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"What about the Indigenous people?" What is missing in our learning?

As I continue this learning and unlearning of how I use an anti-colonial lens in teacher practice, I came across a book called, Betweener Autoethnographies: A path towards social justice. Chapter 5 of this book talks about decolonizing classrooms. Of course, this is where I start my reading. There was a story in this chapter that hit to the core of the problematic issues that arise in the colonial education system. In what follows is this story and my thoughts and connections with an anti-colonial lens. (in the original text they used the word Indian, because this is an outdated, harmful term, I changed the term to Indigenous)

From pages 90-92.

History class, 3rd grade, Liceu Pasteur, expensive private school, cira 1976 São Paulo, Brazil. “And so, after a long and perilous voyage, Pedro Alvarez Cabral discovers Brazil,” Dona Teresinha says with a big smile. She seems proud of the beginning of her country. The whole point of the lesson seems to be to make us proud with her. “But what about the Indigenous people?” I ask. “Raise your hand before you ask a question, Marcelo,” Dona Teresinha says looking at me. I raise my hand timidly. Dona Teresinha nods and I ask the question again. “They welcomed the Portuguese,” she says. I wait for more. But she moves on to talk about the first colonies, the great resources of the new land, like sugar and gold and cocoa, then bandeirantes and the opening of paths to the interior, the minerals and precious stones, the lush and abundance of their new land. “What about the Indigenous people?” I want to ask again. There were people living in the paths of the bandeirantes. But she isn’t stopping her history lesson. She talks about pioneers, colonizers, slaves, missionaries, Jesus people, monarchy, and wars with other European conquistadores. “What about the people who lived here before the discovery?” I still want to know. By now she is already impressing upon us the importance of memorizing the linear timeline of events, the names of European heroes, the gist of their conquests, more dates lost in time. We will learn about the present in a different class, moral and civic education, I’m told. History is the story of a distant past, relevant to us only in bits and pieces of memorized numbers and Portuguese names. “What about the Indigenous people?” I still want to know.

This is an example of how the western colonial narrative plays out in colonial classrooms. This brings to question whose story are we honouring when we are teaching? When the focus is on the western narrative, we miss out on the richness of what this land is to the original care takers. The Indigenous worldview and perspective of this land, brings a wealth of understanding of how this place came to be. Not hearing Indigenous voices and worldviews perpetuates the colonial narrative of this land. Those of us living in this place now known as Canada, have first-hand knowledge of what it looks like and feels like to not be taught about the first peoples of this land. The western colonial education system has purposely left out the story of the Indigenous people of this land and how their relationship with this government came to be. Which is why we have almost an entire country shocked and horrified to hear the stories of Indian Residential schools as adults. By purposefully not educating about how this land came to be, has allowed for the continuation of harm, genocide, and the stealing of land and resources by the settler colonial government.

Words matter and the language we use is critical. The term discovered is not the word to use when talking about first contact. You cannot discover a land that already has thousands and thousands of people living on it. Indigenous people have been living here on this land for over 22,000 years before settlers. In the Halq’eméylem language the word we use for those who settled here, in direct translation means “starving person”. This word connects with how my ancestors saw the settlers and the state they were in. They were starving from lack of food from travel but it also meant how the settlers viewed the world with their eyes. The state of always being hungry for the commodification of the natural resources they saw like trees, water, gold, and the land itself. This connects to the story above and how the settlers and what they saw when they first arrived. They only had eyes for what they could take from the land and profit from. This needs to be included when we are talking about the recent history of first contact.

Another addition to this story above is the education of what contact has done and continues to do to the Indigenous people of this land, including the harm to the land itself. Settler colonialism has extracted and continues to extract natural resources from the land for profit. With no consideration for who and how it harms. Leaving the entire planet in a climate emergency. It has also committed and continues to commit cultural genocide on an entire population of people in this country. With settler colonial laws and policies in place to make sure that Indigenous people do not have a voice at the table for change. All of this information needs to be included within the education system so that the next generation of children grow up with the full understanding of the history and present day of this place now known as Canada.

The narrative in your classroom is what you bring into the space. What are you going to tell the next generation? Are you going to continue the narrative that this land was free and clear and Indigenous people are vanishing? Or are you going to be a change maker and leave the colonial narrative behind and start to teach the truth about this land? It is up to all of us to teach the truth and change the system.


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