At the beginning of this semester, I started teaching a Native Studies class. I was and still am quite nervous about teaching this class. It seems bizarre that I am teaching this class. In preparation, I struggled with the unifying theme. The curriculum is clear in the concepts to teach, but I try to have a unifying theme to each class I teach. Sometimes, I will use something like “symbolism” as a theme.
In my art classes, I have all the students “display” their work; whether it is a performance piece or a visual work. In my Native Studies class, I wanted something similar. It helps me translate the concepts and lets me refer back to a way of thinking. After some brain-wracking, I decided on a “historical” theme. I wanted to look at the concepts of “Aboriginal Rights” and “Economic Development” outlined in the curriculum through the lens of Canadian History.
So, as a class we are taking a look at the history of Canada, with a Native Studies perspective. Therefore, the beginning of the Story of Canada begins really with First Nations people and the term “First Nations”. The problem with terms is that they lose their original meaning. “First Nations” refers to two concepts. “First” means that the people who formed “Nations” lived here first. In Janet Lunn’s Story of Canada she calls her first chapter “One Hundred Centuries”. For 10,000 years Canada had a history, most of which is a geological history, however, there is also a history of people here in Canada. This history is as diverse and lengthy as any history of any European Nation.
In the following weeks, after the start of the class, my students and I learned about the diversity of these people, and the fact that they were sovereign nations. We learned of some interesting discussion that is going on about the origins of people in North America. For example, the most widely accepted theory is the “Bering Strait” Theory, which describes a number of waves of migration of people from Asia. The last wave of immigration from Asia was the Inuit people. However, the people have their own stories about their origin. These stories have been group together and are usually labelled “Traditional Theories”. Immediately we can see a worldview struggle within the origin stories and the concept of history. We have a scientific paradigm and a spiritual paradigm coming into conflict. The problem is that the conflict is artificial. What if both are equally true?
It is a hard concept for my students to struggle with, which becomes evident in their journal responses. I ask the students to respond in their journal if they thought that schools should only teach the “Bering Strait” Theory as true. One student eloquently pointed out that the word “theory” means “best guess”. One student thought that the “Bering Strait” had evidence to support it while the “Traditional” stories did not. Another student pointed out that really there wasn’t one “Traditional” theory but a multitude of stories. She pointed out that the origin stories were more about values and beliefs than they were about facts.
I think it is exciting, but not surprising, that our class is a microcosm of the dialogue that is happening in our Canadian society. We are trying to struggle with what these origin stories mean whether they are the “Bering Strait” theory or the Raven origin of the Haida people. More importantly does one invalidate the other or could both demonstrate an understanding of reality that have equal merit and importance.