Decolonizing the Curriculum
With a lesson guide for a new collection of oral histories, author and educator Suzanne Methot and the nonprofit Voice of Witness help teachers bring Indigenous issues into their classrooms
The protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline that began in early 2016 and were led by members of the Standing Rock Sioux and other Native American communities were as much about demanding respect for long-standing land rights as it was stopping a potentially disastrous fossil fuel project. The proposed pipeline would be built (and was completed in 2017) on tribal lands protected by the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, and construction would disturb sacred burial and cultural sites. The project also threatened tribal water supplies. If oil leaked into waterways, the people who depend on that essential natural resource would be unable to survive on the land. And where could they possibly go, after being pushed off one tract after another as the United States pushed westward? The people are their land. No water, no land. No land, no people.
The #NoDAPL movement originated in North Dakota, but the collision between urgent environmental concerns and centuries of Native marginalization and oppression quickly entered the national conversation. Many of us learn about the Trail of Tears in a high school history class, but the rest of the Native American story—theft of lands in the Great Plains, genocidal massacres, outlawing of religious and cultural practices, boarding schools designed to "kill the Indian and save the man"—tends to be excluded. And so does the way that history and its generational trauma impacts the daily lives of many Indigenous people.
In the years since the pipeline protests, there has been a renewed effort to incorporate Native experience into the broader story of the North American continent. A particularly powerful form this has taken is oral history, the kind shared in How We Go Home: Voices from Indigenous North America, published in October by Voice of Witness and Haymarket Books. The book has 12 narratives from Indigenous peoples—including Jasilyn Charger, an organizer of the Dakota Access protests—representing a dozen Native tribes in the U.S. and Canada. How We Go Home offers a raw, honest, infuriating, and powerful document of the contemporary Indigenous experience.
As it does with all of its titles, oral history nonprofit Voice of Witness developed a curriculum for How We Go Home so it can be brought into the classroom. Written by Canadian author and educator Suzanne Methot, who is Asiniwachi Nehiyaw/Rocky Mountain Cree, the lessons and information included in the curriculum, which is free to download, draw on both the narratives in the book as well as Methot's background teaching Indigenous issues. The Elective spoke with Methot about her work, her advice for teachers who want to add Indigenous experience to their lessons, and the changes she has seen in the conversation around Indigenous education.
You created these lessons to be relevant for both Indigenous students and teachers and non-Indigenous students and teachers who might be encountering a lot of this for the first time. How challenging is it to appeal to both audiences, especially when they’re likely coming at these issues from completely different places?
It's never been much of a struggle for me to do that. I know from teaching Indigenous students that a lot of them are in a process—we as communities are in a process—of cultural reclamation. One of the facts of colonization is the cultural genocide: the ban on ceremonies, the destruction of communities, the deliberate, policy-driven breakdown of the Indigenous family. Just because they're Indigenous and sit in a classroom doesn't mean they know the history of their nations or of any other nation. It doesn't mean that they're in a household that encourages politically-informed talk around these issues. Not all children grow up in activist households, or households where the parents are ceremonial or anything like that. So I write what I feel needs to be said. Many Indigenous students have told me, "Thank you for this. This fills in what my dad didn't want to talk about [from his time in] boarding school or residential school." Or, "It fills in seeing my auntie do this particular ceremony but I never really knew what it was about and she didn't want to tell me." Of course, that's the learning non-Indigenous teachers and students need as well.
I would also say, and I don't want to contradict myself but it's true, when Indigenous students are in the classroom, even if they do know it, they're so happy to be seen in this classroom and in this lesson that they don't mind going through the whole thing with their peers or with their teacher. It feels good to be seen. When Indigenous students are comfortable being seen, not as leaders—I would never put that on a student—but as having knowledge that is of benefit to the group, it makes an Indigenous student feel like, "Hey, our ways of knowing and being are being valued in the same way." So I find that they don't mind having to go from point A to point B, even if they know A and B.
You've done this kind of work for a while. Have you seen more visibility for Indigenous topics and cultures in classrooms?
Definitely. Ten or 15 years ago, I would have just been invited to visit one classroom because that teacher had an interest in Indigenous issues. Nowadays, in my work with school boards or school districts, I find that overwhelmingly they understand that I have to work with all of their staff teams. The school secretaries need to know about trauma-informed education in case they're dealing with an Indigenous student who is having a meltdown. They need to know about Indigenous issues and colonization because they're dealing with the families of Indigenous students. So my work has changed, too. In September, I was really busy with school boards onboarding new staff for the year. I spoke to lunch ladies and custodians, as well as classroom teachers, because school boards understand now that we all need to know this.
When I started out in the mid-1990s, it was so hard to find resources, like books on Indigenous subjects. There was, like, one publisher that I did some editing for many years, in Ontario, that finally started making these resources, because no other publishing company was dealing with it. And when you looked at media coverage, it was always White people talking about us, not with us. Fast forward to 2020, and the media do engage with us now. We're on radio, we're on the airwaves. I don't know if it's to the same extent in the States, but in Canada our national broadcaster and many of our newspapers have columnists who are Indigenous; they have staff members who are Indigenous. We are on the CBC being interviewed. And I see there's a huge interest from publishing companies now in Indigenous-themed children's books. That's why I'm working on a couple. I never thought I'd be a children's book writer, but there's such a need for it and they're asking for it.
These four narrators are among the 12 included in the book "How We Go Home." Their stories represent a range of contemporary Indigenous experience
How have conversations about Indigenous issues changed between adults and kids?
My generation, like your generation, didn't learn any of this in school. But for the last 10 years or so, children have been learning it. What I'm hearing from both the kids and the parents is that kids are learning this now and going home and having amazing conversations with their parents and saying, "Why did this happen? Why did we send Indigenous children to residential schools?" They're sort of quizzing their parents, and the parents are telling me, "I never learned any of this. My kid is teaching me this because they're learning it in school now." I think it is contributing to very different conversations in households. And the kids are leading the change.
What happens when a student gets this or a teacher wants to bring it into the classroom and someone feels that this is the worst idea, to have these expansive conversations about Indigenous issues?
We discussed whether to include that in the curriculum preface for educators. I can't speak for the Voice of Witness staff, but ultimately, I culled it because I didn't want to scare teachers from the outset. I wanted teachers to just see this as, "Oh, there's this amazing stuff and look at all these things in here, like the Teaching Tolerance resources and all this guidance. I can do this." And I wanted them to just go. Maybe that's kind of mean, because I know some communities may not be as receptive. So what I would say to teachers, is, number one, we as educators have never been afraid to speak truth in our classrooms, whether it was the Civil Rights movement in the '60s or the burgeoning environmental movement in the '70s and '80s. We are the ones who are overwhelmingly creating social change through educating, and I think most teachers are pretty awesome risk-takers in that way.
We need to take this risk, especially today. There are forces that have indoctrinated students into colonial ways of thinking, and we need to decolonize students' thinking. We never ever tell students what to think. A teacher challenges students, educates students, helps students transform their thinking in a way that teaches students how to think. We cannot be afraid to teach people how to think. We're always going to have slightly different opinions. I always have a student or two who says, "Well, I still think that it's not fair, just because you guys were here first, that you think you should control the land all the time. We're here, too." But we create a civil society when we create the conditions for discussion. I see overwhelmingly over social media, certainly in the U.S and in some media in Canada, that we're losing that ability to discuss things calmly. We have to keep on doing this work. It's about teaching little ones how to think through things and grounding them. That's why I included the resources around creating safe learning spaces, working through social-emotional learning, getting your strategies for when you have emotions. These are the things that will teach us how to think and how to balance our emotional reactions with our thinking so that we can create a civil discourse.
Flyers such as this one, created by the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1911, encouraged White settlers to buy land seized from Native peoples. The theft of ancestral homelands is one factor contributing to the issues discussed in "How We Go Home."
Do you have any advice for teachers who run into antagonism from parents?
If a teacher has a complaint from a parent, teachers just need to be clear on, I'm not telling your child what to think; I'm revealing the true history so that we can work through things and decide the world that we want in the future. We just need to communicate with those parents. Keep calm, even if they are not. Sometimes when a parent complains, get them involved. I ask them to come to the classroom, if at all possible, and listen to some of the work we're doing, learn along with me in this. Volunteer when we go on the field trip to the museum. I've found that they might not always agree with everything, might still be a little chippy about things but it calms them because they feel like we're not excluding them. They feel like they're included, even though we don't agree. So get them involved.
How can a teacher incorporate Indigenous culture and issues into the everyday classroom experience?
Don't silo Indigenous issues. Make sure when you're talking about, for example, voting rights in your country and who got the rights and when—because we know not everybody received them at the same time—that you include Indigenous peoples in that. Make sure to include an essential question, Do Indigenous people feel like they should be voting? That's an important issue for people who have their own governance systems. No matter what topic you're studying in the classroom, make sure to bring in, for at least one question or part of the discussion, the Indigenous experience of that issue. Make sure that Indigenous education is embedded in your classroom or in your lessons and units. It doesn't have to be about an "Indigenous issue"; all of these issues relate to Indigenous people. Whatever issues you're talking about, research and include the Indigenous perspective.
This is still a learning curve, I think, for both myself as a curriculum designer and for most teachers. But we're starting to discuss what it means to include Indigenous pedagogies and to understand that what we learn in our education degrees is, in fact, a Western way of teaching and learning. How do we widen our pedagogical expertise, and what does it mean to include Indigenous pedagogies? The intergenerational transfer of knowledge, for instance, is a big thing for Indigenous ways of teaching and learning. Elders understand that children teach them, that we can learn from the little ones, as much as the little ones need to learn from the old people. There's that reciprocal exchange and that intergenerational transfer of knowledge. I try to build that into my lessons whenever possible; I think it's the identity lesson for this curriculum. We need to think not just about embedding Indigenous issues and perspectives throughout whatever we teach, but we also need to think about Indigenous pedagogies and the intergenerational transfer of knowledge is just one example. I think a lot of teachers are also very interested in doing or understanding how they could do land-based education, which is very much an additional pedagogy.
What is land-based education? I've not heard that term before.
It's the idea of, take the kids outside. You don't have to sit in a classroom to learn. Take them outside and let them explore that ravine in the middle of the city. Plan your science curriculum around exploring the species that are there, and then doing your essential questions around what species were there before. How has the creation of this city changed that, and what can we do to improve the health of our ravine? How do we see ourselves as caretaker of this ravine, or local lake or river, or just of the school yard? Land-based education is very much an Indigenous pedagogy.
Two pages from the Voice of Witness curriculum for "How We Go Home." The full curriculum is available as a free download on the Voice of Witness website.
How can teachers and students take what they learn from this book and from the curriculum and build on the groundwork that’s laid for them?
The first thing is to start thinking locally or regionally. Make connections with local Indigenous organizations. You may not have a Friendship Center. You may, perhaps, have a health center or a postsecondary institution nearby, a college or university that has professors, Indigenous or not, with that expertise. Or even a campus society or a local arts group that does or has done work with Indigenous communities. So start making local, regional connections that your students can get involved with on an ongoing basis. By the way, creating relationships is also an Indigenous pedagogy. I think that's where the oral tradition comes in—every day and on a project-by-project basis, you're going to be sharing stories. You're going to be hearing stories about people's experiences.
For teachers, it's important to understand that oral tradition doesn't have to be ceremonial, like an old Native guy or woman with a drum and a walking stick, telling stories about how the chipmunk got her stripes. Building those relationships, we start understanding oral tradition and oral history and all of the ways that we share information and create narratives. Even though we prioritize the page and the written narrative, we all still exist within these oral narratives. The stories we hear in our communities and the stories we'll create are what make these cross-cultural connections.
How did you react to the narratives included in the book?
What struck me is the resiliency of Indigenous people, that we and these narrators are still here. Despite all the attempts to destroy us and to get the lands, we're still here. What I noticed from all those voices is the strength and the fact that those folks pursued transformative change in their lives to also make sure that their children would have good lives, or better lives than they had, and that their community members would have better lives. The strength to have experienced what so many of them have through generational trauma and abuse from various authority figures and systems and broken families—to have experienced all of that and still have the strength not only to survive but to then work for change for themselves, for their families, and for their communities? What I take from these stories is, my gosh, but we are awesome people. The fact that we're still here and still creating good in the world, it makes me know that the negative forces of the world just cannot possibly win because there is still so much good in the world and so much good in people.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.