Traditional Indigenous Knowledge in a Modern-day Classroom

Traditional Indigenous Knowledge in a Modern-day Classroom

March 3, 2017
By
Sophia Hunter, Teacher, Librarian, CHS Junior School

This past week, the Junior School was fortunate to host a storyteller and performer from the Squamish and Musqueam Nations. Rebecca Duncan presented engaging Coast Salish stories, songs and dances to grades 1 to 7. We arranged this visit through The Talking Stick Festival. This annual event promotes Indigenous culture through the arts. In addition to school workshops, like the one presented by Rebecca, there are plays, musical shows and other opportunities to connect with local Aboriginal artists.
 
Hosting an Indigenous artist is an important component of the objectives of British Columbia’s new curriculum. In the past, Aboriginal knowledge was often presented in the past tense, if at all. This type of presentation inadvertently played into stereotypes of Indigenous peoples as unevolving. One of the goals of the new curriculum is to highlight the contributions of Aboriginal philosophies to contemporary society. For example, many Indigenous groups are leaders of the environmental movements dominating headlines today, from Standing Rock to the Whanganui River in New Zealand, which has gained legal personhood status due to the efforts of the local Maori population. To understand how a river gains personhood, all citizens need to know how Indigenous populations use, value and share natural resources. Approaches based on statements such as “Coast Salish people used to live in longhouses” are inadequate to prepare students to engage and thrive in a city, like Vancouver, that is debating new pipelines with strong objections from some local Indigenous communities.
 
While maintaining a focus on contemporary Indigenous contributions to society, it is important to remember the historical role of the education system in residential schools. Although we view education positively, and wouldn’t be teachers if we did not, we must remember that education was the tool of oppression used to enable cultural genocide in government-funded, church-run schools. Acknowledging the power of education, both to harm and heal, is foundational to reconciliation.
 
Providing our students with the opportunity to hear directly from Aboriginal community members is essential. Rebecca Duncan’s visit helps our students understand that the Squamish and Musqueam nations are vibrant communities. Her voice brings the authenticity and connections we strive to nurture as part of the new curriculum. We are learning from First Nations, not about them.
 
One grade seven student asked Rebecca after her performance if her nation adds new stories over time, or do they always share old ones? This astute question captures the issue of dynamic communities. Aboriginal cultures are changing, are contemporarily relevant, while maintaining their own ways of being. Rebecca responded to the student that the adventure of being one of the host nations for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics has become a favourite story for her children and is often retold and shared.
 
The Talking Stick Festival is a wonderful resource that allows us to bring Aboriginal voices and perspectives into our classrooms. The opportunity to bring the stories and lessons of Musqueam and Squamish cultures to life is one we look forward to fostering every year.