Can we talk about toilet paper totem poles?
Recently in a zoom meeting I was talking with some other educators, in our conversation I was asked for my perspective on what to say to those who are still creating toilet paper totem poles with their class. I have to admit that I was taken a back by the question, with all the good work that educators have been doing in education here in BC, I really didn’t think that this was something that was still happening.
A critical eye is so important when we are looking into teaching about something we are unfamiliar with. Taking a pause point and asking some questions before leaping into a lesson you are unfamiliar with, is one of the best things you can do. I thought I would offer some questions to think about before jumping in.
· Whose culture is this?
· What do I know about it?
· What do I need to know more about it, before I teach it?
· In this lesson, am I honouring the people of this culture?
· In this lesson, am I allowing students to see a reflection of themselves in the work?
The toilet paper totem lesson plan has been in circulation for a while now and at first glance of the lesson, it does seem like it could be useful and a way to connect to Indigenous culture. But if we were to take a pause point and critically look at the lesson, we can see why the lesson does not connect to teaching about Indigenous culture. Creating something out of a toilet paper roll that is sacred in someone’s culture does not feel like it is respectful to the culture, the totem pole, or the people of that culture. The Indigenous communities that make totem poles have a deep connection and meaning to why they are made, in their culture they are sacred. They should not be made out of toilet paper rolls, full stop.
Thinking about how you approach family trees in a classroom is another blog post all together (I will write about this at a later date), but this is what is usually connected to making these totem poles. Here is an example of a lesson plan about creating totem poles that I have found.
(From this lesson, it is important to know that “Sometimes I Feel like a Fox” is under review for being not an authentic Indigenous text. There have been some concerns about the author’s Indigeneity.)
The other concern with this lesson, is giving students stock Indigenous art and asking them to connect it to their family. Looking at Indigenous people here in Canada, we know that there is not just one style of art, each nation and each community have their own specific art. So, selecting a very specific design and using that to represent Indigenous people and culture is problematic. This is a pan-Indigenous world view of Indigenous people.
This lesson is also asking students to represent themselves and their family through the eyes of a culture that is not theirs. In order to have a culturally responsive classroom, it is so important that students represent their family and culture through the eyes and lens of their own culture, not someone else’s. This is a very colonial perspective, making students think about themselves through the lens of someone else’s culture. How educators can decolonize this is asking students to represent themselves through their own culture. Share themselves through their culture, their worldview, and who they are as a whole person.
The question now is how can we change up this lesson to honour Indigenous culture and totem poles?
Here are some ideas that would work in a way to honour Indigenous culture:
· Find authentic resources that talk about totem poles, from the communities who have totem poles.
· Where are the communities? Who are the people? Why are totem poles important to them?
· To honour the culture, research about a totem pole and the carver. Understand why the pole was made and what it represents.
· Have the students explore some other carvers and their totem poles and what they represent and how they represent it on the pole
· Instead of making students connect their families to totem poles, have the students think about their own culture and background. What are some ways their own families tell the stories of their ancestors and their families? Through the student’s culture have them share how their culture represents them and what it means for them. Using their own life stories to share about themselves will help them see themselves in their work and share with others about themselves.
Using a critical lens will help support you in looking through lesson plans to see if they are good to use within your classroom. I am hopeful that this helps with the conversation about why this lesson plan is problematic and not honouring Indigenous culture and people.
I am hopeful that as we learn more, we understand more, and that education will shift and create spaces of inclusion for all cultures in authentic and honouring ways.