Sunday, January 30, 2011

Okay, so what did you think I meant by Where Are the Sheep?

So, tell me...what do you think of when you think of the title of my blog?  What was the first thing that came to mind?  Where are the sheep?  What do you think about when you think of sheep?  It is okay if you say the herd mentality that so dominates our preoccupation with sheep as a metaphor.  It is said all the time “look at them, acting like sheep.”  Sheep tend to move in herds and stay together to remain safe.  The ones that stray are the ones that get killed, etc.
Its okay for you to jump to that...but you’d be wrong.  I worried about the title when I chose it for the blog.  I worried that the meaning would be interpreted in that direction.  I worried that people would be annoyed with the title because they thought I might be making generalizations about the education system and Aboriginal education.  This would be wrong of course.  It was worrying to name my blog Where are the Sheep?, and then title my first post Why do we need Aboriginal Education?  What must you have been thinking?  Oh god, here we go again...another anti-PC thug coming to spout his complaints about special interest groups getting all the advantages, right?  I noticed someone posted an encouragement to read that first post on Facebook today and he blended it together: Where are the Sheep? Why do we need Aboriginal Education?  Put together it didn’t look good, actually.  I know the fellow and I know he didn’t mean it that way.
So, an explanation of the title...
There is no meaning unless we make it.  How we make it depends on the context of our identity, who we are, where we are from, our given circumstances, our lived experiences and the cultural history and identity that we inherit.  The sheep metaphor described above is a very western interpretation of sheep.  It is not what I am describing when I refer to looking for sheep.
In the beginning of my Grad program, I was assigned an article to read, There are no sheep in post-structuralism, by Dr. AudreyThompson (it is unpublished and unavailable online, I looked, sorry).  Within the article, she argues, that when we consider race and culture, we tend to start from generalities, and by starting from generalities, we are not necessarily going to get very far from where we started.  She tells the story of a class she was teaching that was looking at the culture of the Inuit by reading the stories of three white teachers working in an Inuit community.  One of her students put up her hand asked, “Where are the sheep?”  This stopped her cold.  Not because she was wondering about sheep in northern Canada, but because, in her efforts to decenter whiteness, to remove that aspect of white privilege from the classroom that reinforces the idea that the western ideal is the proper and right one, she was reinforcing it.  The teachers in her story were grossed out when they were offered blubber (if I recall correctly), and considered it a victory, later, when they came around enough to be able to say no and not feel like they were offending their Inuit hosts.  What her student brought up to her was the fact that she was, in trying to bring in a less-white perspective, she was reinforcing it, because the teachers were not  immersing and understanding the culture and the worldview.  They were maintaining their worldview by resisting being grossed out by the other, but not learning it.
Thompson argues that in post-structuralism starts with generalizations about race instead of relationships and the acknowledgement of difference.  In attempts to decenter whiteness in coursework, to incorporate the “other”, Thompson found that it merely reinforced White privilege, because race and culture was framed by the white understanding of it.  White, Black, Indigenous, Asian, Gay, Straight, male, female all have general assumptions that can be made about them to identify them.  What do we really know about the person or the group, even after their status is made known?  When we teach about otherness, we teach in a way that the discoveries will match our expectations of what makes the “other”. 

We don’t look for the sheep.  Okay, so explain the sheep.  Shut up, I’m getting to it.

Sheep are central to the lives of the Navajo, defining relationships, identity, place and power.  They are central to economy and to education, wherein the children learn to care for the sheep, in order to learn how to develop their social responsibilities. Thompson, in her article, quotes Hasbah Charley, 1996: “My sheep are here, and I think of them as my parents…they are the ones that keep me going day after day.”  You can’t recognize sheep in post-structuralist generalizations of race.  The importance of sheep to the Navajo is that they “represent a distinctive way of organizing a world” (Pg. 231, Thompson).

To look at my beloved Stó:lō', for example, where do we live?   Stó:lō means river.  Do you see an important relationship that might be particular to the Stó:lō people?  The sockeye are our forefathers, they are our food and the food of our children.  They are central to how we came to be.  To you see a particular relationship there?  What happened to the Cree, Saulteaux and other Plains nations when the Canadians and Americans decimated the bison herds?  Do you see an important relationship that might be particular to these nations?

My support for the opposition to the Prosperity Mine project had multiple reasons, not the least of which was that destruction of Teztan Biny would have destroyed a lake CENTRAL to the lives and culture of the Tsilhqot'in, but also because it would have destroyed the river that is central to the lives of the Stó:lō.  It would have devastated our fish stocks as well, as well as any number of other reasons.  I do talk about this in that first post, you can find it here.

What is missing because we do not know how to value it?  We look at the Cree and Inuit from the perspective of the white women and their point of view, which doesn’t see any particulars in the culture they are “helping”, except as it affects them.  Non-Aboriginal people might need to re-examine their own understanding of themselves (as should we all), accept a little humility and be willing to examine how a race or culture is shaped by the need to get up and take care of the sheep, or pay the proper respect to the sockeye.

In Aboriginal education, as in the whole MCFD thing, as in everything to do with Aboriginal people, there is a belief that as educators we are helping.   Eductators do, however, impose their own values on what needs fixing.  They apply a one size fits all solution and are surprised when it fails.  They blame the victim for the failure even as they fail to recognize the particularity about the nation, the Band, the culture and the child.  Educators have generalized based on a few themes: awful grad rates, FSA results, socio-economic dependencies.  Did you consider that during the sockeye run, school is less important?  Did you consider that during the winter time when a student might disappear into the longhouse, that he or she may indeed be learning?  Did you stop thinking that what you value might not be the same thing that is valued by the child and his or her family?   

When you’ve gone into the classroom to integrate Indigenous culture and learning into the curriculum, did you wonder where the sheep were for the group you would be working with?  Did you think, why are they not getting this?  Did you remember that not everyone learns the same way or in the same time?  Or that what is being taught just might not be all that relevant?  (Look, I think I might be making an argument against the FSA as well.  Dammit, Genaille, stop the propaganda!). 

I love that Thompson article, I am always rereading it and finding something new in it.  I will try and get it up here someday, but it is unpublished and I won’t without her permission. 

At any rate, this is not just a question for Aboriginal education.  This is not just a question to ask about Aboriginal groups and their needs and wants and worldviews.  This is a question that should be asked for every child.  What is it that makes this child unique?  What is it that gives this child his or her passion?  How does this child organize his or her world?  Where are the sheep?

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Fragile: Very brief thoughts on the Fragile Lives, Fragmented Systems report and on comments about it

"The British Columbia of equal opportunity for all children is a myth, not a reality,"
                             - Mary Turpel-Lafond, quoted in the Province
Mary Turpel-Lafond, BC's Representative for Children & Youth,  released a report yesterday.  Titled
Fragile Lives, Fragmented Systems: Strengthening Supports for Vulnerable Infants, the report examined the deaths of 21 children in care, of which 15 were Aboriginal.  I won't go into the challenges and/ or differences between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, that isn't important, beyond the understanding that "the mortality rate for Status Indian infants in BC is twice that of non-Aboriginal infants."  There were common themes discovered about the situations in which the infants found themselves when they died.

I am not going to summarize because I stopped reading the report.  I get these reports at the AEAC, and in my position as a special education teacher with an FN specialization, as well as my previous role as an FN case manager, I have encountered this information before.  We spend a lot of time dealing with social workers and foster parents and parents and guardians and kids from broken homes or who have never known their own home.  It is heart-breaking.  I usually get them when they are cynical and jaded, hardened to the world, or incredibly closed in.  They hide it as much as they can, but they are scared and in need of a friend.  90% of the time I am winging it when I work with these youth.  Sometimes I am able to make a connection, sometimes I can't. 

Is there a plan that will solve these challenges?  I don't know.  I know that this is why I started this blog, to try and figure out the hows and whys and, perhaps create a dialogue to seek a means through the education system.  I know there are a lot of people working very hard trying to change things in a variety of professions and on the various reserves and rural and urban spaces. 

I am lost here.

And when I read these, I feel incredibly helpless.

I am also fascinated, sort of, by the comments I read in the news articles that address issues like this.  The back and forth dialogue can sometimes be thoughtful and informative, but it can also be quite unpleasant.  There is a blame the victim mentality in some of the comments that is uncomfortable.  I am amused when the partisan nature of politics rears up and the two sides blame each other, but there is an element reserved for blaming the families caught up in the intergenerational mess that is the legacy of colonization, a belief that there is a weakness there that is responsible for the mess.  It is easy to blame people who are addicted to something, yes.  It is harder to explore the cause.  It is easy to call someone lazy because they are mired in poverty.  It is harder to find out why and/or help in some way.  I guess people can sleep better at night if they can rationalize this issue, or problem as somehow being the fault of the victim.  But however you feel about the parents or the system, how does that rationalization help the child?  That is the huge outcome of this type of rationalization, blaming the family also spills over into blaming the child.  I'm sorry kiddo, that's what you get for being born Native?  I'm sorry, next time do yourself a favour and don't be born poor?

How is this their fault? 

(My apologies for some generalizing in this post.  The challenges faced by children are very complex and the comments I have read and, sadly, neglected to link to, have been varied.  I picked up on the one thread that always seems to jump out at me.  I should have grabbed a couple of links and highlighted them for you.  Please do a search for news articles about the report and scroll down them to have a look.  Not every site had an open comment section.  After this article, there was one comment about mandatory birth control injections (?) as a way to end this problem. That was from Anonymous.)

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

It's About Fairness: Can you imagine what we could accomplish?

 On October 29, 2010, I attended the BCTF Bargaining Conference in Richmond, BC, on behalf of the BCTF Aboriginal Education Advisory Committee to present our recommendations to the conference regarding priorities in the upcoming contract talks between the teachers and BCPSEA, the provincial bargaining body for the school districts in the public system.  While I can hear some of you screaming "propaganda!" and "he's getting political!", I need to stress that that is not what I am doing here.  I have removed our actual specific recommendations from the following piece (it isn't hard to see what at least one of them is if you look at it) and left the story and the need there.  I made this speech to the delegates and it was meant for them to consider as well, as it is a request of districts AND teachers, for both sides have to be onside for it to work and, to be honest, not all teachers are onside.  This is my stab into employment equity as an issue.  I have argued in the past, that for Aboriginal students to buy into schools, they need to see role models succeeding.  I have argued that for the stereotypes of Aboriginal people to start to fade, non-Aboriginal students need to see Aboriginal people as well, not just teaching Aboriginal children, but everybody's children, bringing their perspective to the multtude of perspectives that are already shared.  Sadly that is not yet the case.  I will look at the obstacles at another time, for now I wanted to share.  I have edited out the confidential stuff, and I hope it holds together well.  For your information, there are approximately 300 teachers of Aboriginal ancestry out of the 41 000 teachers working in the BC public education system.  For your consideration:
I heard an interview with John Ralston Saul recently on CBC Radio.  He was talking about his book, A Fair Country, and he was talking about the Native leadership in Canada.  The subject of Guu’jaw, Hereditary Chief of the Haida came up and Saul brought up what was, approximately, the following thought: “Can you imagine what he could have accomplished, what he could have contributed to our country, if he hadn’t had to spend the last twenty or thirty years fighting that same country for his, and the Haida’s right to be treated equitably?” If you ask Guu’jaw if he felt like he had missed out on something, I do not believe he would say yes.  I think he would say he was doing what was right by his role in his culture and because his people deserve a better life. 

My Mom relates the story of an Aboriginal doctor, who, during his residency was approached by security at the hospital he was doing his residency in because he was in a doctor’s only section and they were there to escort him out, despite the fact that he was a doctor and legally allowed to be there.  They did not believe him and none of the other doctors present would stand and defend him.

When I was doing my Masters, I was dealing with a poisonous work environment.  I was ready to throw in the towel on the Masters because I could not manage both, I happened to run into my uncle, our last old Elder on my rez.  He said, “Bob, I’m proud of you.  No one has ever tried to do what you are doing before"...I sort of had no choice...

The last few years have seen impressive gains in Aboriginal Education... These advances have been hard won and should be celebrated. They exist because of hard work carried out by Aboriginal education activists who were not willing to put up with the status quo anymore. They exist because Aboriginal people value education but it needs to be an education that is relevant to their history, culture, and way of life. It is not a rejection of western education, though it is a desire to decolonise that education by creating an education that respects and honours the First Peoples of this land.

Having said that, it must be acknowledged that we still have a long way to go. It is a fact that there are few Aboriginal teachers. The differing value systems, as well as the ongoing legacies of colonization have resulted in a decreased sense of well-being and belonging within the education system for the Aboriginal teacher.

Employment equity and other issues related to increasing the presence of Aboriginal teachers in our schools is about fairness.  It is about fairness to our teachers, who face inequitable employment options, expectations and the continued questioning of our right to be here.  It is about fairness to our children who face many challenges in this education system and need to see themselves reflected in their education.  It is about fairness to their parents, who care about their children’s opportunities.  And finally it is about fairness for everyone else, who need to see real Aboriginal people and not stereotypes and myths.

Our students of Aboriginal ancestry are a brilliant, talented, extraordinary group whose strength, perseverance and humour often leave me absolutely in awe. Many have faced challenges, legacies of colonization and attempted assimilation; they live lives that they never deserved. I see them persevere in systems that are alien to the traditional ways of learning. The teaching and learning, in my experience, have never been one way. The work we do here is for them, to create opportunity for them to have a sense of where they are from, who they are and who they can be.  Because if we, and they, didn't have to fight to be treated equitably, to be treated fairly, can you imagine what they could accomplish?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

On the Stó:lō Shxweli Halq'eméylem Language Program

On Friday last, I attended Professional Development in my district, conveniently at my school, Agassiz Elem.-Secondary.  I was thinking if it was lame, I could duck upstairs to my room and work on IEPs.  My first scheduled workshop was a presentation by the Stó:lō Shxweli Halq'eméylem Language Program, represented  by Thelma Wenman, the program coordinator and Jared Deck, one of her employees, and a very talented illustrator.  There was no thought of sneaking off to my room after I showed up.  Thelma is a part of my world, if peripherally (we drift into each others’ worlds randomly, much like all my interactions with many of the Stó:lō people I know), she asked after my Mom and the conversation was familiar.

Going into the workshop, I had been told by a District staff member that there had been concern that the presentation would not run, as only two of us had signed up to this particular workshop, but that they had decided to go ahead with it anyway.  It would be two more than had seen it otherwise.  The two swelled to four as my school’s First Nations Support Workers joined the audience.  I am disappointed in the turnout many of these Aboriginal-themed presentations tend to get.  I have been to so many where I was among the few in the audience, or in the workshop, often surrounded by FNSWs, other teachers of Aboriginal ancestry, or administrators who had decided that they needed to have some of this type looked at and considered.  I have also seen excited leaders herald in a new era of Aboriginal education and focus, only to attend one or two workshops and disappear.  I am not singling out, or necessarily referring to my district, for those of you who might be administrators in my district, I am referring to the general state of commitment in the province to Aboriginal education and improved success for Aboriginal students.  I see a lot of the same faces at workshops or conferences I attend on the subject (and there are some that I no longer attend, but that is a different post).

At any rate, this is not the first time I had attended a presentation by Stó:lō Shxweli, and, while it was very informal, I was impressed with the growth that had occurred in the time since I had last seen them.  In addition to the language app out for the iPhone, which they are responsible for, they have developed a variety of multi-media programs, including a wiki designed for students and several books and cd-roms which tell cultural stories in the language.  There are interactive games available as well. They also maintain the Halq'eméylem page and several other projects that are ongoing.  They also offered classes and work with the local school districts and universities to see that the language is taught.

My Auntie, Elizabeth Herrling was very involved in this program, you can hear her voice all over all of these programs.  She ensured that not just one form of the language was being preserved but my own upriver dialect was also being preserved.  The wiki page called the audio recordings the Elizabeth Herrling Collection.  Students could modify the content there, spelling of words, etc., but Thelma assured us that the words, the pronunciation was sacred.  It was laid out by the Elders, like Lizzie, and no one had the right to tell them that they were speaking their language wrong.  I actually sort of teared up when she said that, embarrassing admission there.

The other attendee mentioned that he had been to a reserve out east where, upon turning on the radio, he had heard the local Native language being spoken.  He had seen and heard it spoken commonly be many people around him.  He had acknowledged that this particular group was more remote than the Stó:lō.  And there is the key difference.  The Stó:lō are front and centre in a territory that has been settled, somewhat densely by Canada.  So much so that several of the Bands are within the boundaries of Chilliwack, or skirting the edges of Agassiz, Hope, and Abbotsford.  It is hard to maintain the language when there is so much around you closing in and displacing the opportunities to learn afforded by being on the land.

Please go check out their website for more information.  I love how they are using technology to preserve an endangered language.

From their website :

To ensure the future of Halq'eméylem language, we strive for oral and written fluency in all dialects, to create an atmosphere where Halq'eméylem is the first language spoken in our homes; 
We will also ensure the integrity of the Stó:lō worldview by creating places where Elders can come together to share the language and our teachings with each other and with our children. 
In respect of Xá:ls who created and made the world right, we will teach our Halq'eméylem language through our Elders, to present and future generations.

I am happy that I didn’t sneak off to my room.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Random Thoughts on the FSA, choice schools, racism and preserving languages

Been busy lately, it's the end of the semester and I've been wrapping up my classes and trying to get everything finished in time for next week, so my apologies for not writing in a while. I am also writing this on my iPhone so I can't wait to see if autocorrect is going to mess around with me.
Just some random thoughts I hope to expand upon at a later time:
1) I would like to write about the FSAs here in BC but will wait until after this current round of "let's bash each other because of them" is over. I see value in them as an assessment tool but object to how they are currently used. I also dislike the fundamental bias of the test. It doesn't allow for the difference in culture and lived experience of Aboriginal students, and, as such, sets them up for failure before they even sit down to write it. Yes, I am affiliated with the BCTF and that ensures whatever I write will be questioned and/ or declared propaganda (I've enjoyed hearing and seeing all the comments surrounding the Principals' recent statements. Discourse, on either side seems in short supply).
2) I want to thank Mr. Chris Wejr and Ms. Janet Steffenhagen for sharing my recent post about the Vancouver proposal regarding an Aboriginal choice school. I cannot link to any of them, I am away from my computer again, please accept my apologies on that score, I will try to correct that oversight later. I am hoping someone will be attending the forums on the 24th and 25th of January to hear the discussion surrounding the proposal, and would perhaps be willing to share their thoughts with me? I live too far out of town and have parent meetings scheduled so am unable to. I hope to get into the city at some point.
3) On the note regarding choice schools, I received my first racist comments on my blog. In my blog, I need remind you, I was not advocating a segregated school but a school of choice open to everybody. There was no intent at segregating or developing a separate school system, as was made clear in the post. Racism in response is unnecessary. I am planning to write a post on that very topic and the response to racism (my request for assistance on how to respond went unanswered). I suspect that few who viewed the comment viewed it as anything but ignorance or snarkiness. It is the target, however who deserves the final say, and I felt hurt by it. I left it up for awhile but will be removing it.
4) Finally, I will be writing later on a presentation I saw yesterday about the ongoing language program being developed to preserve the Halq'meylem language. I've already spoken about the language app, but the rest of the program is also really exciting and includes books, computer games, education wikis and all sorts of add-ons. My Halq'meylem language is in danger of extinction, and as a spoken language there is a lot to fear, but I am thrilled to see preservation efforts are ongoing. More on that at another time.
Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

On Graduation Rates: Some Questions I have

I have some questions and am away from a computer so can't do much in the way of research at the moment.

The graduation rate of Aboriginal students seems to be hovering around 49%. Is that overall? Or is it the percentage that graduates within the standard expectation of six years, as it is measured here in British Columbia?

Who decides that graduate rates within six years is the yardstick by which we will measure student success?

Do school districts measure grad rates after six years? Does the Ministry of Education?

What is the percentage of Aborignal students graduating in seven years? Eight?

Do we consider them failures?

What about those news stories we hear periodically about the 82 year old woman who is graduating with her granddaught from high school and everybody says what a great story? What about the 79 year old war hero just finishing his high school diploma because the war got in the way so long ago and he just didn't have time to finish until now?

Do we consider THEM failures?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Affirmation & Transformation: Thoughts on Vancouver's Aboriginal mini-School Idea

"To any young Indian, Inuit or Metis... I say this with all my heart and soul; get every bit of education you can. Learn, because learning is power; it is how you come to have choices about what you will do and where you will go; it is how you become free."
                                                         -Len Marchand


Janet Steffenhagen posted Vancouver considers opening an aboriginal mini-school on her blog.  The piece is about the Vancouver School Board’s plans to consider an Aboriginal mini-school in their school district as a means to address the issues surrounding the disparity in Aboriginal student success in the public education system.  This struck up a fascinating conversation between myself and a few colleagues in the Twitter-sphere (Twitterverse?), and I wasn't sure what side of the conversation I was.  I am cautiously supportive of the idea, as nothing I see in the system is currently working to a level that is satisfactory to the kids or their communities.  And yet, I want to know more.   I get as anxious about the word "research" as any other Native person.  Historically that has brought bad news.  But, at the same time, if we are going to see real change, we need to be able to look deeper to learn.  It doesn't mean that it is bad, especially if the research is de-colonized.  This post is not a research piece, obviously, just some thoughts that I am considering.  A couple of times now, a friend and I have both expressed frustration at having to justify decolonization work or provide not just the answer but the question as well.  It is tiring having to go through the whole thing again and again.  We need equity and fairness.  We need to decolonize education, we need a system that is fair to Aboriginal students. No equity is not the same as equality, equality is not equal when you are marginalized, etc.  We do this to ensure that our children will not have to struggle as we have.   Is it going to create controversy and anger from both non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal voices?  Yes.   Will there be meaningful discource about it?  Hard to say.  Aboriginal rights in this country tend to spark all sorts of...I don't know, but it is never pretty.  Is an Aboriginal choice school a good idea or a bad idea?  I don't know. 

Are we willing to go through that pain and frustration to really give this idea a thoughtful exploration?  What if it works?

So, let’s try some of the bad idea stuff first.  Why is this bad idea?
Well.  It’s segregation, right?  In a sense, if you go by the direct definition.  Miriam-Webster defines segregation as follows:
            1: the act or process of segregating : the state of being segregated
2a : the separation or isolation of a race, class, or ethnic group by enforced or voluntary residence in a restricted area, by barriers to social intercourse, by separate educational facilities, or by other discriminatory means
b : the separation for special treatment or observation of individuals or items from a larger group <segregation of gifted children into accelerated classes>

But segregation cannot be defined by that literal definition.  The idea of segregation is what needs to be explored.  Wikipedia defines segregation as “the separation of different kinds of humans (like black and white people) into racial groups in daily life. It may apply to activities such as eating in a restaurant, drinking from a water fountain, using a bath room, attending school, going to the movies, or in the rental or purchase of a home.”  In practice this has been enforced by laws such as the Jim Crow Laws in the US, Apartheid in South Africa, the Indian Act and any number of other laws here in Canada.

This is not what is going on with the discussions around an Aboriginal Choice school.  The current school system is predicated on the Judeo-Christian Western European ideas of what is civilized and what is a proper education.  It is directed at the beneficiaries of white privilege and it is designed to ensure an inequity of status for Aboriginal students.  The current system is the system that segregates.  It marginalizes and it wrecks the self esteem of an amazing group of young people who give up and never explore their potential because they are taught that they are second class, not normal, and not part of the mainstream.  Please see my previous post for some dialogue on that.  No.  It is not overt, it is embedded into the system.  I do not mean to disparage any teachers or administrators.  The ones I know and work with are doing their best to improve the education and lives of Aboriginal students.  It is the system that does not fit.

This is reinforced by everything our youth see and hear in everyday society.  Canada is predicated on the idea of progress and the Native people are often vilified as an obstacle to progress.  The desire to have us assimilate is not the desire to see us succeed, it is the desire to ensure that Indigenous culture and peoples are extinguished from Canada.

Well, we’re caving to a special interest group?  Sorry.  This one doesn’t fly.  I am an Aboriginal person and I have never been given special privileges for that status.  I pay taxes.  I am still paying student loans and sense I will be doing that for some time to come.  I can’t afford my own home and the Band isn’t planning to give me one.  Yes, I can qualify for tax exemptions on purchases if I shop on reserve, but it is almost always preceded by having to explain the history of the fiduciary relationship my First Nation has with Canada and the ongoing legacy of marginalization and colonization.  I have to constantly justify my credentials that yes, despite being Aboriginal, I am a “Real” teacher with BCCT certification and a Masters degree to boot.  I have to put up with the racist comments about Aboriginal people whenever they get in the way of progress (look up any online article about the Tsilchol’tin and Fish Lake).  I then get to go home to my reserve, the legally segregated land set aside for my people by the government. 

I am not sure I am sounding entirely rational in the above sections there.

So, let’s look at the positives then:
If you do a cursory search of any number of education blogs, you will see an ongoing discource on the nature of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation in learning.  This is what is missing in our public system for Aboriginal students.  Starting even before residential schools (a real segregated system), the marginalization of Aboriginal peoples served to change their status as real people and make them wards of the state, dependent on the government for their needs.  Residential schools were not places of learning, but places of training, designed to teach Native people how to farm and/ or do housework and to teach them that their ways of knowing and learning were wrong.  With the closing of residential schools, not much changed.  Canadian schooling had always marginalized Natives as the other and that is how they were treated in public schools.  The publication of the document “Indian Control of Indian Education” was a good start but any and all work done has been underfunded and, I believe, unsupported by the people who have power.  Band schools have varying degrees of success, but they are still finding their way and it will take more time for the infrastucture to be in place to ensure that they work.  They are also segregationist, sadly, funding does not allow for non-status or, in some cases, off-reserve people to participate.  Government legislation that divides First Nations people is also designed to keep us at each others throats to get the scraps offered.

The public education system is the way to go then.  It encompasses students from all corners of the spectrum and all the different Aboriginal groups represented in Canada.  It is the ideal place to explore an idea like an Aboriginal Choice School. Rheanna Robinson identifies some benefits to the type of school in her dissertation Education Transformation: Issues for implementing an Aboriginal Choice School in Prince George, BC:
  1. holistic learning
  2. inclusion of culture, family and community within the school
  3. a place of belonging for Aboriginal students that validates and embraces Aboriginal culture
  4. a greater awareness throughout the entire school community of Aboriginal knowledge and its relevance to modern society.

I have not been able to read the dissertation as it is not available online, only the abstract, but a second document Why an Aboriginal Public School? is.  I am reading it right now, as time allows, and I am intrigued by it.  It makes several recommendations that allow for the idea of Indigenous ways of knowing, ways of learning might be able to flourish.

A key to both is the idea that it is open to anybody.  I have always felt that Aboriginal education is not just about educating Aboriginal people but educating everybody.  Indigenous epistemologies and pedagogies have a lot to offer if you are willing to take a look. 

I remember a conversation with a friend on the difference between affirmation and transformation as it relates to ending oppression.  Affirmation entails the idea of affirmative action and giving a little bit so that the one with power can say they are helping out.  This did give into the idea of resentment and “we’re caving to a special interest group again”.  My friend argued that it was necessary though, to start to give the oppressed some semblance of equitable treatment (which is why in another conversation I am not outright opposed to the cash option as extrinsic motivation, I make food available for my students).  I didn’t agree right away but eventually came around.  What we are doing now in Aboriginal education in BC is affirmation.  What is being proposed here might be transformation, an idea where you tear down the system that causes the inequity and rebuild it into something where there is fairness. 

An Aboriginal Choice school can be the beginnings of that transformation. 

The school in Prince George has only been open since September 2010, so it is too early to tell what will be the result of this experiment.  Even if it fails, it will be good because something was tried.  Someone said I am tired of the status quo and tried something.  I like to fail when I try something.

"I have not failed 10,000 times. I have
successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work."
- attributed to Thomas Edison.

We learn from whatever we try.  We try to ensure that our kids will not have to face the same struggles we face.  Let’s let Vancouver give it a try.  If it doesn't work, it doesn't work?  But what about if it does?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Challenges of Assumption- A Meandering Stream of Consciousness on the issue of Ideological Assumptions

This particular post is sort of a meandering stream of consciousness.  I am unsure how well it holds together.  It will evolve as my thoughts evolve and solidify.  And please don't critique the APA, or lack thereof.

Once again, I am drawn to the blog Twinkle’s Happy Place, a blog run by a friend of mine who works in the education field, whom has a particular interest and focus on Aboriginal education and the integration of Indigenous resources and pedagogy into the classroom.  Her recent blog entry, -Sometimes I have to honest instead of nice - (how) can we talk to non-Indigenous people about Indigenous issues?- was a sharply worded, thoughtfully rendered piece that addressed some issues that were appearing online in Twitter.  The piece is passionate, angry and rational.  She was responding to assumptions that were being made online regarding success rates of Indigenous students in Canada and what was needed to solve the discrepancy in success rates between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students.  The comments were from non-Indigenous people who were trying to make sense of issues without understanding the issues, the contributing factors and the real specific needs of the Indigenous population of Canada.  At least that is my understanding, and I do not wish to paint anybody with a broad brush stroke if it is undeserving.  As well, I suspect, Starleigh will also correct me if I have gotten the essence of this wrong.

This is an area that I have struggled with for a long time, still coming across parts that get me riled up, parts that leave me in despair, and times that have me wanting to throw it all away and go home and live the rez life, cut myself off from everyone and just disappear.  How can we talk to non-Indigenous people about Indigenous issues without being accused of having an agenda, or having “but that was in the past” thrown in your face?  How do we challenge the status quo when the status quo is unwilling to acknowledge that there is anything wrong?  One of the most interesting elements of my Masters program that came up again and again was the idea of centering and re-centering.  In our western, settler society, for better or for worse, the white person is the centre, with the rest of us circling around on the margins.  We aren’t called marginalized people for nothing.  Race is an issue in this regard because, whether one wants to admit it or not, we all live racialized identities that cannot be ignored.  Race matters because there is power there. 
Schick & St. Denis (2003) point out:  that race matters because without acknowledging that it does, we ignore how racialized identities are always operating to create difference: denial that one has a racial identity trivializes and makes invisible the effects of power (Roman, 1993). By claiming that "we're all part of the same human race" and that the "color of a person's skin" is invisible, students whitewash the daily advantage of white privilege (Henriques et al., 1984; MacIntosh, 1998; Sleeter, 1993). By denying that race matters, whiteness as in the dominant racial identification can be considered the invisible norm against which others are judged as "not white/not quite" (Bhabha, 1994, p. 92).” [1]
No one likes pointing out that particular difference.  The idea of white privilege is tied, inextricably, to colonization.  Many of the policies, regulations, laws, and practices that served to marginalize the Indigenous were done to enhance white privilege.  The land you live on in Canada.  Native land.  The resources used.  Native land.  The benevolent society that is Canada (Mackey, 1999) is built on the oppression of the Indigenous population, first by marginalizing and denigrating their cultures and practices, then by removing them from the land that has always been theirs.  For someone to be on top of society, there needs to be someone on the bottom.  The term white privilege can refer to the benefit received by the settlers in North America and other colonized regions, although, not every settler is white.  It is the accepted norms of the society that is recognized as the privilege and so non-European people who come to Canada are also enjoying white privilege because they are buying into the concepts that are western civilization and Canada.  This position is a position of power over the ‘Other’, the Native person in this case, and allows the privileged to a) decide what is normal, b) and decide what isn’t.  Talking about racial identity is frowned upon because it means facing issues like power and privilege in a colonial context.  This is evident from some of the comments I quote in the first post Why do we need Aboriginal education?.  There is always the ongoing push to maintain the norms and to identify as not normal the marginalized voice.  Opposing the Prosperity project became a war of words between honest people that wanted jobs and lazy Natives.  The Indigenous weren’t people anymore, they were separated out.  As many teachers of Aboriginal ancestry can attest, there are ‘real’ teachers and ‘Aboriginal’ teachers.  The desire to see success for Aboriginal students delineates the test scores as ‘Aboriginal results’ and student results.
There is no dispute that there is an achievement gap, or what have you between Aboriginal students and non-Aboriginal students.  There is a lot of paternal ways to address this disparity and a lot of Indigenous people who are unhappy with that.  A lot of it has to do with the assumptions that are made from the normative position that are just that, assumptions.  Why is there a disparity?
Schick & St. Denis (2003) identified three ideological assumptions:
Ideology Assumption #1: Race doesn't matter (culture does)
“These are statements we commonly hear in response to the anti-racist education we offer.
- As far as I'm concerned, we're all part of the same human race and that's all that matters. I don't see the color of the person's skin.
- We all need to appreciate and celebrate our racial differences. We just need to get along.
- How could I be racist? I don't even know any Aboriginal people.
- The problem is that their values and beliefs are so different from ours.”
Assumption #2: Meritocracy--Everyone has equal opportunity
“Here are some other statements we commonly hear in response to our anti-racist education.
- I was taught that I could do anything I wanted if I was prepared to make sacrifices.
- If a person expects to be treated with respect, then they will get respect. If they don't expect it, they will not get it.
- People are victims because they choose to be victims.
- My family started with nothing, and we worked hard to get to where we are now. They just want everything given to them.”
Ideology Ideology Assumption #3: Goodness and innocence--by individual acts and good intentions, one can secure innocence as well as superiority
“Finally, here are some further statements we commonly encounter in response to anti-racist education.
- I don't see race. I see people as people instead of judging by external appearance.
- I am fascinated by all the cultures. I love learning about them.
- We weren't like some families. At our house we were taught to respect all cultures.
- Why do they always bring up the past? I wasn't there.”
There is a thread, in all of these, which suggests the issues and challenges faced by Indigenous peoples may somehow be the fault of the Indigenous themselves.  I find that unfair.  It also doesn’t acknowledge that departure from the norm that we suspect is Indigeneity.  I once was part of a staff meeting that lamented the lack of ‘civility’ displayed by Aboriginal teenagers in the school.  One comment was about how good the kids used to be.  The ‘used to be’ was in their young childhood when they were in the elementary school, learning the norms of Canadian society.  What changed?  They reached an age where they came to the bitter realization that, while they wanted to fit into Canadian society, they were different because said society declared them different.  “Sorry. You are Aboriginal.  You are deficient.  See, it says so in our text books.” Every teen tries on different identities to figure out who they are.  These kids were doing because they were not as welcomed into society as they deserved to be and were met with the ‘uncivil’ comments.
For many, many years, settlers have assumed that there was something wrong with Indigenous people that needed fixing.  Even though, that assumption has, officially, changed, it is still there, whether it is conscious or not.  And, even though, many of us believe that we are not that person, the one that says “good little NDN, you’re trying your best,” there is likely still a part of everybody that has a bit of the colonial mentality in there, subconsciously subverting our ideals.  I know I do and I am a person of First Nations’ ancestry.
It is hard to talk to non-Indigenous people about Indigenous issues.  That relationship has always been a bit inequitable.

[1] (From the Abstract) What makes anti-racist pedagogy in teacher education difficult? Three popular ideological assumptions

Friday, January 7, 2011


Some mostly exciting news from a couple of weeks ago. has leapt into the iTunes App game with two new language apps designed to help preserve and teach two Canadian Indigenous languages: SENĆOŦEN & Halq'eméylem. 
SENĆOŦEN is the language of the W̱SÁNEĆ people on Vancouver Island.  Their anglicised name is the Saanich people, and they are a Salish peoples.  I have not yet had the opportunity to download and check out their language app but I am excited about it.
The other app, the Halq'eméylem app is more exciting to me as it is the traditional language of my people, the Stó:lō who live along the Fraser River in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia.  This is the language of my Grandfather.  He spoke it fluently.  He would speak it with his mother but would switch to english whenever my Mom would come into the room.  He wouldn’t teach her the language because she would get hurt if she spoke it.  Halq'eméylem contains words that I recognize because I have heard them before.  When I introduced myself here initially, I used one of the few words I know.  Ey Sweyel is essentially hello.  Like I said, I know bits and pieces.
I was disappointed when I downloaded and installed the app on my ipod.  It contains Halq'eméylem words, their english equivalent and the category they belong to (ie. Human relations, family, greetings, etc) and include, wonderfully, the voice of someone pronouncing the words for us.  I think I know the Elder they used and if it is her, I am happy to hear her voice again.  There are a lot of words in the program.  It is all alphabetized but it is alphabetized in Halq'eméylem, so it isn’t easy to find the english word you want to learn in Halq'eméylem.  As well, it contains a heck of a lot of phrases and their english translation, again with an audio voice pronouncing the words for you.
Having said that, I am still excited.  It is a good start.  It is something being done to both preserve and protect our language.  Yes, I wonder if I have the right to say ``our language`` when I cannot speak it myself.  The fact that it is in trouble and risking extinction because of the rape that is colonialism, I believe allows me the right.  I don’t know the language, not because I chose not to learn it; I don’t know it because my Grandpa was taught to not pass it on, in order to protect his children and grandchildren.  I can’t rage at my Mom or my Grandpa because they wouldn’t teach me the language or culture.  My Grandpa made a choice not to teach it to protect us from harm.  That is an honourable thing to do, even as it did move the language towards extinction.  I do not believe that I can ever forgive the Canadian government for forcing him to make that choice.
So, the app isn`t brilliant but it is something that is thrilling nonetheless.  My Band`s last somewhat fluent speaker of the language passed away last year as did two of the remaining fluent speakers in the Stó:lō territories (at least that is my understanding, I am hoping that I am wrong).  I suspect that the dialects of the various Bands in the various parts of the Stó:lō regions are dying out.  I know my Band had its own dialect, ways of pronouncing that is different from the Chilliwack Bands.  These variations may already be lost, but this embracement of technology offers hope that the main language is not lost.  The local dialects will redevelop as the language grows and evolves again. 
So, a huge shout out to First Voices!  I look forward to the next evolution of this app, but I am enjoying hearing the words while I wait.
You can find the full press release here and you can get a hold of the apps at itunes:  SENĆOŦEN
Check out First Voices to see and hear multiple Indigenous languages from Canada's First Nations as the work to preserve them and teach them is carried out.

One final note.  My title "ch'íthométsel" is a  Halq'eméylem word.  It is not contained in the App, but that is okay.  If you go here, you can here my Auntie, Elizabeth Herrling, pronounce it.  She passed away last year and it is extraordinary to hear her voice again.  Ch'íthométsel means "I thank you."

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

An Aboriginal Voice Making Noise: Twinkle's Happy Place and looking at Provincial Mandates

There is a blog I really enjoy following, Twinkle's Happy Place, whose sub-heading reads:
"Connecting teachers to research and resources for integrating Aboriginal curriculum and pedagogy into their classrooms." This site is the blogging site of a friend and colleague of mine, named Starleigh Grass.  I follow her on Twitter at  She regularly announces her updates on Twitter and it is always good to run over to her site and see what's new.  Starleigh comments on Indigenous education research, reviews resources as she comes across it, shares study guides and lesson ideas and comments on the state of Aboriginal education in general.  I thoroughly enjoy reading her commentary.  I would encourage you to head over there to check it out.

I was drawn there this morning by two excellent posts that look at the Aboriginal Education programs of Saskatchewan and Manitoba.  Her posts Aboriginal Education in Saskatchewan and What Does inclusive Aboriginal Education look like? Ask Manitoba were easy to read and very enlightening.  She basically looked at the two provinces' Aboriginal education mandates and summarized them for us, providing an overview of how the provinces are doing and even providing access to BC's Ab. Ed. website to provide local context.  I am thrilled about this.  My last post prompted some twitter comments that suggested it might be time for Ab. Ed. advocates across the provinces to start sharing and collaborating with each other, to find out what everyone is doing and to use the best of the various routes and practices into Aboriginal education and its successes.

I have always been drawn to Saskatchewan's programming.  My father was from Saskatchewan and I have family ties to the Keeseekoose First Nation out in Treaty Four territory.  I have also read that Saskatchewan's Aboriginal population is growing at such a rate that it is possible that they might regain the majority in Saskatchewan by the end of this century.  I cannot remember the source of that comment, so take it whichever way you choose.  I have used resources found on Saskatchewan's education sites to teach Social Studies, English and BC First Nations Studies 12.  I am impressed with their work out there and think we should also be looking at what they have done and follow their lead a bit more.  I am currently reading a book about an Aboriginal community, in Saskatchewan, and its high school and what they are doing to achieve success for their students.  It is a study by Jo-ann Archibald and others and its name escapes me at the moment but it is exciting research and I will share more about it when I finish it and I have time.

I was excited to see Starleigh's post on Manitoba's system as well, for which she wrote (and incorporated) the following:

It includes background information on Aboriginal worldview, spirituality, and educational history.  It also includes specific learning outcomes tied to Aboriginal education.

It lists the goals of incorporating Aboriginal perspectives:
For Aboriginal students
-to develop positive self-identity through learning their own histories, cultures, traditional values, contemporary lifestyles, and traditional knowledge
-to participate in a learning environment that will equip them with the knowledge and skills needed to participate more fully in the unique civil and cultural realities of their communities
For non-Aboriginal students 
-to develop an understanding and respect for the histories, cultures, traditional values, contemporary lifestyles, and traditional knowledge of Aboriginal peoples 
-to develop informed opinions on matters relating to Aboriginal peoples 

As well as outcomes that they hope will come from integrating Aboriginal perspectives:
-improvement of the academic performance of Aboriginal students 
-elimination of the stereotypes that exist in mainstream and non-mainstream cultures 
-improvement of the quality of life of Aboriginal peoples 
-increase the representation of Aboriginal peoples in post-secondary schools 
-increase the representation of Aboriginal peoples in all sectors of the workforce 
This is very exciting stuff to see.  And I thought I would share it out with you.  Please check out their websites and check out Starleigh's blog.  You won't be disappointed.