The importance of Indigenous Education supporting a different approach to the world's survival

An essay from First Nations House¬†¬

Can Indigenous Education Save the World?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009
By Deborah McGregor

I have been giving this subject much thought recently, particularly as my 12-year-old son queries me about the discrepancy between what he is learning in school about Aboriginal Peoples and what he experiences in his life as a First Nations person.

What is indigenous education? This is not an easy question to answer and one to which numerous scholars have devoted a good portion of their careers. I agree with Gregory Cajete, a renowned Tewa educator, when he states that one of the defining characteristics of indigenous education is that it is inherently environmental. It is about learning and sharing one's lifeways to ensure proper relations with all of Creation.

Creation includes people, animals, plants, forests, mountains, seas, rivers ... the environment, so to speak. It also includes all the processes of Creation (transformation, re-creation, etc.) that occur on a continual cycle and require our constant attention. Aboriginal views of Creation extend beyond the western construct of environment, however, to include our ancestors as well as those yet to come.

As part of our colonial experience with the "newcomers" to Canada, indigenous education's role of enabling relationships with Creation has been under attack for the past two centuries. In recent times, however, there has begun to be something of a resurgence in indigenous education. Aboriginal people have begun to reassert the importance of indigenous education not only to Aboriginal Peoples but to all peoples across the globe.

To be effective in realizing the goals of indigenous education in this modern context, it has become critical to find appropriate methods of sharing our ways with others. Given that such sharing is already beginning to take place, what might indigenous education mean in relation to the environmental crisis facing the planet?

To begin answering that question, we can look back to what might be seen as a starting point for this resurgence in indigenous education. It was in 1972 that the National Indian Brotherhood (now the Assembly of First Nations) released its milestone policy paper, Indian Control of Indian Education, thereby launching aboriginal people into a new era of education-related decision-making. Even at that time, the indigenous philosophy of education put forward contains a powerful environmental theme, consistent with traditional indigenous world views. One of the lessons viewed as necessary for survival in the 20th century was described as follows: "Living in Harmony with nature will ensure preservation of the balance between man and his environment which is necessary for the future of our planet, as well as for fostering the climate in which Indian Wisdom has always flourished."

Aboriginal people have always made it clear that indigenous education is centred on learning about our relationships with Creation and fulfilling our responsibilities to that Creation, thereby ensuring what has recently come to be referred to as sustainability. Indigenous cultural traditions speak to these responsibilities. For example, Creation stories provide instructions to all beings so that they may learn to live in harmonious co-existence with each other.

Perhaps one of the most compelling aspects of indigenous education is that we learn from our traditions that the Earth is alive; it is a spiritual being and must be respected as such. Our education and teachings therefore come not only from our parents, relatives, grandmothers and grandfathers, elders, teachers, communities and nations but also from Creation itself (including animals, plants, the moon, the stars, water, wind and the spirit world). We learn through visions, ceremonies, prayers, songs, dances and performances, intuitions, dreams and personal experiences.

The relationship with Creation and its beings was meant to be maintained and enhanced and the knowledge required for this to occur was passed on for generations over thousands of years. The responsibilities that one assumed as part of our education were necessary to ensure the continuation of Creation: again, what academics, scientists and environmentalists might today call sustainability.

The lifeways and knowledge that supported sustainable relationships with Creation are now often referred to as "traditional knowledge" (TK), an idea that has in recent years become important to non-indigenous societies. There are now efforts in Canada and throughout the world to learn more about TK and apply it to addressing the environmental challenges we face on the planet.

One of the current challenges I face when I address the topic of environmental issues and traditional knowledge in teaching is creating the understanding that it is relevant for addressing the current challenges we face; not everyone is convinced of its importance. In response to this, I point out that if we examine the lessons to be learned from TK, often through stories or other teachings, they inform us about critically important ecological principles. Key principles that emerge from the Anishinabe Re-creation Story for example, are that: everything is important, all beings in Creation have a role, co-operation and co-existence will lead to survival, everything is connected to everything else and all life must be respected. Principles such as these, adhered to not only in ceremony but in everyday living, ensured that indigenous peoples lived harmoniously and in balance with the rest of Creation.

Today, these principles can also be thought of as vital principles in ecological science. For example, we now know that industrial activities in one part of the world affect people and the environment in another -- climate change being the currently most well-known example. One can't help feeling that today's world might have been a greener place had colonial societies paid heed to at least some of these aboriginal examples of ecological thinking. Given that we are where we are, however, it seems that now more than ever the principles and values that inform traditional knowledge are needed. It is my understanding that all of us have a responsibility to share our knowledge, from the youngest students to the wisest of the elders.

Existing traditional knowledge is vitally important for ensuring our continued coexistence with all of Creation. However, there also exists the ability to create new knowledge to help us address new challenges. Gregory Cajete (2000), in his book Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence, observes that: "It was understood that knowledge and creativity have their source in a person's inner being and in their personal journeying and thinking. Self-reliance, even in young children, is based on the belief that all persons have the ability to know and to share, to bring forward great strides in understanding and knowledge. Consequently, there are many myths revolving around the learning experiences of young people, as well as their roles in bringing new knowledge to the people."

Indigenous education in the 21st century thereforemeans that we can continue to engage in creative processes based on traditional teachings to foster understanding of TK and its potential role in addressing environmental challenges. At the University of Toronto, we aimto contribute in at least a small way to restoring balance in Creation by renewing traditional knowledge and sharing our knowledge through the aboriginal studies program and First Nations House.

Deborah McGregor is a professor in the aboriginal studies program at the University of Toronto and is Anishnabe from Wiigwaskingaa (Whitefish River First Nation, Birch Island, Ontario). This essay first appeared in FNH ,(First Nations House) magazine.