Supporting Indigenous Resurgence through Indigenous Arts Education

March 27, 2024

How do we respectfully bring Indigenous Arts into our teaching practice, especially when we are unable to invite an Indigenous artist to lead our learning? How can we, as non-Indigenous educators or Indigenous educators from different Nations than the art we are sharing, support students to engage in non-appropriative Indigenous Arts practices? 

These were some of the key questions addressed in a new professional development series for K-12 educators designed and hosted by a cross-disciplinary team from SFU. Comprised of three two-hour workshops delivered via Zoom for free, the series brought together over 160 participants from B.C. and beyond.

“It was an area that I had not really seen covered anywhere,” noted Tyler Bradford (Settler Canadian), an educator at FH Collins Secondary in Whitehorse, Yukon. “It was also an area [that] really needed to be talked about, so that educators know how to approach this topic with sensitivity, but also with some knowledge behind them.”

The series enabled participants to build a lens that would inform respectful decisions regarding resource selection and activity design choices for their engagement with Indigenous Arts (including visual, music, dance, and story). It provided supports in the form of initial background knowledge, scaffolds, and practice. 

Building upon institutional expertise related to Indigenous Arts at SFU, a team was created to develop the program. Led by Sara Davidson (Haida/Settler), Assistant Professor of Education with significant experience related to K-12 professional development and in consultation with the SFU Faculty of Education's Indigenous Education Reconciliation Council, the team included experts from the SFU Bill Reid Centre and the Indigenous Curriculum Resource Centre within SFU's Library in the work.

“Following the shift in B.C. curriculum to include more Indigenous contributions, educators have been working to find ways to respectfully bring Indigenous content and perspectives into their classrooms. This can be particularly challenging in the area of Indigenous Arts practices where fears of cultural appropriation can be immobilizing," Davidson said. 

Michelle Pidgeon (Mi’kmaq), Faculty of Education Associate Dean Indigeneity ʔək̓ʷstənəq ts'up'new̓ásentas added: “We believed [this] would be a strength of the initiative and also [wanted to] have expertise collectively shared in this partnership. The resulting professional development series is a demonstration of ongoing commitment to intentional reconcili-ACTION.” 

SFU Library has been working on a series of conversations with Coast Salish artists who have pieces in the Salish Weave Collection. Similarly, the BRC has been working to develop educational resources that facilitate understanding and respect for the Indigenous arts of the broader Northwest Coast region. The facilitation team saw a great deal of synergy between these ongoing initiatives and various media projects with which the BRC has a relationship, but which may not have been well known to educators. The Library’s and the BRC’s digital media assets provide important reflections by artists and cultural ambassadors on their work and are meaningful resources for learning about Coastal First Peoples’ art that the Faculty of Education found pedagogically relevant to teacher professional development. Both the BRC and the Library were similarly interested in furthering the development of educational resources that could highlight the curricular potential of the work they were engaged in.  

Pre- and Post-Survey Findings from IAP Attendees (April 2023)

“Over the years, we have seen a growing need to connect learning and classroom resources and things that teachers can use in their classrooms that activate all the material and media and knowledge that we have been documenting and creating,” said Bryan Myles (Settler Canadian), BRC Associate Director and a lecturer in Indigenous Studies.  

According to Ashley Edwards (Red River Métis, Dutch, and Scottish), Indigenous Initiatives and Instruction Librarian, the facilitation team’s hope was to “inspire folks who are just starting to decolonize their teaching practices and incorporating Indigenous Arts and Indigenous voices.” “Art is a way to start conversations about hard topics, such as residential schools,” she added, referring back to a conversation with Coast Salish and Kwakwaka’wakw artist Maynard Johnny Jr. where he spoke about the power of art. 

Pre- and Post-Survey Findings from IAP Attendees (April 2023)

Most participants reported making meaningful gains in their confidence related to finding Indigenous Arts resources, determining whether they are a form of appropriation or not, evaluating their appropriateness for their own class contexts, and designing respectful learning activities. 

Describing the key takeaways, one educator noted: “[In the past], so often I have done a lesson with an Indigenous book or resource without really digging deeper into how I should use this authentic resource and what connections I want kids to make.”  

“Do this work slowly, so it can be done well,” shared another participant. “Build a community of practice which can and must include Indigenous voices. A large part of this labour can be taken up in a good way by settlers.  It will be vulnerable work but it will be worth it. “

Pre- and Post-Survey Findings from IAP Attendees (April 2023)

For Courtney Vance (Northern-Tutchone) who recently graduated from SFU in Sociology (MA) and served as a Research Associate, working on this project has been a way of engaging in reciprocal and respectful practices with the host Nations as well as a bridge towards her own research into the ways art can be used as a decolonizing tool.  

“I can still remember being in middle and high school and not having these things talked about at all,” she added. “Seeing these teachers come out to the series and really be ready to engage in the work and reflect on their positionalities and their experiences has been really rewarding and gives me hope.”

The facilitation team has also created a website of publicly available, curated materials for educators to use. The site includes short videos of key presentations; resources related to Indigenous Arts, Indigenous artists and instruction that engages Indigenous Arts; along with a suggested path through these materials for those wishing to learn from them. 

The website content can help teachers bring Indigenous Arts into classes beyond contemporary arts. And while these materials were initially geared for K-12, they could be adapted to the post-secondary context.

Pre- and Post-Survey Findings from IAP Attendees (April 2023)

“I’ve been using this metaphor where you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day, you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime,” noted Myles. “This resource is like teaching someone to fish. Teachers can take the knowledge they have from these workshops and build their own classroom resources.” 

The series sponsors and contributors also included the Association of B.C. Deans of Education and the B.C. Ministry of Education