Education is important. I never fully understood this concept, despite hearing my late father and grandmothers constantly reminding us that we needed education if we were ever to survive and sustain our families. But it came to mind recently when members of my band, Piapot, occupied the local school in protest against Indian Affairs policies that blatantly ignore the needs of Indian children as human beings within a democratic and equal society. I felt hopeful when the parents on the reserve began to protest the substandard education offered at the band school. But in the end the protest was less successful than I had hoped.
Since colonial times, Indian Affairs has controlled the school system for band schools, and has retained control over ours until the fall of 1996. Teachers were only required to possess a standard teaching certificate, not a B.Ed., like in other, mainstream systems. This explains why the lone white male responsible for teaching high-school students could not even do algebra, let alone teach it. The other man across the hall was only capable of providing outdoor activities or arts and crafts, instead of challenging the kids to learn academics. These teachers remained in their positions for many years and only left when they were pensioned off.
Based on my experience, I believe that the education system was and is substandard for Indian people, like all other services we receive in exchange for the use of our territories. The term “treaty” refers to an agreement with constitutional dimensions, between parties, requiring each side to fulfill their obligations. The Indian people within Treaty 4 have done that. We have shared our lands and resources generously and still wait for equal treatment while watching our treaty rights diminish every year.
My parents, like so many others, were the products of a colonial system that forced them from their homes at a very young age and imposed different value systems, religions and languages upon them, while ensuring that they become good labourers who neither question nor make demands. Such policies have ensured that Indian children are not adequately equipped with the skills needed to become active members of society.
I entered the reserve school system at the age of four, and stayed there until i was 13. I left with none of the grammar skills taught to children in mainstream schools. I left reserve school and moved to the residential system school still in operation in Lebret, Saskatchewan, where i completed my grades eight to ten. I struggled to learn the foundations of education, which the elementary system had failed to provide. Supported by my parents, I chose to enter the separate school system in Regina to complete grades 11 and 12. When I entered university, I still did not know how to research and write effectively. It has been a long struggle, and I still carry many of these inadequacies as I strive to maintain my student status. Although I will hold three undergraduate degrees by the summer of 2005, I still feel that what I accomplish is simply not good enough.
The reserve system was not the only system accessible to kids from the Piapot Nation. There was always a bus that took kids to separate elementary and high schools in Regina. In my early years I had once asked if I could take the bus to school in Regina, but my father merely replied that, “Kids from the reserve shouldn’t be exposed to that system.” That was the end of the discussion. Now, as I look back upon his decision, I can see he was trying to protect me. He was protecting me while he was teaching me. He once said that when a child is violated in any way, that child never fully develops into the person they were intended to be. He explained that the greater the violation, the greater the damage that the child has to endure, and children can’t handle that, so they never reach their destiny.
I never knew racism until I left the confines and the comforts of the reserve. I had the opportunity recently to discuss education with one of the men who always took the bus to Regina. I told him how I envied the kids who went to school in the city and he replied that it was never a good experience. He told stories of the racism that Indian kids endured daily from teachers, students and other officials, and how difficult it was to deal with being labeled as dirty, lazy and stupid. I wondered about the low success rate of Indian kids from the reserve that went to school in the city and I began to see why very few actually went on to build careers. Little has changed within this system. I chose to send my kids to this same school and the racist remarks and attitudes are still a big part of the education system. There are very few of my fellow band members that have succeeded in accomplishing great things, as they just don’t have the education or the self-esteem a good education experience can provide. I understand such failures when I look at the liabilities attached to being born Indian.
My dad always said that education wasn’t enough, as he, like many others, were schooled in the residential school system. He learned how to be a good farmer and an overall excellent labourer, but he always wanted more. However, he was not prepared to leave the reserve, as he knew far too well the attitudes of white society and the barriers Indian people face. Like so many others, my father entered the residential school system at six years of age. he could not speak English, and was repeatedly beaten and told that he was a heathen and that his culture was devil worship. As he was raised by his grandfather, he was privy to the culture in ways that are now too often missing from our identity. He put aside his beliefs for many years, as he said a part of him believed he was a heathen, as he remembered how tortuous it was to have to kneel all day in a chapel with a bible over his head. As a mother, I cannot imagine what I would do to someone who tortured my young child in such a brutal manner.
My early home-based education consisted of my grandmother ensuring that I knew my family and band history, while supporting me to be extremely proud of who I am. The basis of this teaching method focused upon learning to listen attentively, accord respect to all, while understanding that choices create experiences that impact upon our lives. I think about this when I hear negative things stated or written about Indian people. It makes me angry to think that many people still think of Indians as savages and other lesser forms of life, as our system created strong people while the imposed white system created generations of lost and lonely people.
It was always customary within Indian families for grandparents to educate the young, and our family was no exception. I recall my early years when my grandmothers would tell stories about the history of the band, the people and our family. They ensured that we possessed important parts of our identity and our history, despite not teaching us the language they spoke so eloquently. I recall the stories, and the memories of digging for roots, and how songs and prayers were essential to the rituals. We were immersed in our culture on a daily basis and this gave us the strength to face what we had to endure in the school system, where our identity and history were missing and deemed meaningless.
As a parent, I feel like a failure because I cannot take my kids for a walk in our natural surroundings and teach them about medicines for different ailments and diseases. I cannot sing songs or teach them prayers, as i have lost the connection to the past. This connection was broken in the winter of 1993, when my father and my grandmother passed away within three weeks of one another. The connection they provided enabled us to be a strong family with knowledge of our history and the history of our place within our community. They were strong and powerful people within their own rights, who stressed the need always to be prepared to stand up to those who subjugate us with their policies. They survived the rotten-meat rations, the smallpox-infested blankets and the residential school system that was designed to annihilate their belief structure. More importantly, they knew these policies were not a part of the original treaty agreements. As children, we were instilled with pride in our existence as Indian people, and the one greatest teaching they left was that life is about choice. We have yet to gather our strength and make the choice to create a difference for our children. We need the skills provided by the education system to do this, and, unless something changes soon, we will fail to provide this strength of character to our own grandchildren. This is a bleak outlook, as assimilation and annihilation have always been federal and provincial policies, and, without that strength, Indian children will continue to be marginalized.
I educate my children as much as I can, and I know I sound and feel like a racist when explaining that the Canadian system was designed in a racist and elitist fashion meant to exclude Indian people.
The challenge in educating my kids is that it is very difficult to explain our history when that history is missing from the curriculum. They question this and ask why they don’t learn this in school, and I tell them that this history is missing because the colonizers want children to grow up and believe that Canada only consisted of white people. It is hard to teach them that lies and omissions about history must be a part of their knowledge. It’s hard to be understanding as my children believe the stories they read in school as being a reality, and it’s tough to reverse the omissions and ensure they know what reality is and how this has played out through time.
It’s sad to see how very little the children from the reserve know about the history of the Great Chief Piapot. Even the parents don’t know, and, if they do, they do not acknowledge that history in raising their kids. This history is important, as the knowledge of such history builds pride, understanding and motivation. Chief Piapot was a skilled orator and negotiator who excelled at the traditions that set apart Indian people from the closed, colonial, racist and single-minded society that confined them in the name of greed. There were three main Cree chiefs in the days of confederation, and they were Big Bear, Little Pine and Piapot. This history is not widely known, even by academics, but it is this knowledge that should be the basis of education for indigenous and non-indigenous children.
I wonder, where are our leaders are in this? What are they doing to ensure we have self-determination when they talk of self-government? The protestors on my reserve started out protesting the modified programs imposed upon the Indian kids when they realized these kids would never excel in the mainstream if they were limited by this teaching method. As modified programs are only intended to ensure one can read and write, it shows that Indian children are not destined to become mainstream professionals. These programs do not challenge children to see situations on a different or broader level of understanding. This is essential to being able to develop comprehension of the policies that confine our existence.
Children need challenges and stimulation, and, given that most teachers who work at the band school are young and white, they only stay long enough to move into a higher-paying level, and then leave. Many are young women from privileged backgrounds and they do not understand our position and experience as subjugated people. They believe the false history they were taught, and, like too many well-meaning whites before them, they want to make a difference without knowing the facts. How is this educational approach good for kids when Indian Affairs policies ensure the band cannot afford to pay good wages to good teachers?
Education is much more than learning how to compete in the white world. Education is about acknowledging the history of a people, identity, culture and the history of the world around them, as without this, one is not truly educated.
Explain to me how Canada can position itself as a democratic and egalitarian nation to the world. Bureaucrats and officials alike represent Canada in the international arena as a land of equal opportunity. While they will open the borders to immigrants for economic reasons, they continue to deny Indian people the human rights that they purport to offer to others.
Charlene Fourhorns is a single parent of four living in Regina, Saskatchewan. She holds a B.Admin. degree, has completed the requirements for a B.A. in Indigenous Studies and is currently completing the final requirements for a B.A. in Political Science at the University of Regina.
This article appeared in the March/April 2005 issue of Canadian Dimension .