Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Mythological Indian

“Sometimes realize
I can only be as good as you let me”- Pearl Jam

I was at pains today to explain the difference between the reality of the Indigenous and the mythology of the Indigenous.  This was not a bad thing.  The people, who were asking, were asking because we were working collaboratively to improve Aboriginal Education and the circumstances faced by our students in the public education system.

What did I mean by the mythological Indian?  This is an ongoing debate and Thomas King explores it brilliantly in his essay “You’re not the Indian I had in mind”, and it is one that has been reflected lately in the recent discussions around the choice to vote I have marginally engaged in during the recent election campaign.  In this discussion I was involved in today, we were looking at the mythological Indian as he appears in the public education system.  For better or worse, we have a vision of what a successful Aboriginal student is supposed to look like and it is all based on quantifiable data collection and the use of targeted funding to immerse the student in language and culture because the successful student will be a straight A student who is fluent in their cultural identity and their language.  We also have a vision of our students as being at a complete loss without that fluency and it is here that I had to disagree.

It is true that the stripping away of language and culture has had a devastating effect on Aboriginal peoples that will continue to have repercussions for generations to come.  It has had a negative effect on my family; I do not speak the language or practice much of the cultural traditions.  I do not consider myself to be less than another Aboriginal person however.  I know who I am, where I come from and I am still learning what I am capable of and where I might be able to take it, were I permitted the space and trust to do so. 

I use myself as the example here because it is the example I used there.  I attend meetings of my Aboriginal Education Council as a Band Representative and I, as a teacher of Aboriginal ancestry, argue and debate with the other Councillors about what type of teachers we need to have in order to encourage student success.  The Council always lean towards language teachers.  Our students need language teachers.  Without language teachers, we cannot see our kids succeeding. 

I disagreed with this assessment for a number of reasons.  I did not disagree with the need for language teachers, let me stress that, but we find ourselves constantly looking to these ideas as the only way to quantify success.  We can measure language acquisition. 

We seek the mythological Indian and forget the real Indian in the room. 

I am a teacher of Aboriginal ancestry and I am real.  I teach to improve Aboriginal students’ lives and the lives of all students by reflecting them in the classroom and sharing the journey with them.  By telling me that we can only succeed with language teachers, you invalidate my real existence in the classroom and my sense of identity as a teacher and an Aboriginal person.

The students I have taught are real students who are seeking real understanding of the world and their place in it.  Language and culture is a part of their identity, but it is not the only part of their identity.  Language and culture, one of my support workers pointed out, needs to be a part of that, it is as necessary as an arm, or a lung, but it is only a part of who our students are.  Their lived experience and reality and their hopes and dreams, their sense of self and dignity are also parts of that.

How do you quantify trust?  How do you measure self-confidence?  How do you test the sense of self-worth and identity in a young adult?  I would love to know my traditional languages, and I am not attacking language acquisition, I do believe we need to make every effort to teach it and ensure its survival.

But, the crux of my argument, I am teaching children, real people with real needs, wants, desires and dreams.  Should we not take these young people on a learning journey where the end result is a confident, self-assured person, who knows who they are as an Aboriginal person, who knows that they do not have to give up a part of themselves to be what they choose to be?  Should the journey not end with a young person who knows that they can learn the language and culture on their own terms but also stand up in front of a room full of Administrators, support workers and community leaders, again on their own terms, and share their challenges and successes in the education system?

This meeting I attended today was constructive; my table had administrators, Aboriginal Education Council representatives, and the aforementioned young man, a recent grad.  We had a conversation and worked to dignify all the voices around the table.  After, I saw a lot of “measurable” and “data collection” on some worksheets from other tables.  Our key points talked about trust, self-worth, choice.

There were some statements in the closing remarks about the need to measure student success and collect data to show where they fail.  These were followed by the young man getting up and talking about his successes and his challenges.  The young man also talked about his plans and what he is doing to achieve those goals.  He talked about how he is giving back to his community and how he hopes to continue to grow.

Over the last few weeks, I have been very unhappy.  I have struggled with being silenced (I will by blogging about that at some point), with the very real desperation of unemployment, with challenges to my identity by other Aboriginal people and my right to be dignified as a teacher.  I have struggled with the idea of leaving the profession.

That young man is not a mythological Indian.  He is real.  I have the privilege of being able to say that I guided and shared in a part of his educational journey towards graduation.

I was asked how to measure student success based on the above comments?  The confident, self-assured young man who spoke to the room, and being held up by some as an example of the success we all want to see? 

That’s how I measure success.

**Update** May 6, 2011
Mallory Whiteduck, on her blog These are my moccasins, wrote a response to an aspect of this post that I found to be very thoughtful and worth a read.  In it, she responds to my comments about the person as a whole and our identification as Aboriginal people, using it as a jumping off point to respond to a professor who had made some comments to her in the past which seemed to indicate a people cease to exist when they lose their language.  I know I say "seemed", I was being polite.  You can read her post: A Response to Prof. Doomsday & Where are the Sheep?
There is ongoing debate in the Aboriginal communities, which I allude to above about identity.  Do we have the right to call ourselves Sto:lo or Anishnaabe if we do not speak the language?  I argue no, when we have been placed in a situation where it has been stripped away, some of us never had the choice to learn it.  That is why it can only be an aspect of who you are.  I am Sto:lo and Saulteaux with a bit of French, Metis-Cree and Irish thrown in to spice it up.  I hope to one day learn my language, but it is not the most important aspect of my existence.  As I have mentioned in the storytelling post, I am a teacher and a filmmaker and in that way, I am preserving and creating my identity as an Aboriginal person.
Thank you Mallory for adding to the conversation.


  1. Hi there!!

    I started to write a comment on here that got deleted, then decided to respond on my blog instead. :) One thing I didn't write there though was that I hope you can overcome the barriers the schools and education system put up because we need people like you in them!


  2. Hi Mallory,
    Just wanted to share the blog link to your post:
    This is a very nice response to my post above and explores some aspects of identity that I have always struggled with. I really enjoyed your comments and greatly appreciate what you had to say.
    Thank you.