Appropriation vs. Incorporation: Indigenous Content in the Canadian History Classroom

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Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

By Skylee-Storm Hogan and Krista McCracken with Andrea Eidinger 

This post is part of a Beyond the Lecture mini-series, dedicated to the issue of teaching Indigenous history and the inclusion of Indigenous content in the classroom. Our goal is to provide resources for educators at all levels to help navigate the often fraught terrain of teaching Indigenous content. 

Several studies have shown that while many settler educators want to include more content about Indigenous history and culture, they often lack the confidence and training to do so. As such, our first post in this mini-series focused on How and When to Invite Indigenous Speakers to the Classroom. This second post will focus on the broader approaches to including Indigenous content, authors, and readings in post-secondary classrooms. 

The 94 Calls to Action issued by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) included numerous which related to post-secondary education practices. For example, call 63 calls on education to share “information and best practices on teaching curriculum related to residential schools and Aboriginal History” and to build “student capacity for intercultural understanding, empathy, and mutual respect.” The TRC Final Report also included numerous references to the importance of history and all Canadians learning about Residential Schools and Indigenous history. This work is part of build right relations and correcting historical wrongs. 

Simply including a single article, by an Indigenous author, without any context, is not decolonizing your syllabus. Decolonization work takes time and effort. It needs to be done with intention and with respect for the Indigenous voices you are seeking to include in your classroom. 

What Indigenous content is appropriate to share?
Published sources by Indigenous authors are knowledges that have been offered to be shared. It is still important to ask local Indigenous knowledge keepers in your community about what knowledge is considered protected, even if it is in public published works. Ceremony, art processes, teachings, and even some stories are wrong to share if it is not done by a member of the community. Making sure to check with knowledge keepers and elders about protocol for asking and receiving knowledge is an important part of the process.

It is important to make sure there is context and reciprocity for the community to be understood and not stereotyped further. Sharing Indigenous knowledge from outside the community in which you are in can cause confusion and lack context on that territory, it is important to keep it relevant. Sharing materials from outside communities can create a divide, it can send a message to local communities that their knowledges aren’t a priority in being sought out. As intimidating as it may be, it is important to reach out locally first and foremost.

What is the difference between Indigenous history and Indigenous culture? How can I teach Indigenous history alongside broader Canadian history content?
Teaching Indigenous history looks at the movements, social organizational structures, traditional territories, and their interactions with other communities and settlers. If your content is expressing the ceremonial process or generalizing practices of Indigenous groups that are integral to their spiritual beliefs, you are teaching culture. Cultural knowledge is best taught by a guest you invite in or in a class dedicated to cultural knowledge. 

In the broader Canadian context it is important to look at Canadian historical scholarship critically, and include perspectives from Indigenous historians who approach historical scholarship from the perspective of their respective communities. Because of the structural barriers that many Indigenous folks face, this knowledge may not always come from a peer-reviewed source. That is okay. It may also be necessary to build relationships with local knowledge keepers and ask them to pass oral histories. 

The notion of history being published, or published history being unquestioned and not critically examined in the North American Indigenous context needs to be reevaluated when trying to teach Indigenous histories in a meaningful way. When interactions between Indigenous peoples and settlers are recorded in formal Canadian scholarship it is important to understand the power dynamics in which these events occurred, and the lack of understanding that many settler-Canadian historians have on the Indigenous perspectives of our history.

Some great Indigenous scholars who write regularly on Indigenous history and critically on Canadian history:

It may also be worth checking out Shekon Neechie for posts and readings to assign students. Indigenous Foundations is another great site that examines different aspects of Indigenous history and contemporary life. The book Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen is a great source from a non-Indigenous perspective on American History.

What Indigenous content should settler scholars avoid using in the classroom?
In classes where Indigenous traditions, ceremonies, stories, or life teachings are discussed it is always necessary to have an elder. No amount of time spent with Indigenous people gives non-Indigenous people the right to practice those things or explain those things themselves. 

Even if a ceremony has been written down, instructors should be cautious about including these resources without contextualization and without involving Indigenous communities. This includes Creation stories which should come from and be shared only by community members.

How do I know if a resource is suitable for my class?
Was the resource created by Indigenous peoples or does it include substantial contributions of Indigenous peoples? Is the material specific to the topic or region you are looking to represent? Indigenous cultures, practices, and identifies vary hugely and are not interchangeable. 

In UBCx: IndEdu200x Reconciliation Through Indigenous Education, Jan Hare suggests the following criteria for assessing resources that support the teaching Indigenous stories/histories:

  • The resource is appropriate and relevant for teaching and learning of Indigenous storytelling traditions.
  • The resource respectfully represents the diversity, knowledge, and world views of Indigenous peoples.
  • The resource was developed and validated by a qualified, reputable, Indigenous source. Some examples may include: Indigenous organizations, Elders, knowledge keepers, authors, or scholars.
  • The resource includes appropriate strategies, activities, or visuals that support teaching and learning of Indigenous storytelling traditions.”

The First Nations Education Steering Committee’s Authentic First Peoples Resources Guide provides additional suggestions for evaluating sources for classroom use.  

I want to decolonize my syllabus, where should I start?
Decolonization is more than just a checklist. However, we realize that sometimes lists can be a helpful starting point. Read Dr. Shauneen Pete’s “100 ways to Indigenize and decolonize academic programs and courses”, with a focus on her recommendations for faculty. 

One of the most important ways to do this is by centring the voices of Indigenous scholars (as well as scholars from other marginalized groups). We need to breakdown Eurocentric knowledge structures, emphasize collaboration, and start having uncomfortable conversations about what the academy values. 

What are some respectful and appropriate ways for me to include Indigenous perspectives when teaching Canadian history?
Do not start your Canadian history course with the arrival of explorers and settlers. Instead, emphasize that Indigenous peoples have lived in North America since time immemorial. Consider discussing what life was like in North America prior to the arrival of these folks, like around the year 1000 CE. Include discussions about the continental trade network, the rise and fall of Cahokia, and so on. Consider place-based learning, and exploring the Indigenous history of the area where you live, work, and teach. incorporate Indigenous history throughout the course. For example, how did industrialization impact Indigenous communities? What were the experiences of Indigenous soldiers like in WW1 and WW2? 

What kind of language should I watch out for when discussing Indigenous history in the classroom?
Provide students with appropriate language and require them to use it. This means using the correct names for Indigenous groups and communities. If you are unsure how to pronounce the name of an Indigenous nation, Google it or ask for help from another scholar. Do not just skip over pronouncing the name of Indigenous nation because it is hard. Do not place the burden of pronouncing names correctly on Indigenous students.

Think critically about the language you use to describe historical events. Learn about settler colonialism and avoid framing white settlement as discovery or pioneering. Words have power. For example, framing the 1869-1870 Red River events as a resistance instead of a rebellion acknowledges to Indigenous sovereignty, colonial violence, and the work of Indigenous scholars to reframe this event. 

Generally speaking, when Indigenous peoples have been discussed in the classroom, they are often described as “historical” or a people “in the past.” In other cases, they are depicted solely as passive victims. This kind of language plays into the stereotypes of the “Vanishing Race.” Avoid this kind of language. Instead, emphasize Indigenous agency, resistance, resilience, and resurgence, and make it clear that Indigenous folks are modern peoples. 

How can settler instructors respectfully teach difficult subjects like residential schools?
Acknowledge your positionality and your relationship to structures of colonialism. Draw on the work of Indigenous scholars and Survivors who have shared their lived experiences of Residential Schools. Use materials that have been created by Indigenous folks, particularly survivors, to teach these subjects, and explain why this is important. 

When we are talking about these subjects, what can we do to reduce any potential harm to Indigenous students?
Let students know in advance when you are going to discuss potentially triggering topics. Best practices recommend giving your students at least a week’s notice, both in class and in emails. Allow your Indigenous students the option to opt-out of these lectures/discussions, and/or leave the classroom without any penalties or explanations. Revisiting these subjects, particularly without sufficient warning, can be traumatic. Do not make Indigenous students discuss their family histories or individual experiences of racism and colonialism, it is not the job of Indigenous students to educate you or their classmates. You may also consider providing a list of resources available on campus for emotional support and counselling on your syllabus.

Is it appropriate for settler scholars to incorporate Indigenous pedagogies into their classrooms?
Depending on the sources used for this knowledge, it may be appropriate or it maybe crossing into appropriation of sacred knowledges. Based on the content of your course and your proximity to local Indigenous communities, it may be worth bringing in a guest or a scholar to teach an entire class on pedagogies. However, in most cases assigning a book or readings is the most appropriate way to share this information. It is best to not teach Indigenous pedagogy specifically as it interacts with spirituality and cultural knowledge.

However, some materials have been created specifically to be used by both Indigenous and settler educators that are based on or are informed by Indigenous worldviews and pedagogies, like the First Peoples Principles of Learning and Vera Kirkness and Ray Barnhardt’s, “The Four R’s.” Using these frameworks as a basis for your teaching is absolutely okay, just make sure you give them proper credit.

What should instructors do if a student says something abusive about Indigenous peoples? Have a plan for dealing with racism in your classroom. This should include having clear expectations about what is and what is not up for debate within your classroom. These expectations should be written into your syllabus and reinforced by your behaviour. You may want to consider including a diversity statement on your syllabus, and reviewing it in class. 

What are our responsibilities as university educators when it comes to including Indigenous perspectives and content in our courses?
Indigenous people are not responsible for educating settlers on the basics of colonialism, racism, and intergenerational trauma. As university educators we need to educate ourselves and our students about the past and work to correct the erasure of Indigenous voices from post-secondary education. 

What are some recommended readings to learn more about this subject?

This post is part of the ongoing Beyond the Lecture: Innovations in Teaching Canadian History series edited by Andrea Eidinger and Krista McCracken. Inquiries, proposals, and submissions can be sent to the editors via unwrittenhistories [at]gmail[dot]com.

Andrea Eidinger (She/Her) is a historian of gender and ethnicity in postwar Canada. She holds a doctorate from the University of Victoria, and since 2009 she has been a sessional instructor in British Columbia. She is the creator and writer behind the Unwritten Histories blog, which is dedicated to revealing hidden histories and the unwritten rules of the historical profession.

Skylee-Storm Hogan (They/Them) studies Public History at Western University. Skylee has worked primarily with residential schools history and legal history on Crown-Indigenous relations in Canada. They are interested in digital heritage mediums, digital repatriation, and accessibility. Currently Skylee works as a Research Associate for Know History Historical Services and will be graduating in Fall 2019.   

Krista McCracken (They/Them) lives and works on Robinson-Huron treaty territory, in the traditional homeland of the Anishinaabe and Métis. Krista is a Researcher/Curator at the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre and an editor of

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One thought on “Appropriation vs. Incorporation: Indigenous Content in the Canadian History Classroom

  1. Catherine Murton Stoehr

    So helpful!!!!!! Also – in this it is SO important not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. I had a class this past winter where the non-indigenous folks did a lot of talking/ narrating of indigenous realities, not in a bad way or disrespectfully or anything, but I had a question mark in my mind about how that was sitting with one of the First Nations folks in the room. I didn’t have a mechanism to find out – an email would have been weird but I didn’t want to let it lie there so I just walked out of the class with her and asked her about it as she walked to her next class. To me that’s not ideal – given a clear field of action I would organize a way to make sure any student could seamlessly end a conversation with me – so walking through the halls w them is not great for that. But in this case the importance of having the conversation outweighed the other. Also on incorporation vs. appropriation – in my own mind I often apply the embarrassment test – if this or that First Nations person (who I know well enough to know their response) were in the room would I be embarrassed to say/ do this or am I leaning on anonymity to take a short cut?

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