It is the end of September the yellowing leaves look even more vivid against the vast blue south Albertan skies which cover us as far as the eye can see. I drive through the gravel road to Red Crow College on the Blood Reserve. The college is busy today with students dressed in jeans, hooded tops, caps and sunglasses, many standing around the porch waiting for class. I arrive early to meet Duane Mistaken Chief, who teaches Blackfoot language and he kindly lets me sit through his class. About ten students arrive and get their notebooks ready.
Duane’s approach to teaching consists of breaking down language, like bits of crackers he tells his students, to its philosophical and experiential basis before being put back together again. This involves unlearning the structure of the English language as well as the way that Blackfoot has been traditionally taught in schools, translated and written down. For Duane the Blackfoot language has in most cases been filtered through the English language and its structures. This work of translation and systematising was carried out by Christian missionaries and others who were not particularly interested in Blackfoot ways of being in the world. Understanding Blackfoot language in-depth, on the other hand, offers an insight into appreciating their particular ways of being.
Duane shows this today through the example of colours, as he writes the English and the Blackfoot equivalent words on the blackboard. In Blackfoot colours are not understood as things that exist outside as separate objects in themselves but as that which appear to our awareness and which we describe in reference to something in the world that we already know. The key term here is natsi, ‘having the appearance of’. So the colour orange is ‘that which has the appearance of soil’, also suggesting the colour of the otter during a stage of its life. Green becomes ‘the appearance of young grass shoots’. In this way the Blackfoot language embodies a sophisticated philosophical position, a phenomenological stance, where the world is described in reference to one’s own experience and in relation to what is familiar.
The following is taken from the Kainai Studies Course Description and it gives a flavour of the holistic approach taken to teaching all aspects of Kainai, or Blood, life and history.
Kainai Studies Course Codes
Required Certificate Courses
KS-100 Introduction To Kainai Studies; KS-110 Introduction to Blackfoot Language; KS-120 Kippaitapiiyssinnooni (Blackfoot Ways); KS-120 Kainai Family Structure and Parenting; KS-122 Hide tanning; KS-130 History of the Blackfoot World; KS-140 Colonialism and Blackfoot Society; KS-183 Kainai Ethno botany; KS-200 Experiential Field Studies; KS-210 Kainai Ethics In Community Scholarship; KS-220 Intergenerational Violence in Blackfoot Society; KS-297 Aitsiniki: Blackfoot Narrative as Analytical Framework and Social Critique
At the same time, just like Duane’s approach to uncovering the experiential groundings of the Blackfoot language the teaching and learning across Kainai Studies seem to be based on direct experience and practical engagement with particular situations or places.
This is clearly evident in Ryan Heavy Head’s class on Blackfoot ecological knowledge and traditional foods. Here in the first year he asks his students to find a place they will visit and stay put for two to three hours every week over the course of one year. The students are tasked with finding out who lives here, identifying the species of birds, animals, plants and insects (in English and Blackfoot) and eventually getting to know some of these as individuals. Gradually the students also come to know the habits of these beings and their responses to the changing seasons, also called ‘phenology’ a term Ryan and Adrienne taught us. As part of this process of learning students develop deep relationships to the place. In the course there are no required readings, other than books that identify species, instead students are encouraged to learn from the place and the beings themselves, writing about their experiences of learning.
Other aspects of learning the place are also part of the courses in Kainai Studies. for instance, the following description is found in the Course Description mod document of the modules to be taken for this degree:
KS-286 and 287 / ANTH-286 and 287 Kainaissksahkoyi: Learning and Being in Kainai Places
This six-credit course series explores relationships between knowledge, identity, and place. One weekend per month throughout the term of a full year, students, instructors, and eminent scholars travel kitawahsinnoon (Blackfoot territory), visiting historical sites, engaging in dialog with sacred places, and conducting traditional hunting and gathering activities of the annual round. In all of these activities, participants reflect upon a core question: Where is here? What do various responses to this question suggest about relationships between knowledge, identity, and place? How do shifts in one’s sense of emplacement – as through the introduction of niitsitapi stories, concepts, and approaches, for instance – effect one’s responses to the core question over time? What might these transformations mean? And how might engagements-with and senses-of place shape one’s life-long learning experiences.
In addition to grounding participants in first-hand knowledge of niitsitapi places and their associated knowledge traditions, this course is relevant to a number of current discussions in mainstream academic disciplines including (but not restricted to): traditional land use and occupancy studies in archaeology, anthropology, and international development; tourism and ethno-tourism; the anthropology of space and place; cognitive psychology; education; economics; religion; and studies in epistemology, cosmology, ontology and pedagogy.
For students who carry on into the second year, the course develops into the practice of finding, sourcing, preparing and preserving traditional Blackfoot foods. From chokecherry picking to finding roots and plants for medicines to hunting, students her learn how to be part of their environment ‘as humans’ as Ryan puts it, rather than the sort of infantile behaviour we currently tend to have as humans with place.
The experience of place was also the key aspect of the course ‘Blackfoot Pedagogy’ that Narcisse Blood and Cynthia Chambers ran in 2010 for postgraduate teachers at the University of Lethbridge in conjunction with Red Crow College (see course outline). Part of this course involved visiting traditional Blackfoot sites such as medicine wheels, the Buffalo Jump and other significant historical places in the Blackfoot territory (see the video they made on this course).
This engagement with traditional Blackfoot places, stories and rituals also provides another way of understanding Blackfoot history. Narcisse teaches a course on the History of the Blackfoot World which offers different ways of understanding the past and the present. We can have a fethe courses course from the following description from the Course Outline:
KS-130 History of the Blackfoot World
This course espouses what has been called an “ethnohistorical” approach, meaning more specifically that it invites students to engage interpretations of the past that are authored from the perspectives of those about whom the history relates – in this case, the Niitsitapi, or Blackfoot peoples. Moreover, the course seeks to challenge popular notions regarding available sources for historical investigation. Rather than focusing only on surveys of archival documents and other written texts, students will be introduced to a variety of histories recorded and transferred through Niitsitapi naming traditions, arts, rituals, and narrative traditions, as well as those histories inscribed on the local landscape itself. In other words, this course denies ethnocentric interpretations of valid or accurate “history” as something that manifests only through textualization, a view that renders most non-Western memory as either “ahistoric” or “prehistoric”. In place of this bias, students will be prompted to recognize all histories as subjective, socially and culturally situated constructs, as stories we tell one another about ourselves in a manner meant principally to frame our experiences of contemporary presence.
The experience that emerges across these courses suggests another kind of learning. Instead of trying to summarise what this might mean I thought it would be best to quote directly, and extensively, from Cynthia and Narcisse’s course outline on Blackfoot Pedagogy:
Pedagogy is more than teaching and learning. While in Western education, curriculum and instruction are separated (as in C&I), pedagogy seeks to unite what is to be learned with how it is learned. Rather than an “instructional method” or “cultural perspective,” we propose that Blackfoot pedagogy is about a way of living, being, and learning. Developed over thousands of years in this place (southern
Alberta) Blackfoot pedagogy is a profound necessity for survival in kitaowahsinnoon or “the sphere of nurture” where we live and what is referred to in English as “Blackfoot territory.” Blackfoot pedagogy is about learning where we live and with whom, and what is appropriate to do in this place and what is necessary to know, and to know how to do, to sustain life here.
As “coming to be human” is considered one of the aims of Western humanist education, becoming Blackfoot maybe the central aim of Blackfoot pedagogy. Just as Western derived curriculum is about “what knowledge is of most worth,” Blackfoot pedagogy is about what knowledge matters (both in Blackfoot territory and more globally). It is about what the young need know to become Blackfoot, to become human and to fulfill their responsibilities, living in this place, at this time.
Below are some tentative ideas about Blackfoot pedagogy:
1. Relational model: Knowledge and skills are acquired within a set of complex kinship relations that include humans as well as the other‐than human world.
2. Learning and teaching is situational: Blackfoot knowledge is learned where (within the spatial context in which) it will be applied.
3. Learning/teaching/knowing is dynamic: These are part of the flux; they are dynamic processes rather than static rules or content.
4. Localities of practice: There is a relationship between place and knowledge, and thus what we must be cautious about extending the truth and value of Blackfoot pedagogy beyond the boundaries of kitaowahsinnoon.
5. Learning is participatory and learners are engaged: The participatory mode of consciousness necessary for Blackfoot pedagogy.
6. Education of attention: Blackfoot pedagogy is about the education of attention. More experienced practitioners show learners what to pay attention to and how.
7. Scaffolding: Mentors provide scaffolds for apprentices to learn and practice necessary skills. This is one way people come to know.
8. Skilled practice and mastery: The development of skilled practice in a supportive context leads to mastery.
9. Becoming Blackfoot: Becoming Blackfoot (vs. being Blackfoot) occurs within the context of Blackfoot pedagogy, for children as well as adults. One continues to become Blackfoot throughout life.
10. Authenticity and assessment: There are protocols and practices for assessing learning. People are tested and expected to perform.
11. Ethics: Learners have responsibilities to the contexts in which they are learning, to the communities in which they are situated and related, as well as to their teachers. Conversely, teachers have responsibilities to the learners, to the knowledge and to future generations, as well as to the broader community and kitaowahsinoon.
12. Reimagining education: What does Blackfoot pedagogy offer—to Blackfoot? To everyone? How can Blackfoot pedagogy inform how
teaching and learning in schools?