Friday, November 25, 2011

The Place Where Two Worlds Collide

In my Masters project, I wrote (about an Indigenous youth identity group):

(They) exist in what Henze & Vanett (1993), cited in Deyhle (2000), calls the area where the two worlds (Anglo and Indigenous) collide (p. 11).  This is a space of multiple tensions, an intersection point, where the youth are challenged to negotiate their identity markers and construct a social memory for their specific circumstances. 

I forget sometimes that I live here too.  The imagery of walking in two worlds is almost a cliché in discussions about people of Aboriginal ancestry.  When I read the Deyhle piece alluded to above, I was struck by the analogy of two world colliding.  I have always believed this to be more accurate because people of my generation, like the youth following, have been in such a state that we are feeling the strain of the changes, the tensions of the western world pulling in one direction, the Indigenous world, in its various forms (traditional, contemporary) pulling you in multiple directions.  There is a lot of tension and stress that is affecting me in this dichotomy and I am feeling overwhelmed by the whole thing.

I have been struggling lately.

My teaching practice is not fully Indigenous.  Not by a long shot.  It is sort of a mish-mash of what I understand of Indigenous ideas and teachings I have been introduced to (I can’t claim I fully get it either, I was educated in the western system after all) and western practices.  As a result, I am still trying to learn how to indigenize my teaching practice and I know with certainty that I still have a lot to learn.  I became a teacher for all the right reasons, I think.  Too many Aboriginal kids were falling out and too many Aboriginal people were not seeing themselves reflected in the school system.  The hope has always been that I would work towards changing the system by teaching within it, to offer a model that students of Aboriginal ancestry could look to and find something that they could use, something that reflects who they are and who they could be.

The challenge to this, and one I have heard from other Aboriginal teachers and have felt acutely myself, is that in this action, I have also made a choice to step into the western system that is the education system that reinforces the normative ideals of the Canadian society, often at the expense of the First Nations sense of identity and location within that larger society.  In this regard, Aboriginal people, when not forced into this system and required to give up that part of us we recognize as our cultural identity, were given the “choice” of giving up voluntarily that cultural identity and entering the western system.  Choosing not to participate in the assimilation that was, and is, the Canadian education system meant choosing a life of poverty and isolation from the larger society we are a part of.

The fact that choosing to surrender that sense of self did not mean escape, from poverty and other socio-economic ills, speaks volumes about the systemic roadblocks that Canadian policy has placed between the Indigenous person and true equity in Canadian society.

I remember fighting with teachers about the right of Aboriginal students to attend cultural ceremonies during school hours.  I have been a defender of the right for our children, or their families, not to have to choose between their cultural identity (and its very important education) and the western system we all are a part of.  No one doubts that the education system is necessary as it is the knowledge we need to function in Canadian society, but it is not the only society we need to function in.  Our Indigenous cultures have been battered, bruised, raped from us and, in many cases, made different from what they used to be.  But they are still here.  And we are fighting for the right of our children to not have to give up that part of themselves to succeed in the other one.

So, we talk about walking in two worlds; we talk about cultural brokerage; we talk about finding a balance between the two and sharing the best of both worlds.  We are working our way towards that ideal, but we aren’t there yet, I do not believe.  I find the two worlds colliding analogy to be more apt at the moment.  This move towards trying to find equity, trying to balance two disparate systems into something that is good for our students is a point where many strands of tension intersect.  There are so many different interests at play in this collision, multiple Indigenous voices shouting out different desires and expectations, some stubbornly refusing to compromise and cooperate, competing with western voices and their understanding of their own system and its benefits and deficits, some of whose voices are as stubborn and harsh as the other side. 

I had only recently begun to discover my cultural identity, my inheritance from my Sto:lo and Saulteaux ancestors, when I made the choice to teach.  Part of that choice was choosing to teach in the western system, to voluntarily give up a part of myself in order to move into a world where I could work towards making it safe for my students not to have to be put in a position where they were forced to make that choice.  To pick one or the other. 

Therein the challenge lies.  One of the issues that came up at our Teacher Inquiry was the knowledge of what we were giving up.  There was never any regret in that decision, but the sense of loss is very much present.  Particularly in those moments when you are starting to reclaim, within the walls of the western system, that Indigenous part of your identity and apply it to your teaching practice and you find you have to give it up again.

That part hurts and it is a time of struggle but I need to remind myself that, by my choosing, I am existing in that place where two worlds collide, it is filled with storm and stress and it can be isolating and unfriendly and terrifying but I remind myself that eventually the two worlds will complete their trajectory, transform into a new world where my students and my children can have the best of both cultures, without ever giving up any part of themselves, like we have had to do.

My quiet act of resistance.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Why Do We Teach?

It was with frustration that I read this article today:

 “For at least the past two years, many residents — including in some cases, multiple generations of one family — in the community have been living in makeshift tents and shacks without heat, electricity and indoor plumbing.

At least 90 people have resorted to living in two construction workers' portables equipped with only two washrooms and four showers to use among them.

Others are using buckets as washroom facilities and sleep in fear of fire because of wood-burning stoves in their homes, the chief said.

The families have been living in these conditions because they had to move out of deteriorating 40-year-old homes and also to accommodate a rapidly growing population.

The province has acknowledged the state of emergency declared on Oct. 28 but has not put any plans in place to renovate or build more housing, or as a last resort, to temporarily evacuate residents to safer accommodations.”

Why do we teach?  If not to prepare our children to be responsible, honourable, critically-observant adults, than why? 

Why do we teach?  If not to show our youth that the world has the potential to be a fair and just place, than why?

Why do we teach?  Listening to the chatter about the need to improve graduation rates and see success for our students and then you read an article where First Nations people are gearing up to spend another- ANOTHER- northern Ontario winter in tents.  We worry about the learning outcomes and listen to teachers and administrators and government officials complain about attendance, and the children are living in tents in NORTHERN Ontario this winter with no running water and no toilets.

Why do we spend so much time focussing on Aboriginal people as a problem in Aboriginal Education discussions?  I do not see Aboriginal people as a problem when I see articles like this.  I see the continuation of the blaming the victim for the issue and the refusal to take responsibility and actually do something.  Aboriginal education should focus, not just on Aboriginal people, but on everyone else as well.
Something needs to change.  I have been watching a short documentary with my Psychology class on the Stanford Prison Experiment, where students became both guards and prisoners, and serious abuses of power happened and serious dehumanization occured.  One of the comments from the researcher in the documentary was telling.  He showed another psychologist around the experiment and commented at length on how exciting it was and how much they were learning about human behaviour and he argued with her when she was objecting so much to the experiment.  Finally the objecting psychologist essentially said, "But they are suffering.  You are letting them suffer!"

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Not Genocide?

“I don’t view it (Indian Residential Schools) that way (as an act of cultural genocide), but it was certainly very negative to the retention of culture and if it had extended for another generation or two it might have been lethal, yes,”- Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan

“As we are all aware, the history of residential schools tells of an education policy gone wrong,”- Duncan.

The previous comments were made on October 27, 2011 during an announcement for a stained glass window to commemorate the survivors of the Indian Residential Schools. I was extremely disappointed to read these comments for more than the obvious reason. First, the comments and the outrage are only noted in Indigenous media, I have found nothing about it in the mainstream media, where only the commemoration plans were reported.
Secondly, there is no doubt that the residential school plan was an act of cultural genocide, if not physical genocide. Children died. Children were abused. Children were changed. Many families were broken and changed forever. The very buildings feel like scars on the landscape to me. I have spoken here before about how the schools have affected me, and to have this one truth denied, I don't know how to respond. What do I tell my Aboriginal students about their history and their family histories? Not genocide? They were only trying to kill the Indian in the child. They didn't fully succeed so it doesn't count?
I would like to remind teachers that our children are affected by the residential school experience and legacy. Do not let Minister Duncan's words affect your understanding of it. The schools were an act of genocide, denying it is also an assault on Aboriginal people. Please look at Article II of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and then take a close look at the residential schools. Take a look at the entire lived experience of many First Nations people.

Convention on the
Prevention and Punishment
of the Crime of Genocide
Article 2

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.


“I, along with so many of our people, feel if you consider what the term genocide means. It references to the killing of people. Our people died in residential schools…the residential school was cultural genocide; the attempt to, over the course of history, to kill the Indian in the child. And that has been the experience of our people.”-AFN Grand Chief Shawn Atleo.

And a couple of related posts: When the truth about what happened to people is told
And The ghosts that haunt me
The Mythological Indian

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

My Challenge Trying to Teach about the Occupy Movement

I haven't brought up the Occupy movement much in any of my classes. That is not to say we haven't had any discussion about it, just not a lot of it. This is something that I should rectify, I just haven't figured out the best way to approach it. I am not opposed to the reasons behind the movement, but I am unsure how to present it, particularly in light of my own feelings towards the phenomenon.

I am ambivalent towards the occupy movement, truth be told. As a First Nations person, I find it interesting that the movement appears to be protesting and fighting over issues that we have struggled over for years, decades. I have been concerned that this movement may be one that is a white, middle-class protest that wasn't interested in these struggles faced by the First Nations and other oppressed minority groups until those issues started to affect this group directly. I am aware that this is most likely an unfair generalization, I do not claim to know, or understand, what is in the hearts of other people. I am merely pointing out my feelings toward it. I am attempting to better educate myself on it, to learn more about it so that I can present a fair understanding to my students. Not easy to do, unfortunately as I am finding the movement is very different in different areas and the media coverage has not been consistent in presenting the message that needs to get out.

So, I can say that the term Occupy is not a nice one, particularly for someone like me, living on a reserve, with the knowledge that the surrounding territory is unceded land, some would argue, that is occupied by Canada. As you might recall, I once lamented the fact that groups using the language of the oppressor to fight for Indigenous rights usually lost me as a supporter. "Occupying" Native land to protest the current economic climate and corporate greed, is concerning when the perception I have is that the oppressed, in this situation, have been the bystanders when First Nations have tried to protest or stand up to government and corporate greed.

So... How do I teach about this? Any advice appreciated.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Aboriginal Veterans Day

"The thousands of miles that aboriginal soldiers travelled over the course of more than two centuries to help defend this country make up a thousand memories, so many of which have been ignored or lost. Yet these are the details of our history which we must remember, which we must commemorate."- Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson, June 21, 2001.

The day just past was November 8, 2011.
That is significant.
Every November 8, I have sent out an email to the staff at whichever school I have worked at, sharing with them that this day is Aboriginal Veterans Day in Canada. This is the day which has been set aside to honour the sacrifices of First Nations, Metis and Inuit men and women who volunteered to serve in the Canadian Armed Forces over the course of the various wars and military actions this country has involved itself in. I have encouraged the staffs to learn about the day and share it with their students. I have no idea if anybody ever has, beyond me.
November 8 was not set aside because Aboriginal Veterans wanted their own, separate day. I would like to clear that up now. Aboriginal Veterans fought in Canada's wars, lost their lives in Canada's wars, stood shoulder to shoulder with Canadian men and women. When they returned home, they were barred from receiving the same benefits that other soldiers received, saw their Aboriginal rights extinguished, which meant that they could not even return home to their communities. In some cases, those homes, their reserves, were carved up and sold to non-Native veterans who had earned the right to affordable land by fighting in Canada's name.
Aboriginal Veterans started their own associations to lobby for their rights. I remember hearing a story once that they could not really get help from the Royal Canadian Legion because there was a long while that Aboriginal people were not allowed to go into places that served alcohol. Places like legion halls. I cannot verify the truth of this. Whether it is true or not, it is true to the people that shared it with me, which tells me that there was an understanding of that.
My understanding of November 8 is an understanding of exclusion. Aboriginal Veterans were not permitted to take part in official Remembrance Day ceremonies, so they set aside a day of their own. A day to remember the sacrifices our Elders made in the name of the Canadian nation. Not just the sacrifices they made on the battlefield, but the ones they were forced to make when they returned home.
To date, Manitoba is the only province that officially recognizes Aboriginal Veterans Day, but if you do a search on Google, you will see videos and references to ceremonies all around the country.
In all the areas you won't find reference to it, one is particularly notable.
You won't see any references to Aboriginal Veterans Day in our public schools. At least I haven't found any yet.
I was later asked why we don't teach this, or acknowledge it. I had no answer beyond no one cares, and the truth is that is the truth. My understanding of it anyway. Non-Aboriginal people AND Aboriginal people have that narrow, colonial view of Aboriginal people. No one cares because no one challenges it. No one is teaching our stories, our histories.
As I have stated, this is my understanding.
Go look up Aboriginal Veterans Day. Learn it, please.
Teach it.