Land-Based Education

cedars and moss on rocks

While place-based education (see blog post Place-Based Education) attempts to educate children about the place they are learning, land-based education attempts to situate children within the place and land they are on. This allows children to develop relationships through understanding history and acknowledging their interconnectedness, and therefore their impact on the land. Dozens of Indigenous educators and scholars have addressed the need for decolonial approaches to education rather than trying to re-envision the mainstream education system that is rooted in Western ideology. One important consideration is to not treat ‘decolonization’ as a metaphor, but a tangible concept leading to concrete action. (For more, see Tuck & Yang’s article).

There are numerous examples of Indigenous-run programs that have modeled themselves on a holistic approach to education, often including land as a central component, and centring the students within the more-than-human world to show the interconnectedness to all living and non-living beings. Connecting on the land is one way of reclaiming traditions that have been lost or interrupted through colonialism, and has become an important core component of decolonial approaches to education. Rather than viewing children as separate from the land, curriculum that connects children to the land in meaningful ways engages the mental, physical, emotional and spiritual components of being. When discussing the need for students to explore the natural world, Bell explains, “it should be an exploration that invokes spirit (2013, p. 97). This holistic approach is one of the differences I see between place-based and land-based education. While place-based education can have the result of using the land for the benefit of children, and expecting them to fix or save the ailing planet through a stewardship approach, land-based education is rooted in the stories, traditions, and sometimes languages and cultural knowledge of the specific place.

Localized land-based education models that build on a strong history of traditions, values and ceremonies creates a living cultural pedagogy relevant only in that particular context. There is no cookie cutter approach to this work, and because of that, many of these programs have relied on external funding sources beyond mainstream education in order to sustain them. Unfortunately many close due to a lack of core funding, even when results are undeniably positive and transformative. One local example of this was Nicole Bell’s Anishnaabe Bimaadiziwin Cultural Learning & Healing Program (Bell, 2014) in Burleigh Falls. While many students had transformational experiences, with the end of the funding came the end of the program. Without a federal commitment toward these programs it is very difficult for such programs to continue, as they rely on grants, fundraising and tuition, which all become barriers to inclusion and sustainability. Indigenous children lacking equitable access to culturally responsive education is yet another way that treaties have not been upheld, which is why it has become one of the central 2015 Calls to Action.

Although it is possible for organizations and institutions led by non-Indigenous people to shift from a place-based approach toward a more encompassing land-based approach, it is important to spend time considering the complexity that arise when working on stolen lands, within treaty relationships, and when our relationship to land is one of benefiting from colonization. When educators teach on and about land, there is a necessity to find ways to include local Indigenous communities into the wider definition of community (Calderon 2014, p.28) so that we do perpetuate colonization. One important consideration in meaningfully including Indigenous Knowledge and Indigenous communities is that due to the history of colonization, many Indigenous communities, Elders, leaders, scholars and educators are busy doing work in their own communities. While it is important to hold an open seat at the table, and find ways to uncover forgotten or supressed stories, Indigenous people won’t always have time or resources to spend guiding and advising largely settler-led organizations and programs. Leanne Simpson writes about some important questions that Indigenous communities are grappling with this in her post here: (Link seems to not work. Please copy and paste into browser or search for ‘turning inward purposefully educating our own).

We can’t assume that Indigenous people will always have time to educate settler-led programs, however as settlers living in treaty we should always foster relationships with Indigenous people and communities including finding ways to support the resurgence of Indigenous communities including the education of their own children. Instead of always expecting Indigenous people to show up at our tables, we should seek out opportunities to deepen our understanding of history and to build and strengthen relationship with Indigenous communities whose land we are on. This is one of our treaty responsibilities. As well, “collective survival of our society will require the combined wisdom of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal cultures” (Lowan-Trudeau, 2015, p. 55). Figuring this out will take time, but Calderon proposes that a land-based approach to decolonization of pedagogy, content, teachers and learners (p. 151) is one way of building “literal common ground” (p.152) between settlers and Indigenous people. “Simply put, such a land education must start from the supposition that all places were once Indigenous lands and continue to be” (Calderon, 2014, p. 27). I agree deeply with Calderon and others who believe the way forward in this work is on the land. I believe that the work of reconciliation must include a land component, must incorporate Indigenous knowledge, and must recognize the history of that particular place, or else it misses the context in Canada.

One of the shifts I see as being necessary in developing respectful land-based programming is from using the land for the benefit of children toward nurturing reciprocal relationships with land and everything in the more-than human world. Taking this one step further, we must help children understand that they are part of nature, and that everything in the more-than-human world is connected to their own lives and wellbeing. In doing this we must shift away from ideas of land ownership and even stewardship, toward relationships of kinship, helping children to deepen their relationships with all of creation and to understand the interconnectedness of their actions.