February 2, 2008

Indigenous peoples and the Mis-Education

Written By Dustin Rivers for the December Issue of Capilano Courier.

Duncan Campbell Scott, who headed the federal department of Indian Affairs at the beginning of the 20th century once stated, “Our object is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question.” and for almost 200 years, indigenous peoples of this land have endured a wretched existence at the hands of colonialism, and a colonial education system that was a key element of Canada’s Indian assimilation policy. Western societies have more often than not equated education with intelligence. Yet throughout history, indigenous peoples around the world have had very different understandings of and experiences with learning. For thousands of years, indigenous practices of learning, sharing knowledge, and cultural continuity existed without tests, grades, or degrees. The current situation for indigenous peoples trying to “succeed” in a society that puts so much stock in institutionalised education is thus doubly difficult, as it runs counter to all of their traditions.

Dominant Western views tell us that humans are not animals, yet we truly are. We are learning, human animals. For humanity, learning is an intuitive compulsion and it is not something we need to be forced to do. Institutional education interferes with this inherent desire for knowledge. It stifles creativity and encourages obedience.

Prior to contact, indigenous learning was a community effort. Local indigenous societal structure emphasized the importance of extended family relations and building an intricate community life. Within a nation, there often existed tribes who shared a common language, culture, and kinship ties. Within the tribes existed different clans, and within them existed different houses, usually made up of multiple families (although Coast Salish cultures did not have the same clan system as other coastal peoples).

In traditional Skwxwu7mesh (also known by the Anglicized misnomer, “Squamish”) culture, children were raised by the community as a whole. Elders, adults and children would all be taught in a similar manner. As children matured into young adults, they would go through “coming of age” or “rites of passage” training. This training would focus on a particular role, job, or position in the community that would benefit the people. Roles included: hunters, fishers, canoe builders, basket or wool weavers, spiritual doctors, medicine people, leaders and many more. Natural talents were observed and nurtured by mentors. This was all a part of the learning experience for children.

The process of knowledge sharing, or “education,” was a community effort, with no institutionalized force to “educate children.” Children would grow and through growing they would learn. Typically in a community, mentors would teach individuals different tools to learn. Self-discipline, patience, wisdom, and listening built the foundation for freedom of thought in community life. Festivals, ceremonies, and other events were highlighted to specifically train and teach the younger generations.

This way of life and worldview existed for thousands of years until European imperialists who viewed it as inferior enacted destructive policies of assimilation to further the conquest of the land and people. Residential schools run by Roman Catholic, Anglican, and United churches were funded by the federal Department of Indian Affairs. By forcibly removing indigenous children from their families and communities and placing them in residential schools, church and state policy worked to “civilize” and assimilate the Indians.

Threats of death, starvation, and other coercive tactics were employed on parents and children who resisted. By cutting the children off from their families, the government effectively broke the cycle of knowledge sharing. This atomistic approach to education had existed in Western cultures for a long time but would have devastating impacts on indigenous communities.

Indigenous people were faced with a cruel dilemma. Freedom and prosperity in the western world often meant alienation from the indigenous community. It was a give and take scenario: Learn the colonists’ ways at the cost of alienation in order to better help their own people. Ironically, this Western education disempowered indigenous people from their own senses of purpose, ways of living, and worldviews. The only way to get power was to assimilate culturally and religiously through the residential schools. By conceding and becoming a part of the system, many believed they would be able to save their people. These ideas and this internal conflict are very much alive today.

However, the large proportion of indigenous students in British Columbia who do not graduate sends a signal that something is wrong. But most efforts to reform the system will only make it better at killing creativity. By wheedling, bribing, or bullying children into learning, society is educating them out of their creative capacities. Many talented, creative children think they are not, because what they want to learn isn’t valued. They fear being wrong or stigmatized for making mistakes and continue to feel inferior.

Dividing children into groups based on age, separated from the real world, dislodges then from natural learning with adults (those older then themselves). In this institutional scenario, adults are seen as authoritarian figures, not mentors or friends. This all adds up to a place where the idea of learning freely, like we did before we started school, is not taken seriously at all. We connect learning with school so strongly that we eventually grow to hate learning. This is in contrast to the notion that when we were children, learning was just life, not a part of life that goes on for allotted periods of time.

For most indigenous peoples, the cycle continues like every other group in this apparatus. Children are coerced into schools with the same myths as before: that a western education equals prosperity and healthy indigenous communities.

The future of any learning or education with indigenous or settler will need “people who love learning so much and learn so well that they will be able to learn what ever needs to be learned” (John Holt). Systems around the world have the similar hierarchies of education: mathematics, science, languages, humanities, art, music, drama, then dance. No education system in the world teaches dance the way we teach mathematics but perhaps we should. Schools should teach any subject that wants to be learned with equal status and respect.
Children need respect and deserve to be treated with dignity. All we need to do is give children guidance when they need and ask for it and to be able to listen respectfully when they feel like talking. We must then trust them to do the rest. With plenty of access to the real world, with guides, advice, and road maps to help them get where they want to go, and not where we think they should go, we’ll have a generation who will learn whatever needs to be learnt in the future because they will love learning.

This issue is a human issue but indigenous people have a vested interest and opportunity in this drastic need for change because our cultures were ripped from us. We had a way of life that exemplified a love of learning. It was not so long ago when learning was held in high esteem and recognized for its foundational contribution to community development. This struggle to attain a society that lives freely in learning is a struggle to regain our rights, culture, and land.


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