This article came from MFNERC’s magazine
By Tamara Eaker Content Development
⟳ Last updated | Monday, July 3, 2023
First Nation’s ways of learning
In the beginning, the Creator gifted First Nations peoples
with children, thereby giving them the right and
responsibility to teach their future generations lessons
learned from their experiences on the land.
The path of First Nations education in what is now known as Manitoba is a long and interesting story, which begins with the thousands and thousands of years when First Nations had full control of their children and their lives. The knowledge needed to live in the sometimes-harsh environment of these lands was deep, extensive, intricate, and crucial in both the good times and in the times of scarce resources.
During this time, children learned through oral teachings and a learn-to-do-by-doing philosophy that saw children following and watching the older generations carry out the tasks of living. Other learning tools in- included maps, ceremonies, memory prompts, songs, and birchbark or hide scrolls containing symbols. Historical locations were used as teaching tools, as well as the constant repetition of lessons and stories from the Elders, family, and visitors.
Elder Rebecca Ross says, for First Nations families, teaching their children how to create a good life was an expression of love. When it was safe, the children stayed with their teachers to watch their role models work, chat, and carry out the activities of the day.
“When the parents, the grandparents, were out there on the land, they took the children. They experienced and saw how their parents and grandparents did things. They were right beside them, even the little babies were right there too,” Elder Ross says. “In the warmer weather, let’s say in the spring, summertime, and fall, the land was the classroom. In the wintertime, families lived together. And they shared the teaching of the children. They were actively involved, even the extended family.”
Many Elders say that the lessons of the Creator are found in the land. As people collect the resources for survival (food, shelter, clothing) from the landscape around them, they develop a lifestyle. After several generations, that lifestyle, and the events and stories that occur within the people and with the surrounding peoples, become their culture and history.
This link to the land makes a people and culture “Indigenous.”
It is also the reason why First Nations peoples are not surprised that people from different landscapes have learned different lessons. In this worldview, given the expansiveness of the Creator and the many varied landscapes of Creation, it’s not surprising that people who live on a coast may have different beliefs, lifestyles, worldviews, and values than those who live beside a volcano or on the prairie or in the deep forest. Indigenous cultures and societies are defined by the landscapes they live in. This meant that First Nations education was directly linked to their land. It was their workbook, history book, and blackboard.
Elder Ross says that First Nations teachings were holistic to ensure future generations had all the tools they needed for survival.
Knowledge Keeper Virginia Arthurson, a long-time educator, has done much to contribute to the growth of First Nations education on these lands. She is grateful to have experienced traditional teaching systems when she was out on the land with her family as a young girl. “I was one of the lucky ones. I experienced a lot of that upbringing, as we were being raised in Misipawistik. As children, we were taken out on the land to learn how to do these things. If our family was gathering roots or picking berries, we were watching what was going on, and being able to see what the adults were doing, hearing them interact in the language, just basically being there with the rest of the group,” Knowledge Keeper Arthurson says. “A lot of that was the seeing, the hearing, the listening, the watching, and then practicing how to do things, learning through play how to do things that their adults were doing. Many young ladies will remember making little black bannocks. You would practice making a bannock with your mom or your grandma and play with it until it was black. But grandma would still cook it.”
Knowledge Keeper Arthurson believes that student assessments during this time were more stringent as well as more holistic, as they had to consider not only the survival of the individual but the survival of the group. When the student became a working adult, the effectiveness and skill of their contributions became vital to the whole.
“They mastered those skills and that’s when they were recognized as ready to go on to the next level. Schools today, they do a lot of social passing. Kids go on to the next Grade whether they are ready or not. Our way of doing things was mastery, taking in those lessons and understandings so that when you got through those lessons you already had a deep understanding of what was being taught, the philosophy of what was being taught, and the skills to carry out the necessary tasks,” Knowledge Keeper Arthurson says.
An alteration of First Nations education occurred after contact with Europeans and their goods. As the access to metal pots, knives, and other trade stuff became more dependable, the lessons surrounding the comparable First Nations technologies eroded. For example, consistent access to metal pots meant lessons surrounding birchbark pot-making was not as vital. Knowledge Keeper Arthurson says First Nations people knew a good thing when they saw it. “Our people evolve. Learning evolves. Our people knew when they saw a good thing. Why would you run around using a bow and arrow? if you have the advantage
of getting a gun? So, one of the things that changed our way of life and our education systems, learning how to do things, was the change in the economy when fur trade goods began to come in. Just being able to survive in an easier manner. When you had better tools to use, education changed.”
First Nations experienced the arrival of European explorers, then traders, then missionaries, and finally government representatives. It was at this time that many First Nations, familiar with the idea of a treaty due to the conflicts, trade, and relations with their Indigenous neighbors from different cultures, began to send letters to Ottawa, petitioning Canada for a mutually beneficial agreement. When the making of the Numbered Treaties started in 1871, the Chiefs of the day had specific requests, and it became obvious that they had their future generations in mind.
Elder Ross says that hundreds of years of trading with and witnessing Europeans and then Canadians meant that First Nations had an idea of what they agreed with in European cultures and what they didn’t see as productive or effective within their environment and society.
“What they wanted was to use some of the tools of the white man, but they still wanted to maintain their traditional ways of life. They still wanted to have their traditional ways of educating their children. And to maintain their languages, their ceremonies, and their songs. And all those things that they had prior to contact,” Elder Ross says.
Elder Ross says First Nations did not view the treaties as giving up anything, but rather as agreements to mutually share in the benefits of the land. “They asked for all those things they had before contact—their economic system, their education system, their health system, and their laws. When Canada made the agreements with First Nations people, they were agreements between the two nations, and these agreements are what our Elders to- day call Eternal Law. It’s a law that means forever and ever, as long as the sun shines, the grass grows, and the waters flow. And today, all these three things are very much alive, so the treaties are very much alive.”
While First Nations saw that settlers had much to teach, there was also much they saw as not compatible with their worldview. For example, First Nations were often bothered by the way European individuals often valued themselves over the collective good of their people. First Nations are a collective culture and society, and they wanted their children to maintain the wider viewpoint.
Knowledge Keeper Arthurson says First Nations want- ed to take the best from what they saw, but also keep the best in their cultures, which included the etiquette, values, philosophies, and skills that kept them alive in a harsh environment.
“Of course, they wanted them to keep them. They also held values, sharing, and caring for each other, being kind to each other—all those things that would build harmony in a community. We learned a lot of values that maintained harmony and strength in our communities. Our people knew that lifestyle and they wanted their children to learn that. They knew the philosophy and the teachings were contained in the language. The lessons given to us by the Creator were contained in our language.”
Knowledge Keeper Arthurson says that when the Chiefs asked for access to European knowledge, they recognized the idea of elementary-level learning as compared to expert-level learning. For example, First Nations Chiefs were not asking to just learn how to shoot a gun, but also the specialized, expert knowledge that is needed to make a gun. They recognized that there were some higher levels of learning within European cultures, and they wanted access to all of it in a way that allowed them to take what was best for them and leave the rest. “If I remember correctly, they wanted an education system much like the Queen Mother was providing for her children. For me and First Nations people that meant lifelong learning. We’ve had pretty strong pro-tests when Canada stated that post-secondary education is not a Treaty Right because it goes beyond Grade 12. Our belief is that education is lifelong, so when you say you want the same level that the Queen provides her children, it means lifelong,” Knowledge Keeper Arthurson says.
Imposition of Indian Act, Indian Agents, and Residential Schools
While First Nations saw the treaty-making as an agreement to share, for mutual benefit, the knowledge and resources that each treaty party had, Canada saw the treaty signing as a surrender of land and First Nations agreeing to come under the power of the Canadian government. The Indian Act was passed shortly after the Numbered Treaty process started, which gave Canadian bureaucrats the authority to impose Canadian perspectives on the treaties. Indian agents formed the front line of the enforcement of the Indian Act and the desire to control First Nations and destroy their ability to act as groups. Residential schools and holding on to First Nations children provided the leverage that gave the Indian agents their power.
Elder Ross says it was the desire to control the land and the people that was the real goal of Indian agents and the schools. That meant breaking the link within First Nations families, which then destroyed the thread of cultural teachings.
“I’ll mention my grandfather. My grandfather’s sons went, his children, his daughters, all went to residential school,” Elder Ross says. “The residential school was down the street, and his home was near. So, my grandfather traded with the residential school for food, and he gave them fish. And he had his sons there, and when he wanted to see his son, when he took his fish, he couldn’t find his son, because he was out there in the bush working. And when his son came out, he was dressed in rags. And when the son asked my grandfather, ‘Can I go home with you?’ the response was, ‘Oh no, you are not going home.’ That’s the way it was. That’s the sad part.
Families were broken up.” Elder Ross says that this disconnection from family is the main reason for the many social issues on First Nations today. The shadow of residential schools and the break in the teaching of First Nations family values have hampered later generations, survivors, and their children when it comes to being good parents. “The bond they had with their children was taken away. Even when the children were five and six, they were still taken away, so they lost that relationship with their children. They couldn’t parent their children. They couldn’t love their children. And that’s the intergenerational impact that’s affecting us all as First Nations people.”
In his 1905 and 1906 reports, the Chief medical officer for Indian Affairs, Peter Bryce, found that residential school students were dying at a high rate due to tuberculosis, and he described the schools as “tuberculosis factories.” Not only were the conditions disease prone and unsanitary, Bryce questioned how much the schools were actually teaching. At the time, most teachers in the schools had no training and most students left the schools with little ability to read and write. These facts underline that residential schools were sources of leverage for the Indian agents and government as compared to a real and effective effort to educate.
Knowledge Keeper Arthurson says First Nations were herded on to reserves be- cause Canada wanted control of the land. To ensure future control, Canada also attacked First Nations worldviews, values, and laws. “So, they put kids in residential schools and started taking the kids away from the parents. And that is basically what the intent was—to kill the Indian in the child. They took the language; they severed the connection—that transmission of knowledge that went from great-grandparent to grandparent to parent to the child. And the biggest impact and intent of the residential school was to separate families.”
It should be noted, throughout much of this time, most rural and small-town Canadians were solving their education needs with close-to-home schoolhouses, usually with locally hired and qualified teachers.
WWII and the Impact on Residential Schools
Shortly after making the treaties, Canada passed a law that, in effect, prevented First Nations from hiring lawyers to address their concerns surrounding treaties and treaty implementation. This included specific claims involving shortfalls in land measurements and the failed delivery of promised farm tools and funding, but it also included the First Nations’ concerns regarding residential schools and Indian agents. This led to decades of ineffective education in the residential schools as well as oppressive social engineering on the part of Indian agents.
During World War II, First Nations, per capita, provided more soldiers for service than any other group in Canada. When these First Nations soldiers returned home, they carried new knowledge of how Europeans treated their own people in their own countries, and they had a better understanding of city-based economies, politics, and human rights. With this information, they immediately began to fight the oppressive systems that held First Nations back from defining their own futures.
Knowledge Keeper Arthurson says, “After the world wars and all that, our people were coming back, they were more knowledgeable. They learned a lot of things while they were out there fighting wars. You know, they brought back knowledge to the communities, and they were able to resist more. They began setting up First Nations political organizations at the local and national level.”
First Nations soldiers became leaders in their communities and then began to demand equal access to Canada’s economy, government services, and legal systems. Due to the lobbying of First Nations, the law that hampered First Nations from hiring lawyers to address their concerns was removed in the early 1950s. First Nations immediately started leveling cases that addressed land claims and other issues. By the mid-1970s, the Indi- agent system was largely dead, and the residential school system was in retreat.
The Children Come Home—The End of Residential Schools
Due to the size of Canada and the varied histories with Indigenous people from coast to coast to coast, the residential School System did not come to a hard end— nor did Canada’s desire to control and assimilate First Nations.
Elder Ross says, “The residential schools have ended, but there is still control by the government on our education systems. We didn’t have complete control of our education systems. But people started to say, let’s take control of our Indian education. It had not happened yet.”
She points out that the experience of residential schools left scars in First Nations families that have been passed down through the generations. Obviously, being raised by paid government employees is not the same as being raised by loving parents. The break in the thread of family teachings and values left generations of First Nations families without the tools that most get from the family experience.
“They put our ancestors, our grandparents, and our parents in residential schools, and they isolated them. They weren’t able to go home but once a year, in the summertime. Even if their home was down the river,
they were not allowed to go home. The Indian residential schools have not ended yet. It had a great impact on the children of those residential school survivors. Intergenerational effects of residential schools still continue to live,” Elder Ross says.
Due to the differing history and relations they had with Canada, First Nations were in different places when it came to their realization that the schools were ending, and what that might mean for the future.
In Manitoba, Knowledge Keeper Arthurson says, First Nations began to realize that the goal of First Nations control of First Nations education had just peeked up over the horizon.
“I don’t think they thought much of residential schools dying other than the kids were coming home,” Knowledge Keeper Arthurson says. “They wanted their kids at home. Having their children taken away inspired a strong desire to be able to run their own schools, in their own communities, so their kids came home at night, after school. They wanted to be able to teach them what they
wanted to teach them, that was the important piece. Local control was—we want to teach our kids what we want to teach them and do it ourselves. We have that right.”
First Nations began to push back against the government, retaking control over their children’s education through the provincial or new Indian Affairs-run school systems. However, a unifying force or event was needed to bring all the First Nations’ efforts together.