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August 04, 2020

Ways of Knowing: Beyond school

Indigenous curriculum interrogates the past and builds alliances for the future

As Indigenous Education Consultant for Prairie Valley School Division (PVSD) in Treaty 4 Territory in Saskatchewan, Reona Brass and her colleagues help foster connections between students, schools and communities and 14 Cree, Nakota, Dakota, and Anishinaabe First Nations of the area, integrating Indigenous culture and ways of knowing into the K-12 curriculum across the school division. 

Reona spoke with The Learning Partnership about her work and why it’s so important. (Edited for length and clarity).

The events of the past few months have really highlighted the white community’s responsibility to use their privilege to educate themselves and not rely on Black, Indigenous and people of colour to do that work for them.

Yes. We are seeing the difference this time in the number of white allies who are standing alongside the Black Lives Matter movement. It's the allies that are changing the dynamics and I think will come up with solutions that work.

There’s a message I’ve reiterated numerous times to many people across the division: it is not up to us Indigenous people to do all of this work. White allies have to do this work. You have to do this work. A lot of people who are resistant to this type of work will tend to listen to people like you [white allies] rather than people like me.
I think that what is uniting the work I do across the division are the school administrators, teachers, community coordinators, and others who have either a strong background in Indigenous cultures or a true commitment to allyship. Together, we can create professional development opportunities about issues like racism and white privilege. For a lot of people, these are new concepts or concepts they don’t identify with. They think, “well, that’s not me” without understanding what it is.

Reona Brass recommends that schools and administrators appeal to community leaders to participate in and help guide reconciliation work.

I know attitudes have evolved a bit in the past few years but what kind of challenges do you still face around acceptance of the work that you do?

For me it’s a difference in worldview. I'm happy to find allies within the division, people who identify with the worldview because of the work that they've already done, the classes they’ve taken at university, the relationships that they've developed with Knowledge Carriers and Elders. Their worldview has been changed and the school division benefits from that. But then there are still others that have a worldview that, frankly, I find is 35 or 40 years old.

Fort Qu’Appelle Elementary School and University of Regina Education Students learning about the Fort Qu’Appelle Indian Residential School in Lebret, SK.

Are there ripple effects beyond the students who take Indigenous culture courses to the parents and broader community? Are there social change impacts?

Certainly, these courses can have broader social impact although every community is different. In some cases, towns have contested historical relationships with local First Nations especially if they were hubs for a residential school. In my experience the towns that surrounded the residential schools benefited the most from that slave labour so there's this long, unfortunate history and people really do need to delve back and ask themselves where these attitudes came from. When did this start? What was here before? For some communities or for some within those communities, it’s difficult to reflect on one’s town’s history or one’s family history. It’s scary. For some they've got those walls up, they are defensive.
It’s challenging for school administrators and teachers to decide when it's appropriate to say something and when [parents and community members] might be ready to hear. I've been brought in and I always recommend that schools and administrators bring in community leaders. If we're going to do this reconciliation work, we need to reach beyond our typical school groups and make sure that there's community leadership.
I always appeal to the opportunity that people must lead. In one meeting, when I saw a church leader really struggling, I appealed to him as a leader. I said, “You are a community leader and we can’t do this work without people like you. No one else is going to step up to do is up to you.”
I’ve always tried to appeal to people’s sense of wanting to be on the right side of history and do something good for people rather than feeling like there’s nothing they can do. I used this approach when I was teaching, too.

Student-led KAIROS blanket exercise held in Treaty 4 Territory.

We’ve seen so many examples of students rising up and leading these social justice movements. In many ways it really is going to be up to them.

Students have a strong sense of justice and when there is a lack of justice. When I was teaching Grade 8-9, that’s when I started encouraging leadership in students. When they would complain about things, I would say, “You guys can do something about this, you’re the leaders of tomorrow. What do you want to do about it?”
I think that’s why it’s so important for people, like Obama for example, telling them: “Make people in positions of power feel uncomfortable.” He’s giving them permission to act.
As the Indigenous Education Consultant for Prairie Valley School Division I see my role as acknowledging, publicly, the work that I've seen people do and sharing it with other people. I point out examples of what has been done and empower people to keep doing it … and they do! They go off and do amazing things!

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