'Finding a place to stand': Indigenous education through oral and written narratives

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Mercredi 23 mars 2011

Tasha Beeds, Trent University
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.

“Maybe the stories can help the young people to learn our own history and find a place to stand,” is what Louis Bird hopes for in Telling Our Stories. As a woman of nêhiyaw-Métis (Cree) and Caribbean ancestry raised and acculturated in my maternal ancestral nêhiyaw and Métis territories in Saskatchewan, I see my academic scholarship as contributing to a landscape where Indigenous knowledges are foundational.

Following the footsteps of other Indigenous scholars, my work deconstructs and reconstructs Western academia in order to create a space for my people’s knowledge system, thought processes, and ways of being. I strongly believe Indigenous knowledges must be equally placed alongside Western ways of knowing without compromising the epistemologies, ontologies, axiologies, and intellectual traditions of Indigenous nations.

Many Indigenous peoples have created this balance by drawing upon ancient Indigenous memories contained within oral traditions and incorporating them into written texts. Contemporary Indigenous scholars, writers, and storytellers have grounded themselves within these traditions despite the repeated attempts of colonial forces to sever the connections to them.

These scholars, writers, and storytellers have ‘re-fused’ traditional Western literary constructs with Indigeneity. In the style of wîsahkêcâhk/nanabush/raven/iktomi, they have re-Created English, placing Indigenous worldviews into English textual bodies. In turn, Indigenous kêhtê-ayak (Old Ones) such as Anishnaabe/Saulteaux historian Alexander Wolfe, Omushkego (Swampy Cree) historian Louis Bird, and nêhiyaw (Plains Cree) writer Edward Ahenakew, and other Keepers of Knowledge have related stories through both orality and the written word, guiding contemporary Indigenous scholars and writers home.

Locating ourselves within the nexus of Indigenous knowledge bases, Indigenous peoples have continued to ensure successive generations know their own histories and are able to find a ‘place to stand’. One of the ways Indigenous peoples have formed ‘places to stand’ within the Western written landscape is through our oral traditions. For many Indigenous nations, orality has been, and continues to be, a vehicle for the movement of our ways of being and knowing in the world.  It is important to recognize that oral traditions are not static ones mired in the distant past of Indigenous peoples. Instead, oral narratives create sound maps that enable generation after generation of Indigenous peoples to locate themselves in their respective identity, nation, and territory. In Cree Narrative Memory, nêhiyaw scholar, Neal McLeod, speaks of how the late Jim Ka-Nipitehtew described his own bundle of knowledge as an “echo of older voices from a long time ago.”

The late kêhtê-ayâ (Old One) Ka-Nipitehtew’s description illustrates the nature of the oral tradition. These oral narratives, once spoken, do not simply disappear. Instead, as echoes of voice, they reflect off the memory of Indigenous peoples, allowing them to be heard long after they have been spoken. In Earth Elder Stories, the late Anishnaabe/Saulteaux kêhtê-ayâ Alexander Wolfe, a keeper of his people’s stories, articulates how memory is required within the context of oral traditions. He further speaks of how the kêhtê-ayâk wanted the younger generation to listen and use their minds as a ‘storeroom.’ This storehouse of memory holding the narratives does not belong to a singular individual; instead, this storehouse contains the ancestral memories of Indigenous peoples creating a mindscape of narratives that connect not only to each other, but also to the people and their territories.

As ‘storehouses’ of knowledges Indigenous oral traditions contain a vast and varied amount of information that is particular to each Indigenous nation and culture.  By pluralizing ‘knowledge,’ there is recognition that there is not a singular body of Indigenous knowledge; just as there are many Indigenous nations, there are many Indigenous knowledge bases. Because of the immensity of these knowledge bases, and because they are, in many ways, specific to each Indigenous nation, applying one definition that encompasses the totality of Indigenous knowledges is not possible. There are, however, commonalities and characteristics from Indigenous nation to nation. For instance, in Ganigonhi:oh The Good Mind meets the Academy, Onondaga scholar David Newhouse speaks of how Indigenous knowledges contain theories and laws while showing Indigenous peoples how to live in a world of transformation and change.

One of the reasons we have maintained our ways of knowing and being in the world is because Indigenous societies are mirrors of this philosophy of transformation. As such, the teachings embodied within the oral tradition that our kêhtê-ayak have held for generations are continually re-animated, in transition, and always evolving to acclimatize to a new generation’s place in the world. Alexander Wolfe further speaks of how adaptable the philosophies are to any time or place. Thus, the integration of writing to convey Indigenous knowledges is an extension of this fluidity. It is important to note, however, that while these traditions may incorporate new technologies, the core values and teachings they transmit – such as respect, honesty, integrity, and balance – remain constant.

The Indigenous worldviews transmitted through oral narratives are keys to understanding why the kêhtê-ayak foresaw the need to ensure future generations of Indigenous peoples would be able to access them. This future-orientated characteristic of oral traditions also re-affirms that they are not motionless archives and that the philosophies embedded within the oral narratives act as guides to every aspect of life. Both Louis Bird and Edward Ahenakew speak to the extent of their kêhtê-ayak’s knowledge likening them to ‘encyclopedias’ and ‘institutions’ within the context of their respective cultures. Recognizing their world was changing with the impact of colonization, many kêhtê-ayak such as Ahenakew, Wolfe, and Bird saw writing and recording oral narratives as an opportunity to maintain our values, histories, and cultures while providing guidance in the living present for our people.

Indigenous peoples have always been innovative and adaptable in order to ensure their survival. The transition from the oral to the written is as natural an adaptation as the use of the gun or the horse. In addition, using the written word to transmit knowledge does not mean orality will cease to exist. As peoples who have, at the core of their value systems, the notion of kinship or interrelatedness, the knowledge that we need to spend time with our respective kêhtê-ayak in order to grasp a full understanding of our ways of being is one that is a part of being Indigenous. Anishnaabe scholar Nicole Bell articulates the nature of the Original Teachings/Instructions the kêhtê-ayak have carried for us in ‘Just do it’: Providing Anishnaabe culture-based education:  “The original teachings are not ideas. They are reality. They are actually natural law, the way things are – the operational manual for a working creation. They cannot be totally explained in words. They must also be experienced.”

Words have the potential to be sacred bundles of power; however, in order to tap into that power, one must live the knowledge one is writing about. This Indigenous philosophy about the importance of experiential knowledge is what ensures oral traditions will never cease to be. It also ensures those who are writing from this lived experience will echo the voices they have heard, allowing us to continue to ‘stand’ in our respective Indigenous cultures generation after generation.

Tasha Beeds is of nêhiyaw (Cree), Métis and Caribbean ancestry and is a PhD student in the Indigenous Studies Program at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario.