Speaking in Tongues
Contributed by: Elder Don Robertson
I walked into the small building where my friends and relatives were sitting, full of confidence and courage. The young people were sitting in neat rows on wooden seats and small tables. They were quiet and attentive, much like my father and grandfather behaved when they were stalking animals. The door opened and a small, pale person walked in front of everybody and began to “speak in tongues.” She was very confident and commanded respect from the young people, and some of the young people appeared to respond in the same strange sounds she was making. I was nine years old, an adult in the eyes of my people, but I did not understand the words she was making. I became very scared, insecure, and confused. In one brief session, in the small classroom, I had lost confidence and became confused about the learning situation.
I was told to come to this house and be taught and I couldn’t understand one word the teacher was saying. My desire to learn turned to fear. She was teaching in English and I only understood Cree. I am writing this as an adult and have learned to understand, read, and speak English, and this negative experience motivated me to learn many new things in my life. I have entered and worked at the highest institutions the English-speaking people have—the university and community college level—and I can still speak the first language taught to me by my parents: Cree.
I am told education means to “draw out,” and also the first principle in teaching is to start from the known and work towards the unknown. What did the teacher who was teaching when I first entered a school know about my known? The materials the teacher used were in her language, using examples taken from her world and the experience of her people. If she was drawing out my knowledge, I didn’t understand because she was “speaking in tongues.” The known in my world was the experience and the language of the Cree people. I could converse with the children, young people, and adults; I performed tasks that were “adult,” like chopping wood, carrying water; I had some knowledge in fishing, hunting, and trapping. When I walked into the classroom and heard teachings in English, I began from ground zero—I knew and understood nothing. If the known of my experience, the knowledge instilled in my mind, had been acknowledged and added to, would my learning have been easier? Would I have had to sneak into the bushes around the school to use my language? Would I have developed a stronger image of my language and the culture of the Cree people if I had started from the known of my experience then moved into the unknown from that point—the world of my English speaking teacher and the reality of her culture?
“But you’ve made it, Don.”
Have I? Have I fulfilled my academic potential? Have I integrated to the fullest my Cree and English experience? My known and unknown?
What does this have to do with teacher education reform? The experience of the Cree people (and other First Nations and Aboriginal peoples) in education has not been positive. Professors, researchers, and instructors in institutions of higher learning are familiar with the negative experiences of the Cree people, as statistics and other data have shown. The experience may have been different if the people and their language and culture had been taken seriously and seen in a positive way. If what the people knew, how they lived, how they passed on knowledge and skills, had been valued. If it’s too late to change the past, what about the present and future? The education system has improved with some cultures. For example, a teacher can no longer “stand in front” of French students and teach in English, unless they are teaching the English language. The education system has taken the language of the French people and their culture into consideration and they cannot teach without including the students’ culture and experience.
What about the Cree people? Can teachers stand in front of Cree students without knowledge of the students’ language, culture, and experience? The reality is that educational institutions have not taken the experience of the Cree people into consideration. Cree language and culture are not taught in many teacher training institutions and are not required for certification or teaching in schools, be they urban, rural, northern, or Aboriginal.
The world is changing. Cree people are changing along with it. They are becoming more involved. Cree educators are also familiar with the statistics and data. They, like the French, want their language, culture, and experience included in curriculum and training. The Elders in Island Lake have talked about the inclusion of the Cree experience in the curriculum for training teachers. They have indicated that leaving out these important components would further weaken the people and communities. They have also said we cannot isolate ourselves from the non-Cree world, that we have to live an integrated, whole life, which includes both worlds. But, the Cree world must be equal with the non-Cree world. We have to strengthen our people, and we have to learn the ways and teachings of the non-Cree world. Is this possible to? This is one of the important challenges these programs need to address.
The experience of starting from ground zero for Aboriginal students should become a relic to be remembered, not practiced today. The Aboriginal student who enters university to be prepared as a teacher should find a positive presentation of their language, culture, and experience in the classroom. The material should not deter their confidence and security. “Speaking in tongues” may no longer occur; however, often the First Nations language is not included as a language category. It should be. English is a second language for many Aboriginal students. I am advocating relevant and cultural inclusion in instructional materials and promoting cultural awareness for instructors in teacher training institutions beyond the availability of Native Studies departments. The known of the Aboriginal student is of utmost importance. It should be used as a knowledge base.
If the student doesn’t know the culture then the introduction of instructors who understand the culture can be developed. This can move the training institution into considering the integration of Elders or oral teachings into the training process. The universities are familiar with the process of including relevant cultural content and language usage for other cultural groups. The recommendation to include Aboriginal culture and language is not a new idea but a consideration of equal treatment
W. Edwards Deming at a Satellite Videoconference Seminar (1993) in Winnipeg, MB invited participants to “challenge your thinking and move into the unknown, the unknown is where the future resides.”
The educational reformers, then, will be those who challenge their thinking and move into the unknown and discover the excitement of creating the future. The world is changing. The world of teacher education is changing. The future is waiting. Will teacher education reformers be leaders, breaking new territory for the students, allowing the known of the student to be taken into consideration? If so, the drawing out will have happened and the wonderful adventure into the unknown will have begun.