On teaching Aboriginal history to non-Aboriginal students

Last week I gave a webinar presentation called “Aboriginal history is everyone’s history” for Canada’s History, a society that promotes Canadian history education. The goal of the webinar was to highlight the idea that all Canadians, not just Aboriginal people, have the responsibility of teaching and learning about the history of Aboriginal people in Canada.

Here in Nova Scotia, many non-Native students choose to take Mi’kmaq Studies 10 to get their high school Canadian Studies credit. How can non-Indigenous teachers teach this course to these students in a way that is respectful and culturally appropriate?

You can see a recording of the webinar here. Below is a transcript of the presentation, edited for easy reading.

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I’m a teacher of grade 10 Mi’kmaq Studies at Prince Andrew High School in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, which is on territory that the Mi’kmaq people never have ceded. On this territory I’m a settler, a word I use to mean someone who is not of Aboriginal heritage.

Photo: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Mi%27kmaq.png

I grew up in Moncton, New Brunswick, and in my high school Canadian history class in the mid 90’s I don’t remember learning much about Aboriginal people. Human memory being what it is, I can’t swear I’m not forgetting something, but all I remember is learning about pre-contact history of Aboriginal people, or “prehistory,” for about a week, before getting into what was apparently the “real” meat of the course, which starts with the arrival of the Europeans to North America, or as many Aboriginal people refer to it, Turtle Island. Aside from that, the major mention I can recall of Aboriginal people in school is when an elementary teacher of mine went on a small rant in class one day, telling her impressionable young students that “les Indiens paient pas de taxes” – Indians don’t pay taxes.

Later on, when I did some research on the history of portrayals of Aboriginal people in Canadian curriculum, I learned that my experience in school was pretty typical. Non-native Canadians have generally learned about Aboriginal people in school as though they were relics of the past, either dead (as in the case of the Beothuk of Newfoundland) or declining, on the verge of extinction, being steamrolled by the inevitable march of progress. That is, if we learned about them at all.

A fanciful depiction of John Guy’s 1612 encounter with the Beothuks in Trinity Bay. From Theodor de Bry, America (Historia Americæ sive Novi Orbis), pt. XIII, German, edited by Matthaeus Merian (Frankfurt: Caspar Rðtel, 1628, 1634) 7. Copy courtesy of the CIHM/ICMH (Canadian Institute for Historical Microreproductions) microfiche series; no. 94749 in the Queen Elizabeth II Library at Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John’s, Newfoundland. Original housed in The National Library of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario. (from http://www.heritage.nf.ca/avalon/history/bry.html)

By the 1990s this portrayal began to change in textbooks and curriculum documents. The Oka Crisis of 1990 woke up much of Canada to the fact that Native people were still here – some might say, despite Canada’s best efforts. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples did an exhaustive job at explaining the root causes of the conflict, along with many of the complex social problems present in Aboriginal communities across Canada. In schools, some Canadian history texts started to talk about things like treaties, the Indian Act, modern-day issues and notable Aboriginal individuals in the present, not just the past. In practice, this didn’t always mean that these topics were done justice in class, but at least the materials were there.

oka crisis Gord Hill (defense of kanehsatake)
Illustration by Gord Hill of the defense of Kanesatake (AKA the Oka crisis), 1990 (from http://dialog.studentassociation.ca/index.php/never-idle-a-history-of-indigenous-struggle/)

Today, in 2014, all provinces have integrated some degree of content about Aboriginal people into the mainstream curriculum, to an extent that varies by province. Canadian history and social studies courses include units on Aboriginal history and current issues, and several provinces have high school Native studies courses, though in no province that I’m aware of are these courses mandatory for all students.

Here in Nova Scotia, in the late 1990s and early 2000s the Department of Education started to roll out a grade 10 Mi’kmaq Studies course, with the idea that Mi’kmaq students would better be able to  see themselves represented in the curriculum.

The existence of this course, it’s important to note, is a political victory. It was fought for by Mi’kmaq people in this province and is a symbol of progress in Aboriginal-settler relations.

Today this course fulfills the Canadian Studies credit in the public school program, meaning any student can take it if they wish, instead of the traditional Canadian history course. And in some schools, such as mine, a great many students do.

Now, not many students at our school self-identify as Aboriginal. So why do so many students choose to take Mi’kmaq Studies? It’s hard to be sure, but although a few express an interest in the subject matter, there also unfortunately seems to be a perception that the course is considered “easier” than the mainstream, Eurocentric Canadian history course.

You can probably see why this is problematic. Why should the history of Aboriginal people be considered lower in the academic hierarchy than the history of White people? We’ve grappled at my school with how to deal with this question, with no clear-cut answers yet. The plus side, though, is that at the moment many non-Native students in Nova Scotia are learning in depth about Aboriginal history and culture.

I really enjoy teaching Mi’kmaq Studies 10. Despite the little I learned about Aboriginal people in public school and university, I later came to learn what a fundamental social justice issue Canada’s troubled relationship with Indigenous people is, as it is all throughout the Americas.

I realize, though, that me teaching it brings up a question: how does a White, non-Indigenous teacher like me teach this course to a group of mostly White, non-Indigenous students, in a way that is respectful and culturally appropriate?

It’s a question that feels impolite in some circles. According to the kind of liberal, multicultural thinking we often espouse in Canada, skin colour and background don’t matter. We don’t see race or colour – we’re all Canadian. By this logic, anyone could be just as qualified to teach about any subject to anyone else.

But, as anyone who has studied issues of race and racism knows, skin colour and background do matter. We haven’t yet attained a magical, post-racial society where everyone has equal opportunity in life, and in fact it sometimes seems we’re moving further away from it. Aboriginal people in Canada today are still marginalized and stereotyped in colonial society, their opportunities still limited by the circumstances of their birth. We can see this in statistics on many indicators of well-being, from health to education, and in tragic stories like those of the hundreds of missing and murdered Aboriginal women across this country. This is the continuing legacy of colonialism and systemic racism in our country.

For this reason, I think teaching students about Aboriginal history and contemporary issues is not a responsibility to take lightly. Settler Canadians have misrepresented Aboriginal peoples for a very long time, for example by portraying people in stereotypical ways in pop culture, media and school curricula. Most of us who are teaching this course are of course steeped in these misrepresentations ourselves.

Now, if the Mi’kmaq Studies course is taught well, it feels like you can break down these stereotypes and help improve relationships between Indigenous and settler people in this country.

But if not, you risk entrenching the stereotypes and misunderstandings that students already hold.

Now, given this risk, there are some who say (both within and outside Aboriginal communities) that only Aboriginal people should teach Aboriginal studies. And in an ideal world, I’d like to see Aboriginal individuals given sufficient time, energy, resources and institutional support to teach their history to everyone.

The practical reality, however, is that there are not currently enough Aboriginal teachers in Nova Scotia to fill all the teaching positions within their own communities, let alone cover all the Mi’kmaq Studies classes in the province.  And I wouldn’t be surprised if, given a choice, most Mi’kmaq teachers chose to teach in their own communities and give Mi’kmaq children a chance to see someone of their own culture up at the front of the class. Not to mention that some Mi’kmaq teachers might well prefer to teach math or art or phys. ed!

There are other reasons, too, why it can be a challenge for Aboriginal people to teach Native studies classes to non-Aboriginal students. The average Canadian high school student holds a lot of misconceptions about Aboriginal culture and history, and sometimes those misconceptions can be aired out in class. For an Aboriginal person in front of a classroom, confronting racism on a daily basis can be personal, and exhausting.

These are the reasons why I think it’s important for settlers like me to teach other settlers about the history of Aboriginal people –as it should not be the duty only of Aboriginal people to educate non-Aboriginal people about their history and contemporary issues.  On the contrary, it is our responsibility as settlers to put in the hard work required to understand how things got to be the way they are today, and how we can work in partnership with Aboriginal people to make things better.

So, how to do it?

The first key point  is that the history taught in Native Studies classes  is about Aboriginal-settler relationships. And relationships, of course, affect all parties involved.

Signing of the Treaty of 1752. (from http://www.danielnpaul.com/BritishMi’kmaqTreatyOf1752.html)

In learning about the historical relationships between Aboriginal people and European settlers, it’s important to remember that for every piece of Aboriginal history, there’s a corresponding piece of settler history.

Learning about how Aboriginal people lost land, for example, should also involve learning how settlers took that land. And learning about the ways that Aboriginal people have suffered from the dispossession of that land over centuries should also involve learning about the ways that settlers have profited, and continue to this day to profit, from the land that was taken.

(Aboriginal land, as my father once told me, is land that Canada doesn’t want…yet.”)

The clearest example of relationships having effects on each party is of course the treaty. A treaty, by definition, is something signed between two nations. Each side gains something by signing, and each side has obligations to the other.

Nowadays, there are many common misconceptions about treaties and especially treaty rights. Often, Aboriginal treaty rights, like the right to hunt and fish under licensing regimes that are not necessarily the same as those for non-Natives, are discussed as though they were “special rights” or unfair privileges.

But what was the flip side of those treaties? While Aboriginal people were promised the right to live as they always had done, hunting and fishing for sustenance, what did settlers gain?

The answer, of course, is land. Settlers got the right to live on the land in peace, enjoy access to its many resources; and eventually they imposed their own systems of governance, justice and other social institutions over the entire area. But when a story hits the news today about an Aboriginal nation fighting to protect a piece of land, it’s most often not mentioned that so much of the surrounding land that was traditionally its territory had been gradually encroached upon over decades or centuries.

Here in the Maritimes, Aboriginal rights like the right to hunt and fish outside of Canadian licensing regimes flow from treaties signed in the 1700’s.  These treaties were not cession treaties, meaning that the Mi’kmaq and other Eastern nations never gave up their legal title to the land. The treaties signed here were Peace and Friendship treaties, which gave both sides the right to live peacefully together and enjoy the bounty of the land. As well, the fact that the British signed treaties with the Mi’kmaq and others meant they recognized their status as sovereign nations.

So who gained most from these treaties? Who respected them more? What have been their long-term effects? How does learning this history help us understand the situation of both Aboriginal people and settlers in Canada today? These are the kinds of questions that need to be at the forefront of any discussion on Aboriginal rights, or any Aboriginal issue.

As Tara Williamson, professor at Fleming College in Nogojiwanong (Peterborough, Ontario), wrote on the Decolonization blog:

“It wasn’t until I became an adult that I first heard the expression “We are ALL treaty people.” Quite frankly, it blew my mind. I mean, of course I’m a treaty Indian, but, it never occurred to me that my neighbours were Treaty Settlers.

But, of course! Treaties and agreements require at least two parties. How did Settlers forget that? How did I forget that?

I forgot because colonization and settlement have been normalized. Simultaneously, the depictions of Indigenous peoples as “freeloading,” “angry,” “on welfare,” “criminal,” and “lazy” have also been normalized. Truthfully, these two normalizations are the different sides of the same coin, they need each other to exist. As a result, Settlers are able to sleep easy with a sense of entitlement to the land and the governance structures that have been placed upon it.” 

There are some good tools around to help get students to think from the “2-sided coin” perspective. One of them is this “Settler Treaty Card” from Briarpatch magazine. As the text in the middle says: “With your Settler Treaty Card, YOU get access to countless privileges that your ancestors’ representatives signed on for in perpetuity – privileges like settler self-government and access to the land.” I encourage you to zoom in and read the fine print at the bottom as well.

Settler treaty card

Trying to build empathy is also a useful exercise. An example of this can be to ask students to imagine for a moment that Canada has been invaded and taken over by the U.S. (maybe not such a far-fetched scenario if climate change makes large swaths of that country uninhabitable). The students must now call themselves Americans. They can privately continue to consider themselves Canadians if they want, but they are now part of U.S. culture, cheer on U.S. sports teams at the Olympics, the whole bit. I’m not much of a flag-waver in any circumstance, but my favourite part of the exercise is when I play the Star-Spangled Banner and ask them to stand up, then watch the visceral reaction I get.

The goal of the exercise is of course to give students just the tiniest impression of what it might feel like to be colonized. Would they accept it? How would their lives be different?

Sometimes the 2 sides of the relationship coin are not as obvious, such as in learning about the Indian Act or Residential schools.

A residential school in Regina, Saskatchewan, 1908. (from http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/2/2f/Indian_school.jpg)

Teaching about residential schools is fairly straightforward, on the surface. Kids can fairly easily understand the physical, sexual and emotional abuse suffered in the schools, and the lasting impact these have had on Indigenous communities.

The idea of cultural loss is a bit more abstract, though, and so in the past I’ve picked a day during the unit to speak in another language (I teach Spanish as well as history) for 5 or 10 minutes as soon as they enter the class, while putting on my best “stern teacher” persona.

Once they figure out what’s going on, they have a chance to reflect on what it could possibly be like to be thrust with no warning into a place where speaking your language is grounds for punishment. Students have told me this is an extremely impactful experience.

Along with these few specific ideas that I hope will help you figure something out to suit your own purposes and your own curriculum, here are some general principles that I’ve found helpful to keep in mind when teaching about Indigenous history.

1) Strive to bring a diversity of Aboriginal voices into the classroom. While it’s not solely Aboriginal people’s responsibility to educate folks like me and my students, it’s still paramount for their perspectives to be heard. That can mean using readings or audio-visual materials that privilege Aboriginal voices, and where possible bringing guest speakers in the classroom. Now, for a variety of reasons it’s not always easy to have Indigenous guests come in to speak to a class of non-Native students. If it’s difficult to find people to speak to your students, consider whether there’s anything you could do to make it easier, like offer an honorarium, provide transportation, or take your students on a field trip to hear them.

All this is easier if you…

2) Build relationships of trust with Aboriginal people in the local community. Given unequal power relations and a long history of misrepresentation and appropriation of Aboriginal history and culture in Canadian society, trust might not be automatic. Aboriginal people in leadership positions are often stretched thin trying to work to improve quality of life for their communities, and speaking to groups of non-Native students might be a low priority for them.

Cultivating authentic relationships can help to avoid dynamics in which presenters feels like they or their communities are not benefiting from the time you are asking them to give. And as mentioned earlier, given how ingrained stereotypes about Aboriginal people are in mainstream society, presenters can put themselves in a vulnerable position if a class has not learned beforehand to debunk these stereotypes. It’s helpful for a presenter to feel they can trust you to work with them in such circumstances.

If you don’t know any Aboriginal people personally, showing up at community events where you are welcome can be a good way to begin building relationships.

Speaking of those stereotypes:

3) Deal with common stereotypes and misconceptions head-on. Difficult questions do come up, and avoiding them or shutting down the conversation are not acceptable options. When students ask about things like taxes, hunting and fishing rights, reserves, or alcohol and drugs, knowing as much as possible about these questions is of course helpful, but so is putting questions in their proper context and re-framing them if necessary.

For example, if a student asks, or states, something about Aboriginal people not paying taxes, it’s useful on the one hand to know that income tax exemptions are generally limited to status Indians living and working on reserve. It’s also useful, though, to be able to explain why this exemption exists, and how it forms part of a historic series of huge losses and very small gains for Aboriginal people. As Thomas King has pointed out as well, lots of other people and organizations get special tax breaks and exemptions that cost the public purse many times more than the tax breaks given to Aboriginal people – the oil industry comes to mind.

Broadcaster Wab Kinew has a great little 2-minute video that does a good job breaking down some stereotypes about Aboriginal people.

4) Pay attention to language. You may be aware the subtle differences between terms like Indigenous, Aboriginal, First Nations, Native, and when it might be more or less appropriate to use one over the other (and if not, there are some places on line that can help you). But there are other, even more subtle things about language that are important to be aware of when teaching about Aboriginal people.

One example is the use of words like “tribe” when describing a group of Aboriginal people. What image does this word conjure up for us? Would we use it to describe a group of fair-skinned people? Why or why not? The word “nation” can often serve as a more respectful, or at least neutral, substitute. What about the word “story.” Is an Aboriginal person’s “story” something that we would call “history” if it were written down and told by a non-Native person?

It’s also important to be aware of “us and them” language. I often have students talk about the difference between Aboriginal culture and “the way we do things.” This phrasing sets up Aboriginal people as something completely separate or “other” – and besides, it’s often impossible to know who is in the classroom, and who might feel excluded by such a turn of phrase.

Now, some of these words are grey areas, and Aboriginal people themselves may sometimes use them. That doesn’t give non-Aboriginal people an excuse not to be aware of them, however, and understand how these words carry different meanings depending on context and who is using them.

5) Don’t romanticize; don’t essentialize. Indigenous cultures and spiritualities are generally centred around the land they’ve occupied for thousands of years – they’ve had to be in order to survive there for so long. This doesn’t mean that every Indigenous person has an innate, biological knowledge of medicinal plants, or has an alternate “Indian”  or “traditional” name, or engages in spiritual ceremonies.

Colonialism was and is severely disruptive to many Indigenous cultures. Many Aboriginal people today live somewhere between two cultures, and of course, as in any community there’s a wide range of beliefs and opinions. I know I certainly don’t have the same values or lead the same lifestyle as all the other white people in my neighbourhood.

Note that none of this is to say that Aboriginal cultures as a whole have been completely lost to the modern world– and I had someone try to argue that to me once, since they knew of Aboriginal people who were involved in the mining and oil and gas sectors. A good analogy might be to say that even though not every Canadian likes hockey, it’s still a part of Canadian culture.

6) Be respectful of Indigenous knowledge. In many Indigenous traditions knowledge is not something that can be looked up in a book. It is considered sacred and must be treated as such, used with care and for the right purposes. Some people with knowledge of Aboriginal spirituality might be wary of sharing teachings if they are

Funny, I’ve never seen anything referred to as a “European proverb” (or perhaps a “Eurasian proverb”?)

not sure they will be given the proper respect. If you’re teaching about culture or spirituality,  know where your knowledge comes from, and put it in proper context. Be wary of something identified as a “Native American legend” or “proverb” that doesn’t say from which nation it originated.

Sometimes different sources, scarce to begin with, can contradict each other, which can seem frustrating. I’ve seen different theories on the validity and authenticity of the medicine wheel as an Indigenous cultural symbol, for example, even though teaching it is part of the Mi’kmaq Studies curriculum. But of course, knowledge is rarely ever static in any culture, so it’s best to seek a variety of sources of knowledge and mention to students that there are differing opinions on a given issue.

7) Be humble and patient. As we’ve already noted, colonialism completely destroyed or severely weakened the foundations of many Indigenous societies in this part of the world. That’s not a small thing, and it means that today many Indigenous communities are still working hard to find their feet, on many levels, in a country where large groups of people are unsympathetic and governments don’t provide adequate funding or live up to their treaty obligations. These are always things to keep in mind if, for example, you have difficulty connecting with an Indigenous person to come speak to your classroom.

Julia F. Parker, an Indigenous park interpreter from Yosemite National Park in California, wrote once that “if I did everything people asked me to, I’d be on the road every day of the year.” I’ve heard some people say that when they try to connect with Aboriginal people they encounter what they perceive to be some mistrust. But if that’s the case, it’s important to understand that Aboriginal people deal every day with undeserved hostility in the form of racism, governments breaking promises, and the like. And, in my own experience, most people are generally happy to be asked to share their knowledge even if they can’t come to your class.

I’ll end with this quote from Chelsea Vowel, a Cree and Métis woman in Montreal and one of my favourite writers on Indigenous issues today:

“What it all boils down to is this. Canada has not committed itself to addressing the colonial relationship it still has with indigenous peoples. Canada is in denial about that relationship.  I think it’s fair to say that most Canadians believe that kind of relationship no longer exists. We are trying to tell you that you are wrong.”

Suggested resources:

http://apihtawikosisan.com/ My favourite blog on Indigenous issues. Accessible and enjoyable to read. Check out the “Indigenous issues 101” section.
http://rabble.ca/blogs/bloggers/apihtawikosisan/2012/12/idle-no-more-canada-its-time-we-need-fix-our-generation A good first article for those seeking to understand the situation of Aboriginal people in Canada.
Wab Kinew: 5 stereotypes about Aboriginal people: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GlkuRCXdu5A
Thomas King: The Truth about Stories: http://www.cbc.ca/ideas/massey-archives/2003/11/07/massey-lectures-2003-the-truth-about-stories-a-native-narrative/ Listen to these lectures by the master storyteller.
Daniel Paul: We Were Not the Savages: A history of Mi’kmaq-settler relations from a Mi’kmaq perspective. Available from Fernwood Publishing.
Films by Alanis Obomsawin: https://www.nfb.ca/explore-all-directors/alanis-obomsawin Several excellent documentary films on Aboriginal issues in Canada.
Ronald Wright: Stolen Continents: The story of 5 Indigenous American groups of nations told using exclusively Indigenous sources.

12 thoughts on “On teaching Aboriginal history to non-Aboriginal students”

  1. Thanks Ben — very helpful, especially the “Settler Treaty Card” and collection of resources. I didn’t realize you grew up in Moncton — me too. Without suggesting that Moncton’s school systems were any different than in other eurocentric schools, I’m afraid the only thing about Aboriginal history I remember from my schooling is how to spell “autochthonous.”

    1. *laugh* I’ve never heard that word in English! We should talk about our respective Monctonian upbringings sometime.

  2. I teach Mi’kmaq Studies at Dartmouth High and you have hit upon all of the points (and more) that I have been making to my students and fellow staff. I was particularly moved to find out that I am not the only person who is concerned that Mi’kmaq Studies (and African Canadian Studies) are often described as academically less challenging than “Canadian” History. I look forward to sharing.

  3. Thanks for your comment Robyn – we should connect! I’ll probably be dropping by DHS sometime in the next few weeks. I’ll ask after you.

  4. Ben – I’ve just finished reading the reprint of this post in Our Schools Our Selves. I work at the Australian Education Union in South Australia. One other approach you might like to use is to work with your kids to examine just how loaded the word “settler” is. How often have you, as a teacher, called on a class to “settle down”. To “settle” implies the positive action of bringing calm and order to a situation that is disorganised and out of control. To refer to white invaders of First Nations lands as “settlers” (as mine were in 1839, three years after the foundation of South Australia) is to confer on them a benign title at odds with colonisation and displacement. How can colonisation “settle” communities that were stable, sustainable and organised? I have asked my students to read “unsettler” for “settler” and “unsettlement” for “settlement” out of respect for the settled communities that were disrupted and torn apart by colonisation.

    I’ve also taken students outside to do the “brick count”. Aboriginal Australians are known to have occupied this continent for somewhere between 50-60,000 years before unsettlement. Students often don’t relate to that enormous span of time in any concrete conceptual way. So we take a school building with a nice long wall and assign 1000 years to every brick, choose a starting point, and then walk the length of 50 bricks in the wall. When we get to the last one, we divide it into fifths. That roughly represents the slightly more than 200 years of European unsettlement. It helps the kids see the significance of talking about “the world’s oldest continuous culture” and what Aboriginal Australians are entitled to take pride in and to protect.
    Anyway, just wanted to share those two things with you and to thank you for your article.

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