In an effort to lift Indigenous curriculum off the page and uphold the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action, some professors are turning to Indigenous students in the classroom to speak to the content.
Educators need to update their teaching manuals says some Indigenous students and educators.
Tawnya Plain Eagle, a Mount Royal University journalism student from the Piikani Nation in southern Alberta, says she has experienced this her entire school career.
“Speaking to some of my peers, I think that happens a lot. It’s been my reality since Grade 1,” says Plain Eagle.
“I’ve always been a visible minority in the classroom. And especially in university, I think as I got more educated, I’ve kind of been more aware of it and I allowed myself to feel anger with that.”
Plain Eagle believes professors are not adequately informed or educated on Indigenous history, let alone working with Indigenous students.
“Sometimes we don’t know all the answers. I could only talk about Blackfoot history, I can’t talk about Cree … I can’t talk about all that,” she explains.
Plain Eagle wants professors to inform themselves about the various Indigenous Nations because they all have unique identities.
MRU instructor, Jordan Piraux, says the only purpose for calling upon students is if no discussion is occurring in the classroom.
Enlisting students to speak should never be dependent upon the topic being discussed, says Piraux. Piraux teaches digital design to journalism students at MRU and is the lead designer for Otahpiaaki: Indigenous Beauty, Fashion and Design Week. According to their website, it is, “a social innovation project based at Mount Royal University that partners with Indigenous designers and artists from across Canada.”
“Indigenous students being targeted in class makes the students very uncomfortable. There is no need to target any students in any situation.”
Piraux adds, “A motive to call on students is to have classroom participation. Students who do not participate in class are often called on more often during classes.”
Gabrielle Lindstrom, Indigenous Studies professor at MRU explains that professors need to know this is a problem before it is addressed. If they don’t see it as an issue, Indigenous students will still be put under a spotlight.
She adds, “The issue isn’t simply about stopping the targeting because if they can’t talk about Indigenous issues without consulting Indigenous students in the classroom, then that points to deeper problems and does it mean they simply won’t bring up the issues?”
The backstory: Calling out in the classroom
Lindstrom says sometimes professors are simply trying to be inclusive.
While professors may be attempting to empower Indigenous voices in the classroom, the act of calling upon can be damaging, according to Lindstrom.
Sometimes, she adds, educators’ lack of experience with Indigenous history adds to the problem.
“It could also be related to a lack of confidence in trying to teach about Indigenous issues which [point] to deeper issues related to why they don’t know what they don’t know,” she explains.
In a 2017 study, Emily Milne, assistant professor of sociology at MacEwan University in Edmonton, interviewed a hundred Indigenous and non-Indigenous parents and teachers in southern Ontario between the years of 2012 to 2014.
The study suggests a lack of confidence from professors to teach Indigenous subjects, whether due to lack of knowledge or lack of lived experience.
Buffalo Kiss, a civil engineering graduate from Lakehead Ontario and member of the Seabird Island Band Stó:lō Nation, recalls his own student experience.
“I was always questioning my professors; How does this affect First Nations? How does this affect Inuit and Metis? And they did not have answers.”
Kiss adds, “The professors had no clue, no clue, and some of them were honest and said ‘They never had this experience in my career, so I can’t provide you any feedback.’ And others just blew me off, they basically didn’t care.”
How to facilitate better conversations
Plain Eagle recalls a positive experience with an Indigenous studies professor who empowered her to participate, or not, in the classroom.
“She was like, ‘You know, you don’t feel pressured to say anything. You could just sit there and listen,” says Plain Eagle.
“Just because you’re Indigenous and there’s a lot of non-Indigenous people in the class, I’m not looking at you…you’re a serious student here. You’re not here to educate, I’m the educator here. So that’s on me to educate everybody properly.’”
Last of all, Plain Eagle wants to tell educators to “be our allies rather than ‘I’m gonna help you.’ Just walk this journey beside us, not holding our hand.”
In partnership with the Iniskim Centre at Mount Royal University, the Calgary Journal presents ‘Raising Reconciliation’ — a series of podcasts and news stories focused on Indigenous voices in our community.
Editor: Kiah Lucero | firstname.lastname@example.org