Fostering welcoming and inspiring classrooms through Indigenous perspectives

Fostering welcoming and inspiring classrooms through Indigenous perspectives

As an instructor, one of your most essential–and challenging–jobs is to create a learning environment where all students can feel safe, welcome, and inspired to learn.  

This can be as simple as offering learning aids for students (like closed captioning) to in-depth training for instructors (like actively learning about decolonization and anti-racism). 

It may be surprising to hear that there’s also a connection between fostering this type of atmosphere and taking an active role in reconciliation. 

It may be surprising to hear that there’s also a connection between fostering this type of atmosphere and taking an active role in reconciliation. 

And, according to University of Lethbridge instructor, Mary Fox Mia’nistitsiiksiinaakii (Many Different Snake Woman), this effort begins with taking a good look at our history. 

“When we think about the best ways we can move forward as individuals and as institutions when it comes to reconciliation, it’s important for us to have a strong understanding of our history,” Mary said.

Mary, who was a part of the panel discussion at the Galt Museum’s AMA 2023 Robert R. Janes Social Responsibility workshop, is pushing to create a more holistic account of reconciliation. Through her work, Mary hopes to bring deeper meaning–meaning that inspires actionto those learning about repatriation and reclamation. 

Before you continue...

This blog post is meant to get you thinking about opportunities where you might integrate Indigenous perspectives into your classroom to foster a safe and dynamic learning environment for your students. 

So, as you read, reflect on the following questions: 

  • How might you encourage open discussions around Indigenous culture with your learners? 
  • Do you perform land acknowledgements? If so, what do they mean to you, personally? How can you encourage your students to personalize land acknowledgements to make them more meaningful? 
  • How do you support and interact with your Indigenous community outside of the classroom? 

Building better learning environments: A local- to global-impact initiative

From the college’s focus on the learning environment (as outlined in the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF)) to the United Nations’ goals for quality education (according to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)), the world is recognizing the need for a supportive, inclusive, and equitable classroom atmosphere. 

But, as Mary mentioned above, this welcoming atmosphere begins with understanding where we’ve come from. 

“As a First Nations educator, it is essential for the whole context of history to be understood first. That is very significant to the educational process including repatriation and reclamation,” said Mary.

She believes that with foundational understanding, we may build better, more positive relationships with our community–academic and beyond. 

Honouring place: The power of calling by name

One of the ways we can honour the past as we strive toward reconciliation is through the respect and continued use of the Blackfoot Language. 

The Blackfoot language originates from the land and embodies both the culture and values of the Blackfoot people. 

This is why Elders and Knowledge Keepers pass on stories through oral storytelling and sharing of the Blackfoot language, and it is why Blackfoot communities take great pride in naming both institutions and individuals.  

According to Mary, the use of the Blackfoot language is a repatriation of the Indigenous relationship with the land and their future in it. 

“It all comes down to our next generation.” Mary said. 

This is why Mary refers to those fortunate enough to have been part of Indigenous ceremonies and storytelling, and to those who have been given their Blackfoot name, as ‘living museums.’ This is because they provide a greater understanding of the culture and traditions that have existed here for time immemorial.  

Three Teepees

In Lethbridge, there are a handful of institutions who have been honoured to receive their Blackfoot name, including: 

  • Lethbridge College: Ohkotoki’aahkkoiyiiniimaan (Stone Pipe) 
  • University of Lethbridge: Iniskim (Sacred Buffalo Stone) 
  • Southern Alberta Art Gallery: Maansiksikaitsitapiitsinikssin (the new making of images, related to the telling of our Blackfoot peoples’ stories) 
  • Galt Museum: Akaisamitohkanao’pa (an eternal gathering place) 

Though the Blackfoot naming process is a great honour, it also carries with it great social responsibility–especially for educational institutions. 

“We can move forward with social responsibility through cultural diversity in how we build better relationships to make educational places a better space and place,” Mary said. 

“We still have a lot of work to do,” She continued. “What matters is that we are here and sharing our experiences. It may be painful but that is how we grow and share these social responsibilities in this space as individuals and as a community.” 

Creating meaningful pathways: Personal land acknowledgements

As Mary looks to the treasures of Indigenous past for guidance, Darrin Martens, CEO and Executive Director at the Galt Museum, looks to unabashedly lead the charge for reconciliation within our communities in our everyday actions. 

Darrin believes one good path forward is to create more meaningful land acknowledgements that are unique each time they are presented. 

Look at a land acknowledgment from a personal perspective within the context of an eternal gathering place,” Darrin said. “How we communicate that is creating meaning for those individuals on that specific day.” 

Darrin also acknowledges that in this leadership, we will certainly make mistakes. However, he believes that we must embrace these mistakes. As we experiment, learn, and press forward, we will reinforce existing pathways and forge new ones. 

Importantly, we must acknowledge what has come before, and what will come after as we embrace change as a community. 

Treading lightly to avoid tokenism

Melanie Morrow, Vice President of the Métis Nation of Alberta Local #2003, and Elementary Indigenous Education Teacher with Lethbridge School Division, said that it is essential to perform land acknowledgements with people who are not Indigenous. 

“I think it’s tokenism when an Indigenous person is asked to do a land acknowledgement,” Melanie said. “Where is your school specifically on the land, how can you make it personal? Where are you situated and what people are you connecting to? Let go of ego.” 

She added that when we push our egos aside and seek to be vulnerable and authentic, it’s the best, most powerful way to move forward together in reconciliation. 

Acting from the heart: Authenticity over performance

In many institutions today, it has become a ‘best practice’ to invoke land acknowledgements, without truly considering the implications behind them. 

The problem is, this can often turn into a rote performance, inadvertently robbing land acknowledgements of their power, beauty, and meaning. 

Carly Iron Shirt, executive assistant for the Sik-Ooh-Kotoki Friendship Centre, challenges us to reflect on how we interact with our Indigenous communities daily. 

“When you do outreach, be genuine about your experiences and approach anyone with respect and with kindness,” Carly said. 

Two hands holding a heart

Carly added that shifting words into actions is what turns performance into authentic reconciliation.  

“You need to be doing your personal work to get rid of your biases and fears of other people,” Carly said. “Come from a place of authenticity … Instead of talking about what we need to do, we need to physically do the actions.” 

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