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Interculturalidad – Learning Between Cultures (part 1)

Interculturalidad – Learning Between Cultures (part 1)

Posted by on Apr 4, 2013 in all posts, Freda Diesing School of Northwest Art, Peru, PRATEC, Red Crow Community College | 0 comments




Across our travels in Latin America, we came across a wonderful word and practice, interculturalidad (the process of being intercultural). The term is common in Latin America amongst those engaged in educational initiatives that try to include, or bring together, different cultural knowledges and ways of living.

Currently, attempts to integrate interculturidad learning involves combining two very different cultural worldviews – most often those originating in Europe and found in “settler” or so-called ‘modern’ societies and those that originate in diverse, particularly indigenous cultures across the Americas. I can only begin to imagine what it might be like to have to learn and master two dramatically different languages, ways of seeing and being in the world, sets of values and forms of conduct.

Peru - Merillo school and village.jpg
Quechua intercultural school in Merillo village, outside of Lamas, Peru




The closest to interculturidad learning I have personally experienced was being raised in Rio de Janeiro and learning the local Carioca (locality of Rio) language and ways of being and then moving to the UK at a young age where I had to pick up the various nuances of the British English language and behaviour, the values and etiquette, humour and cultural references. Aside from the language, it was not such a great leap, other than some significant differences around emotional expression and interpersonal relations, but still…

I have gained a kind of competence in these two places, Rio and the UK, navigating through day-to-day life in each place in the way a local might. But these ways of knowing, being, relating, at least within the circles I was raised, are not so very different in their underpinning cosmovision, their fundamental way of seeing and being in the world. This is not such a leap of interculturidad as say between Blackfoot and North European culture that settled and colonized North America, or Quechua and South European culture that settled and colonized South America.

Amongst our journey we have been lucky to have met individuals who are masters of considerably distinct cultures. People who have been living amidst this European-derived settler/colonizing culture and who have also deeply studied these ways of knowing and being in the world, often at a university level. At the same time they have not been completely seduced by this way of seeing/being in the world and have also a deep knowledge and identification with the ways of their indigenous ancestors. These individuals live their lives in this in-between space of interculturidad and many are also deeply committed to teaching others how to inhabit this space.




Encountering mastery of two distinct cultures during our journey

We saw the mastery of two distinct cultures in the re-emergence of Blackfoot Ways of Knowing at Red Crow Community College in Alberta, Canada, with Ryan Heavyhead, Duane Mistaken Chief, Narcisse Blood, Alvine Mountainhorse, Ramona Bighead and Cynthia Chambers. In the field of art we experienced the mastery of two worlds at the Freda Diesing School of Art in Northern British Columbia with Dempsey Bob and other First Nations teachers such as Stan Bevan, Ken McNeil and Dean Heron. We witnessed this in the comunalidad work of Zapotec anthropologist and activist Jaime Luna in the hills surrounding the city of Oaxaca in Mexico.

In Peru doing inspiring and courageous work in this sphere of interculturidad were all of those we met as part of the Pratec network (in Lima, Lamas and Cusco although there are many other Pratec organisations in other parts of the country).

Peru - Cusco - Elena interview shot.jpg

Elena Pardo has not only mastered two cultures, she has developed interculturidad education that has influenced all of Pratec. Elena had worked for many years in the Ministry of Education before leaving and founding her own organisation CEPROSI (the Centro de Promocion y Salud Integral), part of the PRATEC (Projecto Andino Tecnologias Campesinas) network, which is active in the promotion and support of Quechua cultural knowledge and practices in agriculture, schools and in the field of health. Her work focuses especially on the food, ceremony and spirituality of the Quechua peoples in and around Cuzco, trying to integrate these fully into schools beyond the mere tokenistic approach that is most often taken.  




Experiences of interculturidad education with Pratec

Pratec generally aims to support and strengthen genuine interculturidad and we learned much about this when speaking with Grimaldo in Lima and then spending nearly a week in Lamas, at Waman Wasi. During the days we spent visiting the work of Waman Wasi, in the upper Amazon region of Lamas, we visited different villages and schools, and school trips, accompanied by either Leonardo or Gregorio who had been working at Waman Wasi for a number of years. One day we went to a Quechua Lama village a few kilometres away from Lamas to visit a school Wama Wasi had been working with. We were met there by a lively non-Quechua Lama teacher who was engaging and well-liked by the students.

It was just before Christmas and the students, ranging in age between 10 – 12 had been making Christmas trees from paper and branches when we arrived.

School in Quechua Lamas village, Lamas, Peru, photo by Udi.

This teacher had been working with Waman Wasi for some time and was open to incorporating the videos they produced on local knowledge and cultural practices into his own teaching. We observed the class watching a video Waman Wasi made with another group of children on fishing and river pollution at another Quechua Lama village. The activity of watching the video, which the school-children had to write about later, was part of the days’ curriculum which was all about the environment.

Peru - inter-cultural school kids watching video.jpg

Though the days’ teaching activities went well and the students seem to have enjoyed it we were both surprised to hear that the teacher, like many others in this region, did not speak Quechua Lama even though he had been teaching in the same village for many years. Thinking back to the school trip to El Monte, to our conversations with Leonardo, Gregorio and Elena Pardo in Cusco, we saw how important it was to have teachers that are committed to interculturidad education. Committed to being, learning and teaching between cultures.

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“What we need are Grandmother’s Universities”

“What we need are Grandmother’s Universities”

Posted by on Mar 21, 2013 in all posts, Peru, PRATEC, Red Crow Community College | 0 comments

Grandparent’s school, Quechua village near Lamas, Peru, photo still from film footage by Udi

In Carol Black’s 2010 critical education documentary, Schooling the World: The White Man’s Last Burden there is one particular quote that has returned to me again and again. It is something that Vandana Shiva, the internationally renowned eco-feminist, physicist and activist says at one point during the film: “What we need are Grandmother’s Universities. All over the world.”

Whilst the film brings up a series of profoundly important points that urgently need to be critically reflected on, this quote by Vandana Shiva was something that I kept thinking about. I had read much of her work in the past – on bio-patenting and its disastrous effects on local communities and also her writings of ‘monocultures of the mind’, or how schooling tends to encourage singular and universal ways of thinking and learning, rather than encouraging diversity and plurality. All of the writing I have encountered from Vandana Shiva is provocative, political and poetic. I am a fan. While I was not surprised at her being included in the film as a speaker, I was surprised to hear of her particular focus on higher education – with grandparents as taking the central role of the leading teachers and thinkers.

I could clearly relate to the logic of her argument. I knew something of the importance of Elders, especially within indigenous communities. I also feel deeply about the devalued place that grandparents and the elderly generally hold within so-called industrialized societies. During this journey, Udi and I have come to understand much more of the importance of knowledge and experience that can/should be valued from grandparents and Elders in communities. We encountered the significance of this from the very beginning of our journey, during our time in southern Alberta, with the Blackfoot community.  We learned about the traumatic experiences of the past, the processes of healing in the present and the future of Blackfoot language and knowledge that is kept but also re-generated and re-claimed with the support and encouragement of Elders.

Interview with Duane Mistaken Chief, Blackfoot Elder and Blackfoot language teacher at Red Crow Community College, photo still from footage by Udi

Interview with Narcisse Blood, Black Elder, curriculum writer for Blackfoot Pedagogy and teacher at Red Crow Community CollegeCurrently, the Elders of the Blackfoot community actively participate in the teaching and learning process within Red Crow College.

Not only were the Elders active in the preparation of the curriculum (Udi has described in previous posts the inspiring story of the repatriated beaver bundle and how this led to the ‘Blackfoot learning with the land’ curriculum that Ryan Heavyhead and his wife Adrienne developed through their own learning of how to traditionally bring beaver bundle ceremony back into practice), they teach and also declare and provide their own degrees which are not provided by the University of Lethbridge. For example, Ryan Heavyhead is recognized as having a PhD in Blackfoot ways of knowing from Blackfoot Elders that is not recognized by the University of Lethbridge.

Ryan and Adrienne, explaining their own Blackfoot learning as keepers of the Beaver Bundle and how this translated into Blackfoot Studies at Red Crow Community College, photo still from footage by Udi

During our time visiting with Pratec, in Peru, this understanding was furthered. Greatly. Udi has described some of this in his post on the Quechua grandfather coming from Wayku (the Quechua village next to Lamas) to teach the Quechua children and young people more about the sacredness and depth of knowledge that is within the forest of El Monte. The grandfather’s knowledge and the Quechua cosmovision was demonstrated by the tobacco ritual he offered to purify each of our bodies as we entered the forest that was once one of the most sacred hunting grounds of the Quechua Lamas. This process of purification is also a process of respect toward the guardian of the forest. It is an act of reciprocity to also be looked after safely – and previously, to ensure a successful hunt.

Quechua Elder providing tobacco purification ritual, El Monte, near Tarapoto, Peru, photo still from footage by Udi

The grandfather also offered many stories of particular plants and animals, how they act as different types of medicines and how we can interact with them, as we ventured through the forest.

Quechua Elder teaching us, telling stories about trees, plants in the forest in El Monte, photo still from footage by Udi

photo still from footage by Udi

I remember noticing his ease of walking through the forest, his feet bare, his body more deeply connected to the Earth. For Udi and for me, we would have liked many more hours of time with him there in the forest, to hear his stories and deep knowledge he has with the living beings that make up the forest. The encounter that we did have, with his knowledge and story-telling, made the forest come alive. I felt a sense of the soul of each individual being in the forest as we passed through in a new way that I had never experienced.

The day before we visited El Monte, Lucho had taken us to a ‘grandparents school’ in a Quechua village 45 minutes outside of Lamas. On our way to the village, I heard Vandana Shiva’s quote echo in my head, and I wondered how much the experience would resonate with her vision.

It was a hot afternoon. The sky was cloudless and the sun felt relentless. We sat with a family in the village as we waited for the grandparents’ gathering to begin. There were five or so children, boys and girls, and a mother and father of three of these children. The mother was molding a bowl from wet clay, her two young daughters helping – one watching and the other starting her own. The bowls would be used during each meal once dried in the hot sun.

photo still from footage by Udi

photo still from footage by Udi

The father had taken a large palm branch and was using a machete to cut and twist various leaves for weaving. His son came over and started to weave the palm leaves with his father helping him, giving him instructions and showing him what to do when needed. The woven palms would be used as mats (typically about 4ft by 6ft – or 1.5m by 2m) to sit on, to put on the walls or even used as walls. Udi had a conversation with the father about what was being taught (weaving and pottery) and how important it was for them as a family but also as a community.

photo still from footage by Udi

The grandparents ‘school’ occurred several times per week, after the hours of formal schooling, offering different learning experiences for the children, but also adults, that were not offered within the school. These various activities, central to Quechua ways of knowing and being are not a priority within the walls of the classroom in spite of the claim of Quechua ‘inter-cultural’ learning and teaching that is offered in all schools in the area.

photo still from footage by Udi

Photo still from footage by Udi

After nearly an hour, some kids came and ushered us into a house. We entered a large room and were shown to a seat along a long piece of wood that had become a bench. There were 5 women sitting against woven mats that were lining one wall. I guessed they were aged between 30 and 70. There were 9 children in the room, girls and boys, the youngest looking about 4 years of age. Colourful threads of yarn were tied around posts and several girls were beginning to weave – belts, blankets, skirts, etc.. Another little girl was working with a very old woman, the grandmother of the ‘school’ to spin cotton – again for different types of clothing. Several younger boys were on the far side of the room with the grandfather, weaving mats from palm leaves, similarly to what we had just observed outside.

photo still from footage by Udi

The grandmother came to speak with us, her face in a constant smile, tremendous warmth emerging from each line on her beautiful face, touching all parts of me. Udi had a difficult time understanding her Spanish and once Lucho came in we were able to converse more easily. The little girl who was spinning cotton seemed nervous next to us and I was told later that I had cat eyes which scared her. We moved around the room and were shown slowly and deliberately the different forms of artistic and practical materials that were emerging. There was gentle interaction between everyone in the room and quite intense concentration. These gatherings happen at least 3 times per week.

photo still from footage by Udi

A little while later, the grandmother took us outside to show us her medicinal garden. I was really excited to learn from her as I have always been keen to learn much more about natural healing. She gave us a tour, describing the great variety of plants outside. Her wisdom and warmth were captivating – as were her descriptions of the multiple plants and their healing benefits.

photo still from footage by Udi

There were many there that supported all aspects of pregnancy – from helping with fertility and conception, to health during pregnancy, healing during miscarriage, to reducing pain during delivery, to speeding up the birthing process. There were plants there to be used as anesthetics, antiseptics, pain-killers and basic nutrients rich in various vitamins and minerals. She told us that in addition to weaving and spinning that the children come to work with her out in the garden, cultivating and nourishing the plants – whilst learning about the various ways they heal and nourish them. I wanted to attend this school – this grandmother’s university!

photo still from footage by Udi

Weaving hats, mats, walls from palm leaves; spinning and weaving wool; embroidering complicated and colourful patterns onto materials for skirts, tops; cultivating medicines for every health complication, particularly for women; cultivating foods from their chacra for sustenance and nourishment… I know I could greatly benefit from such a wealth of knowledge. I doubted that either grandparent could read or write in our measured forms of literacy. Yet – the forms and depth of literacies I had just experienced far exceeded my own.

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Learning by running… across the prairie with students and teachers…

Learning by running… across the prairie with students and teachers…

Posted by on Feb 28, 2013 in all posts, Canada, Red Crow Community College | 0 comments

Although our main focus during our journey is to higher education initiatives emerging from indigenous scholars, community activists and artists, throughout our time in Canada, Mexico and Peru we also encountered and learned from teachers, students, community activists and organisations working to promote these indigenous ways of knowing, being and doing in primary, middle and secondary schools.

Our first experience visiting in/with primary, middle and secondary schools was in the Blackfoot Kainai (Blood Band) Reserve in Alberta. It unexpectedly came through the form of running – across open prairie.

Although this post may seem a bit dated, reflecting back on a particular day under the Albertan sun in October, 2012, I thought to write about how it stands so strongly in my memory – as a form of learning with my body.  Writing now as I am several months later, in South America, where I am far from fluent in Spanish or Portuguese, I have been forced to rely on learning beyond language.  I will be writing much more about this in coming posts, but first I thought to write about the day I remember the most vividly of all the days spent in southern Canada – the day I ran and walked alongside hundreds of children and adults across the open prairie on the Blood Reserve.  When I started writing this post, it came out in a fast flowing rush (and it is therefore longer than planned).  The memories of that day are so sharp – the bluest of blue skies, my skin pulsing from the heat of the hot dry sun, the sounds of the wheat-coloured grasses crunching beneath my feet,  of increasingly heavy and laboured breathing the further we got into the race – and of the excitement of voices, young and old, encouraging the completion of a physically demanding challenge…  I think the clarity of that day has something to do with feeling really alive – with feeling free… with engaging together in activity that defies age, background, gender…

A couple of days before the race, we met Narcisse Blood and his wife Alvine Mountain Horse for dinner in Fort MacLeod.  Alvine, a middle school teacher at the Kainai Middle School on the reserve, and PhD student at the University of Calgary, is a mother of four, grandmother of many.  She is also a long distance runner and has been since she was a girl.  Alvine seemed tired during our dinner, unsurprisingly, as she is busy doing so many things.  However, after I mentioned something about my decision to attend university on the east coast of the US because of being recruited at that time for running (and high jumping), her energy returned and we were suddenly very engaged in an animated conversation – stories about running, about racing, about coaching.  Alvine told us of her most recent 10km race (just three days before) where she had fallen badly, injuring her knee and her face. She was concerned about her ability to do well at the upcoming annual race celebrating the signing of the Treaty – two days later.  Her knee was still swollen and there was still bruising on her face.  Yet, I could very clearly see the fire in her to run, to compete, to participate.

Alvine Mountain Horse and Kelly at the start of the race, photo by Udi

I think once someone becomes a runner, develops a love for running, it is somehow always there, seeping into the core of your being.  So far on this journey, I have done far less running than I would have liked, I not only miss it, often I long for it.  I see someone running on the edges of a park, or alongside the sea, and I wish I was there, feeling the air on my skin, seeing the ground blur beneath my feet, wanting to experience the tiredness and the simultaneous satisfaction that comes with running.  This passion for running is not universally shared, but between those that do share it, there is an immediate connection.  I found this connection with Alvine.  At the end of our lovely meal together, I also found myself signing up for the annual cross-country race taking place in two days.  The 3-mile or 5-mile race (we could choose) was to be across prairie, finishing on the grounds of the Kainai primary, middle and secondary schools on the Blood Reserve.  This particular day of the annual run was to be held on the 125th anniversary of Treaty Seven which signed the reservation territory, amongst other laws and regulations, to the Blackfoot.

I was really nervous arriving to the Kainai Middle School that Friday morning and timidly asked for directions to find Alvine.  There was chaotic and nervous energy that always comes with organizing so many children and teenagers.  At least 10 buses were parked outside from different schools in the area – members of other Blackfoot bands and non-Blackfoot schools as well.  Teachers were trying to organize the hundreds of school-aged children and young people who were excitedly putting on their running shoes, trying to find out where to pin on their numbers.

The dry, open sky and vast horizon of southern Alberta reminded me very much of Klamath Falls, Oregon where I grew up, and I was suddenly feeling the nervousness I would have felt over 20 years ago, competing as I once did in high school, for the cross-country running team.  Only now, I was not very fit – an obvious outsider – joining hundreds of children, young people and adults from the area who participate in this annual event.  Udi was taking it all in as someone who has not only ever run a cross-country race, but has also never witnessed such an event.

After asking several teachers, I eventually found Alvine in her classroom.  She was hurriedly trying to gather her own belongings for the race – numbers to pin on our tops, lists of student names, her tee-shirt.  I noticed many different Blackfoot words written neatly on the blackboard.  She walked with me out of the school and the three of us climbed into our car.  She directed us for a few miles, from paved to unpaved road and finally to a field where there was no road at all.  I looked around to see hundreds of school-aged children, from what I guessed were 6 years old, through the end of secondary school (18 years old) and many adults (teachers).  It was the first time in my life I had ever run with such a diverse and disparate group, all associated with schools in the area.  Any school-related running race in my time was always separated quite rigidly into different age groups.  I do not remember ever running alongside any of my teachers.

photo by Udi

We all gathered together, finding a place to stand where we could.  One of the teachers from the high school gave us all directions, to run alongside the flags he had just stuck into the ground early that morning.  He told us to be careful of the uneven surface.  Alvine looked at me and said not to wait for her, that I should try to win, that she was still injured and not sure how fast she would run.  I told her I was completely out of shape anyway and happy to run with her.

photo by Udi

The gun went off, many children took off fast, excited about what it was that we were doing.  I noticed that many of them looked completely unprepared to run – some in jeans, shoes that we clearly not made for running.  Yet they all seemed very happy about running several miles in the hot sun on unknown terrain.  There was no one whining, which I would have expected from some of the children and teenagers. I ran alongside Alvine for about a half mile or so and noticed I was still feeling surprising fine.  I also noticed that I wanted to run ahead and try and catch a couple of the female adults who were not so far ahead.  The competitive streak in me came right back and was strongly encouraged by Alvine.  She kept whispering between laboured breaths – “go ahead, try to catch them, try to win”.  I laughed with her encouragement and decided to, although I also felt a pull to stay with her and run alongside for the duration.

Half mile or so into the race, photo by Udi

I ran ahead at the top of a small hill coming out of the coulee.  I noticed two women in front of me and set out to catch them.  One of my favourite training activities during my cross-country high school days was when my coach would start us all separately – one minute or so apart.  The goal was to try and catch as many people as you could over a 3 mile course.  It was the same here, only 20 years later.

photo by Udi

I picked up speed for the rest of the race.  I chatted to many children and teenagers along the way.  Many of them would walk and then sprint, rather than running continuously.  I encouraged them to run slowly – to run with me, and a couple girls (I guessed were about 13) did.  We made light conversation that got increasingly more difficult as we all approached the school.  I noticed another adult female runner in front of me, nearing the school and I decided to catch up with her before the finish line, which I did (just barely).  Udi was at the finish line, clapping, yelling and filming.

Finishing the race, photo by Udi

One of the top finishers of the race, photo by Udi

I was exhausted – but felt exhilarated as I often do after a challenging run.  I ran back to find Alvine, to encourage her and run with her the rest of the way.  She was happy that she finished, her knee really hurting her.  After the race we walked around the school buildings, chatting with Alvine and some of the other teachers – Alvine was proudly introducing us to people, saying that the race had become ‘international’ with us being there.  A warmth and joy pervaded the environment through vocal encouragement and generosity of food and care.  It was important to all the teachers there that everyone who participated in and witnessed the race be provided a full meal.  Everything was free.  Several of the students came to speak with Alvine.  It was clear how very loved and admired she is by students of all ages and teachers.

The entire event contrasted strongly with running events (races) that I participated in – in the past.  The diversity of ages running alongside one another was very powerful, particularly as there was so much encouragement – from young to old and old to young.  Although there was a competitive air, it was friendly.  I wondered how much of this conviviality had to do with the very reason we were all there running and connecting with the ground beneath our feet –– in celebration of the sovereignty that exists on this part of the land, the Blackfoot territory.

Overall winner of the race, photo by Udi

An awards ceremony began soon after in the high school gym with a Blackfoot prayer being spoken by one of the Blackfoot Elders in the community.  Udi and I were both inspired to see the hand-made spears (rather than trophies) that were given to the top male and female (of all ages) finishers of the 3-mile and 5-mile races.  The spears were about 2 meters long, hand-carved, with leather straps and fathers wrapped around them at three different sections.  The end of the spear looked as if it had been carved from obsidian.  I received a medal for being a top-3 female finisher in the over-29 age group, which I was rather pleased about (perfect souvenir!).

After the race, Udi and I explored the schools and talked with more teachers and students.  The insides of the school buildings were beautifully constructed and decorated, mixing the functionality of a standard North American high school with Blackfoot structures and designs. Central in the building is the library which has a large steel teepee emerging from its center forming and ceremonial space for lectures, events and reading.  Alvine introduced us to Olivia Tailfeathers, the music teacher for all three schools.  She writes her own music as well.  She gave us one of her CDs and we are hoping to use a couple of the tracks as music for the film we will be editing on Red Crow Community College.

Kainai Middle School library, photo by Udi

Interior of teepee in Kainai Middle School library, photo by Udi

Alvine is fluent in the Blackfoot language and is committed to the teaching that she is able to do, in spite of how busy she is. When we left the Kainai Middle School that day, we drove Alvine to Lethbridge to meet with Narcisse and Ryan Heavy Head.  Along the way, Alvine told us more about her own learning of Blackfoot and the ways in which she has been teaching the language to children and adults.  She herself had learned from her grandmother who did not speak any English.  Alvine’s grandmother had taken her outside on long walks, teaching her words with the land.  The Blackfoot language emerged through the land, and this was how Alvine was taught the Blackfoot language.  She discovered that it was also the best way for her to teach the language.

In the school where Alvine taught we were especially excited about the project she told us about which brought the knowledge of local plants and their uses into the school. In this language teaching/learning approach, students had to discover the plants growing around the school area, find out their Blackfoot names and their traditional use.  Alongside Blackfoot language teaching, Alvine coaches running.  Being outside, on and with the land is a deep significance that crosses both of these very different reasons for and approaches to, learning.

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Knowing Blackfoot Sacred Places – through Visiting

Knowing Blackfoot Sacred Places  – through Visiting

Posted by on Nov 15, 2012 in all posts, Canada, Red Crow Community College | 0 comments

I think it is probably safe to say that most of us, if not all of us, have visited sacred, spiritual or religious sites of some sort or another – either as part of our own belief system or that of others.  Our reasoning for visiting sacred places varies as does our interest and openness to how we connect with them and how these connections might or might not affect our lives.

For students, teachers, Elders and community members involved either directly or indirectly in the Kainai Studies program at Red Crow, learning and engaging with sacred places is about reconnection, reclamation and repatriation.  What we learned through reading literature by Cynthia and Narcisse (and also Betty Bastien), and also through different conversations with each of them and Ramona, Ryan, Adrienne, Alvine and Duane was that learning about sacred places was not just learning about them, but rather to learn from them.  To learn from a place mean that participants within the program needed to not just tour them, but rather to visit them (Cynthia and Narcisse write beautifully about this process in their article, ‘Love thy Neighbor:  Repatriating Precarious Blackfoot Sites’ which we will be adding to the links/resources section of this blog).  But what then does it mean to visit?  And how, can we as learners from the outside also learn about the significance of visiting sacred sites, especially as a core component of the Kainai Studies program?

Map of traditional Blackfoot territory – borrowed from Chambers and Narcisse (2008) – original map from Glenbow Museum website, “Niitsitapiisini: Our Way of Life” http://www.glenbow.org/blackfoot/teacher_toolkit/english/culture/territory.html (Accessed November 2012)

The original Blackfoot territory, or Nitáówahsinnoon covered most of Alberta and Montana and parts of Saskatchewan.  Within Nitáówahsinnoon the Blackfoot developed intimate knowledge and close relationships with all dimensions of the environment.  These relationships were renewed through ceremonies and ritual as well as reciprocal practices of visiting and providing nourishment (see Cynthia and Narcisse’s article and Ryan Heavy Head’s writing for much more detailed information). Ceremonies took place at different times, at sacred sites for different purposes for thousands of years and were nearly erased due to the heavy layers of oppressive actions felt by the Blackfoot peoples over the last 150 years. Because of the power of stories and secretive practice of ceremonies, knowledge surrounding sacred places endured.  Yet, currently, much of this knowledge is fragmented and weak (as some has been lost as a result of the Indian Act and residential schooling, amongst other reasons) and is currently being re-built through efforts such as the Kainai Studies program.

The landscape of Nitáówahsinnoon is itself storied as Cynthia and Narcisse explain.  Each sacred place has a story about its emergence and many sacred places have stories that were written on them through pictographs or petroglyphs.  For Siksikáítapiiksi, these places are not simply piles of rocks, cliffs, or glacial erratics; they are places imbued with meaning and history. These places are the equivalent of books, encyclopedias, libraries, archives, crypts, monuments, historical markers and grottos; they are destinations for pilgrims; places of sacrifice, revelation and apparition; and sources of knowledge and wisdom. For Siksikáítapiiksi, these places are repositories for the knowledge left by the ancestors.

Prior to the onslaught of colonialism and settlers, there were thousands of sacred places throughout the Blackfoot territory.  The majority of these places have been demolished, precisely because they are seldom seen as anything but rocks, stones or cliffs.  While we were staying in Fort MacLeod there was front page news that the Glenwood ‘glacial erratic’ (this is the term used by the Canadian government for giant seemingly out-of-place glacial stones) was desecrated – petroglyphs on top of the stone were literally drilled apart and acid was poured on pictographs to distort and erase the fading colors barely present.  The stone is so large that to carry out this type of desecration, more than one person would have needed ladders, lights and heavy equipment.  The destruction was discovered by a Blackfoot historian who had just received approval from the community to begin archaeological investigation into the petroglyphs and pictographs at the place.  Worst of all, the site was not listed in the Alberta historical places and has only become more widely known because of the violence induced at the site.  News of the desecration of the Glenwood place was felt strongly by the people we met and by both of us. We had been there for just over a week, but had already begun to learn with the landscape, visiting several sacred places amidst reading and conversing about them.  In addition to the desecration of Glenwood, many other sacred places are in danger of being destroyed due to the constant pressure of oil and gas drilling.

At the end of our stay in Alberta, as we drove North to Calgary, we stopped at the ‘Okotoks’ or ‘Big Rocks’ as they are known in Blackfoot.  These massive rocks are also known as the Okotok ‘glacial erratics’ although they have been visited by the Blackfoot through ceremonies over thousands of years.  The story of how the rocks got there is that the Creator Napi was being chased by the rocks because he had offered his robe to the rocks when it was hot but had asked for it back when it was cold.  The rocks said that the robes had been given to them, but Napi took them anyway which made the rocks start chasing him.  This chase created the hills and the landscape.  These particular ‘Big Rocks’ chased Napi further than any others.  They stopped and cracked where they did because some birds farted on them.

Photo taken by Udi of the signage before the walk to the ‘Big Rocks’. There is information from a scientific perspective and from a Blackfoot perspective. This sign shows the story of Napi and the landing of the rocks in this particular location.

 

Photo taken by Kelly of one of the Okotok ‘Big Rocks’, south of Calgary, Alberta

Udi and I located the ‘Big Rocks’ about 10km west of the town of Okotoks which is about 50km south of Calgary.  The rocks appear as huge anomalies in the landscape.  The Blackfoot story of the Okotoks makes them come alive and we felt a closer connection to them reflecting on this story, rather than the only through a scientific explanation.  Here is a youtube video I found that helps to experience the ‘Big Rocks’.

Photo by Udi of the ‘Big Rocks’ from the path. Notice the two signs explaining the ‘Big Rocks’.

Our first visit as mentioned in the Land, Buffalo and Blackfoot post, was to the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump Museum.  Although this site is indeed a sacred place to the Blackfoot, it is now acknowledged more widely (well beyond the Blackfoot people) as a place to learn from and about the incredible history of the Blackfoot people, including the profound relationship the Blackfoot had with the buffalo and the tragic decimation of the buffalo, due almost entirely to the lack of reverence and respect of European settlers.

Our second visit was to Crowsnest Mountain and Crowsnest Pass, about one hour directly west of Fort MacLeod, within the Rocky Mountain range.  The drive to Crowsnest was itself stunning as we had not seen the Rocky Mountains since our drive through Glacier National Park.  We were unable to locate the precise place of Crowsnest Pass, but we did locate a sign that identified the region as a place of heritage importance for Canadians, with a brief mention of ‘Indian’ usage of the place as well.  This historical positioning of the Blackfoot as ‘hearsay’ or ‘pre-historic’ is common discourse, relegating the history of the Blackfoot as something before White man history began.

Photo taken by Kelly – Sign describing Crowsnest Pass by the Province of British Columbia

We drove up a road about 10 miles to be closer to Crowsnest Mountain.  Similar to Chief Mountain which is 50 miles south, Crowsnest stands out strikingly in isolation from the other mountains.  We stopped the car next to a natural gas pipeline tank with warning signs of ‘extreme danger’ on the fence surrounding it.  This picture demonstrates the prominence of the mountain and the ever-encroaching development that endangers the longevity of all sacred places.

Photo taken by Udi – view of Crowsnest Mountain from natural gas well pipeline

Our third visit was to Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park, an archaeological and natural preserve near the Milk River, just above the United States border.  We had dinner with Cynthia and Ramona the night before we visited Writing-On-Stone at a popular restaurant in Fort MacLeod, called Jonny’s.  They both urged us to visit Writing-On-Stone.  The next day, after a 2.5 hour drive, we arrived just in time for a 3-hour guided tour from a younger Blackfoot woman.

Photo taken by Udi – Hoo Doo Table from within the Writing-On-Stone coulee area

Writing-On-Stone is a wondrous landscape within prairie where you also see sagebrush and wildflowers, especially at the edge of the Milk River that winds its way through the coulees.  There are marvelous hoo-doos that have been eroded from the sandstone and writings and pictures carved continuously for the past 4,000 years.  In this picture is a famous hoo-doo that was also used as a place for Vision Quests for thousands of years.  Today, this site generally and more specifically this hoo-doo is a sacred site where blessings are offered.  Ancient petroglyphs are still noticeable in many areas, although newer, graffiti is also present.  The forms of petroglyphs and pictographs being the Blackfoots form of literacy is still being debated.  Narcisse explains very descriptively in a blog-posting that whilst ochre pictographs were drawn onto the Okotoks because of the hardness of granite, at Writing-On-Stone, stories were carved into the rock as petroglyphs as the sandstone rock is much softer.  Here is a good experiential short video of Writing-on-Stone on youtube and another one showing different petroglyphs with brief explanations (just be patient for the first 20 second advertisement!).

Photo taken by Udi – Petroglyphs inside Writing-On-Stone

Our guide told many stories represented through the different petroglyphs and was also very open about her own life and Blackfoot learning.  The three hours passed by very quickly.  The storied landscape spoke deeply to us, we were absorbed in the colors, the formations and the stories told.

Photo taken by Kelly – Writing-On-Stone landscape – Milk River, sandstone hoo-doos and prairie

Woven through these moments of different visits to places and to meals with different people (such as Cynthia, Ramona and Erika), I was reading various articles and books.  Two days after our visit to Writing-On-Stone, I had just read through Cynthia and Narcisse’s article for the first time and I was completely taken by the style of the writing and the stories conveyed within.  In particular, I was very moved by the section discussion ‘visiting as repatriation’ and felt a strong desire to better understand visiting as a process rather than a single event.  In the article, Cynthia and Narcisse mention Carolla Calf Robe and her annual visits to Sundial Butte to make offerings and ask for blessings for her family.  After an accident when Carolla was confined to a wheelchair, she was carried up to the top of Sundial in a wheelchair.  She was resigned to the fact that she might never visit the site again.  This resignation and effort to make that visit helped her to find a renewed strength and continue living in a new way.  This story spoke to me of the importance of these places being about renewal and connection.

With our afternoon suddenly free, Udi and I both agreed that finding and learning from Sun Dial Butte (or Sun Dial Medicine Wheel as it is most commonly called) was a great idea.  Locating Sun Dial is no simple task.  There are gravel roads criss-crossing the plains, which at this point are mostly farm lands.  We stopped to ask for directions and were given a simple list of where to go.  I also had written out directions from the Internet.  These did not match… we were better informed by a rancher along the way who directed us perfectly.  There is a beautiful conversation filmed at Sun Dial with Narcisse Blood talking about Sun Dial and the significance of sacred places and the necessity for altering our relationships with the land that is based on reciprocity rather than extraction for our use.

Photo taken by Kelly – Sign depicting Sundial Medicine Wheel just below the site

Udi and I stayed on top of Sun Dial for more than 2 hours, sitting, meditating, walking around, slowly, intentionally.  We were there on our own.  The sun was warm, a gentle breeze blowing strongly and then softly.  We agreed that there was a profoundly strong, yet gentle strength.  The experience of being there is difficult to articulate.

Photo taken by Udi – Top of Sun Dial Butte

After we returned to the Fort Motel in Fort MacLeod, I spent an hour or so trying to write about the time spent there.  This is some of what I wrote ——

… those moments under the sun’s rays at Sun Dial, I felt a sense of completion. It was a gentle peacefulness, but strong like the beating of my heart.  This peace was something about … being … connected — to time – all those beings past and present who had been here at this place called Sun Dial, all those who were there.  I felt that all-is-well – regardless of… it just is.  Pain and suffering drift into the wind, the voices of ancestors whispering and beckoning within the stones. I felt as if I was somehow a deeper sense of myself – a self inseparable.  This is the moment I really began to develop a deeper understanding about what ‘indigenous knowledge’ is.  I felt a sense of power – not a power to control or master, nor a power to be heard and seen – but rather, a power to be a part of… love or fear, it did not matter.  I look around and see how so much is based on fear and power – a need to be in control and to manipulate.  Sun Dial is the opposite of this.  Thousands of years have witnessed beings gathering here at this site – to connect to one’s inner-outer being – to connect to stories of the ages that are told as if they happened yesterday.  Thousands of years. Power has been manifested here through the mode of giving – of self to self, of self to land and of self to other selves through transfers of stories, song and ceremony, through offerings and gestures. We left four sage cuttings amidst the stones, resting them gently symbolising the importance of the number four, as Ramona taught us.  Through such a profoundly simple gesture of gratitude and appreciation, I felt, I learned something of the Blackfoot way of knowing – I felt that I began to connect deeply to the past – all pasts, presents and to future connections.  It made me curious, more curious than I have been in a very long time.  But, mostly it made me feel alive.

Photo taken by Kelly – Prairie views from Sun Dial Butte

This visit to Sun Dial and the other visits to Head-Smashed-In, Writing-On-Stone and Crowsnest Pass and Crowsnest Mountain provided deep learning experiences for us.  Yet, these experiences were the tip of the iceberg of what we could learn through a much longer stay and much deeper engagement.  However, making ourselves open to being present within these places helped us to feel their sacredness, beyond a more rational way of knowing.

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Becoming Blackfoot and its challenges

Becoming Blackfoot and its challenges

Posted by on Nov 13, 2012 in all posts, Canada, Red Crow Community College | 0 comments

As noted in a previous entry on Kainai Studies, a key aspect of the learning has to do with ‘becoming Blackfoot’. As Narcisse and Cynthia put it in the course outline of their Blackfoot Pedagogy class, quoted previously:

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 fulfil their responsibilities, living in this place, at this time.

What ‘coming to be human’ or ‘coming to be Blackfoot’ is in practice then depends on the particular values, priorities and cosmologies that are held dear. In the previous blogs we tried to give a bit of a flavour of what we experienced some of these values and priorities to be through our time around Red Crow and by our conversations with people there.

Over this time we had the chance to talk to a number of students and also to gauge from the teachers some of the effects of being part of Red Crow, and especially the Kainai Studies course. Succinctly put this can be summarised as a coming to be re-embedded in that mesh of knowledge, identity and connection to place and community which was taken away by a century of policies of assimilation.

Speaking to students there is a palpable sense of a re-awakened pride at being Blackfoot, an aspiration to learn more about what this means, by learning their language, history, ecological knowledge and spiritual values. This is a considerable feat given the indoctrination perpetrated through residential schools and the de-legitimising of Blackfoot ways which has persisted over the century. Almost all the students I interviewed for the documentary introduced themselves by speaking in Blackfoot first. And this was a generation which did not have, for the most part, their parents speaking the language. All students mentioned how they are studying so as to learn more about being Blackfoot to better serve their community, whether as social worker, teacher or healer.

Ryan related to us how some of their graduates have gone on to take positions of power within the Tribal council or else in teaching positions elsewhere in Alberta and have been using the knowledge they acquired through the course, such as in implementing policies that ensure greater protection of the plants and animals in the Blood reserve. In conversation with Cynthia we also heard of the success of the Blackfoot Pedagogy course, for both Blackfoot and non-Blackfoot graduate teachers, in reconnecting to the historical landscape of Alberta. Teachers have gone on to take their students to the sites visited during the course, introducing a new generation to the power of learning from place and the sense of the historical continuity of habitation in this landscape.

Given the serious problems concerning the unabated extraction of natural resources (mines, oil and gas extraction, the tar sands) in this region of Canada we left Alberta with a sense of a quiet revolution happening in education. The scale of this is still relatively small but the effects of Kainai Studies have been communicated to other First Nations groups across Canada and have been very well received (see the report and project on Aboriginal Learning Knowledge Centre in Canada).

Other challenges still remain for Kainai Studies. There is still some resistance internally amongst some in the Blackfoot community of the merit of educating a new generation to ‘become Blackfoot’. Whether because of Christian values (many Christian Blackfoot live in the reserve), or else because of an aspiration to further integrate the Blackfoot into the capitalist economy by training them for the workforce, Kainai Studies continues to have to make its case to the Tribal Council which helps fund it. Externally, Kainai Studies is challenging other universities to accept its Kainai Studies degree as a valid transfer to the second or third year of their own degrees. Ryan, Cynthia and Narcisse are hopeful that a new generation of educators will emerge that will take this work of the deepening and dissemination of Blackfoot pedagogy and ways of being forward as teachers, carers, researchers and decision makers. This will be a generation that integrates, as Narcisse, Ryan, Cynthia and others have attempted to, Blackfoot ways of knowing with ‘global’ science and epistemology.

 

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Kainai Studies

Kainai Studies

Posted by on Nov 6, 2012 in all posts, Canada, Red Crow Community College | 1 comment

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.

photo taken by Udi of Fall 2012 Kainai Studies teaching schedule, Red Crow College.

 

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.

 

photo by Udi of ‘Writing on Stone’ provincial park, Aberta.

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?

 

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