by Abaki Beck
Our reading of the week is Land as Pedagogy: Nishnaabeg intelligence and rebellious transformation, an academic essay by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (Nishnaabeg is an alternative spelling of Anishinaabe). In this critical yet loving essay, Simpson discusses the importance of Nishnaabeg ways of knowing. She argues that we have been normalized to accept, and thus not critique, western education’s focus on coersion, authority, and assimilation. Instead, she says that Indigenous children should recognize the land as a source of knowledge. Learning from the land not only connects us to our ancestors, but teaches us skills often not taught in western education, like creativity, independence, and problem solving. She argues that “Indigenous education” cannot be called such unless the knowledge comes from the land and is seen through an Indigenous way of processing; that is, it is not truly Indigenous education if it just teaches about Indigenous histories and cultures, as opposed to using Indigenous histories, cultures, and methodologies. Nishnaabeg epistemology does not have a set curriculum, because it doesn’t make sense for everyone to learn the same set of facts.
Simpson discusses at length a few tenets she views in Nishnaabeg epistemology and teachings, including: connection to the land; intimacy (both via community connection and recognizing the interconnected web of existence); the responsibility of sharing your knowledge with others; consent (both of the person being educated and of those you are using for education - like giving tobacco to the maple tree before extracting sugar as a sign of respect); and that everyone is a producer of knowledge. As she says, “We are enough because if we are living our lives out in a Nishnaabeg way (and there are many of these ways) we can access all the knowledge that went into creating the universe.”
Consent is a particularly interesting aspect of Nishnaabeg epistemology because as Simpson asserts, as colonized peoples, Indigenous people are often forced to do things without our consent and that non-consent is viewed as normal within a settler-colonial context. Of course colonization, removal from our lands, and boarding schools were non-consensual, but she also argues that centering consent in education and teaching focuses on the experiences of the learner, as opposed to a forced, westernized curriculum.
Tribal communities need people trained in western educational institutions as lawyers, doctors, and business people to continue to serve and revitalize their communities. However, there is also a strong need, as Simpson challenges, for revitalizing not only tribal knowledge, but tribal ways of teaching and ways of learning. Land dispossession was the largest attack on Indigenous intelligence, because that is where our knowledge base comes from. Engaging the land as pedagogy, as Simpson argues, is entirely about learning by doing. Learning by picking medicinal plants. Learning by listening to our elders. Learning by becoming engaged with people who have a skill we are interested in learning. Indeed, Simpson thinks it problematic that tribal nations focus on their youth gaining western educational credentials as opposed to tribal knowledges and histories. She argues that “we shouldn’t be just striving for land-based pedagogies. The land must once again become the pedagogy.”