"L'éveil au Cercle" - "Awakening to the Circle"

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

A First Nations’ Mother on the Education of Her Child

The following letter appeared as an article in The Northern Newsletter. It was submitted by Surrey school trustee Jock Smith, who was an educational counselor for the Department of Indian Affairs. It is a moving document and was supplied by the mother of an Indian child, in the form of an open letter to her son’s teacher.

Before you take charge of the classroom that contains my child, please ask yourself

why you are going to teach Indian children. What are your expectations? What rewards do

you anticipate? What ego-needs will our children have to meet?

Write down and examine all the information and opinions you possess about Indians.

What are the stereotypes and untested assumptions that you bring with you into the class-

room? How many negative attitudes toward Indians will you put before my child?

What values, class prejudices, and moral principles do you take for granted as univer-

sal? Please remember that "different from" is not the same as "worse than" or "better

than", and the yardstick you use to measure your own life satisfactorily may not be appro-

priate for the lives of others.

The term "culturally deprived" was invented by well-meaning middle-class white

people to describe something they could not understand.

Too many teachers, unfortunately, seem to see their role as a rescuer. My child does

not need to be rescued; he does not consider being Indian a misfortune. He has a culture,

probably older than yours; he has meaningful values and a rich and varied experiential

background. However strange or incomprehensible it may seem to you, you have no right

to do or say anything that implies to him that it is less than satisfactory.

Our children’s experiences have been different from those of the "typical" white

middle-class child for whom most school curricula seem to have been designed. (I suspect

that this "typical" child does not exist, except in the minds of curriculum writers.) None-

theless, my child’s experiences have been as intense and meaningful to him as any child’s.

Like most Indian children his age, he is competent. He can dress himself, prepare a

meal for himself, clean up afterwards, care for a younger child. He knows his Reserve, all

of which is his home, like the back of his hand.

He is not accustomed to having to ask permission to do the ordinary things that are

part of normal living. He is seldom forbidden to do anything; more usually the conse-

quences of an action are explained to him and he is allowed to decide for himself whether

or not to act. His entire existence since he has been old enough to see and hear has been an

experiential learning situation arranged to provide him with the opportunity to develop life

skills and confidence in his own capacities. Didactic teaching will be an alien experience

for him.

He is not self-conscious in the way many white children are. Nobody has ever told

him his efforts toward independence are cute. He is a young human being energetically

doing his job, which is to get on with the process of learning to function as an adult human

being. He will respect you as a person, but he will expect you to do likewise to him.

He has been taught, by precept, that courtesy is an essential part of human conduct

and rudeness is any action that makes another person feel stupid or foolish. Do not mis-

take his patient courtesy for indifference or passivity. He doesn’t speak standard English, but he is no way "linguistically handicapped”. If

you will take the time and courtesy to listen and observe carefully, you will see that he and

the other Indian children communicate very well, both among themselves and with other

Indians. They speak "functional" English very effectively augmented by their fluency in the

silent language, that subtle, unspoken communication of facial expressions, gestures, body

movement, and the uses of personal space.

You will be well advised to remember that our children are skilful interpreters of the

silent language. They will know your feelings and attitudes with unerring precision, no

matter how carefully you arrange your smile or modulate your voice. They will learn in your

classroom because children learn involuntarily. What they learn will depend on you.

Will you help my child to learn to read, or will you teach him that he has a reading

problem? Will you help him develop problem solving skills, or will you teach him that

school is where you try to guess what answer the teacher wants?

Will he learn that his sense of his own value and dignity is valid, or will he learn that

he must forever be apologetic, and "trying harder", because he isn’t white? Can you help

him acquire the intellectual skills he needs without at the same time imposing your values

on top of those he already has?

Respect my child. He is a person. He has a right to be himself.

Yours very sincerely,

His Mother

1 comment:

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