Indigenous History in the Classroom: Four Principles, Four Questions

By Carolyn Podruchny 

Is teaching Indigenous history any different than teaching other histories? This question was posed to organizers of a day-long Teaching History Symposium on history, heritage, and education for Toronto area public school teachers, heritage experts, graduate students, and faculty members in the History Department at York University.[1] Rather than providing an answer, I suggest more questions to consider, and principles to guide decisions about teaching Indigenous history. I suspect that methods employed in teaching Indigenous histories can serve as a model for teaching about the histories of all peoples in the past.

I am a historian of Indigenous peoples and French colonists on the land that came to be known as Canada, and I specialize widely in histories of Anishinaabe, Cree, and Metis. I teach courses that are specific to Indigenous histories and general early Canadian or early North American histories that happen to include a majority of material that concerns Indigenous peoples. I do not have any Indigenous heritage myself, and I recognize my past as a descendent of Ukrainian immigrants on the Canadian prairies. I have benefitted from the system of colonialism implemented by the Canadian government, which dispossessed Indigenous peoples. My grandparents farmed on Cree, Anishinaabe, and Metis lands in western Manitoba (outside of Ethelbert and Ozerna); I grew up in Selkirk, Manitoba on the site of a former Anishinaabe community, the Peguis Band, which was relocated 160 km north in 1907.[2] Today I live on Mississauga land (in the town of Oakville), and I want to recognize that York University occupies lands that were once home to Mississaugas, other Anishinaabeg, Wendats, and Eries.[3]

Why am I acknowledging my ethnic heritage and history, and why do I remark on the past owners of the lands on which I live and work? I do so for three reasons. First, Indigenous history is a field that emerged out of the idea that cultural constructions of race and ethnic heritage and cultural identifications and classifications determined specific historical experiences. Second, one of the major themes in Indigenous history is the creation of an apparatus of colonialism implemented by Europeans who took control of Indigenous lands for economic, territorial, political, and religious gain. Third, I believe that subjectivity and personal knowledge are important ingredients to understanding and producing respectful Indigenous histories. Knowing the historical and social context of one’s own cultural location is crucial to appreciating the multiple perspectives of events in the past and the multiple ways they survive in evidence and can be interpreted. Scholars form personal relationships with one another, with their sources, and increasingly with stakeholders in the history they research. Acknowledging the non-institutional settings and forms of knowledge that shape our ability to recognize and interpret data, and understand ways of knowing that are personally, emotively, or bodily based, makes us more honest and more innovative scholars and teachers.

Indigenous peoples living on the land that came to be known as Canada and the United States constitute a diverse group, occupying dramatically different environments ranging from rugged coastlines to plains to boreal forests to Arctic deserts, with equally diverse histories of hunting, fishing, farming, trade networks, family formations, tribal organizations, and technological developments. The Wikipedia map of Indigenous language families in North America provides a quick snap shot of tremendous diversity.[4] No single Indigenous history exists. Yet, historians writing about Indigenous peoples have tended in the past to portray a singular group: the Indians, a static, unsophisticated people who fell easy victim to European and later American and Canadian colonizers. The descendants of victors in the colonial confrontations have mainly ignored Indigenous perspectives and ways of remembering their pasts.

In my teaching I seek to reorient the story of Indigenous history in Canada by studying it from Indigenous perspectives. Since the 1970s, historians have tried to be more sensitive to Indigenous views, mainly by asking more sophisticated questions about archival and documentary sources. One of the greatest methodological challenges in writing about Indigenous pasts is that historical investigations have relied heavily on written evidence, and Indigenous peoples left few conventional written documents before 1900. In recent years history written about Indigenous peoples has improved by embracing a wide range of primary sources, such as oral histories, material culture (found both in museums and on archaeological digs), landscapes (both natural and human shaped), and experiential evidence. Each form of evidence requires specialized forms of analysis.

Yet, written histories about Indigenous peoples still seem divorced from the present, unconnected to living descendants, and disrespectful of Indigenous struggles today. It is not an accident that very few Indigenous people in Canada have chosen to become professional historians teaching at universities (I think there might be three), curating exhibits at national museums, and writing best-selling history books. The standards of the field have dictated that historians be objective, scientific, and chronologically-based, using only certain kinds of evidence and addressing questions deemed important by “the canon.” Histories told from Indigenous perspectives, using alternative forms of evidence, and pursuing questions relevant to Indigenous people today do not easily fit the professional mould. Some historians are pushing the canon in new directions, especially under the influence of the vast amount of research conducted for Aboriginal land and comprehensive claims, and have started working directly with Indigenous communities to discuss their research questions, sources, methods, and analysis.[5] Involving the stakeholders of Indigenous history has made the field relevant, innovative, and accessible to a wide range of people. This kind of “Active History” is one that, in the words of this web site, “listens and is responsive; history that will make a tangible difference in people’s lives; history that makes an intervention and is transformative to both practitioners and communities.”[6] Active, engaged, community-based histories help decolonize the field of Indigenous history, and open the field to a wide range of people, descended from the vanquished, the victors, and the newcomers to Canada.

To sum up, my four guiding principles are:

  • Framing my subject material from Indigenous perspectives. I work hard to find these in published scholarship and in conversations with community members. This is becoming easier every year.
  • Using sources and methods produced by Indigenous peoples, including oral histories, material artefacts, and landscapes. I think this approach is the best possible training for all students of history, not just those interested in Indigenous peoples.
  • Drawing from community-based and active histories. This principle is definitely the toughest to follow. To date few academic histories are conducted with the involvement of Indigenous stake-holders and community members, and I hope this will change over time. I have been taking small steps to incorporate this principle in my courses by inviting Indigenous community-based scholars to classes, taking students on field trips to sites where Indigenous history lives, and using Internet resources to engage with community projects. I am reluctant to actually have students try to do community-based histories themselves, unless they already have a relationship with an Indigenous community. Indigenous peoples often feel “studied to death” and consider research a dirty word that leads to trouble.[7] Yet, I want the students to imagine a history that serves the stakeholders in some way. I am trying an experiment in a fourth-year class right now: having students create a plan of how they would go about doing community-based research. They have to find the communities that would have a stake in their historical questions, complete mock university ethics forms to work with human subjects, and comply with Indigenous community protocols, in sum, walking through all the steps necessary before approaching a community, but not actually going through with it. I don’t know yet if this experiment will work, but it will help us all realize that doing history is not as simple as going to the library, archives, a museum, or surfing the web.
  • Asking all students, be they Indigenous or non-Indigenous, to situate their own lives in the history of colonialism, so that can see that everyone’s lives have been shaped by this process.[8]

How have my principles for teaching Indigenous History worked out? I am not sure, so I pose questions rather than answers.

  • Should Indigenous history be taught as its own course, according it respect and attention, allowing Indigenous concerns to create the historical fenceposts and shape the overall narrative and message; or should Indigenous history be integrated into other courses, so it is not ghettoized, and thus becomes part of the fabric of all histories? I guess in an ideal world, both would exist, but I honestly don’t know which I would choose.
  • Should the material about Indigenous people be framed by the current conditions of Indigenous people, and the news stories dominating the media, such as the Idle No More movement, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, treaty and land disputes, and protests over fracking for oil on Indigenous lands? This would make Indigenous history relevant to students, and help them understand Indigenous concerns today. Or does this process of presentism, allowing historical questions to be shaped by present concerns, skew the history so that these current events seem inevitable? Does it destabilize the chronology? Can we find a balance between these two issues? Of course, all history produced by historians is shaped by the context of the times in which it was produced. I wonder, however, whether we should explicitly pursue “useable histories” that directly engage with today’s concerns.
  •  Are we really all Treaty People? This common phrase invokes a truth that is often overlooked: all Canadian citizens are bound by the treaties signed by our federal government, and benefit from its privileges, such as buying property. Thus treaties shape the lives of both Treaty or Status Indians, and non-status and non-Aboriginal people. But Indigenous history obviously has a much more powerful and compelling draw for Indigenous students, as they learn about their ancestors and the processes that have led them to their own particular cultural location today. I always assume that I am teaching Indigenous students, and strive for respectful language, and imagine that I am discussing my own ancestors. But this does not necessarily create an inclusive and safe atmosphere. Some European-descended students feel uncomfortable in class. Should I worry about this? Or continue to use their discomfort as a teachable moment?
  • And this is the question that plagues me the most: How should teachers balance the horror and tragedy of colonialism with positive stories about Indigenous-centred narratives, resistance, agency, and positive growth, development, and so on. I tend to be a glass-half-full person, and always want to teach Indigenous-centred histories that happened in spite of or removed from colonialism, that are cheerful stories about people living out their lives with dignity and success. But I worry that I am then minimizing, underplaying, or ignoring colonialism, and then possibly in the process reproducing it. In a recent class we discussed a book that contained oral histories of an Inuit elder, her daughter, and her granddaughter, who all lived in Pond Inlet on Baffin Island.[9] The class became paralyzed with grief over the violence caused by Canadian state-forced schooling, which separated children from their families, from life on the land, from their cultural knowledge, and ultimately from their sense of self, which has lead to a pandemic of suicides. On the other hand, I want my students to know that Indigenous history is not just one big, long, depressing litany of woe and despair. Indigenous history has its own narratives outside of colonialism, and inside colonialism, resistance, resurgence, and healing has lead to flourishing political, economic, social, and artistic movements that resonate through Canada today.  Is there such a thing as finding a balance between these two partisan positions?

Because this presentation was directed at public school teachers, I have included some suggestions of books, films, and web sites that could be of use in public school classrooms.

Bibliographic Suggestions[10]:

A good overview of Indigenous history in Canada that makes the best use of Indigenous-centred material is Arthur J. Ray, I Have Lived Here Since the World Began: An Illustrated History of Canada’s Native People.

An easily accessible body of material that teaches Cree oral history from a Cree perspective is two books and a web site created by Louis Bird: Louis Bird, Telling Our Stories: Omushkego Legends and Histories from Hudson Bay, edited by Jennifer S. H. Brown, Paul W. DePasquale & Mark F. Ruml (Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2005); Louis Bird, The Spirit Lives in the Mind: Omushkego Stories, Lives, and Dreams, compiled and edited by Susan Elaine Gray, (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007); and Internet Resource: Omushkego Oral History Project. Louis Bird and the University of Winnipeg.

An accessible community history book based on Indigenous oral tradition and history: Shirleen Smith and the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, People of the Lakes: Stories of Our Van Tat Gwich’in Elders (University of Alberta Press, 2009).

For other sources about history from an Indigenous perspective, see:

Thomas King, The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America (Toronto: Doubleday, 2012).

Daniel Paul, We Were Not Savages: Collision Between European and Native Civilizations, 3rd edition (2007).

Some Internet resources on Indigenous histories:

Blogs by Leanne Simpson and Chelsea Vowel are excellent for placing current events into historical context and providing Indigenous perspectives.

The Inuvialiut of the Western Arctic, Canadian Museum of Civilization

Unikkausivut – Sharing Our Stories, NFB

Nunavik: A Land, A People

Dane Wajich- Dane-zaa Stories & Songs: Dreamers and the Land

The Ways” is an ongoing series of language and culture from Native communities around the Great Lakes. Much of it is for the southern side of the border, but in many cases it makes no sense worry about the border where Indigenous questions are concerned.

Some Helpful Films:

Neil Diamond’s film “Reel Injun” is excellent for introducing students, including high school students, to the history of Indigenous peoples and representations of Indigenous peoples in film.

Richard Desjardins’ film “The Invisible Nation” (Le peuple invisible), a well-made documentary film on the Algonquins that was quite widely seen in Quebec five years ago–it includes a lot of interesting historical footage and commentary.

Almost anything by Alanis Obomsawim (Esp. Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance)

Rene Sioui Labelle, Kanata: Legacy of the Children of Aataensic

National Film Board’s Indian Film Crew Project 

Wapikoni Mobile. This is a project to take a vanload of video equipment to Indigenous communities, and giving young people the opportunity to make their own films. Films are online, and contain loads of oral history–there are films in French and in English.

To put into context the recent events related to hydraulic fracturing on Mi’kmaq lands, see Obomsawin’s 1984 film “Incident at Restigouche”  and 2002 film “Is the crown at war with us?


[1] A version of this essay was originally presented at a day-long teaching symposium, “Presenting the Past: History, Heritage and Education,” organized by members of York University’s Graduate Program in History, October 24, 2013. Special thanks to Michael Ainsworth, Abril Liberatori, and Joanna Pearce for taking the lead on this event.

[2] See “The Peguis Band,”  (accessed November 9, 2013) and especially their 1907 Surrender video.

[3] On the Mississaugas of New Credit’s Toronto Purchase Specific Claim, see (accessed November 9, 2013). For an overview of archaeological work on the site of York University see Archaeological Services Inc., Stage 1 Archaeological Assessment of the York University Secondary Plan, revised January 2008 (accessed November 10, 2013).

[4] “Indigenous languages of the Americas,” (accessed November 9, 2013).

[5] For a few examples of outsiders working with community members see Julie Cruikshank, in collaboration with Angela Sidney, Kitty Smith, and Annie Ned, Life Lived Like a Story: Life Stories of Three Yukon Native Elders (UBC Press, 1992); Alison K. Brown, Laura Peers, and members of the Kainai Nation, Pictures Bring Us Messages/ Sinaakssiiksi Aohtsimaahpihkookiyaawa: Photographs and Histories from the Kainai Nation (UTP 2005); and Flora Beardy and Robert J. Coutts, Voices from Hudson Bay: Cree Stories from York Factory (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1996). Some histories directed by the community are now being published, such as Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation and Shirleen Smith, People of the Lakes: Stories of Our Van Tat Gwichin Elders (University of Alberta Press, 2011).

[6] See About Active, (accessed November 9, 2013).

[7] See Linda Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (Zed Book, 1995); Devon Abbott Mihesuah and Angela Cavender Wilson, eds., Indigenizing the Academy: Transforming Scholarship and Empowering Communities (University of Nebraska Press, 2004); and Margaret Kovach, Indigenous Methodologies: Characteristics, Conversations, and Contexts (University of Toronto press, 2010).

[8] I thank Victoria Freeman for suggesting this principle.

[9] Nany Wachowich, in collaboration with Apphia Agalakti Awa, Rhoda Kaukjak Katsak, and Sandra Pikujak Katsak, Saqiyuq: Stories from the Lives of Three Inuit Women (McGill Queen’s University Press, 2001).

[10] Thank you for Boyd Cothran, Erin Dolmage, Thomas Peace, and Daniel Rueck for suggestions.

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2 thoughts on “Indigenous History in the Classroom: Four Principles, Four Questions

  1. Sylvia Smith

    Great article! I would also assert that as a settler teaching the “Aboriginal perspective”, that this de-colonizing framework allows all learners to access the emotional part of themselves, so fundamental to transformative learning. And an additional step–taking action to address the on-going colonization of Indigenous peoples in the form of social justice–is necessary to this process. If teachers can model taking action in the classroom, we also teach our kids responsibility, something a “western” or mainstream perspective rarely does. Thanks for re-posting this.

  2. Sandra Lucs

    Carolyn – Thanks for this post. You might be interested to visit a permanent exhibition at the Region of Peel Art Gallery, Museum and Archives in Brampton, Ontario. Titled “We Are Here: The Story of Aboriginal People in Peel,” this exhibition examines the history of Aboriginal people in this area (and beyond) from the perspective of the Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee, Inuit and Métis nations. As the interpretive and exhibit designers for this project, our firm met with a steering committee of Aboriginal members for two years to develop the exhibition which opened in February 2013. The voices of committee members are heard, both literally and thematically, throughout the gallery informing topics considered crucial to the interpretation of Aboriginal history, including the land as the heart of creation, the genocide of Aboriginal peoples, and the clarification of terminology.

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