Self-Determination is the key.

Question: How do Canadian researchers envision the phenomenon of Indigenizing Curriculum and what does that mean for teacher preparation and teacher practice?

I have been tinkering at this topic for several months so I have a stockpile of research available to me. The more I examine, the more themes appear to me, but the tl;dr version is this: Indigenous education should be designed to encourage self-determination; teachers in Indigenous communities should prepare by educating themselves into better understanding the role culture and community play for Indigenous youth and incorporating it throughout their pedagogy.


Question: How do Canadian researchers envision the phenomenon of Indigenizing Curriculum and what does that mean for teacher preparation and teacher practice?

In reviewing the data on Indigenous curriculum, a glaring theme emerged immediately. Scholarship appearing since the 1980s reveals that the fundamental goal of Indigenous education is to advance Indigenous efforts for self-determination through education. To encourage the development of self-determination through education, sub-themes revealed themselves: culture, community, elders, land, and spirituality. Educating Indigenous students through means the youth have been exposed to at their earliest age appears to have significant effects on their future involvement in bettering their communities. Moreover, all of the themes suggest that as Indigenous students begin to see their culture, community, and spirituality in their academic environment, they are provided with the tools required to succeed. These themes provide further insight into how to encourage academic success in First Nation communities, and how educators may be able to better reach Indigenous students.

Despite the intent to examine Indigenous curriculum as a whole, many of the works speak only to the First Nation experience. 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).[i] Additionally important is defining the parameters around ‘curriculum’. Curriculum is used to denote the experience of teaching, studying, and becoming educated (Pinar, 2004). Curriculum is the whole environment (Allingham 1992). Pedagogy however, is the method and practice of teaching.

Perhaps it is my history hat that encourages me to place literature alongside the historical events in which they emerged, and as such, this draft begins with a rough draft of why and how certain authors appear at specific moments. There are countless end-notes which provide further details on both the authors and the history in which they are steeped, with the intention that the emergent themes begin to make sense in context. Following this contextual placement, self-determination, along with the five sub-themes, are briefly described.

Placing First Nation Curriculum Literature in Context

In 1980, hundreds of chiefs met in Ottawa and used “First Nations” for the first time, during their Declaration of the First nations. In 1982, the National Indian Brotherhood became the Assembly of First Nations, the grand political voice for all First Nations peoples in Canada. The same year, section 35 of the Constitution Act of 1982 affirmed existing Indigenous and treaty rights, defining the “Aboriginal peoples of Canada” as First Nations, Inuit, and Metis. A report in 1983 from the House of Commons Special Committee on Indian Self-Government recommended Indigenous communities be given the opportunity to work out new forms of government to replace the limited structures already in existence.

Enter Barman’s 1986 overview of the historical legacy of the educational system in Canada for Indigenous peoples.[ii]Barman’s watershed book, providing policy and process struggles that occurred throughout the early schooling experiences of Indigenous peoples. The 1980’s brought serious reform and began providing restitution for the crimes committed towards Indigenous peoples across Canada. Consequently, academia was finally given the opportunity to explore and understand the individuality of First Nation’s and other Indigenous groups in the larger Canadian context, and Barman concludes his research by stating that schools have been a means to ‘civilize’ the Indigenous, and ‘eradicate’ their culture. Barman’s work truly is a mirror of the time and place it had been developed.

Over the course of the 1990’s, the Supreme Court made several key decisions about Indigenous peoples involving land rights, the validity of oral testimony, and the prescription for Metis status.[iii] Bartolome’s “Beyond the methods fetish: Toward a humanizing pedagogy”, originally published in 1994 during key moments occurring in the Indigenous movement’s push for independence, Barolome’s work recognizes the importance of strength through community.[iv]Much like the scholarship penned in this decade relating to the development of an Indigenous consciousness, Ermine’s work highlights the importance of using Indigenous ideologies in this quest- and he does so through oral testimony, which continued to spark debate around validity through this decade.[v]Hampton’s 1995 essay “Toward a Redefinition of Indian Education” highlights the significance of self-defining and culturally transmitting models in order to enhance the Indigenous consciousness.[vi]“Aboriginal ways of learning and learning styles”, the 1997 article penned by Hughes takes the call from the National Aboriginal Education Committee to develop a theory and pedagogy that takes into account Indigenous epistemology. Hughes’ work primarily focuses on the learning styles of First Nations students, but provides conclusions that further solidify the link between culture and learning, again, to rebuild an Indigenous identity.

The 2000s brought several more land claim agreements, which led to eventual self-government in many communities. It also brought significant moments in contemporary Indigenous history, which ultimately turned the tides for scholars and academics. [vii]The extreme upheaval and acknowledgement for and of Indigenous peoples in the new millennium has brought more research and studies to light about what the Indigenous experience has been, was been, and what it can and should be. Consequently, the resulting scholarship reflects much more detail and provides further insight.

Battiste remains a powerful voice for the efforts to Indigenize education. The generation publishing in the 2000’s used Indigenous education to confront the contradictions in Indigenous consciousness within Canada. Battiste’s turn-of-the-century “Maintaining aboriginal identity, language, and culture in modern society” lays out important historical framework that is foundational to Indigenous educational studies. Battiste’s works spoke to both classroom and post-secondary institutions, and the importance of decolonization in curriculum, teacher education, and cultural theory.[viii]

Following her participation at an Indigenous Education conference, Armstrong’s 2000 “A holistic education, teachings form the dance house: ‘We cannot afford to lose one native child’” articulates the depth to understanding First nation education. Armstrong’s work is watershed in discussing the importance of developing self, family, community, and land through education for First Nation youth.[ix]Graveline, in “Teaching tradition teaches us”, provides insight into the struggles faced by Indigenous peoples experiences with Eurocentric education, and the importance of Indigenous perspectives and Indigenous classrooms. Archibald, who penned her 2002 “Exemplary indigenous education”, suggests that Graveline’s work shows how teaching tradition helps implement exemplary education. Further expanding upon Graveline’s theoretical underpinnings, Archibald’s editorial piece contains articles that discuss Indigenous principles and approaches that contribute to the success of Indigenous students.[x] Doige’s 2003 “A missing link”, continued the ongoing discussion of culturally appropriate education for First nation students, and focuses on spirituality that makes the Indigenous educational system different from Western educational system. “Red Pedagogy: The un-methodology”, by Grande, highlighted the crossroads between Western and Indigenous knowledge. Much like the decade following, Indigenous peoples continue to find their place in a Western society. It is in Grande’s work that critical theory and its possibilities for Indigenous theories of decolonization first appears, and is the underpinnings for subsequent scholarship.[xi]

Defining First Nation Curriculum

There been rapid change in the past several decades. Rapid change, argued Barman, was occurring in the First Nation communities within Canada, and had spilled over through to the education system. There is consensus among scholarship that the differences between western and Indigenous perspectives greatly influences the educational environment, and understanding these differences impacts the lives of the students (Barnhardt 1998, Battiste 2002, Doige 2003, Grande 2008, Graveline 2002). Although First Nation pedagogy and curriculum is said to be difficult to define (Archibald 2002, Hampton 1995), it is believed to encompass all areas of life including the academic and non-academic (Armstrong 2000). First Nation people have had ways of teaching, being, and knowing that were passed on through the generations – and despite the invalidation by Western ways of knowing, First Nation people must continue educating their youth in ways that have worked since time immemorial (Battiste 2002, Ermine 1995, Stiffarm 1998). Through this definition, literature in Indigenous pedagogy and curriculum is able to demonstrate the weight education plays in First Nation communities.

The Importance of Decolonization

Education reflects the values of society, and the forces of colonization previously invalidated those Indigenous values through forced assimilation and acculturation (Bartolome 1994, Batiste, Ermine 1995, Grande 2008). In the struggle for self-determination, First Nation curriculum integrates language and cultural knowledge, creating more equitable relationships and fostering societal change (Goulet 2014, Hampton 1995). Despite the positive developments in recent history, community based education is more widely accepted by Canadians, over self-government (Battiste 2002). Consequently, First Nation communities see community based education as fundamental, but more significantly, as the exemplary vehicle for advancement and empowerment (Archibald 2002, Barman 1986, Bartolome 1994). Education provides the pathways necessary for students to develop and progress into meaningful lives, and obtain the ability to contribute to their communities.

The Importance of Culture

For decades, researchers have examined the academic performance of Indigenous students, and attribute the low success rates to the cultural environment of Western-oriented schools (August 2006, Backes 1993, Ingalls 2006, James 1995, Goulet 2014). For learning to be effective, some researchers suggest that there needs to be cultural restoration and traditional teachings in order to provide effective learning (Archibald 2002, Battiste 2002, Graveline 2002, Hughes). Affirming the language, cultural practices, and knowledge of the First Nation people provides meaning, and therefore, scholarship suggests a greater participation from First Nation students (Battiste 2002, Goulet 2014, Sterling 1995).

The Importance of Community

While self-determination implies the right of an individual to be in charge of their life, the concept of self-determination in First Nation communities is a model which promotes independence of the community itself, not just its individuals. Individual and personal autonomy is a product of a Eurocentric worldview (Archibald 2002). Community-based education allows for the transformation from assimilation to culturally transmitting schools (Archibald 2002, Bartolome 1994 Hampton 1995). Scholars suggest that curriculum is impactful when there is inclusive community participation or a sense of relationship with others, and the ability to connect the child to family (whether that is the direct family, or community family) (Archibald 2002, Armstrong 2000, Bartolome 1994). Furthermore, as is in many First Nation worldviews, the purpose of life and education is to contribute, and scholars agree that it is through networks and the relationships to clan and community that First Nartion students have higher academic achievement (Batiste, Cajete 2000, Ermine 1998, Goulet, Graveline 2002, Hampton 1995).

The Importance of Elders

Significantly, literature mentions Elders as the transmitters of knowledge, and continuously highlights the importance of incorporating elders into the educational systems, and the necessity in sustaining ongoing relationships with them (Archibald 2002, Battiste 2002, Graveline 2002, Ledoux 2006). Elders are the carriers of the oral traditions, which links community and history; as the original educators, incorporating elders can lead to a better connection between First Nation student and curriculum (Archibald 2002, Battiste 2002, Cajete 2000, Graveline 2002, Hampton 1995). consequently, incorporating elders There is power in ancestral teaching, and incorporating elders into the educational system may increase the educational achievement levels in the First Nation population (Brade, Graveline 2002).

The Importance of Land

Hampton’s ideal for education incorporates the importance of sense of place, land, and territory as one of the pillars for constructing First Nation theory for education. Since then, and despite the majority of focus in First Nation education being on culture, recent scholarship suggests that in order to provide meaningful education, there needs to be an increase of practices incorporating the land (Armstrong 2000, Goulet, Harris 2006). The First Nation relationship with the natural world creates a sense of belonging beyond simply person-to-person (Armstrong 2000, Barnhardt, Bartolome 1994, Cajete 2000, Graveline 2002, Kinchloe). To make progress toward appropriate First Nation education, schools should incorporate the land and land based teachings to integrate traditional educational practices and enrich the knowledge bases of First Nation students (Battiste 2002, Ledoux 2006).

The Importance of Spirituality

In integrating First Nation perspectives into curriculum, many educational studies that highlight effective teaching for First Nation students situate the importance of spirituality in their education. Authorship suggest spirituality is a foundation for learning, and missing from Indigenous education (Doige 2003, Grande 2008, Ledoux 2006, Marshall). Spirtuality provides the development of then intellect, spirit, emotion, and body – and helps reach the whole First Nation student (Armstrong 2000, Ledoux 2006, Marshall). Authors conclude that invoking First Nation spirituality helps students find who they are and where they come from (Cajete 2000). Not only will students nbe able to see themselves in their education, but their self-esteem, confidence, and empowerment are also developed which has, historically, been removed from the education equation (Battiste 2002, Ledoux 2006).


The lesson researchers impart is the importance of incorporating the lived experience of First Nation students into education. Despite the rapid changes occurring within Canada over the past several decades, although authorship has increased, researchers demonstrated several reoccurring themes regardless of the year. First Nation education should be developed in a way that allows the students to view their own knowledge, and the knowledge of their community and Elders as valid and valuable. Although this literature review summarized some of the main ideas in First Nation education, there is no definitive list. As First Nation issues continue to be prevalent in contemporary Canada, the study of Indigeneity and Indigenous ways of learning becomes more important and necessary to ensure that First Nation children are receiving adequate education that allows them to become productive members of their community and provide them with a platform for change and self-determination. Consequently, how educators seek to impact the schooling in Indigenous communities truly comes from a place that encourages the growth of self-determination, and self-discovery.


Allingham, N. (1992). Anti-Racism Education and the Curriculum: A Privileged Perspective in Racism and Education, Canadian Teachers Federation, Ottawa, Ontario

Archibald, J. (2002). Editorial: Exemplary indigenous education. Canadian Journal of Native Education, 26.

Armstrong, J. (2000). A holistic education, teachings from the dance house: ‘We cannot afford to lose one native child’. In M. Ah’Nee-Benham & J. Cooper (Eds.), Indigenous education models for contemporary practice: In our mother’s voice (p 35-44). New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

August, D., Goldenburg, C. & Rueda, R.(2006). ‘Native American Children and Youth: Culture, Language and Literacy’. Journal of American Indian Education, Volume 45, #3.24-37.

Backes, J.S. (1993). ‘The American Indian high school dropout rate: A matter of style?’ Journal of American Indian Education. 32(3). pp. 16-29.

Barman, J. Hebert, Y. & McCaskill, D. (1986). The Legacy of the Past: An overview. Indian Education in Canada. In J. Barmin, Y. Herbert, & McCaskill, D (Eds), Indian education in Canada: The legacy (p 1-22). Vancouver: UBC Press.

Barnhardt, R (1998). Teaching/Learning across cultures: Strategies for Success. Native Knowledge Network.

Bartolome, L.I. (1994). Beyond the methods fetish: Toward a humanizing pedagogy. In M.Villegas, S.R. Neugebaur, & K.R. Vengeas (Eds). Indigenous Knowledge and education: Sites of struggle, strength, and survivance, (2008) (p125-147). Cambridge: Harvard Educational Review.

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Brown-Rice, K. (2013). Examining the Theory of Historical Trauma Among Native Americans. The Professional Counselor, 3(3), 117–130. doi: 10.15241/kbr.3.3.117 Calliou, Sharilyn 1995 Peacekeeping Actions at Home: A Medicine Wheel Model for a Peacekeeping Pedagogy, pp. 47-72 in Marie Battiste and Jean Barman (Editors): First Nations Education in Canada: The Circle Unfolds. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Cajete, G. (2000). Indigenous knowledge: The Pueblo metaphor of Indigenous education. In M. Battiste (Ed) Reclaiming Indigenous Voice and Vision (p181-191). Vancouver: UBC Press.

Doige, L.A. (2003). A missing link: Between traditional Aboriginal education and the Western system of education. Canadian Journal of Native Education. 27(2), 144-160.

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  1. [i] There are 634 recognized First Nation governments or bands spread across Canada, and predominantly south of the Arctic Circle. 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. Consequently, it is important to note that while this literature review refers to First Nation peoples as a collective, each band experiences education differently; this review is therefore not exhaustive. [ii] Barman’s book comes following the amendments to the Indian Act in 1985 abolished enfranchisement, restored Indian status and band membership rights to those who had lost them, and allowed bands to control their own memberships. Barman reflects this sudden decision, arguing that the control of education established by Canada has prevented the advancement for Indigenous groups. [iii] The collapse of the Meech Lake Accord in 1990 demonstrated the failures of ignoring the importance of consulting First Nations and recognizing their constitutional rights. In 1996, the final report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, a landmark public inquiry, calls for research into Residential Schools and improved relations between Canadian and Indigenous governments. The RCAP, in addition to the closure of Gordon Residential School in Saskatchewan, marking the end of the Residential School System, advancement in research and into the IRSS could begin. Concluding the decade, Nunavut, the first of its kind land claim, is created, furthering the scholarship which explored Indigenous rights, and the importance of land. [iv] Bartolome’s cutting edge article outlined many new themes in Indigenous education, specifically around culturally responsive practices.. It proposed a new pedagogy which calls to deconstruct power dynamics which subordinate students. [v] The following year, in 1995 Ermine published an article entitled “Aboriginal epistemology” which describes the conflicts between knowledge in the Eurocentric and Indigenous worldview. Ermine continued his work in 1995 with “Pedagogy from the ethos: An interview with Elder Ermine on language.” [vi] It also provides the medicine wheel as the foundation of redefining First Nation education and provides further support for Ermine’s theories. [vii] The 2005 Kelowna Accord, although it was never passed, brought to light the importance of health and education for social and economic improvements for the Indigenous peoples in Canada. Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada formally acknowledges their duty to consult with Indigenous peoples if resource extraction may impact treaty rights. Former Prime Minister issued an apology for IRSS survivors. The most recent decade brought further initiatives by Indigenous peoples in Canada in their fight for acknowledgement. Women begin the Idle No More movement to increase awareness for self-determination. The Supreme Court called the assimilationist efforts of the Canadian government towards Indigenous people “cultural genocide. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued its final report on the IRSS experience. Inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women. Canada, finally, signed the UN declaration of Indigenous Peoples and recognized Indigenous rights to self-determination. [viii] Many of the works in this literature review come from Battiste’s editorial works, and nod to Battiste for their groundbreaking theoretical underpinnings. One such work collected by Battiste, brought forward the importance of community and relationships through Indigenous education. Cajete’s “Indigenious knowledge: The Pueblo metaphor of Indigenous education” which uses cultural theory as a springboard. [ix] While scholars frequently discussed the significance of land-based teachings, Armstrong extended that the relationship with the land will be improved through the development of other cultural aspects of student’s lives. [x] Many of the articles featured in this editorial highlight the triumphs and struggles that Indigenous peoples have experienced while providing education, and come from an Indigenous perspective. Consequently, the articles chosen provide an outline for readers to begin understanding the themes which appear frequently in scholarship relating to Indigenous and First Nation pedagogy. [xi] Concluding the selection of Indigenous literature, the Grande article penned in 2008, truly captured the spirit of reconciliation and the fight for Indigenous rights that continues to bleed through to contemporary scholarship.

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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