Of Orcas and Learning on the Land , article photo

Curriculum, Indigenous Learning

Of Orcas and Learning on the Land

CAILBE and the revitalizing of Indigenous, land-based learning

A THIN FOG hung above the restless water of Alaska’s Alexander Archipelago, veiling the mountains as they stood rooted in the ocean’s deep fjords. I had driven this route since the beginning of the school year nearly two months before. Timing the drive perfectly, I would arrive at the first bus stop, far up the finger-like inlet, at just the right moment to meet the two children who lived there at the end of their scamper from their front door, greeting them with my best bus-driver’s smile.

That morning, I noticed that I had arrived early at the widened shoulder a mile or two before that first, daily rendezvous. Wheeling the 11 ½-meter behemoth off of the highway, I chose to wait out my ten extra minutes here, where I could meditate on the rising sun and the scattering of the morning mists. Throughout Southeast Alaska the highways are chipped from the mountainsides along the water’s edge, and it was here, next to the perpetually rolling waves, that I now paused.

A sudden motion just off shore caught my eye. A deep, churning whirlpool pierced the surface of the waters. In a moment I was out of the bus and had hopped to a large boulder that rose above the rolling waves. No sooner had I landed than the black and white form of a killer whale drove three meters into the air beside me. Four meters out, the surface crashed with the fall of the returning whale. Immediately, I was aware of the pod, skimming, slicing and surfacing before me, to my right, to my left. Across the channel a second pod chased salmon in ritual feasting.

“Five minutes since I stopped…” I thought. “Perhaps I could collect the children early and return.” The engine fired; yes, the boy and his little sister (seven and five) headed out the door early as they saw the bus approaching.

As I was also completing a practicum in their school, I had seen these two children, who greeted me early each morning with such warmth, later in the day, dissolving into the social fabric of the school, silently disappearing. Conversations with the students themselves, their teachers and their parents revealed the deeper challenges they felt as they struggled to accommodate both traditional Tlingit values and the foreign expectations of formal academia. Their father was a world-renowned carver of Tlingit totems, some of which stood in European museums. Now his children, as well, were attempting to stand strong in their school.

“Why are we stopping here?”

“You’ll see. Look out there!”

“What is it?”

“It’s the orca. They have come here to eat.”

“Can we get out? What do they eat? Where are they going? How fast can an orca swim…?”

As the bus filled that day, I saw the two children melting again into silence, but as I glanced in my mirror from time to time, I saw a sparkle in their eyes, and I knew orcas played there.1 Over the course of the intervening 30 years, my work both in Alaska and on the Canadian prairies has taught me much about the value of land-based education. I have had the great privilege of sitting with many Elders, gaining insight into land-based learning as traditionally practiced and understood by the Tsimshian, Tlingit, Haida, Dene, Anishinaabe, Dakota, and Cree nations.

Institutionalized education and colonization

Settler societies around the world create educational institutions that function to perpetuate the philosophical understandings of the dominant culture. Consequently, they do a disservice to learners who are thereby deprived of broader understandings of the world. In the Canadian context, for example, children (Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike) might learn facts pertaining to the biology and habitat of killer whales, but they would not gain an understanding of the intricacies of relationship within the circle of creation.

The colonial, pedagogical structures within which educators are obliged to operate, both in terms of curriculum and instructional practice, consistently stand in stark contrast to understandings of the world that are rooted in diverse, Indigenous, philosophical perspectives. Teachers are required to hold forth in classrooms that are far removed from lessons that can be learned on the land. They are to teach classes of 25 or more with limited time for students and still less for those who are the silent ones. The inculcation of outcomes often supersedes real learning, and these outcomes reflect perspectives that have not been reconciled with philosophical truths found in Indigenous worldviews. Furthermore, learning on the land from the teachers one finds there is, all too often, discredited and deemed to be irrelevant and unquantifiable. Indigenous Elders, however, tell us that profound lessons can be learned from all whom we find on the land, including those of the winged, finned, plant, four and six-legged nations.

The educational machinery established by dominant, colonial culture exists to continue the larger societal systems. The enfranchised will remain enfranchised, and the marginalized will not escape marginalization in successive generations without a genuine process of reconciliation where alternative world-views are not only appreciated but embraced.

Of key concern, then, are questions of validation: are there not invaluable lessons being missed by all students when the lessons of the land, so familiar to traditional Indigenous individuals, are ignored? Stemming from this central philosophical concern arise other, practical considerations. For example, in what ways can the accomplishments and learning that take place on the land be validated, and how do we teach students to listen to the many teachers within the circle of creation?

Traditional land-based learning

 Traditional land-based learning presents in two distinct categories: learning that is imparted by Elders and/or traditional knowledge keepers in the community, and learning that derives from the land itself. Teachings received on and from the land fashion both conceptualizations of the world and moral understandings pertaining to self-conduct in the world. In support of this dynamic form of education, the Coalition for the Advancement of Indigenous, Land-Based Education (CAILBE) was originated in Canada and is now an international coalition built around the revitalization of traditional, Indigenous ways of learning on and from the land. With adherents from around the world and members in seven nations (Australia, Brazil, Canada, New Zealand, Nigeria, Sweden and the U.S.), CAILBE is dedicated to promoting governmental and institutional changes that result in the acknowledgement of Indigenous understandings regarding LBE and to assisting individual teachers in the development and inclusion of traditional LBE experiences for their students. This work is accomplished not through direct political action but through the empowerment of educators to take part in engineering real and lasting change. CAILBE has grown rapidly since its inception in June of 2016. CAILBE members have made a commitment to infuse the work that they are already doing with promotion of LBE and the philosophical perspectives that underlie it. Members with initiatives, questions or academic presentations are guided and supported by this international association. 

Dr. Richard Manning, CAILBE member from the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, NZ, has observed, “The last century of compulsory schooling has rendered young people disconnected from their… local ecologies of place.”2 If it is to be intuitive, land-based education (LBE) must begin early in life, frequently in the context of family structures and activities. Teachers seeking to implement Indigenous, land-based learning strategies have found that many students from almost every environment (not just “city kids”) lack these early, land-based learning experiences and must be given guidance in their first encounters with learning on the land.

Certainly, many teachers attempt to incorporate fieldtrips into the delivery of curricular outcomes. Although this is laudable, it does not reflect the realities of those who have learned deeply from the land. To pass through the natural environment on an excursion related to, for example, a science class, does not equate to this type of Indigenous, land-based learning. By contrast, in progressive models, students are taught the basic foundations of traditional LBE. (See Gakina Awiya Biindigeg below.)

Those who learn on the land must first develop a sense of respect for all the teachings that may be found there. Cree Elder Gerald Morgan frequently asks the students he teaches on the land if they have seen anything as they travelled to meet him in the bush. Very often they give a negative response, meaning that they have seen nothing that they consider noteworthy (e.g. moose, eagles, bears). Morgan then asks if they saw no trees, no sparrows, no rocks. He goes on to explain that the greatest lessons are often brought by the smallest of teachers. We are so schooled in hierarchical thinking of European origin that we fail to appreciate the smallest of these teachers.

Students who seek to learn on the land must also know how to wait long there. Lessons do not become a part of who we are until we consider deeply the implications for the way we walk in this world. In the same way that students must listen and observe closely to comprehend that which is being conveyed by a teacher in a classroom, so, too, learning on the land requires that keen attention be given in order to understand the lessons imparted there.

The goal of LBE within a great many Indigenous communities around the world is that each student learns to take his or her place in the circles of creation and community in a good way. This is the essence of the Anishinaabe/Cree teaching of pimatisiwin (walking in a good manner).3 To take our place well in the circle involves being in harmonious relationship with all others in the circle and with the Great Mystery (i.e. Creator) at the circle’s centre. We come to understand that all our relations in the circle can show what they have learned about these things, and, as respected teachers, they can guide us into better ways of being in the world as we learn from them on the land.

Dr. Maggie Walter, CAILBE member and University of Tasmania professor, describes Indigenous connection to the land in personal terms: “I am a descendant of the Trawlwoolway in Tasmania. The nation takes up the north east corner of Tasmania and is distinguished by wonderful white beaches, open wooded country and plentiful plant and animal resource around which our traditional people’s lifestyles were based. Not many of us live in the area these days – it is a relatively sparsely populated part of Tasmania – but if you travel there you can see the signs of our people’s occupation everywhere – in the midden lines in the sands and the shells along the beaches. You don’t have to be Aboriginal to understand our connection to country or to feel the continued presence of our ancestors in this place.”4

The future of land-based education

Clearly a significant paradigm shift must take place for land-based learning to be given weight in the schooling systems of settler societies. Some, such as Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, question whether this can be done at all.5 The argument here is that land-based learning and colonial educational practices are too disparate to be reconciled and that, should an individual seek to be educated on the land, the better course of action is to jettison any hope of incorporating this into the accredited procedures of education in mainstream schooling. 

On the other hand, recent trends in pedagogy in Canada and elsewhere have begun to explore differentiated ways of learning. These efforts represent positive steps toward recognizing, validating and normalizing the learning of students in traditional ways on the land. A groundswell of support for change, of which CAILBE is merely one manifestation, is seeking to alter the direction of current practices in education. As with most philosophical shifts, one must think in terms of generations rather than in terms of years. For this reason CAILBE members recognize that the greatest need is to present educational experiences to coming generations that reflect Indigenous understandings and values. The central aims are that Indigenous ideals become valued at a level that is at least on par with those of the larger settler-societies and that, as part of this shift, time be allotted for Indigenous land-based learning. As this becomes a reality, LBE could potentially become a transformative force in the development of all students.

The revitalization of Indigenous, land-based education may, in some jurisdictions, involve the creation of alternate, accredited tracks toward graduation in which Indigenous philosophy and LBE are central. At the very least, a greater openness to the involvement of traditional knowledge keepers in the imparting of understanding to students must be forthcoming. Legislative enactment of policy and law governing education most often supports and finances those systems deemed to be efficient in confirming the status quo; nevertheless, it is at this legislative level that change must, eventually, come. Therefore, those who understand the importance of traditional LBE must raise a collective voice, both by joining organizations such as CAILBE and by infusing their current practices in education with an appreciation for Indigenous values and world-views, including ways of knowing and learning on the land.

Gakina Awiya Biindigeg

The Gakina Awiya Biindigeg student group at Springfield Collegiate Institute in Oakbank, Manitoba, is one example of a progressive land-based learning program. For over a decade students who participated in this optional programming were regularly taken onto the land to learn from Elders and traditional people. The scope of this learning was extremely broad and included traditional values and teachings derived from the experiences encountered while in a variety of remote locations. Students were shown how to relate to the various teachers that are encountered on the land (e.g. the four-legged, many-legged, finned, winged), enabling them to learn directly from these teachers during independent ventures onto the land. When Elders felt that a student was ready s/he would be put out onto the land for a vision quest or other ceremony. Through the avenue of Manitoba’s cultural exploration credit, students were enabled to use this traditional learning towards graduation.


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Photo: iStock

First published in Education Canada, June 2018


1 The young boy mentioned in this story has now grown and has followed in his father’s footsteps as a carver. The young girl is a library assistant who has, among other things, initiated a children’s garden at the local public library where she works.

2 Richard Manning, Place, Power and Pedagogy: A Critical Analysis of the Status of Te Ātiawa Histories of Place in Port Nicholson Block Secondary Schools and the Possible Application of Place-Based Education Models ((PhD thesis, 2009): 56.

3 The late Dr. Mary Young elaborates on this concept in her book Pimatisiwin: Walking in a Good Way: A Narrative Inquiry into Language as Identity, (Winnipeg: Pemmican Publications, Inc., 2009).

4 Maggie Walter, “Meet the Presenter: Maggie Walter, Indigenous Studies,” Open 2 Study (August, 2014). https://blog.open2study.com/post/meet-presenter-maggie-walter-indigenous-studies

5 Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, “Land as Pedagogy: Nishnaabeg intelligence and rebellious transformation,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society. 3, no. 3 (2014). http://decolonization.org/index.php/des/article/view/22170

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ken mccorkle

Ken McCorkle


Ken McCorkle is a recognized authority in the field of Indigenous education and is a facilitator/moderator for the Coalition for the Advancement of Indigenous, Land-Based Education. Over the course of...

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