Theresa’s Story: Benefits from Interacting with Elders and Knowledge Keepers1

Based on her initial involvement with a year-long professional development program, Theresa shared some experiences and insights she gained at her high school that has a sizeable Indigenous student population. Throughout the handbook, stories are shared by other teachers who participated as well. Their stories help bring the handbook’s topics to life. Here is Theresa’s story.

Prior to this teaching year, I had taught Indigenous stories and information but I felt, intrinsically, that I didn’t understand them totally. I was just repeating what I had read. My lack of confidence in understanding the stories and information was conveyed to my high school students, as shown by their hesitancy to accept or become interested in what I taught. They likely felt I was just another non-Indigenous teacher implementing Indigenous knowledge, just as teachers had done for them before me.

This year, however, I have become more knowledgeable and confident in sharing Indigenous stories and information because they now have a personal meaning for me. I’ve gained this meaning through experiences that have meant a lot to me; for example, ceremonies and other events with Elders and Knowledge Keepers. And I’ve discovered that I can transfer this meaning to my students.

I tell Indigenous stories once in a while and often at the beginning of a lesson to get students engaged. I find that their eyes become locked – they give me their undivided attention – whereas before they would be doodling and not paying attention. I attribute this change in student behaviour to my increased confidence displayed in my teaching, and this helps students learn. They know I’ve been sitting with Elders and Knowledge Keepers who have given me permission to pass my understanding on to them. My students feel I know what I’m talking about, and so it’s more authentic to them. My belief in myself to tell Indigenous stories and to provide information has increased because I’ve been through authentic interactions with Elders and Knowledge Keepers. I’ve participated in some Indigenous learning processes.

A short story I told last week was about the eagle feather, a story that Waokiye (Lakota for Traditional Helper) Don Speidel told at a weekly Smudge ceremony not long ago. The story connects the eagle to Creator and illustrates the power of the eagle’s tail feathers. Another creation story is how the weasel got a brown tail. I had first heard it from Nakawē (Saulteaux) Knowledge Keeper Bob Badger at our PD’s cultural immersion. I couldn’t remember many of the details, but I researched them on the internet. I learned enough to confidently pass along a little story to my students.

Even on the days I don’t tell a story, my students seem more inclined to become engaged; both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students. They respond well to a classroom related to culture.

My Science 9 course has Indigenous knowledge already integrated into it. Because of my interactions with Elders and Knowledge Keepers, I find that I don’t just read the material from the science textbook; I now can convey the meaning I’ve made of it. Students latch onto that. I personalize the textbook’s Indigenous knowledge by relating some of it to a Knowledge Keeper I’ve listened to. For example, I’ve told students that I was talking with Cree Traditional Knowledge Keeper Judy Bear, and we were talking about the situation our bodies are currently in and the lack of health within. She described the interconnectedness of Creator, plants, animals, and humans and how the nutrients from those things enable us as humans to be healthy because they are all passed down through each animal and we get to eat the plants and animals. She commented on why there is such a lack of health and wellness in our society. She explained it in this way: we do not obtain the nutrients from those plants and animals if we are not eating ‘real’ meat. Instead we are eating food, such as the fast-food that is not ‘real’ meat; and to be healthy and to survive we need to eat the original source for these nutrients. Students know they are getting authentic Indigenous information from both me and their science textbook’s discussion on nutrition.

I like to tell Indigenous stories especially for Indigenous students who have not acquired a strong Indigenous cultural identity. If they would take advantage of the school’s weekly Smudging ceremonies, they could develop an even richer self-identity at school.

In addition to relating Indigenous stories and information, I think of an activity from time to time, such as a simulation or role play, in which the information can actually be used in some way – experiential knowledge. This personalizes it even more for students.

For Theresa, authentic interactions with Elders and Knowledge Keepers brought more meaning to Indigenous stories and information, and thus greater confidence to teach this Indigenous content in her science classes. This richer meaning when expressed with confidence is picked up by students, with notable consequences to what they learn. Students realize their teacher is being authentic in a way they can relate to. In short, Theresa’s story illustrates the benefits from teachers interacting with Elders and Knowledge Keepers.

1Aikenhead, G., Brokofsky, J., Bodnar, T., Clark, C., Foley, C., …Strange, G. (2014). Enhancing school science with Indigenous knowledge: What we know from teachers and research. Saskatoon, Canada: Saskatoon Public School Division. pp 1-2.

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