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Dressing a deer is important learning

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Canoe-making was Demi Mathias’s Master’s degree thesis at Trent University. – Photo supplied

By Maurice Switzer

NORTH BAY — An Indigenous educator was telling the interviewer that, in his opinion, knowing how to dress a deer is probably more important than having a PhD (if you hold a university doctorate and think he was talking about putting a new outfit on his pet fawn, you may have proved his point).

He meant that, from an Indigenous perspective, knowing how to remove the internal organs of a successfully-hunted deer has proven far more important to ensure 30,000 years of human survival than the ability to write a 100,000-word paper such as the one I found online titled,  “Refining models of feral deer abundance and distribution to inform culling programs in South Australia.”

Learning how to sustain themselves by living off the land – and in harmony with it – has been by far the most relevant component of Indigenous ways of knowing.

I am looking at a Venn diagram intended to illustrate the differing principles of Indigenous and Western knowledge, as well as ones they have in common. You often see such comparisons listed in textbooks designed to help students understand why Canada’s idea of effective education involved kidnapping 150,000 Indigenous children and sending them off to Indian Residential Schools, but that’s another story.

This particular chart says European education tends to emphasize how things work while Traditional Indigenous Knowledge places an emphasis on the practical application of skills and knowledge. In other words, “thinking” versus “doing.”

Intellectual capacity is certainly a good skill to have in one’s toolbox; the world’s most successful societies benefit from having folks who can analyze challenges, suggest solutions, and envision the future. But sooner or later, if humanity is going to get somewhere, we need people who can actually do things. It was great that somebody in the ancient past thought that a round wheel might be a good thing to invent, but you need more than a good idea in your head to move a wagon-load of rocks.

Eurocentric wisdom has placed the most value on academic learning. It’s only recently that Ontario’s elected experts have started to re-think the wisdom of steering students into either academic or applied “streams.” That brainwave may have come after an education  minister noticed he was having a lot of rides in taxis driven by university graduates.

The stigma that was attached to students involved in the “vocational” offerings of high schools has been diminished by the realization that it’s a lot harder to find a good plumber these days than an accomplished lawyer.

Ontario’s community college system was a positive step towards matching learning with career opportunities, but it seems like college presidents now want to compete with their university counterparts to have the right to offer a “degree”, which they think has a more lucrative ring to it than a mere “diploma”. For Pete’s sake, even Kindergartners are awarded diplomas these days!

Many years ago my first job in an Indigenous environment was helping  develop the first post-secondary diploma journalism program in Canada for Indigenous learners at First Nations Technical Institute (FNTI), one of nine Indigenous-governed and operated post-secondary First Nations learning institutes in Ontario. Others include Anishinabek Educational Institute (three sites) and Kenjgewin Teg in M’Chigeeng First Nation. The latter of which has had the authority to grant standalone diplomas without partnering with community colleges or universities since 2017.

My FNTI colleagues had to drill a lot of things into a head accustomed to Western corporate thinking, but they were patient teachers, and I was a willing pupil. Mentors like Ernie Benedict-baa taught me to avoid thinking of “students” and “teachers”. We are all learners, he would insist; what are the odds that any one person in a classroom holds more knowledge than the other 20 or 30?

It also marked my introduction to the concept of different learning styles: Visual, Auditory (or aural), Kinesthetic (or hands-on), and Reading and writing. It was a marked departure from the Western one-size-fits-all approach. Most of us lean towards one of those methods for processing new information.

And none of them, my colleagues stressed, should ever be regarded as superior to the others.

So when it came to evaluating a prospective student for entry into an FNTI program, learners were asked to complete a Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition (PLAR) tool that could determine whether their level of skill and knowledge achieved through work, life, and non-formal educational experience held the same value for them as that gained through successful completion of an academic course or program.

Academic credit could be granted if equivalency of skill and knowledge could be demonstrated and verified.

Today, many years later, mainstream colleges and universities are gradually adopting a variety of PLAR models, the most recent of these being introduced for students enrolling in some programs at Nipissing University in North Bay.

This year for the first time, Nipissing will pilot the PLAR option for students entering the Indigenous Studies BA program and Indigenous Foundations university transition program. It’s a great first step, which will gain more credibility when it expands into other course offerings for students of all cultural heritages.

In a similar vein, the North Bay Indigenous Friendship Centre this past year opened the doors of Niizhwaas Asiniik Skoonweh Kahn — Seven Stones Learning Centre — a so-called “alternative school”, which offers a learning path to adult learners who, for one reason or another, did not succeed in mainstream secondary schools. Many mature Indigenous students have been shown to thrive in educational settings that offer learning in a culturally-appropriate environment. They may not have passed their algebra exam, but can manage a household budget for a family of four.

Indigenous approaches to education, health care, justice, and environmental knowledge have been around for a very long time, but have just started to gain acceptance in wider society.

Demi Mathias, currently employed in Enji Giigdoyang, the university’s Office of Indigenous Initiatives, is a prime example of someone whose life experience outside classrooms would be worth a pile of PLAR credits. A citizen of Teme-Augama Anishnabai, Demi’s thesis to achieve a Master’s in Canadian and Indigenous Studies from Trent University in 2019 described her practical experience assisting master canoe-maker Marcel Labelle of Mattawa build a birchbark canoe from scratch without using any modern tools.

She has many scholarly achievements on her resume, but Demi also has experience as an office worker, a college and university instructor, and a canoe excursions guide. She is a classic experiential learner.

I’ve been out on Lake Nipissing when the winds pick up and the waves start lapping over the gunwales; I’d rather have someone like Demi Mathias in my boat than someone whose primary educational credential is being able to recite “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” from memory.

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