The Importance of Native Studies

An examination
by Chris Hibbard

The Importance of Native Studies

“Curricula has two functions, it provides a mirror in which students see themselves,
but it also provides a window through which students see others.” – Source unknown

This quotation sums up quite nicely the main reason why Native Studies needs to be taught in our classrooms. A good school is constantly teaching values, and should ideally be an exercise in well-rounded and balanced education. By not incorporating Native Studies lessons into a classroom, not only are we alienating many of your young aboriginal students, but we are doing a great disservice to all Canadian students – white and non-white.

The numbers speak for themselves. Today, people of Aboriginal ancestry make up approximately one eighth of Canada’s population. They make up 100,000 out of 3.3 million Albertans. As of 2004, aboriginal peoples make up one quarter of Saskatchewan’s K-12 students, 1/6 in Manitoba, and 1/10 in Alberta. In many ways (most visibly politically and geographically) our native peoples have been treated as invisible, as passive obstacles to ‘progress’ or worse.

Yet our aboriginal peoples have a unique position within Alberta’s cultural mosaic. They are the original inhabitants of this province, and are our first pluralistic society. The Blackfoot, Cree, Siksika, Nakota, Dakota, Dene, Anishinabeg, Métis, and Inuit are all distinct groups with their own individual languages or dialects, cultural traditions and histories right here in Canada’s prairie region. Without a doubt, the unique history of Aboriginal peoples is part of our collective past and our present reality.

NAS classes help to confirm and clarify our own cultural identities, allowing us to become more sensitive, understanding and respectful of other cultural groups. In a multi-cultural society like ours, this is not just good common sense – it is crucial to our becoming better humans overall. . I am a firm believer that by learning more about other cultures and ways of life, we unconsciously become better people. Our minds are opened, our hearts are connected. These classes emphasize a better understanding of First Nations, Métis and Inuit philosophies and the underlying importance of land, culture and the ideals that foster respect.

We all care about our environment, our family, and our own well-being, and as such we all try to find out where we as individuals fit into our world. Through NAS classes our sense of ‘the grand scheme of things’ is sharpened exponentially. The minute that we realize that our society is not the only one, and certainly not the only ‘right’ one; when we step back and take a look at that ‘grand scheme’, we realize that we are merely specks in a much bigger universe. This is a humbling and enlightening notion that makes us more thoughtful of all living things.

NAS classes help in the understanding of the important connection between the preservation of language and traditions to the preservation of culture. This prepares students to interact in mutually respectful ways in a multicultural environment, discouraging ignorance and racism. This is important stuff. A great portion of Native Studies programs is devoted to this tolerance, understanding, and appreciation of cultural differences. NAS programs truly revolve around the notion of respect. Without it, the NAS program fails, as does the impact of the teacher, and his or her responsibility to protect and nurture our young people.

Using these concepts of tolerance and respect, Native Studies programs concentrate on presenting positive images of our aboriginal peoples – the First Nations, the Métis and the Inuit. Historically, Native peoples lived very holistic lives, wherein all aspects of life were interconnected and woven together. It should come as no surprise then to learn that NAS courses reinforce and complement the many beliefs and values of these peoples, and present material in a continuum of traditional, historical and contemporary perspectives.

As far as the teaching of Native Studies subject matter is concerned, teachers are merely facilitators, providing historical context and issues that affect aboriginal Canadian peoples and their place in Canadian society. In a traditional Native way, most NAS teachers take a holistic and oral-driven approach to their lessons, allowing for student input and involvement, fostering a deeper appreciation of the contributions made by First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples to the development of Canada and contemporary Canadian society. These contributions and differences, including learning styles, language and worldview, must be accounted for in the curriculum, programs, and teaching methods.

If we are teaching our students about Canadian History, American History, Military History, and even Greek, Egyptian and Aztec history, then we should certainly be teaching our students about Native history. So let’s have a little history lesson right now shall we?

The majority of Alberta’s First Nations peoples are the Blackfoot in the southern half of the province, and the Cree, who reside further north.

The Blackfoot Confederacy or Niitsítapi (meaning “original people) is the collective name of four First Nations groups in Alberta and Montana. These groups are the North Peigan, the Kainai Nation or “Blood” tribe, the Siksika (“Blackfoot People”) and Montana’s South Peigan. Historically, these four wide-ranging groups all shared a common language and culture, had treaties of mutual defense, and freely intermarried. The Blackfoot specifically (Lethbridge’s dominant Native people) were known as being fiercely independent and very successful warriors. Their territory was huge – stretching from the North Saskatchewan River along what is now Edmonton to the Yellowstone River of Montana, and from the Rocky Mountains to Regina.

The Cree on the other hand, traditionally occupied an area from the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean in both Canada and the United States. Skilled buffalo hunters and horsemen, the Cree were allied to the Assiniboine of the Sioux before encountering English and French settlers in the 16th century. They now constitute the largest group of First Nations people in Canada. Keeping these geographical facts in mind, it is unlikely that any of us student-teachers will make it through the education faculty without encountering students from one of these two backgrounds.

Shifting gears now, let’s delve into the current Native Studies curriculum as it exists today.
For the most part, all of our Native education is lumped into the category of Social Studies. Grade 2 Social Studies learners are introduced to Canada’s dynamic communities and communities in the past. Students in Grade 2 will: “demonstrate an understanding and appreciation of how geography, culture, language, heritage, economics and resources shape and change Canada’s communities. [They] will demonstrate an understanding and appreciation of how a community emerged, and of how the various interactions and cooperation among peoples ensure the continued survival.”

Specifically, Grade 2 students are asked to investigate life in three diverse communities within Canada: one Inuit community, one prairie community, and one Acadian community; reflecting upon the vastness of Canada and the diversity of Canadian communities.

Grade 3 Social Studies has no specific Native curriculum, but Grade 4 reintroduces it.

Grade 4 and 5 learners are involved in units focusing on The Stories, Histories and Peoples of Alberta, and Celebrations and Challenges in Alberta. By the end of Grade 4, students are expected to demonstrate an understanding and appreciation of the role of stories, history and culture in strengthening communities and contributing to identity and a sense of belonging. They will also show an appreciation for how Alberta has grown and changed culturally, economically and socially since 1905.

Moving into Junior High, Grade 7 Social Studies students take units on Canada’s movement towards confederation and subsequent outward expansion. Grade 7 learners are expected to understand the distinct roles of and relationships between, the Aboriginal, French and British peoples in forging the foundations of this country. They will also reflect on the post-confederation years, and the challenges and opportunities presented to individuals and communities during this period.

The curricula in Grade 8 and 9 Social Studies classes have little direct focus on Aboriginal issues, so into High School we go.

Secondary schooling is a whole different approach altogether when it comes to our First Nations people. It must be noted here that at this level, Aboriginal Studies programs (and Aboriginal Language programs) are electives or options. There is no core subject at the high school level that spends any serious amount of time on NAS matters.

Aboriginal Studies 10 (AS10) is a provincial course based on perspectives and worldviews of Aboriginal peoples. It includes the study of traditions and history of Aboriginal peoples in Canada, and particularly in Alberta. Students are introduced to aboriginal approaches to governance, literature, arts and science.

There are four major themes in AS10, appropriate, since four is a powerful number in North American Indian culture. These themes are: Origin and Settlement Patterns, Aboriginal Worldviews, Political and Economic Organization, and Aboriginal Symbolism and Expression.

The successor to Aboriginal Studies 10 is, quite obviously, Aboriginal Studies 20. Expanding on what was taught in Grade 10; AS20 focuses more closely on Canadian and Albertan aboriginal issues, including the study of policies, legislation, conflict and cultural change. Again, there are four major themes: The Métis: Conflict and Cultural Change, Treaties and Cultural Change, Legislation, Policies and Cultural Change, Schooling and Cultural Change.

Did you notice anything that these themes have in common? You got it! Cultural Change is emphasized in these Grade 11 classes.

And last but not least, Grade 12 students who have successfully completed the 10 and 20 levels can now take Aboriginal Studies 30. AS30 students examine current issues facing Aboriginal peoples in Canada and worldwide.

The four themes in AS30 are: Aboriginal Rights and Self-government, Aboriginal Land Claims, Aboriginal Peoples in Canadian Society (including a closer look at health, poverty, and racism) and Aboriginal World Issues.

When it comes to these high school classes, I can only say that I wish each one of them was condensed enough that they could be introduced as units in the Social Studies 10, 20, and 30 core curricula. If this was so, students would have no choice but to confront the preconceptions, fears, and stereotypes that still run rampant regarding Native peoples today. Alas, this is not so, and given the current intensive high school Social Studies program of studies, does not seem likely in the near future.

So far I’ve covered what Native Studies is, and what Native Studies means to a student, but what does Native Studies mean to a teacher?

To the average teacher, it may mean a lot to learn. A great Native Studies or Social Studies teacher must be open-minded and knowledgeable about a topic that is quite frankly, hugely comprehensive, somewhat mysterious, and very multi-disciplinary. Accordingly, Native Studies teachers need to have the ability to screen any class-related materials for stereotyping and bias, as well as being prepared and able to pass along the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ literature or documentation to their students.

Native Studies teachers must always remember that this topic deserves the utmost respect. It is easy to slide back into old habits and stereotypes long-ingrained without even realizing it, and a teacher needs to be conscious of their body language and facial expressions when relaying information, as to avoid communicating any biases or misinformation on their own part.

A good native studies teacher will use traditional sources of knowledge to make their classes better. They will arrange their students in a circle – a powerful symbol in Native culture. They will incorporate the teachings of Elders and individuals with specialized cultural skills – and recognize these people as important keepers of Indigenous knowledge. The knowledge that these individuals possess is representative of great power, and as such, should never be trivialized.

A good Native Studies teacher will recognize that there is great diversity in their classroom, even within certain ethnic groups themselves. As individuals, we identify with our families, our origins, and our attitudes, but we need to keep in mind that (using myself as an example) just because I’m Irish and proud to be, does not mean that a First Nations person is any less human, or any less important. Your culture is as sacred and true to you as mine is to me.

Teachers should not forget that there are many aspects of Aboriginal history and Native Studies that are controversial, violent, and depressing. The aim of Native Studies classes at any grade level is to present material positively; encouraging understanding and discouraging intolerance while still fostering a spirit of pride in oneself and ones background. This is more challenging than it sounds, for with controversy comes emotion, and with emotion comes unpredictability.

When receiving new information about First Nations people, some students may roll their eyes, resist what they are hearing, and don an air of skepticism. Whether these feelings are conscious, with memories of negative experience that accompany them, or are unconscious and expressed through poor language choices and familial-hand-me-down attitudes does not matter. What matters is that this conflict should not discourage a good Native Studies teacher from approaching the topic area.

The purpose of Native Studies is to provide students with the opportunity to replace their old ideas with new ones, and if it takes some time, some tears, or some tantrums, so be it. In staying true to traditional aboriginal ways, a good NAS teacher will emphasize oral dialogue based on mutual respect and will be aware of the power of silence and listening. They will avoid singling any particular student out for criticism, response, or praise. They will often share classroom control with their students, and establish closer personal relationships than in some other streams.

A good NAS teacher will be sensitive to student differences and backgrounds, and will be able to recognize potential conflicts before they erupt. Throughout any NAS course, the teacher should emphasize the development of one’s own self – their self-esteem, self-confidence, even their ‘self’ as it is manifested when around others. Formal lecturing and pop-quiz type of testing is not recommended in NAS teaching methods, nor are objective wordy exams. As well, spelling, grammar, and punctuation should be overlooked in favour of writing style, word usage, and meaning. All of these things ‘fit’ with an aboriginal worldview, and as such, are valuable teaching methods that are unique to aboriginal studies.

A quality NAS teacher should never forget that despite the expectations of the dominant ‘white’ society, Native people have never culturally merged with Euro-American institutions. They have survived on in a distinct social dimension of their own. Within this dimension, there is also a certain ‘attitude’ that many Native people tend to have: a loyal pride when it comes to their own identity. Many do not feel ‘guilty’ for preferring to stay on the fringes of the common population. Many have been taught over the years to avoid prevailing systems of thought, including the education system, for it has failed them before, alienated their children, and caused them great harm as a people. Some racial profiling and accompanying attitudes will exist, whether we choose to acknowledge them or not.

In conclusion, the statistics regarding Native Students are frightening. A staggering 1 in 4 Native students in Canada never receive their High School diploma. A related statistic implies that 60 per cent of the Canadian prison population is made up of First Nations people. Alcoholism, poverty and sexual abuse are serious factors in many First Nations student’s home lives, and so ideally their school should be a safe place of refuge from all of the ugliness that they may see everyday. A good Native American Studies teacher should do everything they can to ensure that this refuge exists.

Historically, our First Nations people are often overlooked and slip through the cracks. It is sadly ironic that though they may be our First Nations, without being given the respect they deserve and a quality education that is applicable to them, they tend to come in Last.

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~ by Chris Hibbard on October 31, 2008.

2 Responses to “The Importance of Native Studies”

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