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Residential school survivor Lorna Standingready is comforted by a fellow survivor during the closing ceremony of the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

How I am learning to include Indigenous knowledge in the classroom

As summertime began to wane a few weeks back, I began my usual reflections about prepping for my university teaching responsibilities. Getting back into the classroom with my graduate students always carries a sense of excitement. Teaching is a deeply personal act for most of us. We bring who we are and what we care about, encountering students who have weighty hopes and dreams. It’s an awesome responsibility.

But this year is different from others. There is a new duty felt by teachers at all levels of our education system to make good on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) calls to action, creating both a critically important opportunity and an unease about our preparedness.

Nation-wide, there are increasing efforts on the part of many universities, colleges and schools to “Indigenize” our curriculum and to “decolonizehow we teach.

Thankfully, many educators now understand our collective Canadian future depends on how effectively we reconcile ourselves to a past marred by the devastating reality of residential schools. A past that still imposes deep unfairness for Indigenous peoples today.

For my part, I have needed to find a way to make the process of understanding these past truths a personal journey.

Learning from Indigenous writers

As summer was beginning, I found myself in several bookshops featuring large displays of Indigenous authors. I wondered why I’d never, in all my life, seen such a display before. Naturally, the TRC had called attention to the issues regarding Indigenous peoples. Were these displays part of an ephemeral fad or the efforts of committed booksellers?

Rather than view this cynically, the hopeful me considered that everything has to start somewhere. So, here we are, at long last, shining a light upon Indigenous authors who have been carving out their writing lives for many years and have more than earned their time in the sun.

I knew little about this literature, although I did collaborate with Tompson Highway and Patricia Cano on an edited collection about theatre and education long ago. I also introduced some of Tompson’s brilliant plays, like the Rez Sisters, to Grade 11 students in the girls’ school where I taught in the early part of my career. And I have enjoyed the work of other Indigenous theatre-makers like Monique Mojica and Drew Hayden Taylor.

Still, I was taken aback that I hadn’t, in all my years of formal schooling, encountered Indigenous fiction writers from this vast array now on display. It is a valuable exercise to face your own ignorance. I picked up several books to start my reading journey — a small but important step.

A few of the authors’ names were known to me because they are political figures or activists or are, in some other way, in the public eye. Many were entirely unknown to me. I want to invite my settler students to follow up with just such an activity; it is a humbling recognition of the distance we have yet to travel, many of us. Rather than a depressing sign, though, I found hope in it.

I have learned so much from Wab Kinew’s The Reason You Walk, about Anishinaabe life, about myself, about this land. Among others, I also read Joseph Boyden’s now controversial work. Reading Boyden’s fiction alongside that of commentators — who have weighed in on what is at stake, and for whom, on questions of identity, inheritance and appropriation — is also vitally important to this education work.

Art surely has a crucial role to play in working through these troubling questions.

What have we failed to know?

As another small step on my learning journey, I will assign some of this reading to the students in my advanced research methodology course.

You might ask what this has to do with research methodology? Well, everything really. If research is how we advance our understanding through the production of knowledge and build upon what it is we think we know, we would do well to ask some of the most fundamental questions to be asked by Canadians today: What do we know and how do we know it?

What have we failed to know and at what cost? Let’s start here and see just how much more is possible to discover when we can look back, and look ahead, with integrity and generosity.

I start the reading in my research methodology course with Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s 1999 text, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. She is a Maori scholar who, in this work, helps readers understand the devastating historical and on-going impact of the “Western cultural archive” on Indigenous people everywhere. And on the ways settlers have come to think about the very act of research and the ideas of imperialism we hold on to. She shows us how we see, literally, “through Imperial eyes.”

What are our obligations as researchers?

I ask my students to take a few steps back from their imagined and often beloved research topics to consider how they have come to their interest in a particular area of research; what they have learned about it from scholarly communities and from the public record, alike. These students bring many different histories and different relationships to the canon of Western scientific knowledge. Together we begin a small exploration of how we have come to know what we believe we know, and to chart the pull to sameness of much of that knowledge.

We consider, simply, what it truly means to understand that perception is an act of interpretation. These are small explorations that often unearth discomforting truths about how we have been educated, what “expertise” we have doggedly held onto, and ultimately, the limits of our seeing and ways of knowing.

Adding Wab Kinew’s memoir into our reading this year, I am inviting students to consider what they have learned about Indigenous history in Canada. And to ask what the implications might be of that learning — for their understanding of nationhood and their sense and dreams of themselves as researchers. We will talk about how memoir as a genre makes us bear witness in particular ways. We will speculate about what our obligations might be, as witnesses, when we take in another’s story or carry out research.

Girls at a Residential School, in Fort Resolution, Northwest Territories. The odds of dying for Aboriginal children in residential schools was higher than the odds of dying for Canadians serving in the Second World War. (Library and Archives Canada), CC BY-SA

At one point in his book, Kinew says simply, “Colonization is not a good backdrop for family life.” There is much for a group of emerging researchers to consider about not only colonialism, the historical abuse of survivors of residential schooling and the contemporary lives of their descendants, but also the on-going violence, misrepresentations, and eclipsing of Indigenous life, culture and care-taking of this land.

To what are we called, then, as education researchers?

A humble path to a better Canada

My first department meeting of the year was opened by a now-resident Elder in our community, Cat Criger, who helped us — settlers — better understand how to bring ourselves to the pedagogical and political act of land acknowledgment.

I was craving this lesson because of my growing discomfort with the now reflexive and largely symbolic land acknowledgements undertaken in many public institutions. As with many things in education, the risk of rote response looms large. But here, instead, we had the opportunity to bring ourselves, our different histories and identities, into the room and consider both the simplicity and the complexity of the acknowledgement we were undertaking.

And this is not a one-off event, thankfully. Faculty and students will have the opportunity to meet with Cat throughout the year for personal and pedagogical consultations. That is generous and valuable professional development; one sign, I hope, of taking our Indigenous education journeys seriously.

Those of us who teach have our own trek on this path to a different and better Canada. Guided by humility about what we don’t know and listening carefully to those who do, will keep us on a good path.

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