Walking Parallel Paths Towards Learning: Reflections on Decolonizing Education

Haboun Bair, Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning 

March 21, 2018


Instead of introducing ourselves by highlighting what we do, Jennifer modelled a way for us to connect to who we are: our most relevant identities are our connections to people and place.

I’ve never stopped to think about what I could learn from a rabbit.

On my way to and from work, I walk through my usual route on campus. When I see a snowshoe hare sharing a path with me, sometimes I’ll slow my pace and tread softly. I want the hare to know this is a safe place, so I shift to the edges of the snowy path to make space. But I sense the hare is stressed–and quite frankly so am I, now running late for a meeting. I try to speed things up by emitting stillness, but the hare notices I’m still moving. I inch closer and the hare flinches, indicating an inevitable exit plan is in the works. The salt beneath my boots crackles, and the hare and I part ways.

On my way to and from work,  I think about walking “parallel paths,” the central metaphor for reconciliation in ii’taa’poh’to’p (the University of Calgary’s Indigenous Strategy).  This strategy outlines seven commitments for establishing an allyship  “that honours Indigenous peoples’ stories, knowledges, and traditions and the renewal and development of authentic relationships with Indigenous peoples and communities.” (ii’taa’poh’to’p, 2017, p. 5).

On March 1, the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning hosted a workshop towards this end. Jennifer Ward (University of Alberta) facilitated a workshop on Indigenization and Teaching: A Workshop on Pedagogies, Protocols, and Worldviews. Her teachings provided a foundation for us to begin thinking critically and creatively about how Indigenizing our campus benefits everyone. The ways forward may not be under our noses, they may be closer to our belly buttons.

tante ohci kiya, who are you connected to?

Positioning herself on a map, Jennifer opened with a Cree “belly button teaching” about her history, childhood, family, and connections to the land in the city of Roseburg, Oregon. We learned of her Umpqua, Algonquin, and Walla Walla ancestry. We also learned that after she moved to Edmonton, Alberta, she was adopted into the Cree community who have become an extended part of her belly button story.

Decolonizing  pedagogies

The belly button teaching is a great example of decolonizing our teaching and learning practice. She cited Universities Canada Principles on Indigenous Education which defines the practice of decolonization in the following ways:

  • Decolonization restores the Indigenous worldview
  • Decolonization restores culture and traditional ways
  • Decolonization replaces Western interpretations of history with Indigenous perspectives of history

In this small but significant example of decolonizing pedagogy, we identified ourselves with a counter narrative: instead of introducing ourselves by highlighting what we do, Jennifer modelled a way for us to connect to who we are: our most relevant identities are our connections to people and place.

She then used an anonymous polling tool (Mentimeter) for us to share how we felt about this experience. The varied responses (see picture below) reveal the benefits and challenges of this alternative way of identifying ourselves through our personal relationships and histories, both an Indigenous way of connecting with each other and a step toward reconciling our historical relationships.

Mentimeter slide courtesy of Jennifer Ward

Jennifer shared a call to action from Marie Battiste’s Decolonizing Education: Nourishing the Learning Spirit (2000):

“Always Indigenize!” is one “indeterminate provocation” that suggests non-Indigenous scholars can take to develop a connective critical stand from their location to the Indigenous agenda, noting, promoting, activating, defusing, infusing, complicating, and in general putting the Indigenous agenda firmly in the present and not only in the hands of politicians and the activists. (Battiste, 2013, p. 74). [See Battiste’s related lecture here.]

She then led us through a visioning exercise, asking us to imagine an Indigenous woman on campus, walking to class. On her way, a passer-by utters a racial slur–a legacy of colonization because “Colonization and racism go hand in hand” (ii’taa’poh’to’p, 2017). In class, though, she’s expected to focus on the course content, as if such moments don’t affect her experience or success at the institution. What should have been a simple walk to class became a reminder that she doesn’t belong here.

While this visioning exercise may be a familiar classroom activity, if we look closer, we can see two things happening: visioning is both an act of empathy to orient us in parallel with a lived Indigenous experience and an act of problematizing to challenge our assumptions about these experiences. I appreciated this activity to support difficult and complex learning and to elicit a variety of responses toward a shared vision, or a “connective critical stand.”

To extend our thinking about teaching and learning in this way, Jennifer recommended Dr. Shauneen Pete’s list of 100 Ways to Indigenize and Decolonize Academic Programs and Courses (Universities Canada Principles on Indigenous Education).  Below is a small sample, just 6 of the 100:

Principle:  Indigenization recognizes validity of Indigenous worldviews, knowledge, and perspectives
  • 57. Indigenizing our teaching aims to challenge the dominant narratives about our collective histories, contemporary aspirations and challenges.
  • 90. Name the dominant worldview; make visible non-dominant worldviews and work toward what Sefa Dei refers to as “synthesizing knowledges”
  • 62. Critically exam colonization and its effects
Principle:  Indigenization identifies opportunities for Indigeneity to be expressed
  • 73. Consider moving away from lecture style course delivery to classroom design that encourages dialogue (circle format; small table groupings; and other approaches)
  • 74. Anticipate and prepare responses to racism
Principle:  Indigenization incorporates Indigenous ways of knowing and doing
  • 75. Actively challenge racism, Eurocentrism and dominant assumptions of knowledge, voice, quality and delivery of academic programs

We are our stories

When rabbits change colour in the winter and then again in spring, they teach us about how we can transform and renew relationships, and how we can work together for mutual benefit. “When the rabbit changes colours,” Jennifer recollects, “that’s when you want to change your tires, because the rabbit knows.” She ended with a story about a rabbit who believed he knew too much and was unwilling to change, share power or leadership, or even listen. Originating from a southern tribe in the United States, this fable focused on a community of animals in distress as a result of the rabbit’s behaviour. The animals sought help from the Creator who helped them orchestrate a plan to fling rabbit up into space, where he would “forever reside, having to work with the stars” and “forever have to collaborate in order to be seen.” The snowshoe hares I see everyday share space with the land, working with it to survive.  This is collaboration at its best.

Related content

Indigenous Paradigms in Practice: Relationships, Story and Academic Integrity