Blog 4

Teaching Indigenous Content

Spirithands Photograph

Photo credit – Robert Snache  – Spirithands Photography

By Samantha Craig-Curnow, Chippewa of Rama First Nation, and
Dr. Maggie Quirt, Department of Equity Studies

Thanks go out to those who have helped in the writing of this article, especially Professor Ruth Koleszar-Green, Assistant Professor in the School of Social Work, for her insightful review and comments.

For Indigenous students at York, post-secondary education can be a marginalizing experience.

For most Indigenous students today, the effects of colonization, assimilation, and the legacy of Residential Schools are not a thing of the past. Many students see these experiences in a new and empowered light that drives them to participate in acts of decolonization and reconciliation. For many individuals, the best of both indigenous and mainstream knowledge can combine to create something that is better than each part and it is with this goal in mind that they turn to the world of mainstream academia.

The recent report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has illuminated the conditions in which Indigenous students find themselves in post-secondary classrooms and lecture halls. Unfortunately, the perpetuation of stereotypes, the dissemination of misinformation, and other such behaviors which do not promote the values of reconciliation and relationship-building are prevalent across the disciplines. Further, the assumption of a pan-Indigenous identity has contributed to conflicts of identity within the Indigenous student population. What follows is a list of suggestions for how to promote a positive learning environment for Indigenous students at York:

5 things to remember about teaching Indigenous content:

1.  Be mindful of trauma.

Instructors who do not teach a great deal of Indigenous content may not understand that that there is often intergenerational trauma present in their classrooms. Be aware of material that can potentially be triggering and be ready to offer support.

  1. Assume nothing.

Be mindful of any tendency to treat Indigenous students as authorities or rely on them to teach the class. While some individuals will welcome the opportunity to discuss their experiences with colonial discourses, their worldviews, or their understanding of their identity, others may not wish to be the representative voice of all Indigenous peoples. Do not assume that the Indigenous students you teach want to be called out in class as the ‘expert’! Further, some Indigenous students will not identify in your class because they do not feel safe. Do not assume they are not there.

  1. Be respectful and ready to work hard.

While you are the subject ‘presumed to know,’ you will inevitably face moments in your teaching career when you come up short. This ‘not knowing’ takes on an additional political dimension in the context of settler state politics. Whether you are Indigenous or not, accept that you may not be the absolute authority on the particular content you are teaching. Acknowledge what you don’t know and be ready to work hard to overcome your knowledge gaps.

4. Use appropriate resources.

The prevalence of Indigenous scholars is increasing and the availability of materials that reflect Indigenous ideologies is becoming more readily available. Further, there are many non-traditional resources available that can inform your knowledge-gathering in new and exciting ways. Remember that many Indigenous sources of knowledge do not come from books or scholars; it is important to acknowledge the teachings of Elders and other traditional knowledge keepers.

5. Embrace change. 

If you are a non-Indigenous instructor teaching Indigenous content, accept that you may be an interim solution as Canadian society decolonizes. Until such a time as universities are robustly staffed by Indigenous faculty, non-Indigenous instructors may be the caretakers for Indigenous content. Appreciate the fact that employing non-Indigenous educators to teach Indigenous content presents ethical issues that bear careful consideration, and embrace the opportunities for change. Strategies to move the decolonization process along include promoting the hiring of Indigenous faculty, co-teaching with Indigenous colleagues, and recognizing traditional knowledge as equal to (or better than) the current academic credentialing system.

The Teaching Commons is pleased to be hosting a workshop on Teaching Indigenous Content, on October 13 from 2 to 4. Register here.

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