Happy National Aboriginal Languages Day!
Did you know that today is National Aboriginal Languages Day in Canada? Why do you think it might be important to teach and learn Aboriginal languages? I began to explore this and other questions when I started my job researching Intercultural Bilingual Education in Peru in 2013. I began to ask: How has our education system failed Indigenous students? What are the best ways to support Indigenous students and communities? What are best practices in Indigenous language education? Also: What are the appropriate terms to use for Indigenous peoples? And why wasn’t I taught any of this before??? I plan to explore these issues in more depth in the coming months. Today, I begin with some introductory ideas*.
What is Indigenous Education?
Indigenous education is education that takes into account Indigenous knowledge and practices, primarily with a goal to support the educational success of Indigenous learners. Most formal education systems are based on a colonial, industrial model that is narrowly focussed on specific content deemed necessary for university entrance and jobs – but these are no longer seen as the only goals of education. And this model, along with widespread discrimination and persecution of Indigenous peoples, has disadvantaged Indigenous students. In order to ensure that students are creative, nurturing, engaged critical thinkers, we need to create educational spaces that model and support these characteristics. We also need to ensure that all students are given the opportunity to feel proud of who they are, something that has historically been denied to Indigenous learners.
Indigenous education is about modifying practices and policies to best support Indigenous learners (for example, here are the First People’s Principles of Learning developed in British Columbia), and it is also about reconciliation. Incorporating Indigenous knowledge into the curriculum benefits all students in that it raises awareness of how colonial history has shaped our communities, and helps build appreciation for indigenous cultures and worldviews.
Why is Indigenous Language Education Important?
One aspect of Indigenous education is Indigenous language revitalization and maintenance. Education in one’s mother tongue has been proven to improve literacy and education outcomes for Indigenous learners. In cases where the Indigenous language is not the mother tongue, language education can be a way to connect with one’s cultural history and have a better understanding of one’s identity. Language, culture, and identity are so intrinsically linked – when a language is lost, so much is lost with it. As I have said before, each language represents a distinct view of the world and carries with it important scientific, cultural, and historic knowledge.
The U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples specifically highlights the rights of Indigenous groups to maintain their languages as a way to preserve their cultures and to ensure the development of their communities. I believe that non-Indigenous learners can also benefit from learning the Indigenous language of the territory that they are on, again to raise awareness and appreciation as goals of reconciliation.
What are the Appropriate Terms for Indigenous Peoples?
So you are convinced that Indigenous education is important, but how do you know which terms to use for Indigenous peoples? This article from the UBC Indigenous Foundations website provides an excellent explanation of the use of these terms, noting that “many Indigenous people prefer to identify themselves by specific local terms based on family and community location and traditional names. They may or may not be supportive of more general terms”. Below I provide a very brief overview of how each term is used, but I highly recommend reviewing the aforementioned article or other sources, as well as asking what terms are preferred when interacting with Indigenous peoples.
Indian was the term incorrectly given to Indigenous peoples by the first settlers in North America. It is generally seen as offensive. However, historically the term has been used by North American governments, and the Indian Act still governs the lives of Aboriginal peoples in Canada, categorizing Aboriginal people in Canada as status and non-status ‘Indians’. Many people still use the term to refer to themselves, and in the United States, the term ‘American Indian’ is still widely used along with ‘Native American’.
Native is widely used in the United States, but in Canada the preferred term is ‘Aboriginal’. Due to historical context, some people in Canada feel this term has a negative connotation, while others prefer its general nature. It is problematic, however, because ‘native’ means a person or thing originating from a particular place so non-Aboriginal people may also claim to be a ‘native’ of a place.
Aboriginal is used to describe Indigenous people in Canada and Australia. In Canada, it was defined in the 1982 Constitution Act as an all-encompassing term for First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people.
First Peoples is used in Canada in the same way as ‘Aboriginal’ – it is an all-compassing term to refer to First Nations, Inuit, and Métis. It is also used to describe Indigenous people all over the world.
First Nations replaces the use of ‘Indian’ to describe Aboriginal people in Canada who are not Métis or Inuit. The Indigenous Foundations article points out that “the singular ‘First Nation’ can refer to a band, a reserve-based community, or a larger tribal grouping and the status Indians who live in them. For example, the Stó:lō Nation (which consists of several bands), or the Tsleil-Waututh Nation (formerly the Burrard Band)”.
Inuit are specific groups of Aboriginal people who live in northern regions of Canada and are not considered ‘Indians’ under Canadian law.
Métis refers legally to descendants of specific historic communities of people of mixed ancestry (Aboriginal and French) in Canada. The term is sometimes used more generally to refer to people of mixed heritage, but the usage is contentious. See here for more.
Indigenous is the term generally used to describe Aboriginal people around the world, and it is used in international contexts.
Settler is a term to describe non-Indigenous people living in colonized territories. It is important to acknowledge that we are settlers. Even if your family has been in the Americas for generations, that is far less time than Indigenous peoples. This acknowledgement may be an important first step in building respectful relationships with Indigenous peoples and working towards reconciliation.
* I very much consider myself a student of indigenous education issues. The ideas expressed in this article are part of the learning process for me and I welcome any corrections, questions, comments, or other feedback.