Cover image: Indigenous People: A Teacher's Guide

Indigenous People: A Teacher's Guide

Written by Callum Mason, Reboot the Future

This month’s theme is connecting with nature, an important and timely topic. With a heating climate and the decline of our wild ecosystems, connecting with nature is something we should all be doing more of. A renewed connection with the natural world will encourage action on rampant pollution, overconsumption and ecological decline. This is especially relevant to teachers who have the responsibility of raising a new generation of students prepared to treat the planet better than those who have come before them.

Indigenous people and their ways of life are often upheld as inspiration for how we should act towards others and the planet. According to the Guardian, despite comprising just 6% of the world’s population, Indigenous people occupy about half of the world’s habitable landmass. Of this half, 40% is protected or ‘ecologically sound’ land. This makes Indigenous people responsible for about 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity. This is a staggering statistic and one that has rightly garnered lots of attention and talk from environmentalists.

It’s really important that global learning teaches students about Indigenous people, but it’s equally important that this topic is approached in the right way. The west unfortunately has a long history of misrepresenting and exoticising Indigenous people. Even when we are praising them or taking inspiration from their practice, it is all too easy to slip into tired stereotypes. But these, I think, can be avoided if students are introduced to this topic’s complexities. Acknowledging the diversity of Indigenous experience helps us all to see Indigenous people as they are. Ultimately, it is this nuanced understanding that will truly inspire students to connect with nature.

Teaching about Indigenous people:

How do you define Indigenous? There isn’t one foolproof definition here, but Indigenous people are usually associated with living in specific areas over hundreds or thousands of years. They may have languages, cultural practices or ways of social organisation that are distinct from industrialised societies. Indigenous people have often maintained these distinctive ways of life despite colonisation by Europeans. Good examples of Indigenous people are the Maori of New Zealand, Aboriginal Australians, Native Americans, Amazonian tribal people and Inuits. But there are also many African, Asian and even European Indigenous people. For example, the reindeer herding Sami of northern Scandinavia and Russia are considered the only Indigenous people of Europe. 

What *not* to teach:

Most encounters of Indigenous people we have here in the UK are via western representations and stereotypes. We all know what a native american headdress or dreamcatcher looks like and there are countless (horrendous) Hollywood representations of Indigenous people whether it's in cowboy movies or Indiana Jones. Whilst representations can be negative, portraying Indigenous people as violent or ‘uncivilised’, others present them as living in harmonious societies with intimate, even spiritual connections to the land around them. Sometimes, you get both of these tropes at the same time as with the film ‘Dances with Wolves’ where an initially distrustful white man learns to live with and respect a band of Native Americans. 

Now, given the news stories about Indigenous people being such vital protectors of biodiversity, you may be thinking that the positive portrayal above is quite accurate. The problem with this portrayal is not that there is some truth in it but that, taken on its own, it presents an unhelpfully incomplete picture. An excellent article by Julian Sayarer covers this whilst talking about his work with the nomadic, island hopping Moken people in Thailand. One of his colleagues asked a local man,‘Why don't you use sail boats?’ [...] Somewhat puzzled, the Moken man provided the obvious answer: ‘Because petrol is easy’”. According to Sayer, outsiders expected the Moken to conform to their stereotypes, that Indigenous people used ancient technology and were totally sustainable. The truth however is somewhere in between, the Moken have an intimate understanding of the fisheries that sustain them, they just also live as we do, in an interconnected, modern world. 

This is the problem with overly idealised representations of Indigenous people. It plays into what is known as the ‘noble savage’ myth. As per the conversation: ‘both the noble and the brutal savage are fantasies of the European mind that [keep] Indigenous people in a suspended state of either elevated purity or perpetual evil…The noble savage binds Indigenous people to an impossible standard’. By fixating on sacred Indigenous wisdom or their spiritual connection to nature we ignore that Indigenous people are complicated, messy humans like us. Some have been exiled from their traditional lands, some live in industrial cities, some make funny videos on Tik Tok

Understanding this complexity actually makes Indigenous people far more inspiring. Despite centuries of displacement, colonisation and misrepresentation, many of these people have managed to safeguard their diverse cultures and homelands. There is nothing mystical about what they have done either; they are people like us, many of whom have just developed highly effective ways of living sustainably. Indigenous people have not simply been passively protecting ‘wild’ land. Increasing evidence suggests that the most biodiverse regions of the world have been actively shaped by Indigenous communities. The Atlantic covers a study that claims the Amazon has been cultivated into a food forest through 8,000 years of human intervention. Learning about this incredible ingenuity shows us that it is possible to organise any society around mutually beneficial natural relationships. How much more inspiring is that? 

What to teach: 

So how should teachers go about this topic? There are three key things to do: 

  • teach with Indigenous-produced resources
  • raise awareness about how we can support Indigenous people
  • help students apply Indigenous-inspired knowledge in their own lives. 

The most effective way of bypassing stereotypes is by learning about Indigenous people in their own words. Sourcing Indigenous-written materials helps to give a balanced, nuanced perspective from the outset. One great website is Native Knowledge 360° by the Smithsonian Museum, which has tons of lesson plans and resources all designed to incorporate Native American perspectives and more accurate histories. Watching Indigenous-made documentaries can also be a fun way to introduce these issues into the classroom. Younger students can watch Molly of Denali, an Indigenous co-produced cartoon about a young native Alaskan girl, or this list of Indigenous made animated short-films. Older students could watch the hour long documentary ‘Angry Inuk’ an Indigenous directed piece about Inuit seal-hunters or this short Indigenous-filmed documentary about the uncontacted Awa people of Brazil. Another excellent resource is the book Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer a Native American and professor of environmental biology. This highly accessible book talks about the synthesis between Indigenous culture, Indigenous knowledge of plants and ecology.

Another crucial aspect of teaching this topic is encouraging action to support Indigenous people. For hundreds of years Europeans have been taking inspiration from Indigenous ways of life whilst continuing to destroy it. The same is happening today with ‘Indigenous wisdom’ becoming a buzzword in scientific communities and narratives of how we ‘need’ indigneous people to protect the world’s biodiversity. Indigenous people are constantly used as sources of information, inspiration or environmental protection whilst nothing is given to them in return. That is why educators must help students understand the challenges facing Indigenous people, how we may be exacerbating them and how we can go about supporting these people politically. In a sense, we should all aim to understand how Indigenous issues are our issues too. For information about how we can support Indigenous people check out COICA (Indigneous coordinating organisation of the Amazon basin), Indigenous Environmental Network, the International Indigenous Youth Council and Survival International.

Finally, although it is important to learn about the experience and traditions of different Indigenous groups, the primary focus for teachers should be encouraging students to strengthen their own connections to nature and each other. You will find that a common focus of Indigenous thinking is an emphasis on relationships: relations with ourselves, with the land, with our communities and with other cultures. Learning about this kind of thinking will help students to see how our own society’s behaviour is implicated in both the oppression of Indigenous people and the degradation of our planet. Teaching nature connection is the beginning of the healing process that ensures this never happens again. 

In terms of resources, there is an emerging educational movement in the UK that seeks to connect British students back to nature. Pioneered by environmental educator Jon Young, the ‘8 Shields’ method aims to reintroduce Indigenous-inspired learning about the natural and social worlds. The Art of Mentoring runs 8-shields inspired summer camps in the UK and you can also sign up to the Nature Culture Network for other similar events year-round. Another excellent resource is the book Ishmael by Daniel Quin. Ishmael tells the story of a man conversing with a silverback gorilla about the climate crisis and how to solve it. It’s principles are closely aligned with Indigenous perspectives on how to treat the planet and it presents its discussion in an highly engaging way, perfect for students. Find a study guide for it here. A final great set of resources are provided by our partners Learning through Landscapes. Their website has tons of ideas for how we can incorporate nature connection throughout the curriculum.