Ten years ago, as a vice principal at Tecumseh, I first decided to do the Indigenous acknowledgment at our school assemblies. Day 1, I called my friend, Latash, to ask two questions.
#1 – The correct pronunciation of Tsleil-Waututh, as I was fairly certain that I was butchering it badly. Growing up in Vancouver, I was unaware whose ancestral lands I was living on.
#2 – I asked how he would explain “unceded” to elementary school students. He told me it was very political and perhaps I should work on pronouncing Tsleil-Waututh first, and teaching my students that we were in fact learning on the ancestral lands of Indigenous peoples.
Today, I frequently feel a frustration with the next steps. It seems we travel the road to equity and justice at a glacial pace. Yet, elementary school children now, recite the Indigenous acknowledgement by heart. They are well aware of whose ancestral lands they are working, learning and playing on. Even the kindergarten students pronounce Tsleil-Waututh correctly. Conversations about unceded lands are readily engage in by students because they represent a significant historical reality. Most of all, there is an openness to concede that people living on these lands for thousands of years, know things. Indigenous people have lots to teach us.
Many classes participate in sharing circles, and if they are lucky it has been introduced by an Indigenous support worker who has shared the Indigenous history of the circle, the personal cultural connection to it, and perhaps Medicine Wheel teachings. My first experience with an Indigenous talking circle was in Ottawa in the 90’s. Latash had developed an Indigenous Exchange program between Indigenous youth in Coquitlam and Indigenous youth affiliated with a Neighbourhood House in Ottawa. He invited me to participate as the teacher sponsor. It was an amazing learning opportunity for me and all of the Indigenous youth involved. I encountered history and stories and perspectives that I had been oblivious to growing up in Vancouver. We solved problems encountered along the way. Participation in a talking circle – Indigenous style – was a different beast than I have experienced. It was not the performance circle I was familiar with, where you share what you know and are subsequently judged on the merits of your contribution. The focus was on actively listening to someone’s story and understanding what the speaker was striving to communicate. Respect, empathy, curiosity and the value of the speaker’s perspective were the reference points.
A right to voice an opinion is a basic tenet of democracy that was part of Indigenous cultures thousands of years ago. If we can learn and teach children to enter the talking circle with respect for all of the people in the circle and a curiosity about stories of others, we have a structure to cultivate change. Formulating questions drives the learning. The discussion of “unceded lands” is not to be avoided due to political sensitivity, but pursued because it represents the truth of someone’s story. The pitfalls of appearing “white passing” isn’t initially clear until you hear about a vital part of someone’s identity being denied. The indignation of being denied access to precious cedar baskets for sacred ceremonies isn’t palpable until you learn that they were voluntarily turned over a museum for safe keeping and then appropriated. It provides a lens to consider our history and how that meshes with our view of ourselves as Canadians with a social justice consciousness.
The frequent refrain during conversations and discussions about race, is “do the work.” We have much work to untangle truth in the history of Canada in relation to Indigenous people. Fortunately we have a recent burgeoning of fiction and non-fiction work that provide an Indigenous lens, thanks to authors such as Richard Wagamese, Wab Kinew, Bob Joseph, Jesse Thistle, Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas and Maggie DeVries. We also have the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and Freedoms, the Indigenous Charter and the Canadian Charter to steer us on the path to creating greater fairness and justice in our Canadian context. As educators, we are poised to make structural change by achieving a tipping point of caring. A caring for the people telling the story. A caring for creating equity and justice in our school community, our province, our country. A caring by our students, our staff, ourselves. The Indigenous acknowledgement in an entry point but a powerful entry point.
On that note, I would like to acknowledge that we work, learn and play of the unceded and ancestral lands of the Coast Salish People, the Musqueam, the Squamish, and the Tsleil-Waututh.
Indigenous Authors to help you “Do The Work”:
Maggie DeVries (2003, 2008). Missing Sarah
Bob Joseph (2018). 21 Things You May Not Know About The Indian Act – Helping Canadians Make Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples a Reality
Wab Kinew (2018). Go Show The World – A Celebration of Indigenous Heroes – a picturebook
(2015, 2017). The Reason You Walk
Jesse Thistle (2019). From the Ashes
Richard Wagamese (2018). Starlight
(2014). Medicine Walk
(2012). Indian Horse
Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas (2008). Flight of the Hummingbird