Common Mistakes When Teaching Aboriginal Studies

The most important thing when teaching – anything – is ethics, teaching from an ethical position in regards to both the subject matter and the students. When instructors plan and execute their lessons from that worldview, the likelihood of problems within the classroom diminishes. However, the inherent challenges involved in teaching Aboriginal Studies can lead to serious pitfalls.

It all begins with what Mary Louise Pratt refers to as contact zones, or spaces where cultures meet and clash. The context for these contact zones often involves power relations between Western cultures and “the other” and are fraught with colonization, slavery, and the aftermaths of those power relations. Within the United States, there are several contact zones, as the history of the United States consists of colonization of Native American Aboriginal lands and the importation of African slaves. Even after so many years, the tension lives on, and every time a students and their instructor encounter a text, cultural representation, or their history, they are entering the contact zone.

The biggest mistake an instructor can make is to forget that zone exists. If he or she teaches the lesson without regard for the inherent cultural clashes, then the class will be missing the point entirely. Another major mistake is to try to smooth over the edges. Instructors may be uncomfortable with tension within the classroom, and as a result, dull the blunt edges. Instead, there should be conflict. Students should understand the history of colonization and be encouraged to react to it. This understanding can’t change what has already happened – centuries ago, but it can provide a much needed perspective of the students’ history as American citizens.

Another common mistake is for instructors to inadvertently re-colonize the Aboriginals by presenting their culture and lives in a way that undermines them. This can happen on a subconscious level because a non-aboriginal instructor will think of the aboriginals as “not me” or “other,” and that is very difficult to overcome. To avoid this, the teacher or professor must consciously remember to treat the subject with respect, pretending it is part of “me” and not “other.” Instructors must work to challenge their own Euro-western centric perspectives, and then they must do the same for their students. For example, when dealing with aboriginal religion, instructors and students may be tempted to use words like ‘myth’ or ‘legend,’ but they should remember to the aboriginals, their beliefs have as much merit as the Bible, Torah, Quran, or any other religious text. One solution to this may be to require students to compare aboriginal views of creation to those of the Judeo-Christian faith. There are numerous commonalities between every religion, which could be a fascinating study to high school or college students.

Another mistake is lumping all the various aboriginal groups, nations, tribes into one category. This is a very Euro-Western centric tendency. Encourage students to understand the differences between each aboriginal nation. Explore the reasons for the various wars among nations. Discover their many cultures, faiths, and lifestyles.

The most ethical approach to Aboriginal Studies is to center the cultures and lives in the context of a history of invasion and dispossession. Challenge the Euro-Western centric perspectives. Finally, present the on-going trauma for the aboriginal descendants. Include readings from Sherman Alexie because he enters the contact zone honestly, bluntly, often humorously, and in ways that are relevant to the present and the past.

Photo Credit: alamosbasement flickr

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