teacher and students sitting on stairs displaying indigenous history projects
Photo by Christine Cousins

Teaching Indigenous Histories Through an Authentic Voice

Tanya C. Leary

Indigenous children take their own lives or what stories Indigenous artists are telling us. As educators, we have a responsibility to expose our students to these stories, to encourage them to work towards reconciliation and a brighter future for all. Together we can learn not only about the issues but about the Indigenous people who have fought for change and made important contributions to the law, the environment, education, social justice and the arts. The children in our classrooms at this very moment are those who will take these stories, draw upon the inspiration and advocacy of our heroines and make a difference.

I wish I could write at great length about these 21 women. Maybe that will be a journey in your classroom one day. Start by looking around your classroom. Do you have Indigenous artwork or artifacts in your classroom? Are there Indigenous titles in your classroom library or on your bookshelf of professional resources? What stories will you share with your students?

In the Classroom

We know that authenticity is imperative for storytelling. I was in the staff room a few months ago, and a Grade 5 teacher I had never met started chatting with me. We decided I would visit his classroom weekly and talk about First Nation stuff. “Cool. I’m Ojibwe. I’ve taught Grade 5s before. I’ve got this,” I thought. I was so excited.

I started with the classic, ‘know, wonder, learn chart,’ and quickly realized that it’s hard for children to wonder about something in a meaningful way if they have very little background! I tried a couple of mini-history lessons and realized they were so dry I was boring myself.

Then I tried something different. I told my colleague I was going to change up my style and bring in some cultural artifacts. “Yes!” he said.

When I arrived, rather than having students sit at their desks with me at the front of the room, I laid out a beautiful four-colour medicine wheel table cloth on the floor. I asked the students to pull their chairs around the circle. I told them the importance of sitting in a circle, how we all become of equal importance. No one is in the front, and no one is at the back.

They sat quietly as I put down some sweetgrass and sage, porcupine quills, birch bark, my drum, my eagle feather and fan, and some beadwork.

I started by asking students to identify themselves by nation or by the language they speak. I mentioned that we have friends from Italy and Jamaica in our circle, friends who speak Arabic and French, and then I identified as Irish and Ojibwe. This is usually when FNMI students will self-identify by saying, “Oh I’m Ojibwe too,” or “I’m Mohawk!” We went around the circle and the students shared things about their language or special music or cultural foods they enjoy in their home. I asked them to share part of who they are, part of their story. Then I continued with mine. I talked about how I love to paint and sing and kayak. I mentioned I wasn’t a good singer, but that I do like to sing lullabies to my baby. I sang them the Water Song, and asked them to join in. They caught on quickly; two students had heard the song before. I told them that I love to bead, and I passed around my beadwork. I told them I was a jingle dancer and showed them some videos on the smartboard. They asked questions, and I promised one day I would teach them how to bead. Then I gave them each a piece of birch bark and asked them to peel it. After determining that no one was allergic to birch, I showed them how to bite it and make images with their teeth. Some of them made fish, and some of them said they made Pokemon. I told them this was the ancient art form of birch bark biting, which is still practiced today. We talked about how Indigenous people are not just a “people of the past.” The students were genuinely interested and asked meaningful questions.

This process of sitting in a circle and sharing an authentic perspective with students sparked further inquiry. For weeks after, the kids stopped me in the halls asking questions and begging for more. It truly warmed my heart. It was also heartwarming to hear my colleague say, “Thank you for taking a risk.”

As I reflected on my brief but fun time in the Grade 5 classroom, I thought about the danger a single story could have created in that classroom. I could have left the students with a single narrative. I could have walked away and not dealt with their burning questions, one of which was, “Why does it matter what you are called anyway?” By bringing in stories children can connect to, powerful things can happen. Powerful stories can be told, stories that shape their future.

Taking the Plunge

If you’re still reading, congratulations. You are ready to take the plunge. Take a risk. Introduce your students to a story about Canada, one that may have frightened you to talk about in the past. Perhaps you’re worried you’ll get it wrong, or say the wrong thing. Journey with your students, and empower them to take their own risks. Teach them that all people have many


women and girls posing with political leaders

Tanya Ferro reflects on her students’ participation in Girls’ Government, a program that encourage grade 8 girls to get involved in government and public policy.

Pam Palmater

Izida Zorde in conversation with Idle No More organizer, lawyer and Ryerson University Chair in Indigenous Governance, Pam Palmater.