The following exchange took place on a wharf in Tofino, British Columbia, between a Nuu-chah-nulth teenager and a local elder. The teenager was on his way home from high school. The exchange takes place in the Nuu-chah-nulth language and is here translated into English. It is the mid 1950s.
Elder: (purposefully approaching teenager) "Who are you?"
Teenager: (suddenly frozen by the unexpected attention from a dignitary) "Richard Atleo!"
Elder: "No! No! No! Who are your parents? Whom do you belong to?"
This exchange between the elder and teenager is an example of misunderstanding that, in a post-secondary educational context, has produced an inequity in representation.
The teenager's response is derived from a colonial education system that promoted individualism and the supremacy of the European world view while the elder's query represents a very different one. Identity, for the elder, is represented by the extended family house and by its heritage to the beginning of creation. The query represents a focus upon family and community without sacrificing the value of an individual.
The representation of aboriginals by non-aboriginals, initially by anthropologists and latterly by political scientists, sometimes serves to obscure this aboriginal identity. More than this, the aboriginal voice during colonial times was not represented in either the curriculum or the faculty.
Balance & Harmony
The issue today is not about one camp being right and another camp being wrong but rather about balance and harmony.
To date, the balance has been heavily in favor of the non-aboriginal camp. It is time to strike a balance by making room, within undergraduate and graduate programs, for aboriginal representation in faculty, curricula, and
administration. This 'room' will provide equity.
Equity may be defined as balance between, and harmony among, the diversities of life forms on earth. If the teenager had had access to the elder's world view in the high school curriculum there would have been less chance of a misunderstanding. There was an imbalance in the presentation of only one world view in the school curriculum, and that created a disharmony in communication.
Equity in the Classroom
Recently, in British Columbia, equity has been practiced at Malaspina University-College through the First Nations studies (FNS) department. This department has an Arts-One and a BA in FNS program that is taught and administered by faculty who are, for the most part, of First Nations ancestry. The mandate for the curriculum came from First Nations leaders from throughout B.C.
While the program enables students to produce knowledge to university standards and develop analytical and other academic skills, the learning environment and pedagogy may be defined as culturally distinct.
A resident elder may open lectures, seminars, FNS ceremonial functions and departmental meetings with a prayer chant in a Coast Salish dialect. For these purposes the FNS department has purchased a rattle and two deer skin drums to accompany the prayer chants.
In addition, guest speakers of First Nations ancestry may be invited to talk about spirituality, medicine, family stories and teachings, or traditional ecologi-cal knowledge.
How successful is the FNS program at Malaspina? Its qualitative success has been substantial and perhaps can be indicated by the comment of one graduating student from the FNS program who said: "Education is healing!"
This year the First Nations studies BA program will graduate 26 students that will bring the total number of graduates to 60 since this program first began four years ago.
Some of these graduates have completed Masters programs from other universities and some are continuing into PhD programs.
Observers of First Nations education may well marvel at this unusual turn of events since it signals a measure of equity that was previously thought impossible.
Just the Beginning
It appears that Malaspina is the only post-secondary institution in Canada that provides equitable representation for aboriginals at the undergraduate level. More is needed, not only at the undergraduate levels, but also, and critically, at the graduate levels.
In B.C. there is a need to have First Nations students do graduate research relating to First Nations issues surrounding governance, family, law, violence, suicide, substance abuse, fetal alcohol syndrome, economics, health, and the place of traditional practices in the modern world.
When this kind of equity becomes reality, it may become possible for non-aboriginals to recognize the original inhabitants of this country in an equitable manner.
Richard Atleo (Umeek of Ahousaht) teaches First Nations studies at Malaspina University College and is a member of CAUT's equity committee.