Thursday, January 24, 2013

Idle No More... as a college teacher

Mary in a Cowichan sweater, knitted for her by her grandmother, Edna Grant Point, in 1976. Photo by Simonida Jocie

This is a former student of mine, Mary Point, at an Idle No More rally. I’d say that I am proud of her but that would imply that I had something to do with her accomplishments and I wouldn’t want to make a claim like that.

She is a member of the Musqueam nation and is very active in the Aboriginal communities. Her energy seems boundless and I become exhausted just thinking of all that she does. An introvert like me could never keep up with an extrovert like her!

Though she was certainly not my first Native student, working with Mary prompted me to spend a few semesters learning about working with Aboriginal students. I have only scratched the surface of all there is to know but here are a few things I learned that seem really important as a teacher.
And this is just British Columbia! From:
1. There is not one unified Aboriginal community or nation. North America is made up of many First Nations, all with their own customs, culture, and beliefs. Just as Europe is made up of many nations, so too is this land here.

Students in the First Nations House of Learning at the University of British Columbia. From:

2. Aboriginal communities are extremely vibrant and active in their reclamation and assertion of their past, present, and future cultural identities. This includes a great Native vibrancy within academia. 

3. There is no way to over-estimate the terrible impact of both the residential schools and the “Big Scoop” on First Nations. One of the impacts most relevant to me as a teacher, is that many Native people have a deep and deserved mistrust of the Western educational system. Who wouldn’t?

4. Aboriginal cultures are not Western cultures. As an English teacher, I take for granted certain narrative and rhetorical techniques that I realize are foreign to many Aboriginal people. I’m hired to teach certain writing, reading, and thinking skills that are fundamentally Western. How I do this while still respecting my students’ cultures is a constant struggle for me. I’ve made it a policy to always include Aboriginal content in all of my courses. May I humbly suggest Thomas King’s The Truth About Stories as a really good place for English teachers to start?
Writing a style blog, who could possibly resist posting a photo of the gorgeous and stylish Buffy Sainte-Marie?

Okay, two photos!
Eden Robinson, whose novel, Monkey Beach, blew me away.
Louise Erdrich, yet another woman who can teach us a thing or two about style, beauty, and grace.
Others I find helpful in my teaching context include: Buffy Sainte-Marie, singer, song writer, and educator; Louise Erdrich, fiction writer; Darrell Dennis, journalist; and Eden Robinson, fiction writer. 
That’s it. That’s all my non-wisdom. I’m not one to speak for others, I hope, when I know they’re doing a damned good job of speaking for themselves.

Addendum: Do watch the glorious Buffy Sainte-Marie at an Idle No More Rally in Manitoba on Jan. 28, 2013. Click here.

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