Everything is alive and everyone is related: Indigenous knowing and inclusive education

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Mardi 25 janvier 2011

Jean-Paul Restoule, OISE, University of Toronto
Guest Contributor

This blog post is part of the Federation Equity Issues Portfolio’s ‘Transforming the Academy: Aboriginal Education’ series, which will be the focus of the Portfolio’s programming at Congress 2011.

Boozhoo. Jean-Paul Restoule nintishinikaas. Wajask nitootem. Okikendawt mnissing nitoonci. Anishinaabe ndaaw.

This greeting and introduction in Anishinaabemowin, that is, the Ojibwe language, tells a fellow Anishinaabe some key information. It communicates my name, my clan, my community, and my people. In about ten words I’ve given a knowledgeable Anishinaabe much of what they need to know about who I am and where I come from. Anything else I say afterward can be contextualized by this standard introduction.

If one looks closer at the way the introduction is stated, it communicates a series of relationships that grow ever wider and more numerous, from the self, to the clan, to the community, to the nation. Outward from here I am related to all other humans and all living beings in Creation too. This greeting embodies a fundamental tenet of Anishinaabe, and Aboriginal, worldviews: the notion that everyone is related. Another standard tenet of Aboriginal worldviews is the idea that everything is alive or has spirit. Together with everyone is related, these two principles form the foundation of an indigenous ethic of education. One of the implications of acknowledging everything is alive and everyone is related is that teaching and learning are necessarily going to be inclusive. An example drawn from indigenous ways of group learning is the circle process.

Meeting in circle, everyone can see everyone else present (unlike meetings where everyone sits in rows). Everyone’s voice is sought, welcomed and respected. There is a saying among the Onkwehonweh that everyone in the circle is of the same height. The circle acts to disrupt hierarchy and power imbalances. There is space and time for the most minoritized views to be expressed. We accord respect to all views in the circle because all beings are due that respect.

This pedagogy is bolstered by an ethics that emerges from our stories and guides our actions and our words. Often referred to as the Seven Grandfathers or seven sacred teachings, they are often presented thusly:

To cherish knowledge is to know wisdom;
To know love is to know peace;
To honour all of Creation is to have respect;
Bravery is to face the foe with integrity;
Honesty in facing a situation is to be brave;
Humility is to know your self as a sacred part of Creation;
Truth is to know all of these things.

Inclusion naturally follows from the path set out by these grandfather teachings, from embracing wholly the tenets of Aboriginal education that everything is alive and everyone is related and by using the processes that embody these ethics and principles in action, like circle.

Greg Cajete, a Tewa Pueblo educator, has written extensively on indigenous education. In his work, Look to the Mountain, he eloquently describes what indigenous education is and should be: an ecology of education that allows each individual, in relation to community and creation, to find one’s face, one’s heart and one’s foundation. To find one’s face is to know who one is as well as one’s gifts. Finding and developing these gifts for the good of the community is the work of finding face. To find one’s heart means searching for what one is passionate about, for the things that move you to do what you do. To find one’s foundation means discovering what allows you to express your face and your heart. It’s a vocation, a calling that originates from and ultimately benefits those outside and beyond the self.

Indigenous knowledge and Anishinaabek education is meant for everybody. When Anishinaabek share traditional teachings and stories they are meant to reveal the nature of life and human nature, not just Anishinaabek culture. The stories teach us what it means to be alive and anyone can learn from them if they listen carefully. The building of responsibility to self, relations, community and life has never been more significant than this time of ecological crisis that will require us to shift our consciousness ever more to attending to each other’s survival, quality of life, and the protection of endangered species and habitats, including our own. Indigenous education is in line with the movement that many are calling the ‘great turning’. The time is right for the strengths and gifts of indigenous education to be embraced by others. To integrate all learners in relation to one another and all life, in the pursuit of full human development is an inclusive education.

There is also the matter of making our classrooms more inclusive to Aboriginal people who have rarely seen their true selves reflected in the curriculum, classrooms, pedagogy, teachers, and principals of their schools. Aboriginal people continue to lag behind the Canadian population in school achievement, significant particularly because this factor is a key determinant of one’s health and employment status. If Canadians want to see less Aboriginal involvement with the courts, child welfare, poverty, the streets, and addictions, certainly one significant avenue is to increase their positive education experiences. Indigenous students are often excluded in classrooms and we need to welcome them as they aim to succeed. When Aboriginal learners see that they are valued, then they will engage in the positive feedback loop, in turn, giving back themselves, contributing, and participating. When they cannot see their experiences reflected or valued, they likely will turn away and the marginalization will continue.

Education is necessary for Aboriginal people to take up the challenges of governing our communities, negotiating our participation with the Canadian nation-state, and ensuring our survival as peoples and as people. Canadians, and particularly teachers, have to pay attention. Aboriginal children and youth will constitute a disproportionately large segment of the student population in Canada. The Aboriginal population  is increasing nearly six times faster than the the non-Aboriginal population and now accounts for nearly 4 percent of Canada’s enumerated population. This demographic is also much younger. Nearly half of the Aboriginal population is under 24 years of age, compared to 31 percent of the Canadian population of this age. The Aboriginal population is also increasingly urban and mobile and an Aboriginal person is likely to be found in any school across the nation. We aren’t always easily identifiable as Aboriginal people, however. The visual stereotypes persist, leading to bemusement among co-workers or friends when a blue-eyed Cree or a blonde Mohawk finds a relevant moment to acknowledge his or her heritage.

We cannot achieve our goals alone. We need non-Aboriginal people to understand our shared histories, our perspectives, our visions and our goals, and to participate in achieving them together. This means we need non-Aboriginal teachers respecting and using indigenous perspectives in our classrooms. I’ve often encountered two types of benign resistance from those who would otherwise be strong allies: the fear of appropriation and a lack of confidence. Approaching indigenous inclusion through the fostering of relationships can address both of these issues.

The answer lies in beginning with self and acknowledging what one knows and doesn’t know. Learning is a continual process and everyone has to start somewhere. Seeking and maintaining relationships with indigenous people and organizations to gain the knowledge needed can lead to meaningful classroom activities, and deep friendships. In the beginning a teacher can invite indigenous people into the classroom. Over time, they may learn for themselves. There is always room to go deeper, to learn more. Mistakes will be made along the way but these too are opportunities for learning. This sense of inquiry can be shared with one’s students. Building relationships with Aboriginal people defuses the appropriation issue because one is not speaking for but speaking with and our allies will learn to acknowledge and state the sources of their knowledge: from whom they learned what they are sharing. Instead of asking, “Do I have the right to teach this material?” ally teachers should reframe the question as “What is my responsibility?”

Hand in hand with this anxiety about the right to teach is the fear of presenting material in an area where one is not the “expert.” Again, relationship-building helps the teacher who is learning to realize they do not have to be an expert. Many teachers teach subjects they never majored in at university; if there is something in the curriculum they are expected to teach, they find a way to locate the information and resources to do it. It’s only slightly different with indigenous knowledge. A key difference is that the learning can’t happen by simply googling it; it has to be developed through relationships. This can’t be done overnight. But fortunately this means that one can take the time to do it right. When one approaches the teaching as a process, it’s a lifelong and continuous spiral of learning, refining, learning and refining. There is no end.

Gregory Cajete sums up indigenous transformative education in “A pueblo story for transformation” as follows: “one must find one’s relationships, first of all, of oneself to oneself, then one’s relationship to the family, to the clan, to the tribe, to the place in which you live, your homeland, then the natural world and finally, to the whole cosmos. These concentric rings of relationship, these practiced responsibilities, these sets of understandings, form a context and also work together to help one find one’s face, and one’s heart, and one’s foundation.” This is the core of an Aboriginal approach to education. And it is inclusive of all.

Jean-Paul Restoule is an assistant professor of Aboriginal education and Counselling Psychology at OISE/University of Toronto.


Kwey Jean-Paul Restoule,

I have been thinking about the knowledge in this blog. I really enjoy the knowledge it provides in celebrating Indigenous knowledge. I have one minor concern that I hope you will accept in the manner it is offered: sharing.

Anishinaabemowin is the language of the Anishinaabe people who consist of a much larger group of Nations of similar language and culture who have inhabited and continue to inhabit the Great Lakes region. These Anishinaabe Nations include the Algonquin, Chippewa, Delaware, Mississauga, Nipissing, Odawa, Ojibwa, and the Potawatomi.

Miigwetch for sharing this blog,

Culture is vital to its people as air to the blood. Also, cultures evolve with thinking, knowledge and experience of its people. It is fascinating to see that we live in one planet, we speak different languages, have different cultures, and yet explain the same things differently with the same verve. I believe this is the essence of living in EARTH which we all live from it. Imagine if we were all alike, with one dominating culture, knowldge, experience, etc ... Nature seems to be against that.

I am very curious to know more about aboriginal culture and their teaching. However, like other social issues such as oppression of women and gender biases, media tend to present native issues in a demeaning and rather inferior tone relative to the western cultures. This bias not only disengages natives but also non-natives. The native issues needs to be told with due complexity, coherence, and sensitivity to avoid distorted information.