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As if Indigenous Knowledge and Communities Mattered: Transformative Education in First Nations Communities in Canada
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The American Indian Quarterly 28.3&4 (2004) 454-479



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As if Indigenous Knowledge and Communities Mattered

Transformative Education in First Nations Communities in Canada

This article describes a unique approach to Indigenous community development through community-based education partnerships between First Nations and postsecondary institutions in Canada. Using a "generative curriculum model," Indigenous knowledge is brought into the process of teaching and learning by community Elders, and this is considered alongside Eurowestern theory, research, and practice.

Evaluation research has documented the success of these partnerships in supporting an unprecedented high rate of postsecondary diploma completion among the First Nations community members. The use of a community of learners approach has also been shown to create conditions for community development by reinforcing the value of Indigenous knowledge, rekindling processes of intergenerational teaching and learning, increasing social cohesion, and securing community commitment to create programs of support for young First Nations children and families.

The Need For Child-Focused Education in First Nations Communities

We must be able to feel confident that our world view is clearly understood by our own children, and that they will know that their culture has value in modern times as it did in the past. We must be able to teach our children appropriate skills and understanding, and control how our children are taught.1

Like many Indigenous peoples around the globe, First Nations in Canada are currently seeking to strengthen capacity among community [End Page 454] members to plan, operate, and monitor programs for children and youth that are consistent with cultural values and that enhance positive cultural and community identity. First Nations leaders have linked improvement of developmental conditions for children to the reconstruction of their cultural identity, revitalization of intergenerational transmission of culture and traditional language, and reproduction of culturally distinctive values and practices in programs for children and youth. "Aboriginal people see early childhood education [ECE] as a means of reinforcing Aboriginal identity, instilling the values, attitudes and behaviours that give expression to Aboriginal cultures."2

First Nations Children and Families in Canada

There are approximately 700,000 First Nations individuals in Canada, representing about 2.5 percent of the total population. The First Nations population, compared to the rest of the Canadian population, is very young: the average age is 25.5 years, compared to about 35 years for the rest of the Canadian population. Forty percent are under 20 years of age.3 The population of First Nations in Canada is projected to grow at a rate of 3-percent per year between 1998 and 2008, more than double the overall Canadian rate.4 The high proportion of young people among First Nations presents many challenges but also some unique opportunities.

In many Indigenous communities, generations of people do not know their own culture of origin or their heritage language, and their identities as members of an Indigenous community have been attenuated. Reams of testimony have been collected in many different venues across Canada describing the suffering of First Nations parents, children, and communities as a result of enforced residential schooling, child welfare practices, and other "helping" services deemed by government and nongovernment organizations at the time to be in the "best interests" of Canada's Aboriginal people.5 Although the long era of enforced residential schooling for Indigenous children is now over, its negative impacts on self-concept, parenting, social cohesion, and the intergenerational transmission of language and culture remain.

Many First Nations in Canada are actively moving toward a vision of improved community health and social and economic development that includes a substantial measure of control over health, education, and social [End Page 455] services. Strengthening the capacity to mount and operate accessible, safe, culturally consistent care for children and youth in their communities is a priority of the larger social agendas of many First Nations. They are engaged in multifaceted efforts to revitalize their cultures, assert the legitimacy of their culturally-based values and practices as integral to the fabric of Canadian society as a whole, and...