Chapter 5 : Indigenous Ways of Knowing

Inquiry 3: Elder Knowledge: Connections to the Land

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. 

Sharing knowledge and storytelling is an integral part of Indigenous culture, and a visit from an Elder is an excellent way to bring this experience to students. Indigenous Elders or Knowledge Keepers play a central role in Indigenous communities; they are teachers within and beyond their communities. They have been gifted with their respective teachings by other Elders or Knowledge Keepers, typically over years of mentorship and teaching.

  • Invite an Elder to share their knowledge and experience with the students. Ask them to share a traditional legend through oral storytelling or to lead a nature walk around your schoolyard or nearby park. 
  • Connect with your school’s Indigenous Education department to speak to an Indigenous education specialist and enquire about education or cultural programs available.  Also, to inquire about who you can utilize in your classroom/school for the curricular concepts that you feel need connections to Indigenous ways of knowing that will enhance inquiry into environmental sustainability and relationships with Mother Earth.
  • Observe appropriate protocols and acknowledgements when including elders and knowledge keepers in your school/classroom.
  • Plan a field trip that fosters a greater understanding of Indigenous Ways of Knowing. 

In Indigenous cultures, the Elder is highly regarded as a role model in their community and is considered the keeper of knowledge. A gift must be prepared by the person requesting the visit and offered to the Elder at the time of the request. For more information regarding Elder Wisdom in the Classroom    

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.

Prepare questions for the Elder’s visit, some possible questions are:  

  • What is an Elder or Knowledge Keeper? Why are they an important natural resource?
  • What is the difference between an Elder and Knowledge Keeper?
  • What have you learned from living off the land? What can we learn from Elders to help us live sustainably?
  • What changes have you noticed in life on the land or in the seasons?
  • Have any of the changes on the land been good or bad for your community?    
  • Why is it important for humans to connect to the land?
  • How can we as students connect to the land, plants and animals and share their space?  
  • How have the changes in the weather affected you and your community? What will happen if the weather keeps changing?
  • What messages are Elders trying to share?
  • What changes have Elders seen in life on the land?  How is this “lived” experience different than that of statistical data?

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. 

The Q-Chart is designed to help students in generating deep, relevant, inquiry questions.  The goal is to ask the questions at the bottom right corner of the matrix. These questions require higher thinking and produce answers that are deeper and more complex.

2006 Education Oasis 
May be reproduced for classroom use only

Possible Questions:

  • How might we apply the Elders’ understandings of sustainability to reduce the effects of climate change?
  • How can we learn from Elders to help us live sustainably in the face of climate change?
  • How has the weather affected the Elders community? How have the weather patterns changed in the community?
  • What are some of the changes in birds, animals and insects in your community?
  • What type of knowledge did Elders need to know about their environment to survive in it for thousands of years?
  • What can First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples teach other Canadians about sustainability?

Wonder Wall or Wall of Inquiry offers the students the opportunity to post their questions on a bulletin board using post-it notes. By adding words and photos to the Wonder Wall, this provokes students to think about Indigenous Ways of Learning. Students use the post it notes to write questions about the Elder visit, photos and words. As a class, brainstorm different types of questions that work well for inquiry learning and post them as examples on the bulletin board.

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.

Umbrella Questions:  

  • What wisdom and warnings are the Elders sharing regarding ways people are abusing the land and resources?
  • What types of change have most affected First Nations, Métis and Inuit people? Identify the changes for each distinct Indigenous group. What can First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples teach other Canadians about sustainability?
  • Why are trappers, fisherman, hunters, and land users valuable when it comes to our understanding of climate change and sustainability?
  • How do courses like Trappers Certification, Hunters Safety, Scouts, etc. include sustainable practices in their teaching?
  • How are management, data collection and statistical projections different than lived-experience, traditional knowledge, and story-telling?  What are the pros and cons of each and how can balance be created, understanding that all aspects have our planets best interests in mind?                    

Inside /Outside Circles – Use this discussion technique to give students the opportunity to discuss what they enjoyed or learned during the Elder Visit. During the second round, students can discuss who they have in their life that they would consider an Elder? Grandparent, coach, teacher, uncle, aunt or mentor? What important things do you learn from this adult? 

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.

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. 

Indigenous Perspectives Mind Map

Doodling/Sketching strategy

  • Ask students to draw some of the significant people in their lives and how and what they learn from those people. (an Elder, a grandparent, a teacher, a coach). Have students draw out their understanding using the doodle/sketching strategy
  • Draw this significant person in their role in the community; how does this person help you, how does this person help others in your community?

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.

Step Inside activity helps students view a place, situations, events or things through different lenses and points of view. Ask students to imagine themselves in the role of an elder and note/describe what they can see, observe or notice. Students can identify what elders believe, care about, wonder or question. Allow students to use visuals or words for their responses on the Step Inside template. For this activity the students responses can be in response to the Elder visit or they can respond to an Elder/adult in their life such as a grandparent, coach, teacher or mentor.

Ask students to identify how climate change affects their schoolyard or local environment. Brainstorm with the students the needs of a plant such as the sun, water, soil nutrients, pollinators, etc. Discuss how plants are affected by climate change.

Watch the Plant Adaptations video, then have students draw a garden full of plants that could adapt to a changing climate. Discuss which plants they would plant and why? Awesome Adaptations How do plants adapt to their environment

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.

Neighbourhood WalkWalk and explore the neighbourhood and have students use their senses to explore trees and plants. Draw a map with the students of plants, trees, shrubs in the schoolyard. Identify any changes in the schoolyard that may have been affected by climate change. 

Accountable Discussion – Conduct a class discussion by defining accountable talk. During the discussion students contributing to the discussion are held accountable to give reasons and evidence for opinions. Before the discussion allow students to complete the accountable cards templates to record their reasons and evidence. The cards can be completed individually or in groups.

Ex: I believe climate change is happening because certain provinces in our country are being afflicted by wildfires and floods. 

I agree with the Elder because having lived on the land his wisdom is knowledge that we humans can use to guide us in protecting the land.

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

Poster – Have students create a poster informing how Indigenous Ways of knowing can provide us with respectful ways to protect the planet. Share the posters with other students by posting them on the bulletin board in the school hallway.                   

Other Suggestions

  • Conference with students – conversations can also include written evidence such as journals in which educators can read what students have to say about their learning rather than listening
  • Have older students complete a What I Learned Today self-assessment. (
  • Have students express different ways to act in forests, parks, and other natural areas to show you respect the land in the medium of their choice.

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:

  • Get outside and learn the names of the plants and animals in your area with local indigenous and non-indigenous groups. Look for plants that can be used for simple home remedies.  
  • Participate in the Planting for Change program, which helps your school create a schoolyard planting site that acts as a mini-climate change outdoor classroom/lab. 
  • 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. 

Other Resources

Visit Our Canada Project for many more action project ideas! This platform inspires youth to be responsible citizens and share their voice