Prove Them Wrong

When I was finishing my masters, I read the book Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson. I would like to say that when I reached the last page, I wept. It would likely be more poetic than the truth. I didn’t actually weep, I just felt kind of sick and tremendously sad. I was sitting on the couch in my living room, and I remember being hit with the realization of the impact of my formal education upon my beliefs about myself and my limitations as a person of Aboriginal ancestry. And worse, that many of my feelings of inadequacy could have been bypassed if I had simply come into contact with the right educator.

In my early years, my mother and father would come to the school and do various presentations and activities about Haida culture for the students in my class. It was largely uneventful until I went into grade four. Then, I was at a larger school and the presentations brought attention to my ancestry. Once the other students realized what I was, they taunted and teased me about being a chief and echoes of the ubiquitous war whoop would regularly follow me down the hallways. It was, perhaps, my first clue that being Aboriginal was not a good thing.

As I moved into secondary school, I surrounded myself with non-Aboriginal friends attempting to create a barrier between myself and what I understood to be the Aboriginal identity. I assumed that my association with non-Aboriginal people would create a chasm with me on one side and failure in school, issues with drug and alcohol addiction, chronic behaviour problems safely on the other. I did not want to be Aboriginal, so I simply wasn’t.

I was in the French Immersion stream, so the focus was upon inclusion of French Canadian culture and with the exception of the minor mandatory injections of Aboriginal content in social studies, my courses were entirely devoid of anything authentically Aboriginal. Of course, my world outside of school was teeming with Aboriginal content. At the time, I was living with my father and my stepmother who were both Aboriginal artists. I was part of a Haida dance group. I frequently traveled to my father’s home community to visit all the members of his Aboriginal family. I never once admitted to them the fact that being Aboriginal was a source of shame for me. I simply tried to continue to separate myself from the aspects of the Aboriginal identity that I found most despicable. And at school, I made every attempt to maintain the illusion that I was not Aboriginal. I maintained my grades. I didn’t drink or do drugs. I was well behaved. And in all that time, nothing happened at school to change my thinking. Not once did anyone challenge my negative beliefs about Aboriginal people or by extension, myself. I left the school system with my negative assumptions intact and it took me a very long time to come to accept the Aboriginal part of my ancestry. To discover that being Aboriginal did not mean that I was unintelligent or prone to alcoholism. Eventually I began to accept my identity; however, the years of self-loathing did not simply fade into the background.

When I was adding the final words to my thesis and only weeks before my defense I read Monkey Beach and was spontaneously filled with devastation. Not because the book was anything less than brilliant, but actually because it was so amazing. Here was this book that was an example of quality literature that could easily have met many of the learning outcomes for any of my high school English classes (though to be fair it hadn’t been written yet). Its 80s equivalent could have been held up in my class as an example of good literature that was written by an Aboriginal person (not to be confused with “good Aboriginal literature” which is decidedly different). Any one of my teachers could have told me about the important contributions to science or math that were made by Aboriginal people. I am not saying that it would have changed my thinking, but I believe I could have begun to question the validity of my assumptions that Aboriginal people were unintelligent or lazy (or whatever other negative stereotype I could think of) long before I had left the school system. And what could the implications have been for my non-Aboriginal classmates?

I suspect that it was that kind of thinking that led to the introduction of English 10 First Peoples. A course that I never had when I went to school, but to be honest I would not have taken it voluntarily at that time either. It is a course that consists entirely of Aboriginal content. Stories, novels, poetry, films, non-fiction. All brilliant. All created by Aboriginal people. And perhaps it is not the silver bullet that the creators had anticipated, but it has achieved several things. It has challenged peoples’ thinking about the capacities of Aboriginal people. When the course was offered at our school, the assumption was that because it was an Aboriginal course, it would be “easier” or “less academic,” and I delighted in having conversations with colleagues that informed them that this was not the case. That this course stood up to the proverbial bar set by the Ministry of Education for English 10. Furthermore, the students who enroll in this course will never know what it is like to receive an education devoid of intelligent and meaningful contributions by Aboriginal people. Regardless of whether they pass or fail the course, they are exposed to some of the incredible achievements of Aboriginal people.  And, as I have said before, this ensures that they do not need to view their Aboriginal ancestry as a barrier to their academic success.

On a more personal level, when I taught this course, I was able to have the difficult conversations about what it means to be Aboriginal and the value of formal education. I was able to talk about some of the discrimination I faced as a result of my desire to continue to pursue it. This resulted in the students sharing with me some of their own challenges of trying to pursue education for themselves. And truly I wanted to tell them that it has changed. That by embracing my Aboriginal identity, I have become stronger. That the kind of teasing that I faced in elementary school no longer exists or that when you grow up people keep their negative opinions to themselves. That in pursuing my education, I have combatted the negative stereotypes. But that simply isn’t true. I continue to endure the teasing associated with people who fail to understand.

What is worse, however, is that we as educators continue to make the same mistakes, even though we should know better. Following my realization about the potential impact of including Aboriginal content in all courses, I had a conversation with a colleague about ways to include it into a “non-Aboriginal” course. I shared my epiphany about the impact that it could have had on my own life, but it was met with reluctance then resistance and then a barrage of questions regarding the ability of content written by Aboriginal people to meet the rigours of an academic course. As an educator of Aboriginal ancestry, I felt that my own intelligence and capacity had been questioned as well.

I didn’t know whether to laugh it off or to scream obscenities or to cry about the futility of trying to change people’s minds. Instead, I left the room, which failed to achieve anything at all except to end the dialogue completely.

There are many factors that contributed to my decision to pursue further education, and that conversation was one of them. It forced me to realize how difficult it is to enact change in the educational system. Honestly I don’t know if more education will help me to change anything for Aboriginal students, particularly since I suspect one of the most important things that I did in the classroom was to have the difficult conversations. The conversations about what it is like to be Aboriginal and formally educated. The conversations about the resistance from my own community to the pursuit of higher education, but also the conversations about the encouragement I have received. I must admit, however, that one of the most important conversations was the one about what we, as Aboriginal people, can do to challenge all of the negative stereotypes associated with being Aboriginal. Inevitably this is the conversation we had the most, likely because this was the most destructive for the students in my class, and sadly because it is the challenge that they face the most. And although no student has ever asked me for my advice about how to overcome such devastating assumptions, I always end this particular conversation with these three words: “Prove them wrong.”