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Beyond ‘beads and feathers’: Indigenous knowledge and pedagogies

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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

María del Carmen Rodriguez de France, University of Victoria
Guest Contributor

This blog post is part of the Federation Equity Issues Portfolio’s ‘Transforming the Academy: Indigenous Education’ series, which will be the focus of the Portfolio’s programming at Congress 2011.

“My hope emerges from those places of struggle where I witness individuals positively transforming their lives and the world around them,” writes bell hooks. “Educating is always a vocation rooted in hopefulness. As teachers we believe that learning is possible, that nothing can keep an open mind from seeking after knowledge and finding a way to know.” Like bell hooks in Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope, my own hope emerges from the places and the spaces in which uncertainty, confusion, and chaos renders me with opportunities to change and transform life. Such spaces and places of struggle are found most often within the university, in the classrooms where I facilitate courses on Indigenous knowledge and pedagogy.

Although I am an Indigenous woman (Kickapoo nation), I am also an immigrant, a visitor on this land that I now call home. A land whose history I explore and try to understand through facilitating courses that I teach. At a personal level, courses on Indigenous knowledge, education, and epistemologies render me with possibilities to reflect on my own Indigenous heritage and my identity. As a teacher and facilitator, these courses offer me challenges and opportunities to think of my role within a Teacher Education Program where most of the students are non-Indigenous and are required to take a course on Indigenous Education as part of their program of study.

For several years now, every student teacher in the elementary, secondary, and Post Degree Professional Programs has experienced with a common course on Indigenous education.  The topics within this common course include ways to address the learning and teaching requirements of Indigenous children, youth, and adults through the appreciation of Indigenous peoples’ relationships with the land, language, and the community.

The course was developed having in mind the ethical responsibility of teachers to learn about the territory in which they will be working and the people of the land; teachers should be better prepared to serve Indigenous children and youth within the schools. The Faculty also offers elective courses on Indigenous perspectives. As well,  at different times during the academic year, the students have opportunities to participate in community events and activities thus learning about and engaging in relationships with members of various Indigenous communities.

Throughout the province of British Columbia, as across Canada, the number of Indigenous children at school continues to increase. Although the number of Indigenous students enrolled at my university has increased, the population in our teacher education programs still is predominantly non-Indigenous. As part of our commitment to inclusive education and respectful learning environments, it is important to create opportunities for Indigenous and non-Indigenous pre-service teachers to learn about Indigenous perspectives, worldviews, history, and pedagogy in order to better serve this growing population and to better engage different ways of being and knowing.

The experiences of the pre-service teachers are varied and often times reflect their level of comfort (or discomfort) in relationship to their prior exposure (or lack there of) to Indigenous topics whether they relate to history, worldviews, and/or pedagogies. Consequently, this required course presents them with opportunities and challenges when trying to ‘fill the gaps’ in their school experience, the degree of knowledge about Indigenous education, and their own preparation to become teachers. It is surprising and sometimes shocking for me to learn that some of the students arrive to this point in their academic career not having learned about the Indigenous territory where they grew up, about the devastating impact and legacies of residential schools nor about the era of the 60s Scoop, the ‘stolen generation’ of Indigenous children removed from their families and put up for adoption. Given this context, I think that part of my ethical responsibility is to expose them to such histories through diverse means: interactions with guest speakers, performing arts, poetry, and so forth.

In “Aboriginal education teaching experiences,” Indigenous scholar Laara Fitznor suggests courses that require students to challenge the dominant pedagogical discourse as they relate to Indigenous history and worldview are only now beginning to form part of post secondary curriculum across Canada. This presents wonderful opportunities for me in learning how to develop strategies and ways to engage students in topics that require a shift in perspective and the acceptance of ambiguity.

Because I consider myself a lifelong learner, my students and I navigate together the complexities of learning about, from, and with the Indigenous people of Canada. Due to the challenging nature of courses like this, some students often experience emotions and feelings that hinder their learning process. Other students embrace the opportunity to be challenged in their prior knowledge, their belief systems and, as importantly, in thinking or re-thinking their role as educators. There are different ways in which I try to engage my students in these processes. At times, the attempt is evident. At times, it is subtle. And herein lies a challenge for me as facilitator and for them in their role as student-teachers: How to move beyond a “beads and feathers” approach to working with Indigenous students, parents, and communities? ; How to “live” different perspectives within the classroom? ; How to become an ally or in the words of Shawn Wilson, an “Indigenist”?

Mindfulness both as process and outcome is needed as part of the shared commitment that is respectful of and sensitive to Indigenous contexts. However, in order to become a competent educator, the fusion of reflection and practice or as bell hooks would say, “engaged pedagogy” is paramount to the teaching and learning process, as Kwame Nkrumah put it in Consciencism, “practice without thought is blind; thought without practice is empty.” There is a part of me that wants these future educators to understand that learning about Indigenous perspectives does not necessarily mean that they will leave my course being experts on the topic; after all, I tell them, this is not a course entitled, “Everything you always wanted to know about Indigenous people (in a term).”

I am learning about this land called Canada and trying to better articulate my own positions and approaches about teaching and learning as they relate to Indigenous matters. Therefore, I invite the students to take this time in the program as an opportunity to pay attention to classroom dynamics, to methods and methodologies, to strategies, and even to content in order to reflect on how the ideas I present, the ways in which I teach, the readings I choose, and the way in which I carry myself are all part and parcel of what they will be doing in their future practice. I ask them to think of how all of these elements might inform their own work. I ask them to be aware of the fact that the course is not a “tool kit” of approaches or methods. Rather, it is an opportunity to learn about the impact that history, policy, politics, and diverse practices have had on Indigenous people and how these have implications for us as teachers working in the field of education.

Education, I believe, is a field where our role is to lift each other up, to bring about what is within. This is, after all, what “education” means at its root.

María del Carmen Rodriguez de France, Kickapoo nation (Mexico), is an assistant professor in Indigenous Education at the University of Victoria in British Columbia.

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