Two Bowled Peace Pipe

Curriculum, Equity, Indigenous Learning

The Best of Both Worlds

Bringing Mi’kmaw Knowledge and Western curriculum together

The transformative changes coming to schools across Canada in the wake of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) “calls to action” bring lots of opportunity for discussion around key issues. For example, what structural changes need to be implemented? What innovative frameworks have already proven useful? What are some of the pathways educators and educational authorities are following to work with communities, nurture the Learning Spirit for youth, and create curricula that “bring together” different cultural ways of being, knowing, and doing? What ways might be helpful to bring diverse energies into balance such that the inevitable negatives are meaningfully heard, consensus reached, and positive educational changes fostered?

In this article, we share a few such understandings. Our three voices are woven as a conversational discussion, plus we’ve included some of Elder Murdena’s understandings (unfortunately, her health precludes active involvement). We hope our discussion will help encourage many more both in and outside the classroom, given that learning is a lifelong journey with both formal and informal educational opportunities.

ALBERT: My strong intact Mi’kmaw Spirit enabled me to endure fierce, pervasive cruelty at residential school. Today, our school environments are profoundly different but our Indigenous youth still need to know who they are, where they come from, and how to speak their Ancestors’ language. Why? Because when you force someone to abandon their ways of knowing, their ways of seeing the world, you literally destroy their Spirit and once that Spirit is destroyed it is very, very difficult to embrace anything – academically or through sports or through arts or through anything – because that person is never whole. To have a whole person, their Spirit, their physical being, their emotions, and their intellectual being… all have to be intact and work in a very harmonious way.

CAROLA: At Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey (MK),1 the Mi’kmaw educational authority in Nova Scotia, we understand this and are using Elder Albert’s guiding principle of Etuaptmumk / Two-Eyed Seeing (E/TES, see definition in this issue’s Network Voices, p. 6). It’s a co-learning journey for all because it’s a new approach. My role on the team is to develop and implement literacy programming while supporting teachers as they continue building their instructional strategies in literacy. I do this in a way that’s consistent with MK’s goal of “ensuring that our students see themselves reflected in the curriculum as essential to creating a strong literacy foundation.” There are so many different dimensions we need to consider, such as creating culturally safe environments, revisiting policies on a regular basis and in inclusive ways to ensure reconnecting with authentic cultural understandings, providing genuine cultural resources, renewing curricular content to address current (student) needs, and creating meaningful networking opportunities for everyone.

CHERYL: Here in Unama’ki – Cape Breton Island – Murdena Marshall had early understandings of these critical dimensions for post-secondary science. In the 1990s, she pushed for an E/TES-guided approach for post-secondary science education and thus we created the then-unique pathway, namely the Toqwa’tu’kl Kjijitaqnn / Integrative Science (TK/IS) program within a four-year undergraduate degree at Cape Breton University. The intent was to make post-secondary science more relevant and attractive for Mi’kmaw students. It functioned from 1999 to the late 2000s; there’s lots of information on the website2 and Carola was one of our early students.

CAROLA: Because of that program and the many traditional teachings I learned from Elders such as the late Gwen Bear, from Tobique First Nation in New Brunswick, and from my mom, Serena Francis, who is a retired language teacher in Elsipogtog First Nation in N.B., I know first-hand that the educational approach of Etuaptmumk / Two-Eyed Seeing can be truly empowering. At MK we are working with community Elders and educators to create foundational understandings for developing curricula whereby we will centre our Mi’kmaw ways of being and doing, and for which Elder Jane Meader from Membertou First Nation in N.S. has provided written understandings.3

Our team recognizes the need to change the way science stories are told and an excellent example in this regard is Muin and the Seven Bird Hunters. It’s an inspiring piece of Two-Eyed Seeing, where collaboration and co-learning are exemplified. This almost forgotten Mi’kmaw story of the north night sky was revived by Elder Lillian Marshall of Potlotek First Nation. Among many things, her work revealed rich Mi’kmaw Knowledge about patterns in the sky, showed the congruency of Western science with this Mi’kmaw Knowledge, and then went further by showing how the holistic Mi’kmaw science interconnects sky knowledge with the behaviour of birds and the actions of the L’nu’k (Mi’kmaw people). The project is an excellent example of what happens when respect for two knowledge systems occurs. Elder Lillian had been working for years to revive the story. But it was the UNESCO-designated International Year of Astronomy in 2009 that finally enabled completion of the work as her energies came together with those of Elder Murdena and other Mi’kmaw Elders, plus knowledgeable and supportive individuals in the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and creative individuals on Cheryl’s Integrative Science research team at Cape Breton University. Their collaborative work resulted in a video and a children’s storybook4 and clearly showed how we can change the way we tell our science knowledge stories so that they are culturally inclusive, accurate, authentic, and respectful. This is exactly what the guiding principle of E/TES encourages.

CHERYL: Having taught in the TK/IS program, I am convinced its approach to teaching science by “bringing together Indigenous and Western scientific knowledges and ways of knowing” could benefit all science students, from all communities and ethnicities. Yet I know negative energies abound: some critics are racist, others poorly-informed or fearful. An excellent learning example for us came in February 2014, when the new federal legislation “Bill C-33 First Nations Control of First Nations Education” was under consideration and, in its regard, The Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson commented that “… the big loser will be students, whose knowledge of basic science, math and other subjects will be so infused with cultural appropriateness by these theorists as to handicap them, rather than assist them, in wider Canadian society.”5 Elder Albert responded with a letter to the editor.

ALBERT: My letter emphasized that E/TES is not easy and that we need to embark on a co-learning journey in which our two paradigms will be put on the table to be scrutinized. We need to honestly be able to say that the essence, the S/spirit of our two ways, has been respected as we work to balance the energies of those ways; we need to put the two together. My letter had to be short. More recently, we have started pondering how we might better deal with negative energies and disagreements. And thus, we now emphasize that co-learning needs to embed capacity for i’l’oqaptmu’k, meaning “to revisit to renew, to maintain movement in the direction Spirit intended.” Differences of opinion or conflict are inevitable, so we need ways for the energies of the various parties to reach consensus. I asked my friend, artist Gerald Gloade from the Mi’kmaw community of Millbrook, to create an image of a Two Bowl Peace Pipe (see picture) to help us ponder how, within a sacred coming together, the negative energies could be burned off as they go through the pipe for purification towards consensus and our energies find balance. Our Mi’kmaw language also provides insights: Kisutmajikmeans “they decided to talk.” Kisutmauk means “we come to consensus so we can move forward because we have taken in these natural energies” (from the land, water, air, and Spirit). And Kisutasik means “consensus has been reached.” This is really the essence of co-learning because we can’t work on the basis of assumptions or hearsay. We need to take time to listen to each other rather than merely talking about each other. Lots of deep dialogue, deep co-learning, and hard work are required for E/TES and all four domains of being human, namely the physical, emotional, intellectual, and Spiritual, have to be involved.

A co-learning journey is necessary for this ‘together approach’ to be successful because, as in every journey, challenges exist: in our mindsets, points of view and perspectives, and approaches to teaching.

CAROLA: “Putting our knowledges together” most definitely needs to be done in appropriate ways. For example, within a typical mainstream framework there will generally be a focus on cognitive or intellectual development. As a Mi’kmaw person, however, I would begin with Spiritual development at the heart, interconnected with the emotional domain in ways that follow our Elders’ teachings and guidance. A co-learning journey is necessary for this “together approach” to be successful because, as in every journey, challenges exist: in our mindsets, points of view and perspectives, and approaches to teaching. Also and very importantly, what is called “Indigenous” has to come from genuine Indigenous voice, community, Spirit, and knowledge.

Elder Murdena's Concentric Circles ModelCHERYL: Years ago, Murdena created a model to emphasize the system nature of Mi’kmaw Knowledge and we’ve adapted it to help serve co-learning and knowledge scrutinization (see Figure 1). Murdena’s model has four concentric circles although, she says, traditionally there would be no intentional layering because stories were used to transmit knowledge in a holistic way. She indicates Mi’kmaw Knowledge and Western Science can share empirical observations of the physical attributes of, for example, a plant and its habitat (see outermost circles for both models in the diagram). In Mi’kmaw Knowledge, the middle circles of personal connection and respect are reciprocal, plus all four circles are interconnective. Sacred knowledge is innermost, can only truly be understood within the Mi’kmaw language, and generally cannot and should not be translated. Western Science relies on mathematical language and our model for it lacks middle circles because subjectivity is intentionally diminished. For Mi’kmaw Knowledge, “the Knowledge Holder / the knower” is an integral participant within the knowledge. In the Western science model, “the knower” stands outside the circles to emphasize objectivity.

ALBERT: These simple models are worth thousands more words… here I want to highlight that Mi’kmaw Knowledge is collective and thus any one Knowledge Holder has only a small piece, and also that our knowledge is alive and thus both physical and Spiritual with our language continually reminding us of our responsibilities.

CHERYL: In the Toqwa’tu’kl Kjijitaqnn / Integrative Science program, we worked within the broadened view of science as “dynamic, pattern-based knowledge shared through stories about our interactions with and within nature” for the Indigenous and Western sciences. Curricula evolved as we explored common ground (outermost circles in the knowledge models) while acknowledging and respecting differences (remaining circles). TK/IS eventually collapsed in the face of financial and political stresses. Nonetheless, it saw considerable student success and I will always say that community facilitators and tutors6 along with Elders and educators working together with mainstream allies were key… a “we together” approach.

CAROLA: At Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey, we are learning with and from Elders in the many Traditional Districts in Mi’kma’ki. We are listening to their stories and envisioning how to put these into curricula woven within our Mi’kmaw Principles of Learning. We are at the beginning of this exciting journey to reconnect with our collective understandings as to how young people can best learn and to try to begin to grow these understandings within formal educational settings. In early elementary programming, Elders identified the importance of outdoor and experiential learning. The MK Board of Directors recognized the value of play and inquiry in learning. This administrative /community support is critical to successfully implementing change. This approach to learning, of framing learning experiences in real-life contexts through exploration via play, is one excellent way to teach our students. Teachers from Preschool to Grade 2 are receiving intensive training on ways to incorporate play-based, inquiry-based learning in their teaching. As we move forward our goal has to be: Toqikutimk / Together We Are Growing.

ALBERT: Again, I wish to say: E/TES is not easy. And so, we need to understand that sometimes our most important job is to plant seeds for the future, for the youth, knowing seeds germinate when the time is right. We must also accept that Indigenous communities need to generate their own understandings around re-awakening their own Indigenous Knowledge – this is what MK’s project through Carola and others is doing – and this takes time. We are entering an era in which what we once had and then came to consider as obsolete, is now coming back. This is especially true in regards to our traditional understandings that richly woven kinship relationships and interconnectivity are what make our natural world. The remembering and relearning will require much transformation of understanding – we will need to invite our Tribal Consciousness back into our daily lives so we are guided as to the way we initially were, and we will need to do a lot of inner reflection. We have for too long been in a period of disconnect from our natural world and from our traditional ways. We have lost a lot of the stories that would normally flow as to our responsibilities in sustaining ourselves as part and parcel of the whole. Education is key, for all of us.

I also want to emphasize that there are words in our language that would be more appropriate to use in place of the English phrases “Indigenous Knowledge” or “Traditional Knowledge.” For “Mi’kmaw Knowledge,” Murdena and I have suggested Ta’ntelo’lti’k meaning “the way we L’nu’k are.”7All Indigenous Nations have their own languages, their own words.

CAROLA: Nurturing the Learning Spirit of our students has to be central to everything we do and many of us firmly believe language is one key. For example, we can look to the community of Eskasoni, which has had an immersion program at the elementary school for at least 18 years. A research project that examined their program revealed the trend towards better educational success for Mi’kmaw students whose formal educational years began with immersion in our Mi’kmaw language.8

CHERYL: Murdena has always said, “We must bring Ta’ntelo’lti’k / Mi’kmaw Knowledge into the present so that everything becomes meaningful in our lives and communities. Our Mi’kmaw Knowledge was not meant to stay in the past; it is not static.9Like all things alive, it grows and changes… it is dynamic.”

CAROLA: We know that MK educational support helps foster our Mi’kmaw communities. In working with our communities and schools, we have seen high rates of graduation from high school.10Young people who know who they are and where they come from and who are connected with their Ancestors’ language, with Elders, with Ta’ntelo’lti’k / Mi’kmaw Knowledge, and with their community and Nation… find themselves woven into a multi-dimensional network of understandings that will help them find success in their chosen careers. This, in turn, helps to enrich our communities in ways that we can only begin to imagine. Our communities will grow. We all benefit.

ALBERT: Elders want to work with projects such as MK’s through Carola and others to ensure the accuracy, authenticity, and sacredness of the Mi’kmaw Knowledge being included. This is the validation by peer-review that we Elders insist must be an integral part of all efforts today involving Indigenous Knowledges. In 2009-2011, Elders from across Atlantic Canada worked together to provide formal recommendations in this regard. These are known as the “Elders Eight Recommendations for Honouring Traditional Knowledge”11and were supported by the Atlantic Chiefs in September 2011. I have great hope these recommendations will soon begin to be acknowledged and acted upon as the Elders intended… especially within educational institutions.

ALBERT, CAROLA AND CHERYL: We need to work together to do this. Indigenous Elders and Knowledge Holders are as interested in knowledge integrity as are mainstream academics and researchers. We need to do this in and for our classrooms, institutions, organizations, communities, Nations… across Canada. The educational need is deep and it is broad. Msit No’kmaq.


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Illustration: Gerald Gloade

First published in Education Canada, June 2018






5 Jeffrey Simpson, “Money Alone Can’t Fix Aboriginal Education,” The Globe and Mail (Feb. 21, 2014).

6 Student support was provided by the Mi’kmaw Science Advantage Program, better known as MSAP. This included tutors during 1999-2002 and recruitment facilitation in 1999-2002 plus 2003-2005.



9 C. Bartlett, M. Marshall, and A. Marshall, “Two-Eyed Seeing and other Lessons Learned Within a Co-learning Journey of Bringing Together Indigenous and Mainstream Knowledges and Ways of Knowing,” Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences 2, no. 4 (2012): 331-340.



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