Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Words & Meanings Part II

"Each person must live their life as a model for others" - Rosa Parks.

Below are my tweets from this afternoon at the BCTF Annual general meeting. My response to a rather dramatic debate over a resolution regarding the disposition of Indigenous peoples in a region of Peru. I was struck by the passion of a group of young delegates who argued in favour of lobbying Talisman Energy to withdraw from the territories of the Achuar people. I was also struck by the anger with which they attacked those who opposed their resolution. It was not nice.

As in my previous post, I remind that words have power, they can harm and and they can heal. While their hearts were in the right place, their words were the words of the oppressor, used to advance the cause of Indigenous rights. I am not happy about that. To use language that silences and marginalizes the other in the name of Indigenous rights is a disservice to what those advocates are fighting for. Those words hurt me, as an Indigenous person. Why would I want to support them in fighting for my rights?

disappointed in voices fighting for Indigenous rights using the language of oppression to push their viewpoint.

the language of oppression, the language that silences and marginalizes the other voice is not the language of Indigenous rights.

to fight for Indigenous rights means you should dignify the voice of those that disagree, allow them to be heard and considered.

marginalizing in the name of Indigenous rights is not fighting for Indigenous rights.

We cannot allow ourselves to oppress in the name of the oppressed, I say that as a First Nations person.

I encourage you to honour, respect and dignify all voices, regardless of position on a resolution.

Words have power. They can hurt. They can heal. I hope that champions of Indigenous rights here don't continue to hurt in our name

Fight for Indigenous rights, I thank you, but do it with a good heart and a good mind. Hurts from angry words are hard to let go.

And the words used to oppress me and my fellow Indigenous shouldn't be necessary to fight for our rights.

Let's find better words. Thank you for your time and consideration. O'Siyam.

**Update** After writing this post, I had to return to the AGM for another session and while I was waiting to begin, I found I was still dwelling on this subject and I went to the mic and called a point of privilege, at which point, I laid out for the body of the whole what I had written above in the tweets.  It was terrifying but it needed to be said. If you refer to what I wrote in the first post, you will see I talked about coming to speak with courage, and I needed to dignify those speakers that had been victimized by the language referred to above and I needed to call out the activists, who had invoked the fight for Indigenous rights in their silencing and marginalization of the other speakers.  I have been silenced and marginalized too many times to let someone use my rights as an excuse to do the same to another.  I was also needing to address the fight for Indigenous rights invocation without actually welcoming any Indigenous voices to the table.  I don't stick my neck out often, as I have, sometimes shamefully addressed here, but I am proud that I spoke out tonight, however short my time at the mic was allowed to be.  I said what needed to be said and I did encourage the body of the whole to respect, dignify and honour all the voices and positions present.  They deserve that much.

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."

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Feelin’ Reserved

Recently Suzetta Amaya put up a post on the the CBC Radio 3 blog called Aboriginal hip hop: Sharing our Truth. The post is a short synopsis of her introduction and experience in the Native hip hop community. It started in 1995 when she heard the song Feelin’ Reserved by War Party, one of the first successful Native hip hop groups in Canada, from Hobbemma. (You can hear Feelin' Reserved at the end of the post)

The post put me into something of a reflective mood. Feelin’ Reserved was my introduction to Native hip hop in 2002. It was one of those songs that burrowed in and didn’t let go of your brain. Suzette points out that she realized that this was the way to share our stories with the larger community. I felt like that, but I was also drawn to the fact that this was a way to share our stories with each other, a means to build intergroup alliances that could grow on our shared commonalities and experiences.

It was a way to resist.

It was also a natural evolution, I saw of the Native cultural aspect of story-telling. We have always shared our stories in song. We have always lived by the drum, the heartbeat of the mother. I saw hip-hop as merely an extension of that idea. Native cultures have never been static, despite what colonial thinkers and scholars might try to tell you. They have always been welcoming of otherness, using what they could use efficiently; discarding what was inefficient or no longer relevant. Hip-hop, like, I would argue, film, are evolutions of the story-telling tradition, new methods of carrying on the tradition that has existed since time immemorial. The traditional methods are not by any means obsolete, or ineffective, these are just new tools to add to that cultural toolbox.

As well, I found that many Aboriginal youth were using it as a way to carve out an identity for themselves in the slightly scary area between the two worlds they were required to manage, one that acknowledged the popular culture of western society while also paying respect to their own histories, cultures and lived experience.

How much of an affect did this particular song have on me?

I started a film production company with my brother to develop a film about Native hip-hop. It hasn’t been made yet, but it is still in my head, bouncing around in there, emerging periodically to remind me that I have not fulfilled that particular objective (The film company went on to make a television show, Back in the Day, which took urban Aboriginal people out onto the land with an Elder to reconnect to the past and to start to learn about that aspect of their identity. As an FYI, Suzette was one of the participants).

My Masters degree in Education focussed on identity politics; the very first project and big paper was called “Stop Trying to be Black: native Identity & cultural appropriation- re-examining ourselves with Native hip-hop”. This was an examination of rap’s influence on Native youth. In this early phase, I made the argument that it wasn’t cultural appropriation but evolution as a means of sharing our pain with each other. The project is a 27 minute film I made by myself with a digital SLR camera, and used pictures I took off the web, song samples and quotations from news stories that, while referenced, never had permissions to use, which is why I have never tried to release it. It also contains my one and only embarrassingly bad attempt at a song, built on top of an instrumental from Native hip hoppers Mils & Eekwol. Again, something that would not be allowed to be released. I plan to redo the film someday (if not the song), either as a part of that bigger documentary or as its own stand-alone. The “five page supporting document” ended up being about 19 pages exploring the history of hip hop, Native hip hop, the acceptance of hip hop in white culture as passive empathy, and the refusal to acknowledge the Native as an authentic hip hopper because of the refusal to see the Native person as a victim of colonialism in the same way that the Black person had been victimized by slavery. Hence the title.

In retrospect, I would have added a question mark after the main title.

I found that hip hop was an area where I could bond with my students, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal. Particularly the Aboriginal students, a few of which were putting together their own rap music, telling their stories, really were happy to have someone really interested in talking about the music with them, exploring the practices of what it means to them. I found hip hop was a way to get them succeeding in my English classes, but that is another story.

The final comprehensive exam, or thesis, or final project is called, “The boy growin’ up will be young and old: Emergent identity construction in Indigenous youth through hip hop.” A portion of it analysed the music of those same students. When I figure out how to put it on here I will share one of their songs. If you have been to any of my Working with Aboriginal Youth workshops, you will have likely heard the song, but I will try and get it on here (I do have their permission to share it).

Besides the idea of building a sense of community and a safe environment, I find that finding out the passions of our students will help us work with them. For many of our youth, that is hip hop right now. Many of our students are considered at risk, though it could be argued that they are surviving. If you approach them on their terms, through their interests, you might find that they are there, waiting for you to ask them to share.

It is sometimes surprising how one moment, or one song can change your whole understanding of your place in the world. How often is that moment ignored when it happens for our students? I know that there is a lot of time spent telling them that that is not really the Aboriginal culture and that they should be doing their own thing, when the reality is that they are doing their own thing. What they are not necessarily doing is your expectation of their “thing”, or the textbook definition of what the culture should look like. Other Aboriginal people are not innocent of this particular belief when it comes to looking for culture in their children. I think culture is very important in the lives of our youth, but we must remember that it isn’t static.

At any rate, here is a song that shares a truth.  One that opened up a mind to new possibilities.

War Party - Feelin' Reserved by riem2k

Friday, March 18, 2011


Why is the number 250 significant?

If you answered it is the approximate number of teachers of Aboriginal ancestry working in the public school system in British Columbia, you would be correct. There are about 65 000 Aboriginal students in BC’s public schools and it has been determined that equity is a necessity to ensure that these students, over-represented in statistics under the heading “at-risk”, have the opportunity to see themselves reflected in the education system. This is important to correct the ongoing inequity experienced by these children in a western education system that is foreign to their traditional ways of knowing and learning. When we consider the multi-cultural nature of our society, we must remember that many settlers to this country chose to come here and in that decision, buy into the idea of that system. For Aboriginal people and their children, there was never a choice. I do not know if Aboriginal teachers will solve that issue, but it is a start. The current ratio of Aboriginal teacher to Aboriginal student is 1:260. For equity, we would need approximately 3500 teachers of Aboriginal ancestry to enter the system.


Why is the number 250 significant?

It is significant because we are talking about the challenge in retaining the Aboriginal teacher in the public system and ensuring that they have the support in the isolating environment that is the public school.

It is significant because a few years ago, we were talking about the 300 teachers of Aboriginal ancestry in the public system.

*Thank you to David Wees for the figuring out the ratio and to Marjorie Dumont for the approximate numbers. All of these numbers are estimates. I think it is time for another survey to be done of public school teachers of Aboriginal ancestry in order to determine numbers and needs for resolving challenges faced by these teachers. Marjorie is the Director of the Aboriginal Education program at the BCTF and her numbers may be considered the most accurate.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

My Teacher Inquiry Project

Today I was going to write about team mascots, based on something I read online today.  I was mad though and decided to leave it be. Suffice it to say, my last teaching position was in a school with an Indian logo and team name.  I did bring it up with the Principal but have no idea if anything was done about it.  One of the challenges of taking on the administration is knowing how far out you are willing to stick your neck and the precariousness of my position (temporary, term-specific) meant that I was not feeling all that confident.  I will try and write a proper piece on the general topic when I am up to it.  Would like to do some follow-up research as well.  My students last year did a great unit and project on the subject but we were at a different school. Anyways...

On Monday, I start my teacher inquiry project at the BCTF.  I submitted a research question on behalf of the Aboriginal Education Association PSA (provincial specialist association), which is a different entity than the AEACommittee, which I usually work on behalf of.  I know, SO MANY acronyms that are essentially the same ones, with slight differences...I know a lot of people that confuse the two groups.  It doesn't help that many of the same people hold both committee positions and executive positions in the PSA.  The nature of the beast.  At any rate, what follows is our initial research question and the rationale for it.  The question will evolve as the inquiry meets and discusses it, becoming more focussed and perhaps less broad, I hope.  I am waiting to figure out the best methodology and documentation of the inquiry (I want to film it, but my resources are committed and I didn't book the BCTF's in time for the initial meeting.  I am also not comfortable  just showing up and setting up a camera for the group without their prior consent).  It will probably be better to gain a consensus from the group on how to proceed rather than impose my own wishes upon it.  I will also wait to hear what they have to say before I blog too much about it.

How is the learning of students affected by the health and well-being of Indigenous teachers who are streamed into enrolling and itinerant categories?


Indigenous teachers are burning out, equity needs to be met and aboriginal students’ needs are not being met. The association would like to explore the implications around this issue and look towards making recommendations to ensure needs of indigenous students and teachers are being met.

It is a fact that there are few indigenous teachers. So much needs to be done, it is hard not to feel the need to do it all, taking on all cultural work and assisting all teachers involved. Indigenous teachers, whether itinerant or enrolling, often feel pressured to step up and meet the diverse needs of indigenous students and their communities. They are often streamed into being a cultural broker, asked to balance the needs of a western education system with the different pedagogical needs of an Indigenous way of life. While the general term for this challenging position is “living in both worlds”, it may be more accurate to say that these teachers are living in the space where these two worlds collide, which may be resulting in the loss of some present and experienced indigenous teachers. The differing value systems, as well as the ongoing legacies of colonization (lack of sense of belonging, little appreciation of cultural values, substance abuse, alcohol abuse, high death rates, high suicide rates) have resulted in a decreased sense of well-being and belonging in both worlds for the Indigenous teacher.

Additionally, the streaming tendency of the education system, the use of targeted dollars to hire Indigenous teachers to work in itinerant, Aboriginal education settings, removed from the classroom, creates issues that affect Aboriginal students’ sense of self worth. How their role models are viewed by the education system does have an effect on their own view of themselves.

Within the school system, students need support, where these issues can be addressed. Students need to see aboriginal teachers in core classes, not only itinerant staff supporting aboriginal students. Each group of these teachers are often isolated from each other and their low numbers deny them a strong voice to advocate for their needs and the needs of Aboriginal students. The Association wishes to research this issue, determine the extent of these dysfunctional experiences and develop strategies to create cohesive worldviews. Acknowledgement and respect for the diversity of different ways of knowing leads to a strengthened sense of self-worth in teachers and students.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Some Inspiring Moments this Past Week

Hi everyone,
I hope this post finds you well.  There is still snow on the ground outside, and considering it is March and it showed up at the end of February after a winter of no snow, I am impressed with it.  A short twenty minute drive away, there is no snow whatsoever.
I just returned from Prince George where I had the opportunity to visit the Aboriginal Choice School.  I went in my official capacity as Chair of the BCTF Aboriginal Education Advisory Committee.  I was very happy to have been able to do this and while I would love to write a more in-depth story about the visit, I forgot to ask permission to do so.  Suffice it to say, the school is going through some growing pains and faces many challenges, but I was impressed with what I witnessed and the ideas that the Principal shared were exciting.  I went in there wanting to like the school and I came out liking it.  I asked the questions that needed to be asked about curriculum and teacher training and development and got the answers I expected.  It was positive.

There was no answer to the last question I had for them though: How can I support you?  I am going to report to the AEAC what I witnessed and encourage the committee to find ways to support the teachers and students at the Aboriginal Choice School.  They are trying something different and I hope it is a success.

While I was in Prince George, I was also tasked with presenting a couple of workshops at the North Central Zone Professional Development Day.  I was very pleased to see the turnout (27 in the first session, 22 in the second), I almost didn't have enough room in the class I was given.  I was intimidated by the numbers, but I am thrilled to report that it seemed to go very well both times.  I even had a few teachers from the Choice school in attendance.  The groups were thoughtful, articulate and willing to learn, teach and share. 

I did the Working with Aboriginal Youth workshop that was designed at BCTF, although to be honest, I don't use any of their material, I have tried to make it my own by throwing out the facilitator notes and asking the group, in a circle, what are they hoping to learn by coming here today.  From there we explore the history and lived experience of Aboriginal youth that could be called shared and then move into more specific needs.  This workshop has always vexed me a little bit.  I worry about the stigma of needing a course to explore strategies for working with our youth, but I am happy to point out that the teachers present are recognizing that it isn't the students that need to change or be strategized about, instead it is the teachers and the system that needs to change to become welcoming and safe for our youth.  The feedback seems to indicate that all youth benefit from this.  The workshop is less a workshop than it is a conversation.

I also had a chance to see my Grandma and an Aunt and my cousin and her family, whom I haven't seen, or really spoken to, in years.  I almost didn't contact them to tell them I was coming, I am not good at family things, or small talk, or being social in general...  I am glad I did though.  It was a great reunion, and Grandma was very happy that I had visited (at least I think she was happy to see me).  Plus the snow in her yard was higher than I am tall, it was so cool.

In other news, I wanted to share with you that I participated in a short interview with Brian Barry, a teacher and blogger from Nunavut, for his "A Short Conversation with..." series on his blog Against the Wind.  If you are interested, it can be found here.  It was fun to be a part of it.

I want to thank Starleigh for her wonderful guest post, Where are the Berries?  It was thoughtful, exciting to read and inspiring.  Her story is an excellent reminder of everything we take for granted and the need to be open to listening and learning about all that surrounds us.  Her blog is Twinkle's Happy Place.  I did provide a guest post for her as well, and I hope that we are able to collaborate that way again.

Finally, two posts on Shannon Smith's blog Shannon In Ottawa, "Tell New Stories" and "What is your 'Why'" have been haunting me a little bit.  Part of that is because she completely stole my thunder on a planned post about Thomas King's The Truth About Stories, but also because I have been considering the importance of stories and the new means of storytelling that are available to share what we have learned and what needs to be learned for our youth, cultures and identities to survive and flourish.  Thank you Shannon, for mentioning me in your post, but also for reminding us of the need to learn and share as we do.  As well, you also have me thinking about my "why" as well.

So, all in all, I was very happy with the week that was.  Thought I'd share.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Guest Post- Where Are the Berries?

Please welcome a guest post today from Starleigh Grass, a friend and colleague of mine.  Her blog is Twinkle's Happy Place.


I'm Starleigh and I'm Rob's virtual friend (we connect using multiple platforms) and fleshy friend (I've met the man in person!).

I'm your guest blogger for today. This post is about berries, which might seem random, but I promise that if you keep reading it will all make sense in the end.

As a youth I spent much of my life in the Okanagan Valley. My mother grew up in the Chilcotin, but left for social and economic reasons so we grew up away from our traditional territory. In the Okanagan we lived across the road from a ravine, and a few Saskatoon berry bushes grew on the edge of the ravine. My mother loathed those berries.

She said that they were dry and seedy and not good and warned us that if we ate too many we would get sick.

Nevertheless, we'd rush any berry bush we could and grope that the homely branches, first clearing out the dark purple berries, then the light purple ones, and finally we'd eat a few of the pink ones with purple botches just to confirm that they were, in fact, inedible.

She scorned those berries for their shortcomings. They had no flavour, they were mealy. We were kids, though, and we didn't care. We just thought that it was cool that you could go outside and voila, food was there waiting on a bush.

Then one year we went berry picking on the Chilcotin plateau, on my traditional territory, with my grandmother and all of a sudden I got it. Those berries... they were like blueberries but better. They were moist and soft and practically seedless. They were smaller than the berries across the road from our house but they had a hundred times more flavour.

In the valley we'd swarm a stand of berry bushes like locusts, emptying the few scrawny plants in minutes and leaving nothing for the birds. On the plateau there was full bush after full bush and you could pick dark purple bucket after bucket for hours on end.

When I reflect back to my mother's scorn for the valley berries and joy over the plateau berries I wonder what the berries represented to her. The home territory that she did not live in? A childhood gone? The break between traditional life and modern life?

When I first moved to Lillooet I experienced something similar in a literal sense, but wholly different in a philosophical sense. As I was driving during berry season I kept seeing bunches of purple along the side of the road. I needed to stop and experience the berries, not just for the visceral experience of holding the deep purple orbs of softness in my hands, but also for the spiritual experience of connecting to something bigger than myself. There is a tapestry of culture and history and by harvesting those berries I could be part of it. I wanted to integrate a traditional activity into my life and my diet. I wanted my son to feel the joy of sustaining himself through the territory which we resided upon.

I went home, grabbed a tupperware container, and returned to the bushes I saw on the side of the road. I got out and surveyed the bushes. I knew before I tasted them, but I tasted them anyhow. Valley berries. Disgusted, I went further up the road to the bank of a river. Valley berries. I went up in elevation, my heart full of hope. Valley berries. I went to the other side of a river and walked through a field. Valley berries. I went into the forest. Valley berries. Finally I gave up and harvested the valley berries. I took them home and tried to eat them plain but they were unpalatable. I put them in oatmeal and the seeds bothered my teeth.

I ate them all, grudgingly, because I don't like to waste food. Valley berries.

This wasn't just about their woody seeds or dry texture. This was about a set of values that I aspired to. I remembered tasting the good berries at a community event in St'at'imc territory. I knew they existed, I just needed to find them.

On a field trip to look at pictographs I shared my experience with the St'at'imc language teacher. "I just don't know where to find the real berries," I said, "the soft ones with small seeds that taste good." She laughed and told me that she wasn't going to tell me where her berry patch was because I'd have to find my own.

Since then I've reflected deeply on the experience of the valley berries. For my mother the berries represented something that she had left but could return to. As an urban Indian, the berries represent something that I have literally only had a taste of, but that I had never really possessed.

I've spent the winter working on finding the real berries. I've started learning the songs of the territory that I live in. I've been trying to pick up bits of the language here and there. I've been exploring the land a bit more than I did last year. I've been working hard to participate in the community. The berries are only part of the worldview. Perhaps, if I work at it, someday I will find my berries.

I read Rob's post awhile back about the title of his blog, where are the sheep, and it got me thinking, where are my sheep? I am Chilcotin, so it seems reasonable that my sheep would be the salmon. Farwell Canyon was historically one of the most productive areas on the Fraser River for salmon fishing and we were able to maintain a healthy economy and population based on plentiful fish and a mountain of obsidian.

However, while I love salmon and being on site during dipnetting, I don't really feel like they are my sheep. The berries are my sheep. My journey towards that satisfaction, though, is not as simple as going out by myself and discovering a berry patch. It is about being part of something larger than myself and learning from others and rejoicing in the culture around me.

I've spent most of my life as an urban Indian and more and more I'm realizing that that means participating in the community around me as a resident. I once said that I was a guest, but that's not quite right. As a resident I have responsibilities. I am responsible for learning about my impact on the land that I live on. I am responsible for learning about protocols. I am responsible for honoring the traditions that were here long before I came. As an educator I am responsible for learning about what the community values and transforming my classroom practices accordingly. I am responsible for helping students find their berries.

Next year I will go out again in search of the berries. Until then I will prepare myself, as a social and cultural entity, for berry picking season.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Twenty-Six Years

Teachers of Aboriginal ancestry.

Leave out your parents for now. Their teachings begin very early, before you even remember and always continue. They always teach and will always have that role in your life.  This isn't about parents today.

Teachers of Aboriginal ancestry.

You had to wait until you were twenty-six years of age before you met your first teacher of Aboriginal ancestry.  Even the Native History course you took in undergrad was taught by a non-Aboriginal instructor.  You were one of five hundred or so student teachers in the Bachelor of Education program. You had lived in Camrose, Alberta, of course, but now you were living in the big city and you were terrified and lonely and not having a good time. In fact, you had had encounters with an administrator which you perceived as racist, you had dealt with hostile advisors and a practicum school that had twenty times more students than you had people living on your reserve. The stress had made you so ill you ended up in the hospital and your practicum was over prematurely. In fact, you moved home for the remainder of the term, and seriously considered not returning to finish the program.

Her name was Seepeetza. She taught a course you took called First Nations Schooling. She brought forth a gentleness and understanding of the lived experience of First Nations people that you had never encountered in all your years in the education system. In a tumultuous and unpleasant Bachelor of Education program, Seepeetza provided a calm way of learning that you had never experienced before. She taught in a different way, one that was both familiar and alien, and one that you had never encountered in the education system. It reminds you of home.

Seepeetza took the time to know you and to share. Of the five hundred student teachers, there were three of you whom were Aboriginal, and while you had met one of the others, you had never seen the third, but you knew that Seepeetza knew all three of you. You know that Seepeetza took the time, after one of her classes to take you and that other one in the class out for tea. She would talk and let you find some sort of peace as well as ensure that you and the other student teacher were bonding a little bit so that you weren’t so alone.

After you graduated, completing another tumultuous practicum, you were humbled and tossed into the real world. The real world where your credentials as a teacher turned out to be pretty meaningless and you found your first contract as a teacher was not as a teacher at all, but as a support worker. It was during this time that Seepeetza lost her battle with cancer.

Your first teaching position was in that small K-12 school with the 60+ % Aboriginal population.  The students, and many of their parents said they were happy to have you there, in fact one of the parents wanted to write a letter of protest when you were laid off a couple of years later (you shouldn't have talked her out of it!).  You hope that it is because you are a good teacher, but you know that a big part of the reason is the same one that so attached Seepeetza in your heart: you are Aboriginal.  You are one of them and you are teaching them.  The parents like you because you have been where they have been and where their children are.  They like you because they perceive that you understand in a way that even the most thoughtful, respectful and open non-Aboriginal teacher could never understand.  To the students, you are a reflection of them that they are desperately trying to find in the world outside their reserve.  Even more, you are a reflection, you hope, of what they could be. 

And they didn't have to wait twenty-six years.

Seepeetza left behind an extraordinary legacy, including the incredible novel, My Name is Seepeetza. I have mentioned a lot of impressive gains in Aboriginal education in previous posts, but there are also many challenges that look insurmountable, partly because I perceive strong resistance to what we are trying to accomplish. Seepeetza faced the world with a quiet strength and dignity; she was an advocate for Aboriginal education.

I hope that we aren’t letting her down.

PS: The NITEP program at UBC is accepting applications until April 30 for their next intake of Native student teachers.  We need teachers of Aboriginal ancestry teaching in the public school system.  They are teachers and role models for our Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students alike.  SFU also has an excellent program, as do many of the other universities in the province.  Having said that, there is no need to confine yourself to an Indigenous teacher education program, I didn't go through an Indigenous-focussed program.  We need teachers of Aboriginal ancestry.  Something to consider.