Decolonization Through Two-Eared Listening
The integral role of listening to Indigenous community voices and stories
Photo caption: Chief Mi’sel Joe facilitates the final Elders’ sharing circle for 2-Eared Listening.
During a 2018 National Restorative Justice Week event in Newfoundland and Labrador, panellist Chief Mi’sel Joe of Miawpukek First Nation concluded his remarks with, “If you want to know about restorative justice, just ask.”
dorothy vaandering, Co-Chair of the Restorative Justice Education Consortium-NL, which hosted the event (and co-author of this article), took up the invitation. This developed into a collaboration with the Chief, a group of Memorial University colleagues, and an Indigenous community advisory committee to plan a gathering that contributed to decolonizing the way many participants thought about justice. The collaboration resulted in Two-Eared Listening for Deeper Understanding: Restorative Justice in NL, a community-wide event that hosted 170 people with diverse roles in government, education, community, and justice contexts. This event came to be called The Gathering (influenced by Hager & Miwopiyane, 2021). It reflected Mi’kmaw scholar Marie Battiste’s (2002) description of decolonizing education, in that it was an opportunity to raise the collective voices of Indigenous peoples, expose the injustices of colonial history, and contribute to deconstructing the social, political, economic, and emotional reasons for the silencing of Indigenous voices (p. 20).
Chief Joe stated that the primary responsibility of The Gathering would be to create space for truth-telling about settler colonialism’s past and ongoing violence against Indigenous peoples. He said, “Never have Indigenous peoples in this province had an opportunity to tell their stories.” Such truth-telling is an act of decolonization (Waziyatawin, 2005).
From the start of the planning, Chief Joe guided the group to focus on how the work we were engaged in was and would be truth-telling. “Before you can restore justice, you need to listen to the stories of injustice. At the heart of justice is listening,” he said. As such, the Gathering grew into an opportunity for non-Indigenous people to listen and learn about Indigenous history in the province from the lived experience of Indigenous Peoples. The role of listening was accentuated by fact that non-Indigenous leaders, whose voices are typically privileged, were not given roles as speakers but, instead, were explicitly tasked as listeners.
The shared stories reflected the impact of colonization both pre and post Newfoundland and Labrador joining the Confederation of Canada in 1949, amplifying the explicit choices made by various governments to “write Indigenous people out of existence.” Elders Emma Reelis and Ellen Ford spoke about their experiences in residential schools and their lives as Inuit women. Chief Mi’sel Joe and Chief Brendan Mitchell (Qalipu First Nation) spoke about their respective communities’ complex histories and the impact of uninformed decisions made by provincial governments, and Elder Calvin White described the impact of imposed hunting and fishing regulations on the social fabric of his community. Elder Elizabeth Penashue shared the catastrophic impact on the Innu Nation of NATO’s decision to practise low-level flying over their living and hunting territory, disrupting every aspect of their lives. The current Indigenous communities’ realities were also shared and illustrated how colonial attitudes persist, as their successes and needs continue to be supplanted by the dominant population’s more “pressing” demands. These stories are not commonly known, as demonstrated by their absence from courses and learning resources at all levels of formal education in the province.
Indigenous culture was woven into The Gathering through daily smudging, a Mide-wiigwas, music, and on-site meals that reflected the cultural importance of sharing food. People gathered in a unique environment purposefully set up for truth-telling and for deep listening to Indigenous stories of injustice that would challenge many participants in ways not ordinarily experienced.
Listening with two ears
A Two-Eared Listening protocol was shared with participants. It read:
Elders tell us that we have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen more than we talk.
At the Two-Eared Listening Gathering, we invite participants to listen deeply with the intention of learning and understanding. Deep listening requires the listener to receive new information through an open mind and to suspend judgment with an open heart.
Two-eared listening is an act of conciliation by promoting respectful relationships through building trust and nurturing understanding.
As you participate in this Gathering, please:
- Listen with two ears
- Be open to receiving new learning
- Suspend judgment
- Listen with intention
- Purposefully engage in (re)conciliation
Such listening is an important component of decolonization work as all sectors of Canadian society strive to implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) Calls to Action (2015a). To practically support participants in engaging fully with these five elements, the Gathering space was designated as “technology-free” from the start.
Elements of two-eared listening
Listen with two ears: Listening to stories of injustice involves more than hearing the sounds of words being spoken; it involves more than listening with our ears. Two-eared listening involves listening with our emotions as well. Stó:lō educator and researcher Jo-Ann Archibald (2008) describes listening with “three ears: two on the sides of our head and the one that is in our heart” (p. 8). Chief Joe explains that listening in this way communicates a sense of caring to the speaker:
“Injustice is about hurt and pain so that brings in parts of our body, including the heart and soul. [This talking] includes body language [and] knowing someone is listening and caring. If you are listening from your core, you will understand the telling of these stories of justice and injustice.” (Joe, vaandering, et al., 2022)
According to Métis scholar Jo-Ann Episkenew (2009), Indigenous stories generate empathy, enabling settlers “… to understand Indigenous people as fellow human beings. Empathy, in turn, has the potential to create a groundswell of support for social-justice initiatives to improve the lot of Indigenous people” (pp. 190–191).
Be open to receiving new learning: Deep listening involves listening to and understanding stories that have come from different life experiences and through different lenses that challenge the dominant narrative. For example, assumptions that land is “empty” and thus open for resource extraction or military exercises shifts to realizations that land is teeming with life. Taking in new learning may require adjusting the frame of reference through which the world is understood. Mezirow (1997) explains that “frames of reference are the structures of assumptions through which we understand our experiences” (p.5) and “We transform our frames of reference through critical reflection on the assumptions upon which our interpretations, beliefs, and habits of mind or points of view are based” (p. 7). In this way, decolonizing requires a transformation of our frames of reference.
Suspend judgment: Two-eared listening requires that we listen without judgment. In responding to questions about residential school records, Father Ken Thorson (Findlay, 2022), a Canadian Oblate priest, speaks to the importance of how we listen:
“… too often the institutions… have led the conversation, have set the narrative. And we’re in a time now when, rightly, Indigenous Peoples are setting the narrative and are full partners in the conversation… our primary role at this time is to humbly listen to our Indigenous brothers and sisters, their experience, their pain and not to judge, but to listen.”
Suspending judgment allows the listener to take in what is being said and hold it with an open mind. Reactions are replaced with opportunities for change and understanding.
Listen with intention: Cree scholar Dwayne Donald describes colonization as the “extended process of learning to deny relationships” (2022). At the core of this, there is an “intentional imposition of a particular way of understanding life and living, understanding human beings, understanding knowledge and knowing… a gridwork of understanding knowledge and knowing” (2022). Listening deeply and learning from the stories of others, particularly stories that are counter narratives, challenges this gridwork way of understanding the world. Two-eared listening is listening with a willingness to hear what is said with the possibility that what I hear will change me. Two-eared listening becomes part of the extended process to nurture relationships.
Purposefully engage in (re)conciliation: The act of two-eared listening has the potential for leading people into authentic engagement with (re)conciliation. “By listening to your story, my story can change. By listening to your story, I can change” (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015b, p. 15). This reciprocal act of listening to the truth leads to contemplation, meditation, and internal deliberation (Augustine in Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015b, p. 13). However, given that harm was inflicted by societies of people promoting colonizing ways of being, the act of reconciliation will be embodied when non-Indigenous people of privilege move beyond tokenizing and consulting with Indigenous peoples and embrace being led by Indigenous people.
BEFORE THE FINAL MEAL together, Chief Joe concluded the Gathering symbolically by inviting everyone to stand in a large circle holding hands for a final prayer. His closing words, “Go in peace, be friends, enjoy,” encapsulated the common feeling in the room. The deeper understanding gained through two-eared listening to injustices experienced by Indigenous Peoples was palpable. Two-eared listening had shown itself to be a universal skill across the diversity of those present for respectfully engaging in an active process that is traditionally understood as passive. As truths of injustice were shared, participants listened with intention, opened their minds to new learning, and suspended judgment. They slowed down in order to truly witness the truths, focused on being present, and did not rush toward desired predefined outcomes. The challenge of listening (and not talking) permeated every aspect of The Gathering. Those who planned the event, and those who responded to the invitations to share or to listen, caught a glimpse over three days together of what is possible in establishing a context for the stories and truths of members of multiple Indigenous groups in Newfoundland and Labrador to be heard.
Drawing on Palmer (1980), we must listen our way into a new kind of thinking. And this, in turn, can become the basis of reconciled relationships.
IDEAS for Educators
IDEAS for Educators: Two-eared listening with colleagues
Present the term, along with the statement that we have two ears and one mouth so we can listen more than we talk, to the group you are working with in a staff or committee meeting.
Explain the five components of two-eared listening, then invite them to think about what this will mean for:
- staff meetings
- conversations with students
- conversations with parents.
Use a talking circle with one round for each topic for colleagues to share their ideas. Finish with a 4th round for each to summarize their key learning from hearing each other’s ideas.
IDEAS for Educators: Two-eared listening with K–6 students
Present the term two-eared listening along with the statement that we have two ears and one mouth so we can listen more than we talk.
- Invite students to make a drawing of this idea (see examples at www.twoearedlistening.com).
- Brainstorm in small groups for a definition of what this might mean.
- Explain the five components and Chief Mi’sel Joe’s definition. How are their definitions the same/different?
- Ask: How do you feel when someone listens to you with two ears? How does it feel when they only listen to you with one ear?
- Ask students to identify two-eared and one-eared listening in a story they read or watch.
IDEAS for Educators: Two-eared listening with 7–12 students
Present the term two-eared listening along with the statement that we have two ears and one mouth so we can listen more than we talk.
- Have an initial discussion about what they think it might mean, then present the five components and Chief Mi’sel Joe’s definition.
- Discuss how the definitions were the same or different, and what might be some underlying factors for the difference.
- Ask questions such as:
- How can I show I’m listening with two ears when learning new concepts in [math, gym, science, art, social studies, music, literature …]?
- Is there ever a time when listening with one ear is acceptable?
- Invite students to identify evidence of one- and two-eared listening in a selected current events account.
 Traditional Mi’kmaw giveaway.
Acknowledgement: Event funded by SSHRC and Memorial University.
Photo: Bob Brink
First published in Education Canada, January 2023
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