Originally from Mi’kmaq territories in the Wabanaki Confederacy (Moncton, New Brunswick), I now live on the unceded lands of Lekwungen-speaking peoples (Victoria, BC). Like many professors in education, I am a white settler; my specific ethnicities are Acadian and Scottish. Unlike most professors, I come from a solidly working class background, and am a first generation university graduate. I am also a bisexual, cisgender woman, hold a PhD in Educational Policy Studies, and research LGBTQ issues in education and childhood theory. It is from this standpoint that I am writing about my own experiences of Indigenizing my courses and pedagogies.
While ashamed to admit so now, I was initially hostile to Indigenous ways of knowing. My family and community life were steeped in the casual racism that- while glaringly obvious to me now- were invisible matters of course to me then. Even as a young adult, my attitudes fluctuated between variations on “why can’t they just get over it?” and “colonization wasn’t all bad, at least it brought improved technology and better standards of living.”
Upon reflection, I recognize now that I felt threatened by knowledge of colonization, and more specifically, how my presence on this land contributed to its ongoing effects. I felt like I was being blamed for something (i.e. existing on this land where I had no business being) that I hadn’t actually chosen. Considering the ways in which I benefit from white supremacy, it seems odd to think of it in this way, but at that time, I felt powerless. I hadn’t chosen to be born on this land, and now that I was here, I didn’t know what to do about it other than to leave. I passively resented Indigenous people, and actively avoided learning about colonization because of these feelings of guilt and powerlessness.
This began to change in my B Ed program at the University of New Brunswick in 2009. A few of my fellow social justice-minded friends were outraged that there were no Indigenous-focused courses in our program, and lobbied to be allowed to take one at UNB’s Mi’kmaq-Wolastoqey Centre. Taught by Maliseet leader David Perley, this is when I began the journey of decolonizing myself both personally and professionally. Taking cues from my white classmates (the politics of which I will analyze later), I saw how white people, rather than being resistant to knowledge of colonialism, could be active treaty partners. I was able to lower my defensiveness enough to listen, really listen to the wisdom that David shared each Monday evening. Throughout our work together, I started recognizing how much I didn’t know, and how as an aspiring public school teacher who would be employed by the state, it was my responsibility to fill in those gaps.
There was no turning back. Prior to David’s class, I had, at best, an “add-and-stir” approach to Indigenous content; an approach that as a feminist, infuriated me when applied to women. Drawing on an extensive background in feminist organizing, I already had many of the conceptual frameworks with which to scaffold new learning about colonialism and racism. I began practicing self talk, asking myself “replace ‘Indigenous’ with woman—would I feel the same way?” when reading news articles, or talking with colleagues. I saw my role as akin to male allies in feminist circles, or straight folks in gay rights.
It is from this conceptual base that I approach Indigenous resurgence as a university instructor. Rather than tacking Indigenous content in an isolated week, there are Indigenous perspectives and materials braided throughout my syllabi, and present in each week’s topics. I often aim to have more than one Indigenous resource included in each week, so that students can see the diversity and heterogeneity within Indigenous scholarship. I am also mindful to provide a spectrum of types of materials, so that there aren’t just scholarly or professional articles, but also lesson plans, picture books, websites, and other resources that my students in the B Ed program can take directly in to the classroom. A Cree graduate student recently commented on this feature of the syllabus, writing:
“The course you have designed here is by far the most safe and inclusive I’ve ever experienced. Thank you.”
The student is referring to the course on childhood theory that I teach at the University of Alberta, I have attached the syllabus to these materials as an example of an Indigenized syllabus.
In light of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s findings, I have the TRC’s recommendations for education framed in my office as a daily and public reminder that I am professionally accountable as a treaty partner. Since the TRC, I am mindful of balance. I am working on avoiding the “single story” narrative wherein “Indigenous” becomes automatically associated with the trauma of residential schools. One way that I am working with this is counting how many materials I have that are specific to residential schools, and then making sure that I have an equal number, or more, that are Indigenous-focused but not about residential schools.
Many of my students speak in class, or write in their assignments, about how Indigenous knowledges need to be incorporated so as to better support Indigenous students. While validating that this is important, I have begun to challenge them on this, asking if Indigenous knowledges and pedagogies should be included even when there are no Indigenous students in the room. These questions have led to deep and fruitful class discussions around whose knowledge is deemed valuable and for whom.
One of the features of my courses is a “Values Assignment,” wherein students rate how they feel (agree/neutral/disagree), and provide rationales about provocative statements such as “our society values all children equally,” or “childhood is a time of innocence.” They submit this assignment three times, at the beginning, middle, and end of the semester. Without fail, students literally shift their thinking on many questions, and write that this is due to learning about colonialism in our course. I have attached an appendix with an example of how a student changed her views on childhood across cultures as a direct example of how Indigenizing a syllabus can contribute to changing views.
I was recently hired to teach a course on professional identity with a pre-designed syllabus at the University of Victoria. Noticing that it had precisely no Indigenous materials, I contacted the Indigenous Resurgence Coordinator in our faculty, and asked if we could meet to indigenize my course. Not feeling right about having her perform all of the academic and emotional labour of such a monumental task, I took a crack at the syllabus myself, filling in the gaps where I could. When Chaw-win-is and I did meet, at least she wasn’t starting from scratch. I have attached three copies of my syllabus to this document. The first is the syllabus I was given from the course’s other instructors (“410 Version 1”), the second is the one that I had prepared prior to meeting with Chaw-win-is (“410 Version 2”), and the third is the product of Chaw-win-is and my work together (“410 Final Version”).
Working with Chaw-win-is has been an essential part of decolonizing myself, both personally and professionally. It is within this relationship that I have been able to get more comfortable with my role as a treaty partner. I have been able to ask questions, hear where I’m going wrong, and problem-solve to make things go right. She has been generous with her time, her friendship, and her extensive professional knowledge, and I am certain that through and because of this relationship, I will become a better treaty partner.
Lessons Learned and Moving Forward
In reflecting on this journey, there are a few lynchpins that enabled my growth. The first, shamefully, was the modeling that my white peers did in my B Ed program. Seeing other white people demand Indigenized education prompted me to reconceptualize my own whiteness. While I wish that this had not had such influence, there it is.
The second were the conceptual frameworks that being a feminist and LGBTQ rights activist afforded me. When I was eventually able to open myself to the legacies of historical and ongoing colonialism, these knowledges “fit” with what I knew already about power, oppression, and violence. Rather than starting from scratch, there was a cognitive system already in place that was able to analyze and make sense of difficult and uncomfortable truths.
Without those two things- the modeling from white peers, and the conceptual frameworks amenable to new social justice knowledge, I fear that I would not have been able to hear, and really listen to, the teachings of Indigenous scholars and Elders. I would have been exposed to them, but not internalized them. I am therefore mindful of these two change lynchpins in my Indigenizing work. As a white person, I aim to model how white folks can be active partners in decolonization. I simultaneously point out the privilege I have, as a white settler, when talking about colonialism; that my Indigenous colleagues speak about many of the same things, but how my whiteness often allows the same truths to be heard.
Dr. Lindsay Herriot
(reproduced and shared with permission)