their own emotional baggage.

The Tribes organization is right: systemic and institutional change doesn’t happen based solely on some new activities. Building safe, caring climates that emphasize respect among diverse student populations and professional competency and collegiality among teachers starts with an examination of the dynamics of equity and (anti-)oppression. The process must take participants along an emotional and spiritual journey, transforming both people and place.

On Appropriation and Terminology

Tribes began in California when teachers participating in a pilot program focusing on increasing student participation and peer support began calling their teams “tribes” as a result of what they saw as similarities between Aboriginal cultural norms and the program’s focus on social support, respect for individual differences, and the sense of belonging that, as the Tribes book says, “indigenous tribes [sic] seem to have.”

Aboriginal peoples in the Americas don’t own the concept of interconnectedness. However, as a result of capitalism, nationalism, and other systems, European cultures and institutions have prioritized reductionist, linear, “objective,” and individualistic models that reduce complex systems to simpler parts. As a result, the Tribes philosophy has had to draw upon Aboriginal ways of knowing, being, teaching, and learning. When Aboriginal ways of knowing are used by non-Aboriginal peoples in a way that disassociates these practices from their cultural frameworks and reworks them through a non-Aboriginal framework in bits and pieces without regard for their deeper meaning, creating a hodgepodge of culturally non-specific practice – relearned from a marginalized society but controlled by a dominant one – what results is a textbook definition of appropriation.

Some people might argue that Aboriginal people should be flattered that their ways of knowing are being rediscovered and communicated to the wider world. But Aboriginal peoples are not flattered when the colonial systems that sought to destroy Aboriginal cultures suddenly decide to relegitimize them. The process speaks to the continuing marginalization of Aboriginal peoples and the lack of control they have over their own identities and cultural practices within the dominant society. The popularity of Tribes also points to the delegitimization of Aboriginal oral tradition – Aboriginal peoples have been saying these things since time immemorial, but as soon as non-Aboriginal people write them down, it becomes legitimized, making non-Aboriginal people the experts and sought-after sources of knowledge. Add to that the fragmentation of the concepts, and most Aboriginal peoples aren’t exactly flattered.

In response to charges of appropriation and questions about the title, the newest (2006) edition of the Tribes book has added several testimonials from Aboriginal people to the text and an essay by a Cherokee educator that directly addresses the use of the word “tribes.” The presence of the testimonials betrays a lack of analysis around issues of power and access and why marginalized peoples may choose (or feel pressured) to act as cultural brokers or apologists for the dominant society. Without this analysis, the testimonials become self-serving tools that allow the Tribes organization to distance itself from charges of appropriation by implying that it has permission to use the material. Tribes author Jeanne Gibbs even refers to “our Native American friends” in the accompanying text, relegating the testimonial writers to stereotypical Tonto roles.

Although the word “tribe” is used by a few groups in Canada (e.g., the Blood Tribe in southern Alberta), Aboriginal peoples in Canada are commonly recognized as belonging to self-governing nations, not tribes.The word “tribe” was first used during the 19th century, when racist evolutionary theories described non-white peoples as inferior or less civilized. It is still used in a pejorative way, to denote cultures that are assumed to have remained static in the face of “progress” or frozen at an “uncivilized” stage of development. The word is never used to describe European peoples, but only “other” peoples and cultures, usually non-dominant ones. The term is used in the United States to describe Native American communities, which is why a Cherokee educator would feel comfortable using it. That doesn’t mean other Aboriginal peoples – especially ones living outside the United States – use it. By failing to recognize the diversity of indigenous peoples, the Tribes book supports the creation of a static, monolithic, mythological Indian that props up colonial endeavour.

To properly examine issues of equity and oppression, we must ask a fundamental question: “Who benefits?” With Tribes, the dominant group is benefitting financially from the act of appropriation.

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