Cultural teaching and curriculum in First Nation Communities

This was a final paper I wrote for my M.Ed in Curriculum Studies


“What does contemporary literature discuss on the impact of cultural teaching and curriculum in First Nation communities?”

Gwen MacNeil

Given the inequities faced by Indigenous communities, empowering Indigenous students to spearhead socioeconomic change may be possible through implementing culturally relevant pedagogy in communities. Although all three groups coexist under the Indigenous umbrella of Canada, the communities vary in histories and experiences and necessitate their own, separate discussion and examination. The following discussion will only examine First Nation bands in Canada, not Metis or Inuit.


Despite many provinces infusing their curriculum with Indigenous perspectives and ideas, Indigenous voices are left relatively silent. Moreover, I believe that the Indigenous take on southern curriculum is unable to align with Indigenous learnings because the approaches taken to education in both southern and Indigenous communities are quite different.

First Nation children should receive an education that is comparable to other students in Canada, and their cultural needs should be emphasized. Although residential schools no longer exist, the lack of Indigenous voice in curriculum is colonialist in nature and continues to perpetuate stereotypes and social exclusion., To best serve the First Nation communities, educators who come into Indigenous communities should be able to educate with the cultural experiences in mind, and at the forefront of learning. First Nation students are first exposed to education through their parents and elders, and information is transmitted through culture. Enrolling students then, into a southern-based education system, does not align with the ways of learning they have already experienced and understood. They are, as a result, at a deficit before they begin. Educators must better understand how they can reach their First Nation students, while simultaneously appreciating their own lived experiences.

How does trauma impact a students education, and how has trauma impacted First Nations students? Moreover, as western models of education have been a point of contention for First Nation peoples, how can culturally-relevant pedagogy which addresses the trauma and unique experiences of First Nations impact their learning?


Indigenous Peoples

First Nations refers to a group of people officially known as Indians under the Indian Act, and does not include Metis or Inuit. Like all cultures, First Nation culture is dynamic and continuously evolving (Hamme, 1996; Hampton, 1995). There are 634 recognized First Nation governments or bands spread across Canada, and predominantly south of the Arctic Circle. In the northwest are the Athapaskan-speaking peoples. Along the Pacific coast are the Squamish, Haida, Nisga’a and Gitxsan groups. The Plains peoples include Blackfoot and Sarcee. The Cree and Chipewyan reside in the northern woodlands. Along the Great Lakes are the Anishiaabe, Algonquin, and Iroquois. The Atlantic coast is home to the Beothuk and Micmac. These lists, however, are not exhaustive of the bands that reside in these areas. Their interaction with Europeans also varies depending on the time of contact; First Nation bands closer to the Great Lakes and Atlantic Coast met with Europeans before the Dene people of the North.


Each community has its own culture, customs, and character (Joe, 2005). Each First Nation band has their own creation beliefs and cultural practices. Each Nation has a unique experience on the land and with each other. There are eleven major language families, broken up into over fifty dialects (Voyager, 2000) The languages and dialects are so distinct there is no ability for speakers to communicate with each other. Not all communities use tipi’s, or big houses, or wig wams. Not all participate in pow-wows, potlaches, smudges, or sweats. There is no blanket for all First Nation groups.


The stark differences between First Nation groups lend itself to the stark contrast from the larger Canadian identity. The place of First Nation peoples in Canada has been an experience that stands in stark contrast from white society; First Nation bands were murdered, and their culture was attempted to be eliminated. A worldview is a set of belief and values that are honored by a number of people (Teaching Treaties). Every society has a worldview, and the differences between First Nation and western Canadian society are generally in opposition. First Nation bands generally are a spiritually oriented society, whereas western Canadian society often tends to require proof as a basis of belief. First Nation bands believe truth is dependent upon individual experience, in contrast to western Canadian society which bases truth on science and law. First Nation culture is much more interconnected than the compartmentalized society of western Canada. The land is sacred to First Nation bands, unlike western worldviews which believe the land should be available for resource extraction and development. First Nation bands observe time as cyclical, and much of Canada operates on a linearly structured concept of time. Wealth for personal gain is widely a Canadian view, whereas First Nation groups believe community wealth is more important. Although there are many contrasting views, one very significant difference is the role of humans. First Nation bands, despite their differences, all believe humans are not the most important thing in the world. Western Canadian worldviews, instead, place human beings at the center of the universe. With such contrasting observable interactions with the world, it is no wonder First Nation communities require different education for their youth compared to western Canadian society (Guibernau, 2007 Greymorning, 2018; Kumar, 2003; Muckle, 2014; Vowel, 2017)


Culturally Relevant Pedagogy

Recognizing all students learn differently, differences may be connected to background and social and cultural identity (Gay, 2000) (Villegas, 2002). Through intentional nurturing of culture, educators are able to create and facilitate effective conditions of learning for students (Brown, 2011). Cultural identity is much deeper than ethnicity, race, or faith. Cultural identity is a way of being in the world, and interacting with the world.

In the 1990s, Dr Gloria Ladson-Billings coined the framework for culturally relevant pedagogy. Culturally relevant pedagogy integrates a student’s background knowledge and prior home and community experiences into the curriculum (Ladson-Billings, 1994). In order to successfully integrate culture into education, Ladson-Billings stated there are three pillars which must be met: academic achievement, cultural competence, and sociopolitical consciousness. Academic achievement is nurtured through students actively creating knowledge influenced by their own learned experiences. Cultural competence can be achieved through affirming the students learned experiences as well as accepting, and appreciating, the multiple cultural identities of themselves and those around them. As students become agents of social change and transformation, students are empowered through sociopolitical consciousness.


Culturally relevant pedagogy plays a significant role in modern education. Culturally relevant pedagogy affirms students in their identities and experiences. Moreover, students may feel empowered to identify and dismantle structural inequities. Research has shown that schools which respect and support a child’s culture, demonstrate significantly better outcomes for education (Billings, 1995; Hamme, 1996; McCaleb, 1994).


Historically, all three Indigenous groups experienced colonization and the imposition of colonial systems . All groups have suffered loss of land, language, and socio-cultural resources (Ladner, 2009) The legacies of colonialism remains present through racism, discrimination, social exclusion, and substance abuse. According to research, for Indigenous groups, “the seeds of adult health and health inequity are sown in early childhood” (Marmot, 2005). As children require a healthy environment to maximize brain development and learn, Indigenous children are already at risk for poor education. Colonization denied Indigenous peoples the rights to resources and conditions necessary to maximize their socioeconomic status (Adelson, 2005). Consequently, the manifestation of poor resources has led to low literacy and educational attainment (O’Donnel, 2003, First Nations Centre, 2004).


Indigenous Education

The early colonial era gave way to competition for lands and resources in Canada. Indigenous peoples became a “problem”; The “Indian problem” was nothing more than the fact Indigenous peoples existed. The Bagot Commission of 1844, the Gradual Civilization Act of 1857, and the Nicholas Flood Davin Report of 1879 all developed the formation of aggressive assimilation through separation of Indigenous children from families and reserves. In order to absorb Indigenous bands into the body politic, the Canadian government operated the Residential School System - a massive and rapid sweep of cultural change eliminating Indigenous rites, rituals, and languages. Many students were forcibly removed and separated from their families. As early as 1897, government officials noted occurrences of disease, hunger, and overcrowding. In 1907, the death toll among schools children ranged from 15 to 42 percent. Only 3 of 100 Indigenous students ever advanced past grade six. 40 percent of teaching staff had no professional training. Students were forbidden to speak their language or practice their culture; being physically abused when they did so. Other experiences from Survivors include mental abuse, severe punishments, use of students in medical experiments, illness and disease, sexual assault, and death. The last federally administered Residential School closed in 1996. The traumatic experiences enforced pervasive loss of identity, family, language, and culture, which continues to impact Indigenous bands across Canada (Government of Northwest Territories, 2013).


Long before the arrival of Europeans, Indigenous groups had their own forms of education (Kirkness, 1992; Hampton, 1995). For Indigenous bands, culturally relevant pedagogy works to reconcile the deliberate undermining of cultural values through assimilative educational policies (Kirkness, 1992). Providing First Nation peoples with culturally relevant pedagogy fosters a sense of pride in their heritage through their education. It is a shift from centuries old colonial domination through Residential Schools.


Education is a primary means for transmitting culture. A Eurocentric foundation , unfortunately. excludes other knowledge’s and languages (Battiste, 2013). The purpose of developing authentic cultural materials is to enhance the educational experience of First Nation students (Chisholm, 1991). As early as 1972, educators have been aware of the role the education system has to play for First Nation students to transmit First Nation culture, language, as well as the general curricular outcomes designated by Western society. (Indian Control of Indian Education). Years later, the Assembly of First Nations’ report reaffirmed that First Nation education should prepare children with both the necessary skills for living and contributing to their community, reinforce First Nation identity, and academic skills (AFN, 1988). In 2000, the Auditor General’s Report noted that First Nation children should receive an education that is comparable to other Canadian’s without neglecting the cultural needs (AGR, 2000).


The lack of supports associated with communities, languages, and culture, as well as the lack of cultural relevance for First Nation students continues to impact learning outcomes. According to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People, the present schooling experience typically erodes identity and self-worth (RCAP, 1996). The gaps and inability of existing publicly funded education systems fail to meet the diverse learning needs of most First Nations students (Shackel, 2017).

Incorporating First Nation knowledge into curriculum can help answer persistence questions about identity. It is important for First Nations students to see themselves in relation to their environment in space and time. Moreover, incorporating First Nations studies into eduction can help provide First Nation students with information and a sense of appreciation about their history. Providing culturally relevant pedagogy can provide First Nation youth to build healthy relationships and skills to increase engagement in academics (Crooks, 2010). The resurgence of language and culturally relevant programming has led to cultural practices as an instructional base (Shackel, 2017).

The differences between First Nation and western world views, thoughts, and consciousness creates major cognitive gap in learning (Battiste, 2013). First Nations people traditionally adopted a holistic approach to education (Berkes, 1999). Physical, spiritual, and emotional growth is developed in each individual to ensure family and community survival. First Nation students have often sought the development of more spiritually based, more natural, and more culturally whole approaches to their education (AFN, 1998). Therefore, working with First Nation students to develop approaches to their education which satisfies the curricular outcomes through a learning experience which satisfies their needs for community-based learning, can potentially improve educational outcomes.


Traditional education prior to European contact fell into the hands of community and family mentoring; story telling helped children and youth find their gifts and how they can work for and with their communities (Auger, 2006). Learning is often shared through elders stories and talks with children (Archibald, 1995). First Nations laws can be exhibited through song, ceremony, sacred sites, and medicines (such as tobacco). In contrast, the typical school program weighs in favour of the printed word. The use of a community of learners approach has been shown to create conditions for educational development (Ball, 2004). Community members, parents, and elders have an important role as knowledge holders, and should be used in conjunction with traditional forms of educating.


Cultural training for knowledge to be passed along often comes from the First Nation connection to the land (Faries, 2004). Traditional medicine and plant remedies, tanning hides, hunting and trapping, are educational experiences which help pass on traditional curriculum. Incorporating outdoor education and on the land activities in western based curriculum may help to improve the educational outcomes of First Nation students.

Integrating Indigenous culture in school curricula, expanding the number of Indigenous language and history classes, including Elders in student education, and access to culture-based classes that connect traditional skills to curriculum can allow for pedagogy to remain relevant to First Nation students. Indigenous students need the opportunity to explore and study how their culture constructs its own knowledge (Ignas). With a solid grounding in First Nation culture and positive identity, First Nation students can become higher achievers in all aspects of education (AFN).


Trauma Informed Curriculum

Trauma is an experience in which powerful and dangerous events overwhelm a person’s capacity to cope (Rice 2013). A body of literature supports the relationship between childhood trauma exposure and the development of cognitive dysfunction in children, as well as poor academic achievement (Majer, 2010). Childhood trauma has a direct and immediate impact on the ability of a child to learn (McInerney, 2014). Children affected by trauma have been found to differ in their neurological and neurobiological development (van der Kolk, 2005). Chronic childhood trauma can result in developmental delays, including cognitive, language, and motor skills . Youth who experience trauma have lower learning outcomes, higher rates of learning difficulties, and higher rates of mental health disorders (Holmes, 2015). Consequently, the effects of chronic stress and trauma can make it difficult for students in school, and undermine the development of children academically (Jennings, 2019).


A big response to trauma is a decline in school performances. In the classroom, impacts from trauma may appear through impaired concentration, impaired ability in problem solving, problems with memory, and withdrawal from prior relationships and routines (US Department of Education, 2005). According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, the consequence of these impacts result in low grade point average; increased school absences; increased likelihood of dropping out; increased suspensions; decreased reading ability; increased emotional upset (National Child Traumatic Stress Network, 2008).

Traumatic experiences differ depending on the colonial modes imposed on specific First Nation groups. Temporal and location variances, as well as experiences with Southern Canadian groups play a role on the relationship past, present, and future Indigenous groups have with the larger Canadian society. How this trauma impacts generations of Indigenous communities, in addition to exposure of curriculum designed for Southern Canadians both impact the way First Nation students relate and interact with their education. Recognizing all students learn differently, differences may be connected to background and social and cultural identity (Villegas, 2002). Through intentional nurturing of culture, educators are able to create and facilitate effective conditions of learning for students (Rice, 2013).


Only recently has the intergenerational nature of trauma been explored within Indigenous communities (Braveheart-Jordan, 1995). Centuries of colonial politics and practices aimed to eradicate Indigenous cultural identity has led to severe trauma that is passed through the generations. In particular, the residential school experience is a key component of the trauma cycle in Indigenous communities (Gagne, 1998). Over an extended period of time, the effects of this trauma result in a legacy of physical, psychological, and economic disparities (Sotero, 2006). The chronic exposure to trauma manifests in anxiety, depression, grief, addictions, and self-destructive behaviours across generations of Indigenous peoples (Bombay, 2009).


First Nation children who have parents that attended residential schools also often experience negative parenting practices, resulting from the lack of traditional parental role models exposed to those who attended residential schools (EvansCampbell, 2008). First Nation children whose parents attended residential schools are more likely to grow up in large households that experience food insecurity (Bougie, 2010). The families often have low income status, which may have stemmed from lower educational achievement resulting from residential schooling. In turn, this lower educational achievement has resulted in reduced school success of their children (Bougie, 2010).


From a trauma informed perspective, it is important to have cultural competence regarding traditions and practices of a culture. Traditional healing practices are very localized and culturally specific. Schools must begin with the understanding of how trauma impacts Indigenous people, including historic trauma, race baed trauma, and approaches to healing (OFIFC, 2016). Educators must be informed regarding the First Nation culture while program planning and recognize the unique situation of First Nation communities within the context of their colonial experience.


First Nation Pedagogy

Education is a primary means for transmitting culture. A Eurocentric foundation , unfortunately. excludes other knowledge’s and languages (Battiste, 2013). The purpose of developing authentic cultural materials is to enhance the educational experience of First Nation students (Chisholm, 1991). As early as 1972, educators have been aware of the role the education system has to play for First Nation students to transmit First Nation culture, language, as well as the general curricular outcomes designated by Western society. (Indian Control of Indian Education). Years later, the Assembly of First Nations’ report reaffirmed that First Nation education should prepare children with both the necessary skills for living and contributing to their community, reinforce First Nation identity, and academic skills (AFN, 1988). In 2000, the Auditor General’s Report noted that First Nation children should receive an education that is comparable to other Canadian’s without neglecting the cultural needs (AGR, 2000).


In Canada, schools within First Nation communities must provide students with some knowledge of how their cultures interact with the rest of multicultural Canadian society, in order to allow them to progress with their future (McCaskill, 1987; Maclvor, 1995). “Indian children experience difficulty in schools [because] educators traditionally have attempted to insert culture into the education, instead of inserting education into the culture” (Pewewardy, 1993). Both academic and future success also depend upon students developing an accurate understanding of relationships with the larger Canadian society (Hampton 1995; Hamme, 1996; Calliou, 1995). Given the significance of cultural based pedagogy, and the stark differences between First Nation and western-oriented Canadian society, the incorporation of multicultural education into schools located in First Nation communities is necessary. Schooling is the process by which people are institutionalized to accept their place in a society, and education is the process through which students are taught to transform that society (Duncan-Andrade, ) First Nation peoples of Canada have had a unique experience throughout history and in contemporary politics. Consequently, their education should be able to elevate them academically and socio-politically in order to become agents of social change.


The lack of supports associated with communities, languages, and culture, as well as the lack of cultural relevance for First Nation students continues to impact learning outcomes. According to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People, the present schooling experience typically erodes identity and self-worth (RCAP, 1996). The gaps and inability of existing publicly funded education systems fail to meet the diverse learning needs of most First Nations students (Shackel, 2017).


Cultural training for knowledge to be passed along often comes from the First Nation connection to the land (Faries, 2004). Traditional medicine and plant remedies, tanning hides, hunting and trapping, are educational experiences which help pass on traditional curriculum. Incorporating outdoor education and on the land activities in western based curriculum may help to improve the educational outcomes of First Nation students.

Integrating Indigenous culture in school curricula, expanding the number of Indigenous language and history classes, including Elders in student education, and access to culture-based classes that connect traditional skills to curriculum can allow for pedagogy to remain relevant to First Nation students. Indigenous students need the opportunity to explore and study how their culture constructs its own knowledge (Ignas). With a solid grounding in First Nation culture and positive identity, First Nation students can become higher achievers in all aspects of education (AFN).


Incorporating First Nation knowledge into curriculum can help answer persistence questions about identity. It is important for First Nations students to see themselves in relation to their environment in space and time. Moreover, incorporating First Nations studies into eduction can help provide First Nation students with information and a sense of appreciation about their history. Providing culturally relevant pedagogy can provide First Nation youth to build healthy relationships and skills to increase engagement in academics (Crooks, 2010). The resurgence of language and culturally relevant programming has led to cultural practices as an instructional base (Shackel, 2017).


In the Northwest Territories, other than the odd subject, most of the curriculum comes from Alberta. While Alberta has a strong Indigenous influence within their curriculum, which includes Indigenous perspectives to many subjects, the curriculum remains relatively Eurocentric. When examining the Indigenous pedagogy specifically, there are two main issues which arise when applying Alberta curriculum to schools in the Northwest Territories. First, the Indigenous populations have major linguistic and cultural differences. Moreover, the Northwest Territories is home to all three vibrantly different Indigenous groups: First Nations, Inuit, and Metis. There are over forty-five different First Nation groups in Alberta, and two of these groups can also be found in the Northwest Territories, although these are First Nation bands that migrated over history. Secondly, in Alberta, the Indigenous populations live primarily on reserve or in multiethnic cities. There is only one reserve in the Northwest Territories, and the majority of Indigenous peoples live in communities with their own culture (save for larger urban communities such as Yellowknife or Inuvik). The Indigenous populations which exist in Alberta are not, for the most part, identical to the communities of the Northwest Territories.


Schools have a vital role in promoting awareness and providing students with accurate knowledge about Indigenous peoples. Teaching Indigenous and non-Indigenous students will undoubtedly positively impact the path to reconciliation between the two societies.

The long history of residential schools and enforced relocation onto reserves left legacies of their own (Johnston, 1989). Intergenerational trauma of First Nation peoples significantly impairs and impacts the learning outcomes of their communities Moreover, the distance from traditional educational models to a more western-based approach has created disconnect for First Nation learners.


A culturally relevant Indigenized-pedagogy which incorporates ideas from both trauma-informed practices and understandings of the unique trauma faced by First Nations in Canada can significantly and positively impact the learning outcomes of First Nation children.


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Opening Paragraph Four percent of the Indigenous population in Canada lives across the three territories (approximately 2% in Nunavut, 1.5% in the Northwest Territories, and 1% in the Yukon). Despite