Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Words & Meanings

Approach carefully the situation.  The words left me seething today.  I don’t even remember them clearly, but approximately they were “We let them come here and do their ceremonial dances...”

The reference was to First Nations people and the practice of opening meetings with a traditional acknowledgement.  I won’t be speaking about the speaker, who was shocked at his own words, terribly apologetic and couldn’t find enough words to apologize.  He has come under fire from all around, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people have spoken to him and he has been shamed, essentially in a very public forum.  He has spoken at length with a colleague of mine and has started that journey of self-examination and he is beating himself up far worse than anyone could hurt him.

Like I said, I was seething and I seethed through dinner before returning to the meeting intent on going to the microphone and castigating the whole room, educating on the hurt those words cause and the meaning that is invoked by them.  At which point, I saw the speaker and all that anger dissipated.  He is being transformed, as we speak, from an essentially good person who made a stupid mistake, into a better, more thoughtful person who understands the power of his words.

The truly sad part was he was speaking in support of First Nations people, and was attempting to articulate respect.

So, then...responsibility needs to be assigned. 

My advocacy in Aboriginal education is designed to bring forward the issues that affect our students and teachers, to uncover a little bit the institutional ideas that allow stereotypical expectations to carry on, and hopefully, remove those barriers that keep Indigenous people in the cycle of inequity that we exist in.  It is also directed toward the incorporation of Indigenous pedagogies and epistemologies into the curriculum.  Finally, it is a hope to transform the public education system in such a way that we don’t recognize it as the western, colonialized system that it is, but a system where no student is invisible and no one is allowed to be considered second-class citizens.

“We let them come here and do their ceremonial dances...” was learned within the education system, whether intentionally or otherwise.  It was played out in the text books provided and reinforced by the current streaming models that are inherent in the system.  “We let them come here and do their ceremonial dances...” is the language of the benevolent society that Canada considers itself to be.  The society that preaches we are helping Aboriginal people when we say they should give up their culture and “join” Canadian society, and says that a new water act will solve the problems of water issues on reserve, but the Native people can have no input or say, than accuse the Natives of not being team players when they object.  It is the society that tolerates unspeakable poverty and incredible suicide rates in First Nations communities while claiming to be a leader in human rights issues around the world. 
“We let them come here and do their ceremonial dances...” is the language of a Human Rights Commission that says chronic underfunding of First Nations child welfare agencies is acceptable because the government underfunds all First Nations child welfare agencies equally.

I cannot blame this young man.

I can say that it is time for our society to consider that journey of self-examination.  I can say that a good place to start is with our education system.

I also think that we, as teachers have a responsibility to understand that our words, and the meaning we imbue into them, have power that can hurt, and cause anger and pain.  That, ultimately, was what checked my tongue.  I could lash out at words that hurt, but that would give those words more power.  It would also injure an already hurting person.  So, my words need to have meaning that is not hateful, not designed to impart blame or rage.

Let us have the conversation about where our words come from and where their meaning is created.  Let us look beyond the hurts of the now, transform our relationship into something better.  I think we can create new meanings for our words and so, in the words of Jeanette Armstrong, "Let us begin with courage."

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