Aboriginal Perspectives and the Curriculum - Discussion Papers

What are the hopes, wishes, goals of Aboriginal people and their communities?

Education, broadly conceived, can be considered an endeavour focused on hopes, wishes, and goals for humanity. However, while mindful of this fundamental truth, we must also respect human difference. All educators should come to understand that peoples from other cultures might think differently from them and construct the world in ways appropriate to their familiar cultural context and values. Such cultural difference is not a consequence of miseducation or deficiency. Nor is its expression limited to costumes, food, and dance. Rather, cultural difference is evidenced when people interact and make assumptions according to values and ethics derived from functional and viable, but distinct, world views.

So, what is different about Aboriginal hopes, wishes, goals? Answering such questions is risky because it requires generalizations to be made that are rarely complete and accurate. However, in the interests of fostering understanding, we can make some general comments regarding hopes, wishes, goals commonly expressed by Aboriginal people when speaking about education and their children.

Participating On Our Own Terms

Formal education has a bad reputation with many Aboriginal people and their families. This attitude towards schooling has resulted from the residential school experience and the social and cultural devastation it has caused. Many Aboriginal parents send their children to school with reluctance because they recognize that the pressure to conform and assimilate will have a serious affect on them, and could ultimately have damaging effects on who they think they are. Many Aboriginal people wish that their children could attend school and not have to become someone else to be successful. They want their children to have the freedom to participate in school on their own terms, in ways which support and encourage them to link family and cultural teachings with classroom experiences. They wish educators would help their children respect and maintain this balance.

Respectfully Remembering the Past

In most Aboriginal communities, historical consciousness is a primary component of citizenship. The spirit and intent of this notion is to respect those that have gone before and honour them in our present lives through spiritual renewal and ceremonies. What is recognized is the indebtness that all of us should feel towards our ancestors and the role they have played on helping us be here today. We have a responsibility to live with respect to this view of the past. Thus, when Aboriginal people speak of the past, it does not mean that we wish to turn back the clock, live in tipis, hunt buffalo, and give up all modern conveniences. Rather, implicit in the expression of this value is the assertion of a different way of thinking about history, society, and the future.

Cultural and Linguistic Revitalization

Many Aboriginal people believe that the survival of Aboriginal cultures and societies will only occur if their people continue to speak their language. Indigenous languages provide fluent speakers with specific and ancient insights regarding wisdom, values, traditions, and cultural practices. Since very few Aboriginal students today are fluent in their language, most Aboriginal communities consider cultural and linguistic revitalization their most critical goal. Some Aboriginal people wish that mainstream schools would support and encourage Indigenous language instruction on a broader scale as a way to express solidarity with their goals.

Understanding and Respecting Diversity

While certainly sharing some important commonalities, Aboriginal students within the same classroom and school can hold very different perspectives regarding Aboriginal culture and identity. This difference can often be traced back to the experiences and memories of their different families. Some parents educate their children by speaking the language and participating in cultural ceremonies and practices. Other families do not have these same connections to language and traditional culture, and these children may arrive at school without understanding these things. Despite these differences, it is important to remember that one student should not be considered more authentically Aboriginal than another.

The ethic of non-interference has been strongly maintained in most Aboriginal communities and families. This cultural value has grown out of the belief that it is wrong to force young people to do things. Every person is viewed as an individual who has been given particular gifts that make them complete in a certain way, and they should be respected as that. No one has the right to insist that a young person should change or be different. They have to make their own decisions. However, a responsible older person can and should constantly talk to that young person, giving advice, and presenting possibilities.

Aboriginal people and communities wish that educators would recognize that their Aboriginal students can be very diverse and should not be typecast according to some external model of Aboriginal identity. The hope is that educators will consider the ethic of non-interference and focus their efforts on helping Aboriginal students discover and become the person they were meant to be. For some, this might mean university or college. For others, it might mean becoming cultural leaders in their communities. Each should be valued and respected.

Seventh Generation

There is a teaching passed down from our ancestors that crystallizes our sense of responsibility to the earth and other people that arises out of the tradition law. It is said that we are placed on the earth to be the caretakers of all that is here. We are instructed to treat the plants, animals, minerals, human beings and all life as our relatives, as if they were a part of ourselves. Since we are a part of Creation, we cannot differentiate or separate ourselves from the rest of the earth. The way in which we interact with the earth, how we utilize the plants, animals and the mineral gifts, should be carried out with the seventh generation in mind. We cannot simply think of ourselves and our survival; each generation has a responsibility to ensure the survival for the seventh generation from now.

The story of the seventh generation has a mystical quality to it that blends well with the tired stereotype of Aboriginal as protector of Mother Earth. However, mysticism and stereotypes aside, this value has extremely practical and spiritual notions of long life survival to it. Many Aboriginal spiritual and community leaders wish that public policy discussions—economic, social, political, educational—would take place with all participants mindful of our shared responsibilities to the seventh generation. How would the practice of teaching be different if teachers remembered the seventh generation? How would curriculum be changed? How would evaluation be altered?

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Aboriginal Perspectives and the Curriculum (Social Studies) – Discussion Papers Developed by the Edmonton Regional Learning Consortium and ATEP Aboriginal Teacher Education Program, University of Alberta as a result of a grant to support implementation from Alberta Education