Why me?

queen anne's lace set in the sky

As someone who is interested in education, and who identifies as a ‘treaty person,’ I often ask myself, ‘what actions can I take in my life to be a responsible treaty partner to Indigenous people, in particular the Michi Saagiig Anishnaabe people who are original to the land I live and work on?’ My response to this question is to assist my community in transforming the educational system so that Indigenous knowledge has a place at the table along with western knowledge. In a transformed education system I believe Indigenous students would have a better chance of having their needs met in the classroom, and educators would recognize the value of Indigenous Knowledge in the midst of the anthropocene.

To help articulate one of the reasons I feel responsibility toward doing this research about Indigenous/Settler education in my community I begin with an original treaty agreement local to the places I live and work, the Two Row Wampum:

The Ogwého:weh said the way we would symbolize our agreement is that we Ogwého:weh have our Canoe, we will put everything we have in our Canoe (language, laws, beliefs, etc. . . . ). You (White People) also have your ship where your people, your beliefs, your languages, your laws shall be placed. Also between the Canoe and the Ship, we shall have rules of conduct between our peoples. Three principles shall be adhered to between our peoples. 1st—there will be everlasting peace, 2nd—we will maintain a good friendship, 3rd—we will always practice “the Good Mind” (which means mutual respect, justice, and equality) (Leroy (Jock) Hill, as cited in Kelsey, 2014, p. 1).

Some of the many ways this, and subsequent treaty agreements have not been upheld include colonization; stealing land; disrespecting, condemning and criminalizing Indigenous ways of knowing; displacing children and families; and an overall a lack of respect for Indigenous people. This broken treaty relationship has motivated me to explore some of the ways Indigenous and settler students can learn from each other and beside each other, respecting each other's ways, as outlined in this original treaty agreement. It is very easy for settlers to turn a blind eye, considering many of the issues that continue to burden Indigenous people remain invisible to the rest of the inhabitants of Turtle Island/North America. However Leanne Simpson explains how:

According to the [Seventh Fire] prophecy, the work of the Oshimaadiziig determines the outcome of the Eighth Fire, an eternal fire to be lit by all humans. It is an everlasting fire of peace, but its existence depends upon our actions and our choices today. In order for the Eighth Fire to be lit, settler society must also choose to change their ways, to decolonize their relationships with the land and Indigenous Nations, and to join with us in building a sustainable future based upon mutual recognition, justice, and respect” (Simpson, 2008, p. 14).

Part of doing this work of decolonizing relationships includes reflecting on the experiences in my life that have gotten me to this place. Some of the reflections and research I have encountered in my studies have changed me to be a more active, engaged member of my community who is committed to anti-racist, anti-colonial work. In sharing some of these reflections I hope to help others see the value in reflective practice, which includes acknowledging privilege. The only way settlers can reconcile with our history is to acknowledge the wrongdoings that have occurred and the ways we have benefited as a result. It is only through this recognition that we can rebuild stronger treaty relationships and consider new ways forward. Through understanding how our personal histories and experiences are wrapped up in complex systemic forces, we can begin to unravel the messy relationships we have had between Indigenous people and settlers for the past couple of hundred years. It is from this place that I begin my narrative.

At the age of eight I moved from Toronto to Lakefield, Ontario and my new elementary school offered Anishnaabemowin classes (or Ojibwe as we called it then) since children from Curve Lake First Nation came there after grade three. In this new home my mother felt it was important for me to better understand the people, culture, and language of the local Indigenous nation, the Mississauga Anishnaabe people, and to build relationships with the children from this community in order to develop deeper understandings of the world’s complex challenges. For the next 5 years I was fortunate to be able to enter a space where non-Indigenous and Indigenous students were welcomed to come together to learn about the cultures and language of the land we were on from Elder and Traditional Knowledge Keeper, Merritt Taylor. For many years he worked hard at ensuring the Anishnaabe language and culture thrived in our community.

My post-secondary education was completed at Trent University, where I obtained a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Anthropology. While many courses included opportunities to reflect on the colonial history tied up with the discipline, there were also problematic moments throughout my undergraduate degree, where I felt there was a need for more critical reflection. We often used ethnography in our readings and discussions, including texts that were written by ‘armchair anthropologists’ and those claiming some level of neutrality within the field. The depoliticized nature of some of my courses was troubling, and questions of ‘authenticity’ formed the basis of many discussions in the classroom.

Upon further reflection, I can now better articulate the problems associated with studying cultural practices, languages and identities apart from a critical political discourse. Throughout my undergraduate degree I also took courses in the Indigenous Studies program, which included teachings outside of classroom, from elders and traditional knowledge holders, as well as land-based courses. These opportunities allowed me to continue to build cross-nation relationships with classmates, professors, and community members. It also introduced me to the richness of approaching learning from different perspectives and the value of using Indigenous and non-Indigenous ways of knowing. In particular, experiences outside of the classroom helped me to understand the importance of developing relationships not only with the people who live on the land, but the land itself. Indigenous Environmental Studies/Science approaches used western scientific knowledge combined with traditional Indigenous knowledge in order to address complex issues like climate change and land rights. These topics will continue to dominate national discourse as we navigate through treaty relationships in Canada during the anthropocene, which is the period of evolution we are currently living in.

After graduating, I was hired as a research assistant for an evaluation of an Ontario Ministry of Health Promotion funded program to support healthy living in Indigenous communities across northern Ontario. I travelled to a dozen communities where I felt punched in the face by colonialism. Although I had an academic knowledge of residential school history, intergenerational trauma, social inequalities and lack of basic infrastructure in Indigenous communities, which I understood to be rooted in racism, nothing could have prepared me for the experiences I had while doing research over the course of eight months, as I witnessed multiple examples of the continued disenfranchisement of Indigenous people and communities. The experiences and reflections I had while I was doing research deepened my understanding of the ways in which the Two Row Wampum treaty agreement have not been upheld and lit a fire under me to become a better treaty partner.\

My overall aim in this blog series is to build bridges between Indigenous and non-Indigenous educators, specifically in the field of Early Childhood Education. As we navigate through unknown and sometimes uncomfortable learning, I encourage the reader to explore any unsettling feelings that arise, and question ourselves deeply about what biases and assumptions we hold that might contribute to these feelings. Hopefully as more educators appreciate the value of reflective practice and how their experiences form biases that impact their pedagogical approach in the classroom, we can begin to unravel this complicated history for the benefit of the children in our classrooms and the future generations.