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Indigenous Education

Teaching Indigenous History

I think there can often be the concern in educational circles that we can make several mistakes when trying to teach about other cultures. We can paint them in different ways – the old terrible trope of the “noble savage” for example, or infantilizing cultures, stripping them down to the most basic forms, essentializing them to nothing more than avatars of their history, culture, and societies. On the other extreme, we can make their stories seem to be nothing more than mistier after misery, again making the people nothing more than the miseries that were inflicted upon them. And while I certainly don’t want to do anything to suggest that these miseries should be minimized and buried, they also don’t tell the full and complete story.  The truth is much more nuanced, as only centuries of history from a diverse population spanning the entirety of North America (and beyond, but I what to have at least some narrowness of focus for the purpose of this writing), and is filled with positives and negatives, tales of strife and sorrow, as well as resilience, happiness, joy, and of course, the simplicity of simply just being. The lives experience of Indigenous people encapsulate all of this, and more. So, how can I, as a middle-aged white guy living in the relative splendor and luxury of Toronto, successfully teach this? And should I even attempt to?

The answer to this is of course, yes. I should attempt to teach this. It’s important! And necessary to teach the younger generation. But how to do this? Well, we have had some discussion already of the importance of authentic texts – stories and histories written and produced by Indigenous sources. And certainly, the importance of having guests, knowledge-keepers from the Indigenous community who can come in and have a more focused and accurate perspective will be helpful. I think the most important thing is to have an open and honest dialogue with students – explain that you are not an expert, but you are working on taking the learning journey, and taking it together with students can be helpful. Be open and honest about the fact that you are not indigenous (unless of course, you are) and do not attempt to co-opt or assimilate any traditions or practices into your teachings, such as attempting to copy or imitate a traditional ceremony or anything with serious spiritual or cultural significance. In these ways, we can try our best to teach Indigenous history and culture, without appropriating it. 

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