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Cultural education for Aboriginal People : is it attainable? Kirkness, Verna J. 2000-03

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Cultural Education for Aboriginal People: Is ItAttainable? Crossroads 2000: Exploring the Opportunities and Challenges Facing Aboriginal  Youth  A Women's Sharing Circle Banff, Alberta  March 27-29, 2000  Vema J. Kirkness, C.M.,M.Ed.,L.L.D.  Associate Professor Emerita  University ofBritish Columbia  Home: Cedar Cove Resort  Box 158, Arnprior, ON, K7S 3H4  Cultural Education for Aboriginal People: Is it attainable? Nine years ago I spoke to the youth at a conference in Vancouver. The theme of the conference was "The Year 200 I and Beyond. I entitled my talk "To be successfuL .. we must pick up the eagle feather". I borrowed this title from Larry Courchene, a young man in Manitoba who had written a dedication to Elijah Harper in the Weetahmah newspaper. Larry's message was that, "In order to be successful, we must put down the bottle and put away the drugs. Let's pick up the eagle feather, as Elijah Harper did, for his people". The youth who attended that conference will all be over 25 years ofage today. I wonder how their lives are. In my address, I raised the question ofwhat it means to ''pick up the eagle feather"? I suggested that it means knowing who you are and knowing who you are means knowing the history, the traditions, the culture and the values ofyour people. Knowing who you are means practicing those aspects ofyour culture that have meaning for your life today. We must know the past in order to understand the present to plan for the future. In another excerpt from my talk, I stated, "As you learn the history ofour people, you become aware ofmany positive facts about Aboriginal people. Knowing what our ancestors contributed to the world economy and culture will be an inspiration to you. On the other hand, you also become aware ofthe tragic effect that colonization has had on our people. The consequence ofthis experience is that our "circle oflife" was broken. "To be successful ... we must pick up the eagle feather" By picking up the eagle feather, you are making a commitment toward completing the circle. Picking up the eagle feather also means a commitment to facing up to the most defeating element in society - racism Knowing who you are will give you the courage to meet this challenge". My final point was that "Picking up the eagle feather means taking responsibility for making wise choices, reclaiming life -your life, my life, our people's lives". This metaphor illustrates the pressing need for our schools/educational institutions to address Aboriginal education by acknowledging the importance culture plays in learning. I am defining culture here as "a way oflife ofa people". Cultures are dynamic and thus encompass both traditional and contemporary ways ofHfe. The landmark policy paper of 1972, "Indian Control ofIndian Education" was the first national statement made by our people to address the inadequacies of the education provided by church and state for over three hundred years. The same issues that are raised today as problems/challenges in Aboriginal education were identified in the early 1970s. These included a high drop-out rate, related unemployment, age-grade deceleration, bias in textbooks, few Aboriginal teachers. The policy called on the federal and provincial governments and the Indian people to develop an Indian oriented curriculum. The policy stated, " Our aim is to make education relevant to the philosophy and needs ofIndian people. We want education to give our children a strong sense ofidentity, with confidence in their personal worth and ability. We believe in education: as a preparation for total living, as a means offree choice ofwhere to live and work, as a means ofenabling us to participate fully in our own social, economic, political and educational achievement. It further stated, Unless a child learns about the forces which shape him: the history ofhis people, their values and customs, their language, he will never really know himselfas a human being. Indian culture and values have a unique place in the history ofmankind. The Indian child who learns about his heritage will be proud ofit. The lessons he learns in school, his whole school experience should reinforce and contribute to the image he has ofhimself as an Indian. The monumental challenge faced by us, as educators, over the last three decades has been to identifY an Indian oriented curriculum. How do we create a meaningful education for our people based on our world view (philosophy of life), and rooted in the cultures ofour respective nations? How can we design a curriculum based on the concept of "education into culture, not culture into education". In our effort to address this question, too often we have simply performed band-aid solutions by merely adapting or supplementing the existing curriculum. Nishinawbe Elder, Arthur Soloman, in his book "Songs for the People: Teachings on the Natural Way" gives us his perspective on cultural education. The traditional way ofeducation  was by example and experience  and by storytelling  The first principle involved was total respect and acceptance of the one to be taught. And that learning was a continuous process from birth to death. It was a total continuity without interruption. Its nature was like a fountain that gives many colours and flavours ofwater and that whoever chose could drink as much or as little as they wanted to and whenever they wished. The teaching strictly adhered to the sacredness of life whether ofhuman or animals or plants. But in the course ofhistory there came a disruption And the education became "compulsory miseducation" for another purpose, and the circle of life was broken and the continuity ended. It is that continuity which is now taken  up again in the spiritual rebirth  ofthe people.  Twenty-eight years ago, Aboriginal people made a clear statement, an agenda, which called for a very particular kind ofcurriculum that would celebrate our cultures, our history---the true account ofthe way it was, the way it is. From there, we were to build on how it will be. What have we done so far? 1. We have done some curriculum adaptation. 2. We have created relevant materials. 3. We teach Aboriginal languages. 4. We have urban Aboriginal Schools 5. We utilize Elders as resources. 6. We have Early Childhood Programs. 7. We have Aboriginal Libraries 8. We have Cross-cultural courses in colleges and universities. 9. We have Native/Aboriginal Teacher Education Programs. 10. We have Native/Aboriginal Studies Courses/Departments. 11. We have Aboriginal Programs such as Ts'kel Graduate Program, First Nations House ofLearning (UBC), Medicine, (U ofMan.), Counselling (Brandon U) 12. We have Aboriginal Post-Secondary Institutions (SK Indian Federated College, Institute for Indigenous Government, Nicola Valley Institute ofTechnology, Red Crow College, Blue Quills College 13. We have numerous studies, theses, dissertations on Aboriginal issues 14. We have organizations such as First Nations Education Steering Committee (BC First Nations Summit), Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre (Assembly ofManitoba Chiefs) 15. We have organizations such as the Coalition for the Advancement of Aboriginal Studies (CAAS) (The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives), Crossroads 2000 (The Council for Canadian Unity), Canadian Education Association 16. We have an Aboriginal Television Station (APTN), radio programs 17. We have Aboriginal authorslbooks/journals 18. We have many Aboriginal Newspapers. 19. We have Aboriginal Resource Distributors ( at Six Nations) 20. We have Cultural Education Centres across the country This is an impressive list, is it not? Why, then, are we still floundering around, trying to identify cultural education for and about Aboriginal people. What is all this, ifnot cultural education? I suggest that there is something very wrong with this scenario. Basically, I would say that the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing. Educators, schools, colleges, universities, organizations are working in isolation. With the modem technology of today, we should have access to all this information. We have the makings ofthe kind ofeducation that was spoken of in Indian Control oflndian Education. We have the wherewithal to help Aboriginal people to "Pick up the eagle Feather". I would also suggest that cultural curriculum is available that is not being used. What kind of study does this imply? That is where we go from here. Verna J. Kirkness, C.M.,M.Ed.,L.L.D.  Associate Professor Emerita  University ofBritish Columbia  Home: Cedar Cove Resort, ON  E-mail: 


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