Sunday, January 30, 2011

Okay, so what did you think I meant by Where Are the Sheep?

So, tell me...what do you think of when you think of the title of my blog?  What was the first thing that came to mind?  Where are the sheep?  What do you think about when you think of sheep?  It is okay if you say the herd mentality that so dominates our preoccupation with sheep as a metaphor.  It is said all the time “look at them, acting like sheep.”  Sheep tend to move in herds and stay together to remain safe.  The ones that stray are the ones that get killed, etc.
Its okay for you to jump to that...but you’d be wrong.  I worried about the title when I chose it for the blog.  I worried that the meaning would be interpreted in that direction.  I worried that people would be annoyed with the title because they thought I might be making generalizations about the education system and Aboriginal education.  This would be wrong of course.  It was worrying to name my blog Where are the Sheep?, and then title my first post Why do we need Aboriginal Education?  What must you have been thinking?  Oh god, here we go again...another anti-PC thug coming to spout his complaints about special interest groups getting all the advantages, right?  I noticed someone posted an encouragement to read that first post on Facebook today and he blended it together: Where are the Sheep? Why do we need Aboriginal Education?  Put together it didn’t look good, actually.  I know the fellow and I know he didn’t mean it that way.
So, an explanation of the title...
There is no meaning unless we make it.  How we make it depends on the context of our identity, who we are, where we are from, our given circumstances, our lived experiences and the cultural history and identity that we inherit.  The sheep metaphor described above is a very western interpretation of sheep.  It is not what I am describing when I refer to looking for sheep.
In the beginning of my Grad program, I was assigned an article to read, There are no sheep in post-structuralism, by Dr. AudreyThompson (it is unpublished and unavailable online, I looked, sorry).  Within the article, she argues, that when we consider race and culture, we tend to start from generalities, and by starting from generalities, we are not necessarily going to get very far from where we started.  She tells the story of a class she was teaching that was looking at the culture of the Inuit by reading the stories of three white teachers working in an Inuit community.  One of her students put up her hand asked, “Where are the sheep?”  This stopped her cold.  Not because she was wondering about sheep in northern Canada, but because, in her efforts to decenter whiteness, to remove that aspect of white privilege from the classroom that reinforces the idea that the western ideal is the proper and right one, she was reinforcing it.  The teachers in her story were grossed out when they were offered blubber (if I recall correctly), and considered it a victory, later, when they came around enough to be able to say no and not feel like they were offending their Inuit hosts.  What her student brought up to her was the fact that she was, in trying to bring in a less-white perspective, she was reinforcing it, because the teachers were not  immersing and understanding the culture and the worldview.  They were maintaining their worldview by resisting being grossed out by the other, but not learning it.
Thompson argues that in post-structuralism starts with generalizations about race instead of relationships and the acknowledgement of difference.  In attempts to decenter whiteness in coursework, to incorporate the “other”, Thompson found that it merely reinforced White privilege, because race and culture was framed by the white understanding of it.  White, Black, Indigenous, Asian, Gay, Straight, male, female all have general assumptions that can be made about them to identify them.  What do we really know about the person or the group, even after their status is made known?  When we teach about otherness, we teach in a way that the discoveries will match our expectations of what makes the “other”. 

We don’t look for the sheep.  Okay, so explain the sheep.  Shut up, I’m getting to it.

Sheep are central to the lives of the Navajo, defining relationships, identity, place and power.  They are central to economy and to education, wherein the children learn to care for the sheep, in order to learn how to develop their social responsibilities. Thompson, in her article, quotes Hasbah Charley, 1996: “My sheep are here, and I think of them as my parents…they are the ones that keep me going day after day.”  You can’t recognize sheep in post-structuralist generalizations of race.  The importance of sheep to the Navajo is that they “represent a distinctive way of organizing a world” (Pg. 231, Thompson).

To look at my beloved Stó:lō', for example, where do we live?   Stó:lō means river.  Do you see an important relationship that might be particular to the Stó:lō people?  The sockeye are our forefathers, they are our food and the food of our children.  They are central to how we came to be.  To you see a particular relationship there?  What happened to the Cree, Saulteaux and other Plains nations when the Canadians and Americans decimated the bison herds?  Do you see an important relationship that might be particular to these nations?

My support for the opposition to the Prosperity Mine project had multiple reasons, not the least of which was that destruction of Teztan Biny would have destroyed a lake CENTRAL to the lives and culture of the Tsilhqot'in, but also because it would have destroyed the river that is central to the lives of the Stó:lō.  It would have devastated our fish stocks as well, as well as any number of other reasons.  I do talk about this in that first post, you can find it here.

What is missing because we do not know how to value it?  We look at the Cree and Inuit from the perspective of the white women and their point of view, which doesn’t see any particulars in the culture they are “helping”, except as it affects them.  Non-Aboriginal people might need to re-examine their own understanding of themselves (as should we all), accept a little humility and be willing to examine how a race or culture is shaped by the need to get up and take care of the sheep, or pay the proper respect to the sockeye.

In Aboriginal education, as in the whole MCFD thing, as in everything to do with Aboriginal people, there is a belief that as educators we are helping.   Eductators do, however, impose their own values on what needs fixing.  They apply a one size fits all solution and are surprised when it fails.  They blame the victim for the failure even as they fail to recognize the particularity about the nation, the Band, the culture and the child.  Educators have generalized based on a few themes: awful grad rates, FSA results, socio-economic dependencies.  Did you consider that during the sockeye run, school is less important?  Did you consider that during the winter time when a student might disappear into the longhouse, that he or she may indeed be learning?  Did you stop thinking that what you value might not be the same thing that is valued by the child and his or her family?   

When you’ve gone into the classroom to integrate Indigenous culture and learning into the curriculum, did you wonder where the sheep were for the group you would be working with?  Did you think, why are they not getting this?  Did you remember that not everyone learns the same way or in the same time?  Or that what is being taught just might not be all that relevant?  (Look, I think I might be making an argument against the FSA as well.  Dammit, Genaille, stop the propaganda!). 

I love that Thompson article, I am always rereading it and finding something new in it.  I will try and get it up here someday, but it is unpublished and I won’t without her permission. 

At any rate, this is not just a question for Aboriginal education.  This is not just a question to ask about Aboriginal groups and their needs and wants and worldviews.  This is a question that should be asked for every child.  What is it that makes this child unique?  What is it that gives this child his or her passion?  How does this child organize his or her world?  Where are the sheep?


  1. Way cool. I think you sort of explained it to me once before but even so every time I saw the title I did think of sheep like followers and kept thinking of a reference to critical mass or something. My mind always went - sheep - number of animals - trying to change the world - hundredth monkey theory. Your explanation actually makes a lot more sense.

  2. Hi there,
    Audrey Thompson's article is published, in Philosophy of Education 2008 (Ronald Glass, Ed., Urbana, IL: Philosophy of Education Society). It's on p. 193-201. Not that that necessarily helps you get it online, but it is out there.

  3. Thank you! I have often wondered if it would make it to publication. I am very happy to hear that.