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Indigenizing My Practice - One Step at A Time

Instruction

Indigenize: To bring (something) under the control or influence of the people native to an area.

Environmental education provides an exceptionally rich and accessible avenue into the process of indigenizing curriculum and instruction. In this article, I will use the word ‘indigenize’, rather than the more common term ‘decolonize’, because it offers a positive framing to describe the process of lifting up indigenous history, culture, and knowledge within our education system. Scholars at the University of Saskatchewan state that “decolonizing needs to begin within the mind and spirit of educators so that they can seek to accept that there are worldviews that exist other than the dominant Western perspective” (Smith, 2016, p. 49).  

It is important for educators to present multiple worldviews for many reasons. It gives students the perspective that there is more than one way of understanding the world. Perhaps more importantly, this practice allows students to grapple with multiple perspectives and encourages critical thinking skills. In the context of environmental education, introducing the concept of biotic and abiotic factors in an ecosystem poses an opportunity to talk about indigenous beliefs regarding what elements of the natural world are living. I will focus on my experience indigenizing a biotic/abiotic lesson for the rest of this article, however I encourage the reader to reflect on other areas of their personal practice that could be indigenized.

Indigenizing Biotic & Abiotic

When teaching about biotic/abiotic classification, I will clarify for my students that it is a western science perspective – just one way of understanding the world around us. I explain to students that if they were asked on a test whether water, for example, is biotic/abiotic, that the correct answer would be abiotic. I then ask my students if they think there are any other perspectives about living and nonliving classification. I often have to steer this conversation toward indigenous perspectives, and I share with students that many indigenous groups around the world view things like water as a living being, contrary to what western science says. Just mentioning a different perspective is the extent to which I have ‘indigenized’ this lesson in the past.

Recently I decided to take the next step of indigenizing this lesson by sharing quotes and stories of indigenous people describing water as living.  We teach students that they should support their claims with evidence, so I thought that I should start doing the same. The following quotes are just two of the examples I provided:

  • The Māori won recognition from the New Zealand government for the Whanganui River, meaning it must be treated as a living entity. (Read more here)
  • “For Indigenous peoples and their ways of life, water is a living thing, a spiritual entity with “life-giving” forces, which comes with certain duties and responsibilities to ensure that it is respected, protected, and nurtured.” (Read more here)

Most of the group was very interested, but one student in particular – we’ll call her A. –  responded with an emphatic: “That’s what I believe. I believe water is living”.  I was pleased that at least one of my students was seriously considering this new perspective. I encouraged her, by recognizing that she was forming her own opinion based on the evidence I provided.

Later in the day, the group of students continued to discuss the idea of biotic/abiotic. They were particularly focused on water as an abiotic factor, and their reasoning as to why. Nine out of ten students seemed to be attached to the western science perspective. Only one student, A., continued to state her opinion that water is living. She was clearly feeling frustrated, and even a bit ganged up on. I tried to diffuse the conversation by clarifying that it isn’t a debate, and that everyone’s opinion is equal and valid.

After our field studies were over, I ran into the lead teacher of my field group, and shared with him the conflict that had arose over scientific vs. indigenous perspectives. His eyes grew wide and he shook his head: “I guess you should know, A. is a member of the Klingit tribe. She attends after-school native education classes, and holds a strong identity as a native person.” I was floored. How had I not known? Why hadn’t I asked? How did I miss this?  My goal had been to lift up indigenous voices, and yet there had been one in my group the whole week that had stayed silent about her identity. I felt like I had missed the opportunity to raise her voice, the most important one of all.

As a white educator taking small steps towards indigenizing my practice, I am comfortable recognizing that I won’t get it ‘right’ every time. In reflecting upon this experience, I immediately recognize two ways in which I still allowed colonial narratives to dominate the topic of biotic/abiotic.

  1. I presented the western science perspective first, and the indigenous perspective second. This created an effect of privileging and prioritizing western science concept of biotic/abiotic.
  2. I failed to elicit prior student knowledge, and never asked my field group if they knew anyone of native heritage, or who believes that water is living.

By bringing concrete evidence of indigenous voices into my teaching, I felt like I was taking a big step towards indigenizing my practice. For a moment, I stood on that next step and felt proud of myself. But in the moment I learned one of my students was native herself, I found myself looking up, only to see a large staircase in front of me… I saw that the step I took was small, and that I have a long way to go. I am grateful for this learning moment - or perhaps it was a moment of unlearning. It forced me to recognize my implicit bias in assuming that none of my students could possibly be native themselves. It was very humbling. I learned that the process of indigenizing my practice will require more moments of humility and mistakes. Ultimately that is what it takes to unlearn a lifetime of colonial dominant narratives… one step at a time.

References:

Smith, T. (2016) Making Space for Indigeneity: Decolonizing Education. Saskatchewan Educational Leadership Unit Research Review Journal p. 49-59)

Indigenize: To bring (something) under the control or influence of the people native to an area.

Environmental education provides an exceptionally rich and accessible avenue into the process of indigenizing curriculum and instruction. In this article, I will use the word ‘indigenize’, rather than the more common term ‘decolonize’, because it offers a positive framing to describe the process of lifting up indigenous history, culture, and knowledge within our education system. Scholars at the University of Saskatchewan state that “decolonizing needs to begin within the mind and spirit of educators so that they can seek to accept that there are worldviews that exist other than the dominant Western perspective” (Smith, 2016, p. 49).  

It is important for educators to present multiple worldviews for many reasons. It gives students the perspective that there is more than one way of understanding the world. Perhaps more importantly, this practice allows students to grapple with multiple perspectives and encourages critical thinking skills. In the context of environmental education, introducing the concept of biotic and abiotic factors in an ecosystem poses an opportunity to talk about indigenous beliefs regarding what elements of the natural world are living. I will focus on my experience indigenizing a biotic/abiotic lesson for the rest of this article, however I encourage the reader to reflect on other areas of their personal practice that could be indigenized.

Indigenizing Biotic & Abiotic

When teaching about biotic/abiotic classification, I will clarify for my students that it is a western science perspective – just one way of understanding the world around us. I explain to students that if they were asked on a test whether water, for example, is biotic/abiotic, that the correct answer would be abiotic. I then ask my students if they think there are any other perspectives about living and nonliving classification. I often have to steer this conversation toward indigenous perspectives, and I share with students that many indigenous groups around the world view things like water as a living being, contrary to what western science says. Just mentioning a different perspective is the extent to which I have ‘indigenized’ this lesson in the past.

Recently I decided to take the next step of indigenizing this lesson by sharing quotes and stories of indigenous people describing water as living.  We teach students that they should support their claims with evidence, so I thought that I should start doing the same. The following quotes are just two of the examples I provided:

  • The Māori won recognition from the New Zealand government for the Whanganui River, meaning it must be treated as a living entity. (Read more here)
  • “For Indigenous peoples and their ways of life, water is a living thing, a spiritual entity with “life-giving” forces, which comes with certain duties and responsibilities to ensure that it is respected, protected, and nurtured.” (Read more here)

Most of the group was very interested, but one student in particular – we’ll call her A. –  responded with an emphatic: “That’s what I believe. I believe water is living”.  I was pleased that at least one of my students was seriously considering this new perspective. I encouraged her, by recognizing that she was forming her own opinion based on the evidence I provided.

Later in the day, the group of students continued to discuss the idea of biotic/abiotic. They were particularly focused on water as an abiotic factor, and their reasoning as to why. Nine out of ten students seemed to be attached to the western science perspective. Only one student, A., continued to state her opinion that water is living. She was clearly feeling frustrated, and even a bit ganged up on. I tried to diffuse the conversation by clarifying that it isn’t a debate, and that everyone’s opinion is equal and valid.

After our field studies were over, I ran into the lead teacher of my field group, and shared with him the conflict that had arose over scientific vs. indigenous perspectives. His eyes grew wide and he shook his head: “I guess you should know, A. is a member of the Klingit tribe. She attends after-school native education classes, and holds a strong identity as a native person.” I was floored. How had I not known? Why hadn’t I asked? How did I miss this?  My goal had been to lift up indigenous voices, and yet there had been one in my group the whole week that had stayed silent about her identity. I felt like I had missed the opportunity to raise her voice, the most important one of all.

As a white educator taking small steps towards indigenizing my practice, I am comfortable recognizing that I won’t get it ‘right’ every time. In reflecting upon this experience, I immediately recognize two ways in which I still allowed colonial narratives to dominate the topic of biotic/abiotic.

  1. I presented the western science perspective first, and the indigenous perspective second. This created an effect of privileging and prioritizing western science concept of biotic/abiotic.
  2. I failed to elicit prior student knowledge, and never asked my field group if they knew anyone of native heritage, or who believes that water is living.

By bringing concrete evidence of indigenous voices into my teaching, I felt like I was taking a big step towards indigenizing my practice. For a moment, I stood on that next step and felt proud of myself. But in the moment I learned one of my students was native herself, I found myself looking up, only to see a large staircase in front of me… I saw that the step I took was small, and that I have a long way to go. I am grateful for this learning moment - or perhaps it was a moment of unlearning. It forced me to recognize my implicit bias in assuming that none of my students could possibly be native themselves. It was very humbling. I learned that the process of indigenizing my practice will require more moments of humility and mistakes. Ultimately that is what it takes to unlearn a lifetime of colonial dominant narratives… one step at a time.

References:

Smith, T. (2016) Making Space for Indigeneity: Decolonizing Education. Saskatchewan Educational Leadership Unit Research Review Journal p. 49-59)

About the Author
Greta Righter

Greta is an environmental educator at IslandWood, studying and teaching in the Education for Environment and Community graduate program through the University of Washington. She holds a B.S. in Community Development from Penn State University, and previously worked as a farmer and conservationist. With a growth mindset leading the way, Greta is just beginning her journey of unlearning and indigenizing her mind and practice.