Turning Inward & Purposefully Educating Our Own

This week delegates of the Assembly of First Nation’s conference on education are gathering in Gatineau to discuss the state of Indigenous education in Canada (see Ellen Gabriel’s take on the issue). There are a lot of over-whelming problems. Indigenous education is chronically underfunded and chronically unfairly funded. Provincial curricula does not meet the needs of our nations or our students (see Sarah Hunt’s recent article MediaINDIGENA), and as a recent article by Amanda Gebhard in Briarpatch Magazine the current system is a “pipeline to prison” for many Indigenous youth, not to mention a pipeline to imposed poverty, suicide and a host of other symptoms of colonialism. At its very best, the current education system does next to nothing to teach Indigenous kids their languages, to connect them to their homelands and Knowledge Holders or to teach them and their non-Native counterparts an accurate account of Indigenous-state relations.

Everyone agrees that the system is broken. Everyone agrees that education is important.

Aboriginal organizations and educators have been calling for change for decades, actually for centuries if you include Indigenous resistance to the residential school system. There are good people within the system. There are good programs within the system. But these are still always the exception. The Canadian state holds the purse strings and a vested interest in disconnecting Indigenous youth from their lands, languages, Elders and cultural and political traditions. When Indigenous Peoples are disconnected from their lands, it is easier to exploit those lands. When Indigenous Peoples do not know their own history and political traditions, it is easier for the government to sell the idea that their solution is the only possible way out of a myriad of social problems they caused in the first place. When Indigenous Peoples do not know their own languages and traditions of leadership, it is much easier to control leaders by exerting pressure and political agendas on band councils, regional and national Aboriginal organizations. When Indigenous Peoples do not know we are strong, it is easier to continually position us as weak.

Canadian governments are not going to fix the problem, in fact, I think it is only going to get worse. The current Canadian education system trains people to uphold colonialism by silencing Indigenous languages, by erasing the history and contemporary reality of Indigenous-state relations and by ignoring Indigenous intellectual traditions. Most Canadians come out of the system unaware that “the Indians” still exist and unable to name the reserve closest to where they live, let alone knowing anything of substance about us or their relationship to us. Creating a society ignorant of its oppressive nature allows the oppression and injustice to continue.

The system is doing exactly what it was designed to do.

The focus on fixing Indigenous education depends entirely on how you define the problem. A 2012 Windspeaker article on "Canada's Aboriginal Education Crisis" sites a report form the Canadian Centre for the Study of Living Standards that states "$71.1 billion will be added to Canada’s economy if Aboriginal people attain the same educational levels as other Canadians". This says a lot about the government's motivation for improving Indigenous education - it is to increase the profitability of the Canadian economy.

Let me be very clear - our children are not a resource to be exploited by the Canadian economy.

I know that many of us work hard outside of the system to ensure that we are learning from our Knowledge Holders, on the land, in our languages, and many of us are highly engaged in our communities. Many of us are involved in a myriad of projects to decolonize our children’s education. Many Indigenous parents whose kids are in the public education system spend hours upon hours after school, in the summer and on the weekends immersing their kids in their own nation-specific education traditions. I want all Indigenous children to have these opportunities. If Indigenous parents had the choice, a large number of us would chose to immerse our kids in educational experiences where they could learn their own languages, histories, and intellectual traditions using Indigenous pedagogies and where our children are honoured and celebrated for their unique gifts, talents and interests.

Our political and legal systems, just like all of our other systems of knowledge are learned in childhood and modeled throughout our lives. Residential schools attempted to destroy our traditional governance, legal systems, gender relations, and traditional values of leadership because children were no longer taught how to uphold these systems. They still aren’t. We can’t expect to produce leaders who can uphold and operate using our traditional political systems, if we don’t teach our kids those systems and values. If we want to regenerate governance and leadership we need to first regenerate education.

Tenwahkwatása ne tsiohséra tsi entewateweiénhste or in english the Akwesasne Freedom School (AFS) has been doing it since 1979.

"The Akwesasne Freedom School (AFS) is an independent elementary/middle school which conducts year round, full day classes for grades pre-k to grade 9. The school was founded in 1979 by Mohawk parents concerned with the lack of cultural and linguistic services available in local public schools. In 1985, the parents who administer the school made a historic decision to adopt a total Mohawk immersion curriculum. AFS was the first to implement this type of curriculum and did so without approval or funding from state, federal or provincial governments. The School was formed to help make the Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) Nation strong again. By focusing on our young people, we reverse the assimilation process and ensure that the Mohawk people do not lose their language, culture and identity".

According to their website, seventy percent of their funding comes from fundraising, twenty percent comes from donations, and ten percent comes form $1000/year tuition from the family. Eighty percent of their operating budget comes from within the community of Akwesasne. No, not every family can afford $1000/year tuition, but I do think we have the means within our wider community make sure that isn’t a barrier to participation.

I have taught graduates of the AFS in university courses at Trent University. They are just as adept at dealing with the demands of mainstream university than students educated by the Canadian system, and they are fluent speakers extremely knowledgeable about their history, political systems and how to make change at the community level.

So let’s stop and ask ourselves (myself included) a few questions. What if, back in 1989, ten years after the AFS began, we had all taken notice of their model and stopped putting our energy into changing the broken colonial education system in our urban and reserve communities and started putting our energy into building the educational experiences we want for our children? Twenty years later, we would have a network of Indigenous controlled schools. Twenty years later we would have nearly two decades of children through our programs – fluent in their languages, connected to their homelands, knowledgeable about their history and political culture and committed to their communities. Instead, collectively we’re having the same conversations and arguments over education while yet (some of) another generation is lost to assimilation, suicide and the prison industrial complex.

Remember "Indian Control Over Indian Education"? That was 1972.

What if we stopped looking for colonial accreditation and recognition in education? What if we took all the energy we put in trying to change a broken education system and put it into local, community-controlled immersion education programs? Programs centred on our own ways of knowing - programs deliberately connecting our peoples to the land, our political traditions, our languages and the local issues of relevance. What if we purposefully educated our own?

And what about post-secondary education? What if we centred education in a nest of everyday acts of resurgence (to use the words of Jeff Corntassel)? We've been participating in post-secondary education for several decades now. We have a lot of people with BAs, MAs and PhDs. What can programs like AFS teach us? What if our sole purpose is using our own intellectual traditions to educate our own youth and our allies?

I don’t have the answers to all of these questions, but as a parent and an educator it is important for me to connect my children to their land, their languages, their Elders and their intellectual, artistic and political traditions. We need to create a generation of inspired, critical thinkers not only able to interrogate colonialism but also to vision and actualize Indigenous ways living. We have a lot of smart educated Indigenous People in our midst – those educated in the western system, those educated in our traditional systems, those educated within both systems and those educated by life. We need to collectively figure this out before we waste two more decades trying to change a system that from the perspective of the colonizer, isn’t broken.

The only way out of this is to turn inward.