Research Summary

Muskrat theories, tobacco in the streets, and living Chicago as Indigenous land

Incorporating Indigenous Perspectives in Place-Based Education

Environmental Education Research
2014

Although place-based literature acknowledges the complex relationships between land and culture, the multicultural and historical context of the land—particularly with regard to indigenous cultures—is often left out. Without understanding and incorporating these indigenous perspectives, educators run the risk of perpetuating conceptual developments and experiences of place that do not account for the histories of land-culture relationships that preceded settlement. Recognizing that Western intellectual tradition often denies or erases indigenous points of reference, this paper’s authors uncover ways in which settler colonialism is embedded in place-based education and explore lessons learned from an indigenous land and community-based education project.

The authors represent heritage from six different nations (Ojibwe, Lakota, Choctaw, Little Shell Band of Chippewa-Cree, Miami, and Navajo), each with various histories that typify experiences of indigenous people across North America. In their paper, they trace the emergence of settler colonialism and consider its subsequent impacts in environmental learning contexts. They then draw lessons learned from a six-year community-based research project, which they led together in Chicago. This project was inspired by indigenous elders who began walking the perimeter of the Great Lakes almost 15 years ago to raise awareness for the impacts to the health of the lakes (see www.motherearthwaterwalk.com). The research project centered on the ecosystems and environmental degradation of the Great Lakes, which are home to many indigenous nations.

Because many educational research traditions are inadequate for understanding the complexities of learning and development, the research team used a design-based research method that refines theory and practice throughout the process. The first step involved bringing together a range of community members to be decision-makers in the design and implementation of place-based science learning. Following the design process, a local community organization was created to initiate youth and family programs held at the American Indian Center of Chicago. Programming was initially held during the summer, but then was expanded to year-round on Saturdays.

Three themes that emerged from the design process guided program implementation: (1) knowing Chicago as the lands of indigenous ancestors and, specifically, visiting old village sites; (2) knowing Chicago as wetlands, where many medicinal and edible plants grew and continue to grow; and (3) understanding the impacts of invasive species on these lands. The authors organized the pedagogy around “knowing” and “coming to know” through building relationships with land. From this experience, the authors offer insights for reconceiving place-based education in a multicultural, historical context.

The authors found that constructions of land as no longer indigenous are consistently implicated in teaching and learning about the natural world. Based on their reckoning of settler colonialism and its impacts in learning contexts, as well as their experience through the community-based research project, the authors suggest that pedagogies that acknowledge indigenous people’s lifestyles and incorporate indigenous perspectives of the land can inspire stewardship. One key theme that emerged from the research project, for example, was “remaking relatives:” the notion that people need to treat land as a relative, rather than as a material object; in this way, land is protected for long-term use and conservation. Learning about people’s relationships with “plant relatives” over time, for example, enabled project participants to come to know a place through a lens focused on its current state. This focus on plant relatives enabled participants to move beyond an anthropocentric view of nature to one more family-focused. Uncovering how people— both indigenous and Western—have valued and related to a species, such as a plant, over a long history could facilitate this type of learning. The authors suggest that this type of place-based knowledge creation that integrates indigenous culture could enable deeper engagement and cultivation of relationships with the land, as participants became increasingly interested in expanding their learning about plant relatives to land, water, and other aspects of the environment.

Another theme that emerged from their research project was the significance of “naming” and the ways in which naming may construct knowledge systems in teaching and learning environments. Naming, in place-based education or environmental education, may often create the turning point at which references between Western and indigenous ways of knowing and fostering understanding diverge. For example, using the term “invasive species” can sever a whole history of human relationships to a species. Because the “invasive” may be new to the current population in a particular place, it may not be perceived as a “relative” of the people in that place today. It is, however, a relative of humans at a broader scale. Learning about a longer continuum of relationships between people and an “invasive” plant, for example, seemed to create an openness and eagerness for the research project participants to learn more about changes in the environment over time. The authors refer to this learning process as “storying the land from long views of time and experience” or “(re)storying.” They argue that by making the history of the land and changes in the land visible over time, the land becomes “the first teacher,” and learning environments emerge from there.

The Bottom Line

Taking a long view of the relationships between people and plants in a given place may facilitate a stewardship perspective that goes beyond an anthropocentric view of nature. Coming to know how people have connected to a particular plant, over time, for example, is one way to cultivate place-based learning that incorporates indigenous perspectives on relationships with land. For indigenous scholars, focusing on relationships between people and land is not new; however, these relational pedagogical approaches need to make their way into place-based education and other environmental learning contexts. (Re)storying lands to include indigenous people as original inhabitants can help people move beyond narratives of acquiring territories and resources and bring about social change for stewardship.