Friday, September 06, 2013

Native Content in the Alberta Social Studies Curriculum

When I was one of the researchers on the Decore Report, an examination of the portrayal of First Nations in Alberta Social Studies Curriculum back in the late 1980s, we identified four problems: (1) discussion of the native people disappeared by turn of last century...there were the dinosaurs, then the natives then the explorers...and that's it for native content. As if no native contributed to WWII or hockey or whatever, so forget about 'em. When we complained to guys who wrote the textbooks on WWII or etc that there was no native content they just looked at us like we were crazy and asked, why would we have native content in book on WWII? (2) a lot of the content that was there was racist--e.g., Champlain's description of how Iroquois lived makes kids shiver with how primitive they were, but of course, Champlain's point was that these were admirable traits and ideas that the French should maybe adopt--but kids miss that Europeans were that primitive in Champlain's time too, because material not placed in context for them; (3) whenever there was First Nations content, it was THE SAME CONTENT over and over and over. At first I thought it was a deliberate attempt to bore kids into ignoring Native cultures, but quickly realized it was laziness. Authors looking for a picture of a teepee for their chapter would choose the first one they came across, rather than take their own or look around, and apparently they all used the same photo service. The result is that every mention of First Nation content is Jerry Potts-- and the same photo of him every time-- and the same one teepee. How could kids not be bored by the message that there are four Natives worth talking about and only 11 photos of Native content? And (4) what we came to call the 'dancing minority trick' which was that any time authors wanted to show First Nations or Ukrainian culture or whatever, they inevitably did so by showing said minority in traditional garb, dancing. And I understand that if you are looking for a picture of a Ukrainian or a Blackfoot, then a guy in a suit doesn't seem like much of a photo, even though that's what they actually look like. If you want someone who looks Ukrainian then doing the dance in traditional garb is the photo you use, but the message that kids get is consequently really distorted. Because First Native culture isn't just teepees and dances. But kids only ever get the superficial stuff about teepees and dancing around a campfire, not the deeper stuff about spirituality or different ways of looking at the world etc.

The situation has improved somewhat since then, but while the blatant racism is gone and the absence of First Nations content after 1900 is gone, I think we may still have the problem with the dancing minority trick and the repetition of the same limited material over and over again.

And now we have another variation of #1, which is the intrusion of native content...the need to get authors to stop ignoring First Nations after 1900 led to Departments of Education having to say, "include First Nations content or else!" to textbook writers, and that was a necessary and good thing, because authors writing about WWII discovered that there were First Nation's heroes in both WWI and WWII worth writing about, once they thought to look. So that worked out. But now that "First Nation's content?" is one of the items on textbook checklists, publishers are sticking it in whether it is relevant or not. So, I'm re-editing a series of biographies on Canadian PMs from another publisher, and in the middle of a discussion of this or that PM, there suddenly appear a couple of pages on native people of that era...and it's just kind of inserted at random. Not, "what was this PM's policies on First Nations?", but just sort of, "Meanwhile, back on the reserve..." What the hey? And of course, these fact pages are the exact same 'facts' as in every other book...creating mind-numbing repetition to turn kids off any possible interest in First Nations. Head:Desk. So nice try, but no cigar.

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