Chapter 5 : Indigenous Ways of Knowing

Inquiry 2: Indigenous Traditional Knowledge

  • Provocations Video
  • Question Generation –  KWL, 5W’s and H, Think, Puzzle, Explore
  • Knowledge Building–   Umbrella Questions, Gallery Walk         
  • Determining Understanding –   3-2-1 Strategy, Concept Map, Video, Talking Stick
  • Pursuing Learning –, Walking Curriculum, Strangers in a Strange Land, Norma’s Story
  • Consolidation –   Headlines, I used to think…but now I think
  • Assessment –    Doodle it, Assessment Suggestions
  • Take Action – Ideas for Taking Action

Land Acknowledgement

Begin the inquiry by offering a land acknowledgment and discussing why we acknowledge the land. It is essential to teach students that we must recognize the Indigenous land that the school is on to learn about and from it. 

As educators, recognizing that these lands are the traditional territories of Indigenous people and that all Canadians benefit from the land plays an essential role in modelling reconciliatory behaviour with your students. Reciting your school’s land acknowledgement helps create a foundation in students for learning about and from Indigenous people whose land we live on.

A land acknowledgement reinforces that we benefit from the land, and we all have a responsibility to actively work towards honouring Indigenous Peoples as equal partners in sharing the land. Land acknowledgments are only one step in cultivating greater respect for and inclusion of Indigenous Peoples, with the understanding of the importance of our Treaty responsibilities.

Chapter 5 Indigenous Ways of Knowing recognizes the importance of Indigenous perspectives and connections to land and place as we work towards reconciliation to address the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, particularly the call to "integrate Indigenous knowledge and teaching methods into classrooms" (clause 62) and "build student capacity for intercultural understanding, empathy and mutual respect" (clause 63).

Sharing stories is a way of sharing knowledge among Indigenous communities. Your classroom materials should be culturally diverse and inclusive of Canada’s three distinct Indigenous groups. Here are a few examples of children’s books that illustrate the importance of learning from our Elders and include the three distinct Indigenous groups.

Teaching and discussing controversial and sensitive topics is essential because it helps students think in-depth and fosters critical thinking. Many issues involving First Nation, Métis and Inuit peoples are controversial (land claims, self-government, blockades, hunting and fishing rights) or sensitive (residential schools, worldview). Building in and addressing controversial or sensitive topics at an early age allows students to explore and question in the safety of the classroom. Teachers may use some of the suggested questions in this inquiry to introduce more sensitive issues regarding the inequalities faced by Indigenous People.  Please keep in mind that Acts of Reconciliation and Reclamation are fundamental as we move forward as a country.  Our acknowledgement, and inclusion of Indigenous literature and media helps to create an understanding of the history, diversity, and issues that many Indigenous peoples face.  

It would be helpful for the learners to understand that traditional/cultural knowledge is passed as an: I Do, We Do, You Do model.  This mentorship model provides the close watching and coaching of the learner by the teacher.  This model would aid in learning from mistakes, as well as identifying areas of strength and need for reflection.  This helps the person who is learning of how knowledge is passed on, to connect with the sacredness of our relationship with Creator, Mother Earth, the plants, animals, and all other animate and inanimate beings as part of the Creators making. (Daniel Sylvestre)

To hook student interest, use the following provocation to initiate student thinking. 

VideoMaq and the Spirit of the Woods by Phyllis Grant

Maq and the Spirit of the Woods is the story of Maq, a Mi’kmaq boy who realizes his potential with the help of inconspicuous mentors. When an elder in the community offers him a small piece of pipestone, Maq carves a little person out of it. Proud of his work, the boy wants to impress his grandfather and journeys through the woods to find him. Indigenous people traditionally honour their elders. Their life experiences, combined with the knowledge passed on from previous generations, make them experts and teachers. This information was not written down but passed down orally to each generation. Maq and his grandfather have a close relationship where they can speak honestly, respectfully and with empathy. 

Phyllis Grant, “ Maq and the Spirit of the Woods”, NFB. 2006,8 mins

After viewing, discuss with students the importance of the knowledge, information and guidance older people such as Elders, Knowledge Keepers, grandparents, teachers, uncles, aunts, or mentors can offer. Students should be made aware that one must earn the right to become an Elder or Knowledge Keeper in a First Nations community. Not all Elders or Knowledge Keepers are seniors, nor are all old people Elders, and some Elders are younger. Elders and Knowledge Keepers are honoured because they have gifts of insight and understanding and are willing to share their knowledge. Discuss the role Elders or Knowledge Keepers play in Indigenous communities, provide picture books and other media that illustrate the connection Indigenous People have with the land to enhance the learning.

Post viewing discussion questions:

  • What lessons did Maq learn along his journey? How did Maq develop his self-confidence during his trip?
  • Maq is a Mi’kmaq boy. Which distinct Indigenous group is Mi’kmaq?
  • Name three distinct Indigenous groups in Canada*?
  • Do all Indigenous People share the same traditions and knowledge*? In what ways do Indigenous peoples continue to pass on traditional knowledge from generation to generation?
  • Who do you have in your life that you would consider an Elder? What are the virtues that they practice and live by?
  • Elders are often considered wise and share their Indigenous Knowledge, can you explain why? 
  • Why is it important to hear the views and stories of other people? What lessons can we learn from Elder’s storytelling?
  • Who do you have in your life that you would consider an Elder? What qualities do they have that show they are humble, obedient, and have respect?
  • How do you show respect to your parents or other adults? How do you think respect is shown in Indigenous cultures? Why do people not always respect Indigenous knowledge?

* Cultural diversity within the Indigenous people is frequently misinterpreted. There is a misconception that Indigenous People are one group who share the same culture, traditions, language and knowledge. Take the time to identify the three distinct Indigenous groups—First Nations, Metis and Inuit—and their unique connections to the land. Understand that these 3 distinct groups are identified by the Federal Government, that each Indigenous group on Turtle Island is distinct and that they all have their own distinct culture, traditions, language, governance, education, laws, customs, and ways of knowing.  A small step students can take in respecting Indigenous people, and their culture is learning the three Indigenous groups and their unique traditions and knowledge.

At this point in the inquiry, we want to harness students’ curiosity and build off of the provocations that have captured their interest by generating meaningful questions to continue to drive the learning process. This section will outline several pathways for question generation depending on the provocation(s) that your class engaged with. 

KWL Chart – Have students use a KWL chart to organize their learning during the question generation activity. In the first section, What We Know, students will activate prior knowledge, lessons they have learned or memories spent with grandparents, Elders, adults, uncles, aunts, teachers. Students can complete the What we Know section individually or in small groups. 

KWL chart handout, 2017

In the second section of the template, What do you want to know about Indigenous Ways of Knowing or What do we want to know about learning from our Elders, some students may not know where to begin if they don’t have much background knowledge on this subject. To help generate questions, use the 5W’s and H Questions – Students will be able to ask and answer questions using the five W’s and an H (who, what, when, where, why, and how) to show understanding of key details of the video

Think, Puzzle, Explore is similar to a KWL chart; it activates students’ prior knowledge and helps them generate questions and stimulates their curiosity. This thinking routine provides you with a snapshot of what students may already know about the subject or topic.

Possible Questions

  • How can knowledge from Elders help scientists study climate change?
  • How can we apply the Elders understandings of sustainability to reduce the effects of climate change?
  • What changes have Elders seen in life on the land?
  • How has the weather affected the Elders community?
  • What are some of the changes in birds, animals and insects in other communities?
  • How have the weather patterns changed in the community?
  • What types of change have most affected First Nations, Métis and Inuit people?
  • What can First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples teach other Canadians about sustainability?

At this stage, students may be ready to engage in a group knowledge-building activity. It will encourage students to open their minds to many alternative ways of thinking about the provocations and the ideas generated thus far in the inquiry process.

Complete a Gallery Walk. Invite students to draw a picture of something they have learned from an Elder. An Elder could be a grandparent, an uncle, an aunt or a mentor or teacher. Suggest to the students that the drawing could represent a tradition/knowledge shared by the adult or mentor. Display images on the classroom walls so they are easily visible to students. Have students get up out of their seats and circulate the room. 

The gallery walk can happen silently or be an opportunity for peer discussions or a writing activity.  During this activity, students can practice important discussion moves, including building on each others’ ideas, asking clarifying questions, respectfully agreeing and disagreeing, and providing meaningful and actionable feedback.  Have students practice being respectful when viewing other students’ pictures; the diversity of cultures and traditions in your classroom is an excellent opportunity for a teachable moment.

Provide an opportunity for students to share what they saw, thought, and wondered during the Gallery walk. Students can look at the drawings silently while circulating, respond in conversation with a gallery walk partner, or write their comments or questions on post-it notes and paste them next to the drawings. 

Umbrella Questions – Brainstorm some umbrella questions with your students. An umbrella question is developed to help ground the inquiry. The question should be focused – it’s not aiming to answer all aspects of an issue. The question should be of interest to the students and also connect to the topic of the inquiry.

  • What are the Elders observing and learning by the changing seasons?
  • What wisdom and warnings are the Elders sharing regarding ways people are abusing the land and resources?
  • What impact do people have on the land? How does that make you feel?
  • What type of knowledge did Elders need to know about their environment to survive in it for thousands of years?
  • Can you create a list of the different things Indigenous people learned about to survive on the land?
  • Can you identify some other pressing environmental issues that are currently taking place in Canada? (Pipelines, clean drinking water in Northern communities)

Use responses to inform and guide the learning process. They can provide insight into which concepts need clarity, what many students are already well informed about, and a general direction that many students want to pursue.

 3-2-1 Strategy – this strategy is an easy way to check for student’s understanding and use their responses to guide teaching decisions. 3-2-1 allows students to summarize their learning by identifying three things they have learned about Indigenous Ways of Knowing, two things that interest them about learning from Elders and that they would like to learn more about and one question they still have about Indigenous Ways of Knowing

Concept Maps allow students to share their learning and knowledge with visual representations. Encourage the students to draw, incorporate words, messages, ideas anything they have learned about Indigenous Ways of Knowing. The concept map allows you to see how students understand the content. Example below.

Indigenous Perspectives Mind Map

At this stage, students may begin research to pursue their umbrella questions, or some of the following activities could be integrated into the process to ensure that students have an understanding of foundational climate science. The activities listed below will enrich the understanding of climate change.

Indigenous peoples have been and are leaders of climate action; their role in monitoring climate change impacts and the environmental effects on traditional lands and waters play a critical part in our fight against climate change. There is a great deal that we can learn from how Indigenous peoples have lived sustainably with the Land for many years. They have adapted by travelling throughout their Land in search of food and other resources depending on the seasons. We need to listen carefully to better understand the value of Traditional knowledge and its contribution to sustainability and planning for the future. Indigenous communities have their own experts, elders, knowledge keepers and ways of knowing; their knowledge is an essential resource for learning how to adapt to climate change. We need to value what they can bring to the climate conversation and actively seek it to guide us.

Watch Norma’s Story an animated true tale of the profound effects of climate change on the environment, culture and food security on the people and wildlife of the Arctic.

These next two outdoor activities can help students understand the essential question

  • How can Indigenous Ways of Knowing help scientists study climate change?

The Walking Curriculum provides the opportunity to take your students outdoors. The suggested walks introduce an indigenous perspective to the learning activities. For example, the What’s Under Foot Walk relates the walk to Indigenous Peoples sense of the interconnectedness of all things. There is an understanding of the importance of taking care of the land and it will take care of you. Indigenous knowledge tells of an understanding of life cycles, sustainable harvesting practices and only taking what you need.

Strangers in a Strange Land – helps students appreciate the value of traditional knowledge in understanding the impacts of climate change on nature. Each student interviews several long-term members of the community who have spent a lot of time out of doors. Then, have the class share survey outcomes and compare and analyze the results. 

Have student list ways in which climate affects his or her community. For example, fall weather brings salmon upstream and allows us to fish, winter snow makes it possible to ski, spring rain floods the fields where we grow crops, the break-up of sea ice in summer brings bowhead whales close to shore.

Encourage students to write down what they observe in their schoolyard, look at both the big and the small, and examine plants, rocks, and insects up close. Have them make a record in their journal of what they experience with each of their senses. Ask students to draw and label their pictures. Have them note the changes during the different seasons at different times of the year. Have them note/draw any changes they have observed over the school year and if the changes were caused by climate change. 

This step is designed to encourage students to integrate and synthesize key ideas. When students make connections and see relationships within and across lessons, this helps them to solidify knowledge and deepen understanding.

Headlines – this activity allows students to reflect on their learning, understanding and beliefs. They examine how and why their thinking has changed and come to some tentative conclusions. What have the students learned from the video and activities throughout the inquiry. Have students share their headlines and create a bulletin board to display the learning. 

I used to think…but now I think this activity helps students reflect on their thinking about an issue or topic and explore how and why their thinking has changed. It is important to encourage students to reflect on their learning as they investigate the impacts of climate change through diverse perspectives. 

Teachers will assess  learning at different points throughout the inquiry using multiple methods. The following assessment provides an alternative evaluation method to standard to standard quizzes and tests, that can be used after consolidation or at any point in the lesson to check for understanding. 

  • Doodle it – Have students quickly draw a picture of what they understand instead of writing it. Create a collective poster depicting what students have learned from the Elders, stories and activities throughout the inquiry.

Other Suggestions

  • Connect with another class/school in the Arctic virtually. Learn how climate change is affecting their schoolyard and community and how their elders share knowledge with them. 
  • Students could write letters, send emails to pen pals or connect virtually to other classrooms around the globe to explore and explain how climate change affects their communities explaining how climate change affects their community

Allowing time for students to take action is an essential part of the learning process on climate change, as it empowers students and eases their eco-anxiety. Ask the students what they want to do to positively impact climate change. List their ideas and come up with a plan to put their action in place.

Action can be taken in many different ways, these are some different possible ideas for Taking Action:

  • Walk for water – When senior students at Seven Oaks Met School learned that the local community of Shoal Lake 40 First Nation (the very community where most of Winnipeg’s drinking water is sourced!) has been under a boil water advisory for over 20 years, they were inspired to take action. They organized speakers and elders from Winnipeg and Shoal Lake to educate the audience about the water crisis. The event raised over $7,000 for the Shoal Lake 40 First Nation community and spread awareness across the region
  • The Shaughnessy Medicine Wheel Garden in Winnipeg was designed as a teaching garden, incorporating the medicine wheel’s circle teachings, including fire, Water, air, and Earth. The plants and flowers reflect these elements and colours in each quadrant and feature Manitoba’s traditional medicines and indigenous plants. Thirteen boulders encircle the garden to represent the 13 moons of the year, and seven cedar benches will represent the seven teachings. Providing an outdoor learning space for students and a natural setting to enjoy the environment for the local community. 
  • MMHS Arboretum, Community, Indigenous and Medicinal Plant Gardens Students, staff, community members and partners began planting trees, shrubs and wildflowers at Milliken Mills High School in 1994. Since that time, the arboretum and associated gardens have been enhanced and have flourished. This year we have made every effort to expand the nature of the gardens with an interpretive guide created by students across the curriculum. This, while the physical and plant make-up of the garden continues to evolve. This year, despite the challenges of face-to-face learning and participation, we established the indigenous medicinal plant garden and created a strong cross-departmental partnership in the school, which will see the roots truly become shoots as the project will become stewarded through teamwork
  • The Herb Campbell Public School has created a visual landscape plan for a Medicine Wheel Garden Outdoor Classroom on our school site, which includes: A centred medicine wheel garden with indigenous plants surrounded by stone seating and an outdoor classroom frame; 9 local food gardens including six raised-bed gardens (for herbs, vegetables, fruit, and edible flowers) and three in-ground gardens (a Three Sisters garden, an indigenous berry garden, and a pumpkin patch); 4 outer garden areas with indigenous plants, shrubs, and trees connected to the four cardinal directions of our centred Medicine Wheel Garden; A wildlife observation/inquiry area with feeders, water supply, and log stump seating; Interpretative learning signs; Pathways connecting to our natural forest, meadow, and wetland habitats and other planting areas. 
  • Oak Park Outdoor Indigenous Learning Place created an outdoor Indigenous learning space that allows students, staff, and the community to connect with nature and celebrate Indigenous culture, tradition, and teaching. This project has many stakeholders, including Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, Indigenous knowledge keepers (academics, community members, Elders), and various divisional staff. To have all staff and students embrace Indigenous ways of knowing, doing, and being; to enhance our Indigenous students’ engagement and success in school. Having a teaching space in front of our school demonstrates our commitment to our school goal and reconciliation. It will also create endless opportunities for teaching and learning that honours, centres, and celebrates Indigenous culture. 
  • Youth Climate Solutions is a guide for making a difference for polar bears and their sea ice home. Visit Polar Bears and the Changing Arctic at Polar Bears International to learn more about the Arctic Ecosystem and how we can help protect this remarkable part of the planet. 
  • Visit Our Canada Project for many more action project ideas! This platform inspires youth to be responsible citizens and share their voice.