On making love to death: Plains Cree and Blackfoot wisdom

Tuesday, February 1, 2021

Dwayne Donald, University of Alberta
Guest Contributor

This blog post is part of the Federation Equity Issues Portfolio’s ‘Transforming the Academy: Indigenous Education’ series, which will be the focus of the Portfolio’s programming at Congress 2011.

My main role in my Faculty is to create, expand and enhance the opportunities students have to engage with Indigenous standpoints and experiences in association with curricular and pedagogical considerations. This is a new and unique role for our Faculty. My encounters with students can be difficult, contentious, and punctuated with various forms of resistance.  I endeavour to be ever mindful of the ways in which these encounters are circumscribed by colonial logics and remember that all students, whoever they are, will naturally resist new knowledge that is intended to make some rather significant claims on them.

In doing this work, I am also mindful of the troubling ways in which Indigenous knowledge systems and philosophies are often reduced to a cultural show-and–tell, couched in curricular terms as culturally-relevant or culturally-appropriate. In this model, what we call ‘culture’ is distanced from the philosophies that inform it and instead framed in the Enlightenment traditions as an inorganic anthropological ‘thing’ that provides an interesting distraction from the real work of schools.

When a teaching, such as the medicine wheel, gets reified and thing-ified as an isolated example of ‘culture,’ ‘spirit,’ and ‘identity,’ then the teaching is effectively divorced from the processes and commitments that give it depth, meaning, and life. What preoccupies me most, then, in doing this work is some rather careful thinking on the possibility that the spirit, intent, and integrity of Indigenous philosophies and teachings can be meaningfully maintained when they are shared in formal institutional settings – with students who typically have very little prior experience with such philosophies and teachings. Anyone who has tried to negotiate these tensions knows that this is a very complex task.

•    Listen to Dr. Donald discuss “On What Terms Can We Speak?”
•    Read Dr. Donald’s “Forts, Curriculum, and Indigenous Méstissage.”

One tension that I wish to focus on grows from the common assumption that the current character of Indigenous-Canadian relations is basically an informational problem. By this, I mean that the common curricular and pedagogical assumption seems to be that talking about Indians with students will somehow improve the relationship. The lovely educational ideal in this case, then, appears to focus on getting the information right as a means of gaining control of a contentious situation.

‘If the students just know more about Indigenous  peoples, their history and culture, and who they are, then they will be feel more comfortable discussing those issues in classroom settings – and less likely to be prejudiced against Indigenous people today.’ The information is perceived to be able to solve the problem. Now, I don’t want to suggest that information is not an important consideration in this case. It is. However, I do want to suggest that there is much at stake in our curricular and pedagogical relationships to knowledge, what we think it is for, and what it can do for us. Plains Cree and Blackfoot wisdom traditions have something to teach about this. It has to do with making love to death.

Indigenous peoples in North America tell innumerable, interconnected, and unending stories of a Trickster-Teacher-Brother being who is involved in the creation and discovery of the world and all those that inhabit it. Tricksters are simultaneously spirit and human and possess unique transformative powers that give them the ability to appear in diverse forms such as Coyote, Spider, Raven, Whiskey Jack, Crow, and Old Man. They also often appear in differing human-like forms – male, female, and sometimes a balance of both – depending on where they are and what they are doing. The telling of Trickster stories was an important part of the teaching ‘curriculum’ in traditional times and these stories were told to the young with specific pedagogical intent. These traditions continue in many communities today.

Over the years, I have heard Plains Cree stories about the Trickster Wîsahkecâhk and Blackfoot stories about the Old Man Naapi. The stories tell of creation and the ways and means by which Wîsahkecâhk and Naapi discover the uses, purposes, and characters of the different lifeforms – people, plants, animals, trees, rocks and so on – that they encounter as they travel around. These stories teach the young about the nature of the world as their ancestors knew it, but also provide pedagogical guidance and insight on how to behave with good manners in the world.

The stories of Wîsahkecâhk and Naapi enable this instruction by providing us with vivid examples of how not to behave, and we are expected to learn from their mistakes. In the stories, both Wîsahkecâhk and Naapi often forget their relations and act in disrespectful, selfish, deceitful, and thoughtless ways. Both beings typically want to find shortcuts, take the easy road, avoid work, and trick others into doing things for their own benefit. They are both often hungry, thirsty, tired, in need of shelter, in want of a sexual companion, jealous of what others have, and unwilling to put in the time and effort to meet these needs and wants for and by themselves. They are revealed as spirit beings subject to very human emotions and desires.

As students of the stories, we are trained to see ourselves and our own foolishness in their mistakes. We all have Wîsahkecâhk and Naapi within us. One powerful insight that I have learned from these stories is that both Wîsahkecâhk and Naapi constantly endeavour to secure the surety and comfort of a good life at the expense of others. In attempting to do so, they both selfishly covet – make love to – something that is impossible to possess. In their endless attempts to attain the unattainable, do the impossible, craft surety out of ambiguity, Wîsahkecâhk and Naapi make love to death. And they repeatedly fail.

This idea of making love to death can be interpreted in many different ways, most notably with reference to the ongoing human love affair with market capitalist devoted notions of technology, progress, and development juxtaposed with the environmental damage done in the name of such devotions. As we continue to ‘make love’ to oil, we slowly kill ourselves. For the purposes of this piece, though, I suggest that our curricular and pedagogical dedication to informational surety as a way to solve ambiguity and difficulty is also a form of making love to death.

We know that for many years now curriculum and pedagogy have been regarded as mechanistic tools that aid in the educational attainment of single-minded and exclusionary notions of truth. The belief has been that the right information from the proper knowledge system, sequenced in the correct order, presented in the correct way, would produce the desired effect in the student. The significance of the educative process comes pre-determined. Such a truncated curricular and pedagogical approach, applied throughout the grades with the proper instruction, would eventually produce the right kind of citizen. This approach longs for surety, a conclusion, and the language it uses suggests a troubling kind of foreclosure. As David Jardine has written:

It longs for the last word; it longs for a world in which the Word no longer lives, a world in which the droning silence of objective presentability finally holds sway over human life. The difficult nature of human life will be solved. We will finally have the curriculum “right” once and for all. We will have turned children inside-out and searched out every nook and cranny. Nothing more will need to be said.

Like Wîsahkecâhk and Naapi, adherents to these curricular and pedagogical approaches make love to death.

So, if informational surety is problematic, then which reframed curricular and pedagogical understandings do I encourage my students to adopt? Plains Cree and Blackfoot Elders have taught me some very important lessons about human relationality. What is required for knowledge to become organic and make a claim on us that will facilitate a necessary shift in our understanding is a storied approach to knowledge that helps us see ourselves implicated in and in relation to what it is that we want to know.

The important lesson here is that meaningful teaching and learning requires the creation of a pedagogical context that fosters an organic, life-giving, and life-sustaining form of hope. To state it more directly, what we want to learn cannot be separated from the processes we go through while learning. For teaching and learning to be meaningful, we need to see ourselves in ecological relation to that which we want to know. Relations always come first. This is what stories teach us.

If it really is all about relations, then what guidance does this wisdom provide to the particular problem of Indigenous-Canadian relations in the context of teacher education today?  It is the ethical and relational commitments emphasised in Indigenous wisdom traditions that will foster and teach a specific form of historical consciousness among Canadians, and thus set the context for renewed partnerships.

These teachings are the inspiration for the notion of ethical relationality – an ecological understanding of human relationality that does not deny difference, but rather seeks to more deeply understand how our different histories and experiences position us in relation to each other. This form of relationality is ethical because it does not overlook or invisibilise the particular historical, cultural, and social contexts from which a standpoint arises. It puts these considerations at the forefront of engagements across frontiers of difference.

Dwayne Donald is an assistant professor of Curriculum Studies and Indigenous Perspectives in the Department of Secondary Education at the University of Alberta, and President of the Canadian Association for the Study of Indigenous Education.


Equity Matters



I would like to respond to Dr. Donald's submission: "On making love to death: Plains Cree and Blackfoot wisdom"

I taught in an all-Blackfoot, on reserve high school for 14 years. I've sat on many committees that focused on how educators can infuse First Nation, Metis and Inuit ways of knowing into the classrooms. I've also worked in curriculum development at the provincial level where my role was to ensure that FNMI ways of knowing were both accurate and represented in the curriculum. Recently, I've been involved as a research assistant with the Vancouver School Board's Aboriginal project. The VSB are looking for direction on how to proceed with programs that will have an Aboriginal lens to be taught in schools throughout the city.

So, you can see that the dialogue on Indigenous education is not new. The discussions are taking place in both on and off-reserve schools; they are also being done in school districts in both rural and urban settings; not to mention faculties of educations in university institutions are also recognizing the need to keep the dialogue strong.

The time for talking is done. I would like to think we've gotten past the need to justify why we need to Indigenous ways of knowing in our curriculum. I have two grandchildren who are attending first and second grade in the state of Montana. That state has legislated "Indian Education for All". They teach Indigenous ways of knowing to ALL their students. As you can imagine, there is a need for more Indigenous storytellers, elders, artists, teachers, etc... in all their school districts. I happened to stop in for a visit with my grandchildren just before the Christmas holidays and my granddaughter took me by the hand and marched into her classroom and told her teacher that I was there to tell stories about Napi and the Blackfoot!

Both her teacher and I were a bit uncomfortable at first, but the teacher stepped aside and my granddaughter pointed me to the front of her second grade classroom and went to sit in her desk with the other 20 or so, classmates. So, I didn't let my granddaughter down and went right to work. The look on my granddaughter's face was priceless. She sat in her chair with her head held high, because her grandma was up front teaching her class about her people, the Blackfoot.

The teacher later commented that her students had never sat for an entire hour while listening to a guest presenter. They were mesmerized. They really wanted to know who the Blackfoot were; what language they speak; what happened to them; what happened in the Indian residential schools; the meaning of my granddaughter's Blackfoot name; and so on.

Again I say, the time for dialogue is done. Now is the time act. Those children sitting in those tiny desks need all of us to do our part to ensure that Indigenous ways of knowing are taught at all levels of our education system.