Oki, Niisokowa. Nistoakoak Piikanikoan. Greetings, all my relations. My name is Ira Provost. I am a member of the Piikani Nation, who are members of the Blackfoot Confederacy of what is now known as Southern Alberta in Canada and the Northern State of Montana in the United States of America. I participate and am extensively involved in my Blackfoot culture.
I am an Indigenous educator. My career has granted me a decade-long experience in Indigenous education and educational programming as the Program Coordinator or Administrator of First Nations, Métis and Inuit (FNMI) Education Programs for a Southern Alberta school district. Although I have moved on from schools, my entire professional career has been, and continues to encompass, the role of educating non-Indigenous people about my Blackfoot Culture. It is a role and responsibility that I carry with astute honor and integrity.
Project of Heart
I returned to my First Nation as Manager of the Piikani Traditional Knowledge Services, my community’s on-reserve cultural centre. The local school districts often reach out to our organization to provide cultural awareness lessons and instruction to staff and students. On once such occasion, I got a call from the Livingstone Range FNMI Success Coordinator, Georgina Henderson, who invited me to a classroom presentation in Stavely, Alberta. Stavely is a small town in Alberta that would typically not have any Indigenous population in their community. It was not unusual to get a call from small towns in the area to come and present; as a centre, we’ve been to nearly all of them. But this time it was different.
The event was entitled the “Project of Heart Launch.” Invited guests included school board trustees, the superintendent, Stavely’s school principal, FNMI support personnel, and Elders from the Indigenous community. The teacher and project lead, Julaine Guitton, began the presentation by explaining that the students were engaged in a year-long project to learn about the Canadian residential school system. At this event the students had already had frequent lessons and teachings on residential schools, beginning with Orange Shirt Day in September. Each student had prepared a short speech about what they had learned, how they felt about it, and what they hoped they could learn from this point on. The speeches and presentations were absolutely amazing! The students were genuinely interested in their studies and the Indigenous people in attendance were deeply moved by the presentations. They concluded their day with a small feast and conversation with all staff and students.
I was greatly impressed and, like the other invited FNMI guests, was blown away by what was presented and what we had heard! In my view, and by all accounts, meaningful exchange and understanding of Indigenous people took place.
Based upon my experience, qualifications, and background, I believe Project of Heart was a great example of Indigenous learning because of the following:
Indigenous Education = Universal Education
One of the first impressions I had of the students and the project was that Julaine, the teacher, showed that learning about Indigenous people can take place regardless of your location.Many times in my career I have I heard teachers and school districts debate whether or not learning about Indigenous people or programs should take place as there were no identified First Nations, Métis, or Inuit students in the school. Stavely’s Project of Heart showed this was not the case.
In North America, whether you are near a First Nation reserve or Métis settlement or not, you are in someone’s Indigenous traditional territory. It is therefore important that you know and support who those nations are, as this leads to meaningful engagement with Indigenous communities. You can find out which nation’s traditional territory you are in by contacting the nearest First Nation administration office.
What does “meaningful” mean?
Meaningful engagement with the Indigenous community means taking the time to develop a relationship and nurturing that relationship for mutually beneficial success.
According to many anecdotal comments from the local Indigenous parents I’ve heard from over the years in schools, and from being a parent myself, school personnel do not take enough time to get to know the Indigenous community. I’ve witnessed many occasions where the school staff and students could not identify who their Indigenous neighbours are. Often school communities off reserves do not understand the Indigenous community norms, values and beliefs. Most times these norms and beliefs are quite contradictory to regular school policies and procedures. However, these differences do not mean that the Indigenous community does not value education – quite the contrary. Elders from the many communities I’ve worked with in multiple traditional territories give the same message – that education is important – and encourage their youth to value and attain their education.
Julaine and her students took time before and after their launch to keep the relationship going through local visits and exchanges with the Blackfoot community throughout their school year.
Beyond the provincial program of studies
Indigenous education is most effective when the learning goes beyond what is recommended or taught in the provincially mandated Program of Studies. This means that when teachers develop relationships with the Indigenous community, they must nurture that relationship and take measures to ensure it grows. There are many possibilities for utilizing Indigenous knowledge in the classroom to teach and benefit all students.
The primary reason that I believe the project has worked, and will continue to work in the education of these students, is that the learning was organic, interwoven into the continuum of their academic program over a long period of time. The teachings will continue to be a significant part of the Stavely students’ education going forward because the lessons were not structured or confined into a “one-time” or “one and done” unit/thematic lesson approach. Like Indigenous knowledge itself, the teaching of Indigenous knowledge needs “flow” and time to take root.
This Project of Heart stands out for me in the fact that Julaine didn’t wait for training or learning experiences to be provided or for the curriculum to be revamped – she saw the need and she and her class took responsibility for educating themselves.
Generally speaking, non-Indigenous people tend to not take the first step to learn more about Indigenous people. When non-Indigenous people/educators reach out to understand Indigenous cultures, the Indigenous embrace the learners any way they can, as many Indigenous Nations refer to the value of generosity and compassion. When one is willing to learn and place their “Heart” into it, the best learnings come, and yes, Indigenous communities share.
The best advice I have for readers is that there are no quick solutions, lesson plans or instructional keys to creating great teaching moments in Truth and Reconciliation.
Truth and Reconciliation
In 2015, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission released the 94 Calls to Action. There are a number of the Calls to Action that address education and our need as a Canadian society to correct the gaps that continue to exist in education as one step to “reconciling” with Indigenous communities. In my graduate studies I looked at the life cycle of a teacher: post-secondary student, pre-service teacher, new teacher, and existing classroom teacher. I found that, at the present time, there is very little requirement for teachers to have Indigenous Studies as a significant part of their education to attain their teaching degree, to begin or to continue teaching in classrooms. As a result, there exist many gaps still evident in today’s education system regarding appropriate education for and about, and created with, the local Indigenous community and why these particular Calls to Action exist.
The important step in understanding how to realize the potential in the Calls to Action is to not take action without an Indigenous person to guide your curricular/program development. There is a myriad of possibilities as to how to create meaningful programming and they are quite easy to implement. But educators cannot possibly create educational programming without understanding what their Indigenous communities need and what their values are. Although fascinating, learning about the Haudenosaunee and Iroquois Confederacy is not as valuable as learning about the Blackfoot Confederacy when in Blackfoot Traditional Territory.
The best advice I have for readers is that there are no quick solutions, lesson plans or instructional keys to creating great teaching moments in Truth and Reconciliation. Julaine and her students showed that their learning took a lot of work and time and they achieved so much more at the end of their year by doing so.
As an Indigenous educator, Blackfoot knowledge keeper and ceremonialist, I will always look back and continually reference this Project of Heart as one that should and could be modelled in classrooms and schools across the country. I, as an Indigenous parent, strive to have my Indigenous heritage respected and appropriately represented and taught in my child’s school. For me, the Project of Heart attained what I hoped Indigenous education could be, an equal and balanced relationship between a teacher and her Indigenous community. Throughout the students’ journey, several of them came forward and acknowledged they were of Indigenous heritage and felt comfort in doing so. I believe it was a first time for the school.
I wish Staveley school and students and all readers a happy journey through Canada’s reconciliation. It really is a new dawn for a better next 150 years.
Katamustin (Blackfoot: Until we speak/meet again).
Photo: Courtesy Julaine Guitton
First published in Education Canada, June 2018