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Native Studies in Saskatchewan: A Policy for Change
5 APR 2009
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When the Canadian government began its move westward, its leaders had to
decide how best to deal with the population of people who were already living in the
territories. They decided upon a series of numbered treaties, which guaranteed certain
concessions to First Nations groups, in exchange for access to land. One of the most
important treaties’ clauses dealt with education. First Nations leaders understood the
importance that an education would play in the future of their people, so they wanted to
ensure that their descendants would benefit not only from their traditional knowledge, but
also learn the ways of the “White man.” Now, over a century later, it has become
painfully obvious that the education guaranteed to Saskatchewan’s First Nations peoples
has not been properly provided.
In recent years, the Saskatchewan government has responded with several
different initiatives focused on improving the standard of education offered to First
Nations students. One such initiative was the creation of a separate Native Studies
curriculum, which for the first time allowed a class to be focused solely on First Nations
content. Though noble in its intent, Native Studies has not been without its detractors,
especially at the university level, and there is a question as to whether or not it should
remain a separate discipline in the K-12 curriculum.
It is hard to ignore the startling figures regarding this issue: Nearly 50% of self-
declared Aboriginal students in grade ten do not make it to grade twelve. One must also
consider the implications for those who do not make it to grade ten. Also, of those who
do make it to grade twelve, there is an average of two fewer credits per-year, for a total of
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6 credits (or classes), less than their non-Aboriginal counterparts. And on average, the
marks for Aboriginal students are between 5- 10% lower than their non-Aboriginal
counterpart (Ministry of Education 2008). What this means is that there is a large
segment of students who are not being properly prepared for life beyond school. This is
particularly troubling because the non-Aboriginal population of Saskatchewan is getting
increasingly older, with the highest median age in Canada at 38.8 years old; meanwhile,
Saskatchewan’s Aboriginal population is the youngest in Canada, with a mean age of
20.1 (Saskatchewan Learning 2003). When you also consider that by 2016 it is believed
that 50% of the school age population will be of Aboriginal heritage, it becomes very
apparent that the Ministry of Education faces a difficult challenge. This is why policies
have been put in place to ensure equitable education for Saskatchewan’s Aboriginal
Several policies from Saskatchewan Ministry of Education play a particularly
important role with regards to Native Studies. The Ministry of Education is quick to
recognize the contradiction in the overrepresentation of Aboriginal students’ failure, with
the under-representation of Aboriginal input into education. The Ministry also
recognizes the increase in Aboriginal population, and the proposed decrease in the
available labour force (Saskatchewan learning 2003, p. 1-2). They also recognize the
need for enhanced Aboriginal education to ensure that they can become a viable part of
Saskatchewan’s labour force. For this reason, the Ministry outlined the following
policies in its fall 2003 publication Building Partnerships: First Nations and Métis
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Peoples and the Provincial Education System:
The learning program is responsive, academically challenging and culturally
affirming. Curricula and learning materials present First Nations and Métis
peoples accurately in historical and modern terms. Aboriginal content and
perspectives are integral to all subject areas so that all children and youth gain
knowledge, insight and understanding… Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal
populations respect and value the diversity of cultures and experiences of all
citizens… the provincial education system, division boards and schools
actively engage First Nations and Métis peoples in collaborative partnerships…
the provincial education system respects and affirms the diverse cultures of
First Nations and Métis peoples by responding to and reflecting differences,
cultures, worldviews, learning styles and needs in the curricula, teaching
methods and environment in schools (Saskatchewan Learning 2003, p.5-6).
By emphasizing the importance of First Nations content, the Ministry is
displaying its support for the Native Studies curriculum. In this way, it is hard to deny
the need for a school system that will serve to better meet the needs of all of its students;
however, it can be argued that the Native Studies curriculum does not fulfill the policies
supported by the ministry of education, and that it has failed to serve the purpose it was
Native studies as a discipline arose out of the civil rights movement of the 1960’s
(Wheeler 2001), and became a concern for Saskatchewan educators in the 1980’s in
response to the high dropout rates, and the still prevalent racist attitudes within society
(Stonechild 2005). Finally in 1991, new curriculums for Native Studies 10, 20, and 30
were announced: Native Studies 10 began in 1991, 20 began in 1992, and Native Studies
30 was introduced in 1997 (Saskatchewan Learning 2003). Also, the goal of Native
Studies is to increase the amount of pride and awareness of First Nations students, and to
provide positive role modeling for a segment of students who really need them (Wheeler
2001). Another goal of Native Studies is the decolonization of First Nations history.
Without a form of writing, First Nations groups now rely almost solely on accounts of
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European explorers for pieces of their history that have been lost through centuries of
assimilation practices (Price 1981). The unfortunate side effect of one culture group
determining the history of another is that a substantial amount of detail and nuances can
be lost in the inherent cultural biases. Consequently, Native Studies courses attempt to
reestablish the unique method that First Nations people have in examining their own
history. At the same time, First Nation people hope to reintroduce the notions of
spirituality into the study of their history. Winona Wheeler speaks to this issue here:
“to strip our intellectual knowledge of its spirituality is colonialist” (Wheeler 2001,
p.100). Therefore, by reintroducing aspects of Aboriginal spirituality, into the study of
First Nations people, it is the hoped that a more authentic version of their history and
culture may emerge.
Teachers, who seek to teach authentic versions of First Nations content, can face a
great deal of pressure: Native studies teachers must attempt to undo years of colonial
influence on First Nations culture, be accountable to a growing segment of the
population, and work hard to build up a knowledge base and skills beyond what was
taught to them in their schooling (Wheeler 2001). For teachers of Aboriginal decent this
will simply mean transmitting a wealth of information that they have lived first hand.
For non-Aboriginal teachers, however, this poses a great deal of problems. Ideally, there
would be a plethora of Aboriginal teachers all teaching Native Studies, the reality of the
situation is that the majority of teachers in the province are not of Aboriginal decent
(Ministry of Education 2008). For most concerned, this is one of the largest problems
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facing the discipline.
There are many concerns raised over having non-Aboriginal teachers in charge of
Native Studies classes. The first, and most obvious, concern is that non-aboriginal
teachers will bring a Eurocentric worldview to the class, thus nullifying the desire to
decolonize the course material (Price 1981; Lindsay 2003; Rice 2003). While the
concern of these articles, Brian Rice in particular, is the overlooking of qualified First
Nations teachers for Native Studies positions; it is not from the stance of job equity, but
rather what content is being taught. This is made clear when William Lindsay is critical
of those First Nations professors who do get hired being Aboriginal on the outside, but
not on the inside (2003, p.189). The argument then becomes, is the important factor what
is being taught, or who is teaching it.
Rice (2003), in an impassioned retrospective of his career as a Native Studies
professor, argues that the most qualified person to teach Native Studies is someone who
has lived as an Aboriginal person (a feeling echoed by Wheeler 2006, and Lindsay 2003),
and that the discipline has essentially be hijacked by white professors, or Aboriginal
Professors who fit the white mold. Winona Wheeler (2006) adds that there needs to be a
high level of community involvement, and notions of Aboriginal spirituality, that can
only be provided by a First Nations teacher; otherwise the discipline is not unique, and “if
it is not unique, there is no reason for it to be separate” (p. 100). Lindsay (2003) even
goes as far as to say that the day-to-day experiences of First Nations students are often
not understood by non-aboriginal teachers, and are therefore they do not receive the
proper support that they may receive from an Aboriginal teacher (p. 191). Even those
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teacher’s having what Lindsay refers to as the “Dances with Wolves” complex, meaning
those non-aboriginal teachers who had spent a great deal of time living and working in
Aboriginal communities, often had a hard time authentically relating to First Nations
students (2003, p.187). Clearly the indication is that the background of the person
teaching the course is just as important as the content. It is still worthwhile, however, to
examine what makes Native Studies unique enough to deserve a class all its own.
One of the key aspects to Native Studies arises from its unique view of the world.
First Nations notions of history, politics, and even economics, are rooted in their spiritual
beliefs. In this regard, religion serves as the root of their society, and dictates how they
should relate to their surroundings. Aboriginal educators must then examine how best to
express First Nations worldview in regards to their culture, history, and current situation,
and ensure that it does not compromise the integrity of their traditions (Wheeler 2001). In
many cases Aboriginal groups are used to ensure that programs are set up along certain
criteria that is deemed acceptable by the First Nations community (Lindsay 2003). It is
hoped that by fostering a more authentic view of Native Studies, that Aboriginal students
will be able to have a greater connection to the material, and therefore a greater chance at
success. It is also hoped that, by having an authentic Aboriginal classroom experience,
non-aboriginal students would gain a better understanding of First Nations Culture.
In a paper she prepared for a conference at the University of British Columbia,
Frances Widdowson (2008) takes on the idea of “authentic Aboriginal content.” Her
argument is that in the rush to acknowledge the distinct nature of the Aboriginal
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worldview, and a desire to allow First Nations groups to break their dependency of the
Eurocentric influence, they are avoiding educational scrutiny. She asserts that to better
help First Nations groups remove years of oppression from certain disciplines, such as
history and political science, these subjects should include examinations from an
Aboriginal perspective. However, a problem arises when people attempt to define what
constitutes Aboriginal content. Widdowson cites several examples of universities giving
preferential hiring to teachers who are capable of incorporating Aboriginal content in
their classrooms. When pressed to clarify what Aboriginal content is and how it differs
from non-Aboriginal content, most universities could not provide a suitable definition.
Next, Widdowson critiques the accepted definition of the Aboriginal conception of
history. Citing the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People, the First Nations’
conception of history is cyclical and crosses the boundaries between physical and
spiritual reality. First Nations people feel that the storyteller is as important as the story
being told, even if their account conflicts with another story teller or empirical evidence.
In Widdowson’s thinking the reliance on oral accounts creates a lack of objectivity, as a
result, Aboriginal theories and methods lack credibility.
According to Widdowson, there are many similarities between Aboriginal
methods and Western theories. A problem arises from the interpretation of Western
examination as labeling Aboriginal cultures as inferior. The unwillingness to recognize
the developmental gap between the First Nations and Western cultures, during the
Contact Period, has allowed people to romanticize ideas about the complexities of First
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Nations’ society. Consequently, persons who service Native Studies do not have to prove
their truth claims with reliable evidence. As a result:
Political scientists…are able to prevent their own truth claims from being
scrutinized by arguing that their views are rooted in “Indigenist thought”, and
therefore any challenging of their veracity is an indication of “Eurocentrism”.
The tactic of name-calling is used to prevent the irrationality of “indigenous
theories and methodologies” from being recognized. The result is that many of
the arguments linking indigenous perspectives to decolonization have not been
critically analyzed. This has enabled ideas that actually maintain aboriginal
dependency and marginalization to be put forward under the banner of
“decolonization” (Widdowson, 2008, p. 11).
The implication of Widdowson’s argument is that the desires of White professors
to portray Aboriginal culture as different and distinct isolates Aboriginal thought in the
field of Native Studies. Unfortunately, this means that First Nations methods will not be
exposed to intellectual challenges necessary for their progress. As a result, the entire
purpose of including Aboriginal content, giving voice to Aboriginal people, is thwarted
because Aboriginal perspective is contained in the untouchable box of Native Studies
(Widdowson 2008). Essentially, in Native Studies’ mad drive to purge itself of Western
thought it has subjugated itself to it; the exact opposite intention.
There is much to consider in regards to Native Studies classes in Saskatchewan.
The implications of Wheeler et al that the teachers of Native Studies should be
predominantly First Nations, and that the content must have distinctive Aboriginal
methods, proves to be a large obstacle: because the majority of teachers in Saskatchewan
are not First Nations. Beyond the concerns that low First Nations representation creates a
lack of significant role models for Aboriginal students, there is also the concern that the
material is being taught from a Eurocentric point of view (Lindsay 2003, Wheeler 2001).
One of the main concerns for non-aboriginal Native Studies teachers in Saskatchewan is
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the idea that they are teaching a culture they are not necessarily familiar with, to a group
of students who belong to that culture. It would be akin to someone who cannot speak
French working in a Fransaskois school. It is conceivable that a non-aboriginal teacher
would be capable of learning the content of a First Nations class in a manner suitable to
teach it to the students. Indeed, if the University of Regina is to be believed, most
teachers should be capable of teaching any class, with the proper pedagogy. However, it
would require a great deal of self-awareness with regards to any bias the teacher may
have. There is also the concern, as Lindsay has already pointed out, that non-aboriginal
teachers may have a difficult time overcoming these biases and relating to the
experiences of their First Nations students.
Even more difficult is the view held by Widdowson that there is not necessarily
such thing as a unique Aboriginal approach. This idea flies directly in the face of the
policies laid out by the Ministry of Educations discussed at the beginning of this paper.
Though her point about the possibility of current Aboriginal methodologies being counter
productive may be valid, one can only imagine the amount of backlash that would occur
if the Ministry of Education adopted Widdowson’s views. It is no surprise that the topic
of Native Studies and Aboriginal content are touchy at best, considering the long history
of poor treatment of First Nations people in Canada, and even more recently the media
attention given to the atrocities conducted at residential schools in Saskatchewan.
While it may have seemed beneficial for First Nations students to create a
separate Native Studies program that better serves the Aboriginal population of the
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province with regards to methods and content, it is perhaps fair to say that it has not met
its expectations. The majority of First Nations students are either failing or struggling to
pass, and creating a single separate class is not the answer of how best to tackle this
problem. Another concern that arises is the notion of exposure. What this means is that
by having a separate First Nations content class, schools are effectively instituting a
segregation policy. Though nobody is forcing non-aboriginal students into history or
social, or barring Aboriginal students from those same classes, the perception is that
Native Studies is for First Nations students and non-Aboriginal students who are not
smart enough to take a real humanities class. As a result, Native Studies has become a
sort of dumping ground for students to get an easy credit (Saskatchewan Bulletin 2007).
It is also possible for a student who attends a school with no Native Studies program to
go their entire educational career without being formally taught any First Nations content.
By not being exposed to any other cultural content, these students are not meeting the
expectations of the policies of the Ministry of Education.
So who exactly is benefiting from the Ministries policies, or are we simply falling
prey to superficial Aboriginal content like Widdowson warned about. What would seem
more beneficial to First Nations students would be a focus on the Aboriginal perspectives
in all curriculums. This holds especially true for the social sciences, which Native
Studies is currently a part of. Recently there has been a call for a reunification of Native
Studies into the history and social curriculum. By mandating that there be First Nations
content within these classes, it is ensured that every student in the province is given
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access to Aboriginal perspectives (Saskatchewan Bulletin 2007). This is not to say that
every class needs to utilize aboriginal methods; because, as has been illustrated,
incorporating Aboriginal methods can be somewhat problematic, not only for non-
aboriginal teachers, but for First Nations teachers as well. What it does ensure, however,
is that there is a certain level of exposure to Aboriginal perspective, which can allow for a
higher level of empathy from non-aboriginal students, and the desire to work towards a
common future. Rick Ast, a member of the Regina Public Board of Education, through a
personal e-mail, expressed this same idea:
If there was a singular, unified, social studies course (Grades 10-12) that
included the best of history, and Native Studies and social studies education. All
students would have the opportunity to learn about and understand First Nations
and Métis culture and history. It would have to be carefully constructed and well
vetted. A common course would ensure that all students would learn about
Treaties and First Nations and Métis history, culture and contemporary issues.
This would strengthen the resolve for building a shared future together among
all of the people of this province (March 31, 2009).
Through many different conversations with high school teachers involved with the social
sciences, the same notion that a unified curriculum, one without Native Studies, would be
the preference (personal communications with Shawn Stieb, Ben Freitag, and Mark
Leupold from Luther College High School, March 30 2009; and Brian Marin from
Archbishop M.C. O’Neill High School, December 2008).
It may be argued that the consensus for amalgamation of Native and social studies
seems to be amongst the non-aboriginal majority; however, Del Anaquod, Professor of
Indigenous Studies, and former president of the First Nations University of Canada, who
is a Cree man from the White Bear Reserve, holds the same view (Personal conversation,
April 2, 2009). Anaquod went on to say that he was asked, but had to decline, to chair a
committee charged with the task of creating a new social studies curriculum that includes
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a significant amount of First Nations content, which should be released by the Ministry of
Education in the next few years. Anaquod is in favor of a more unified approach, and
feels that there needs to be greater inclusion of Aboriginal content in all class
curriculums, be it math, science, history, or religion. Wheeler even states that Native
Studies is trans-disciplinary in nature (p.100), and can therefore be applied to several
different disciplines, which also fits well with the policies of the Ministry of Education.
It seems counterintuitive then to want to limit Native Studies to one separate class.
The main obstacle that still remains after the assumed shift to a unified Social
Studies curriculum is the argument that non-aboriginals are not properly qualified to
teach First Nations perspectives. By instituting more Aboriginal content it would be
hoped that the success of First Nations students would increase, and that eventually the
number of those students attending post-secondary institutions would also increase.
Perhaps then there may be a rise in the number of First Nations students entering the
College of Education, and becoming teachers and role models for a new generation of
First Nations students. Unfortunately, at this point in time non-aboriginal teachers are just
going to have to do their best to ensure that Aboriginal perspectives are shown with as
little bias as possible. As suggested by the Ministries policy, the best method may be to
invite members of the Aboriginal community into the classroom to gain a more authentic
view. Teachers must at the same time be wary that the content presented by these
community members is relevant, and just as open to critical evaluation as the rest of the
content of the class. The goal should be to improve the educational opportunities to all
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members of society in order to share a more unified vision of the future.
Lindsay, W. G. (2003). The Key and the Coveted: An Exposé on the Lack of First
Nations Representation in the First Nations Studies Programs at the College
and University Level. The Canadian Journal of Native Studies Vol. 23 (1),
Ministry of Education. (2008). Saskatchewan Education Indicators- Pre-
kindergarten to Grade 12. Government of Saskatchewan. Retrieved from
Price, J. A. (1981). Native Studies in Canadian Universities and Colleges.
Canadian Journal of Native Studies Vol. 1(2), p. 349-361.
Rice, B. (2003). The Whitewashing of Native Studies Programs and Programming
in Academic Institutions. American Indian Quarterly Vol. 27 (1), 381- 385.
Saskatchewan Learning. (2003). Building Partnerships: First Nations and Métis
Peoples and the Provincial Education System- Policy Framework for
Saskatchewan's Pre-kindergarten to Grade 12 Education System.
Government of Saskatchewan. Retrieved from
Stonechild, B. (2006). Aboriginal Peoples of Saskatchewan. In The Encyclopedia
of Saskatchewan Online. Retrieved from
Teachers left with plenty to ponder after Kókom and Mosõm workshop. (2007,
November 21). Saskatchewan Bulletin, p.2
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Wheeler, W. (2001). Thoughts on the Responsibilities for Indigenous/Native
Studies. The Canadian Journal of Native Studies, Vol.21 (1), p. 97-104.
Widdowson, F. (2008). Native Studies and Canadian Political Science: The
Implications of “Decolonizing the Discipline.” Unpublished paper prepared
for the annual meeting of the Canadian Political Science Association.
Retrieved from http://www.cpsa-acsp.ca/papers-2008/Widdowson.pdf