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Education Today

HCF StudentsWhen European settlers began to arrive on North American soil, they brought with them the beliefs and systems of their cultures. Unfortunately, they also attempted to force these beliefs and systems on the Aboriginal Peoples that had lived on the land for hundreds of generations. Education was just one area in which the assimilation of Aboriginal Peoples was attempted. The importance of the rich traditional education imparted to Aboriginal children by their parents and community Elders was not recognized. For many years, traditional Aboriginal culture was threatened as children were placed into residential schools and taught to forget their traditional educations.

In the 1970s, the destruction of Aboriginal culture reached a peak and Aboriginal peoples began to turn to themselves and to their own communities for support. In 1973, the National Indian Brotherhood issued a paper stating that Aboriginal communities and bands wished to assume full responsibility for the educations of their children.1 Until that time, Aboriginal children attended government-operated schools. Though most of the residential schools had closed by the 1980s, school curriculums continued to place little focus on Aboriginal heritage and offered little chance for children, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal alike, to embrace Aboriginal culture in a school setting.

Traditionally, the education of Aboriginal Peoples was based on a rich and intimate knowledge of the land and consisted of mastering the skill necessary for survival in an often-harsh environment. There were no official schools – the land functioned as the ‘school’ in which Aboriginal children mastered their abilities, and community Elders were the ‘teachers’.

While this traditional type of education might be less vital to the physical survival of Aboriginal Peoples today than it was in the past, it continues to be integral to the spiritual survival of many. The significance of preserving and maintaining traditional Aboriginal education cannot be disregarded. The government is recognizing the importance of providing Aboriginal children and youth with an education that meets their unique needs, and incorporating special programs to suit these needs in schools and institutions both on and off reserves. At the same time, school curriculums are being redesigned to increase and strengthen Aboriginal content.

In Alberta, more attention is being paid to preserving and showcasing Aboriginal perspectives in school books. Treaty rights, governance, geography, culture and language are being explored by students province-wide. This long-overdue approach is helping Aboriginal children to embrace and preserve their unique cultures while teaching non-Aboriginal children to value some of the country’s oldest traditions. In many schools, increased parental involvement is encouraged. Elders are sharing their wisdom with students, often by bringing traditional rituals such as the Sweetgrass Ceremony into the classroom. Schools which boast a large Aboriginal student population, usually on reserves, might offer traditional education in addition to a school-based education. This includes instruction in traditional teaching, ceremonial dance and song, spirituality, traditional arts and crafts, recreation, or languages such as Cree.

Advancements at the post-secondary level have also made it possible for college and university students to further their educations while keeping in touch with their culture and community. Locally-operated colleges and universities fit the unique needs of Aboriginal students, and in urban areas, many larger post-secondary institutions have expanded their programs to offer degrees in Native Studies and Native Education. A large network of support services functions province-wide to fit the unique needs of a unique people. All of these programs aim to increase the representation of Aboriginal Peoples in Canada’s professional ranks, while bringing Aboriginal perspectives and interests into a variety of fields."2 The input of Elders is present in this new blend of traditional and school-based education, continuing the beautiful traditions of the past in the ever-changing environment of the present.

Berry, Susan, and Jack Brink. Aboriginal Cultures in Alberta: Five Hundred Generations. Edmonton: Provincial Museum of Alberta, 2004.





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