The Research Team
The project was initiated by Dr. Wanosts’a7 Lorna Williams in September 2003 when she was Director of the Aboriginal Education Enhancements Branch of the Ministry of Education in British Columbia. Dr. Gloria Snively, science and environmental educator and Director of the Graduate Program in Environmental Education at the University of Victoria accepted an invitation to serve as principal investigator for the project. In July 2004, Dr. Williams began a tenure track position at the University of Victoria and became Director of Aboriginal Teacher Education.
In January 2003, a group of invited University of Victoria faculty, graduate students, Ministry officials, non-Aboriginal resource persons, and Aboriginal leaders and Elders from around the province met at Dunsmuir Lodge, Victoria to generate a vision statement and to identify possible research directions. The following vision statement reflects the ideas, concerns, and vision of those in attendance.
Programs and curricula need to be developed that:
- Teach Aboriginal children that their culture has contributed to scientific knowledge and will continue to do so.
- Links science instruction to local Indigenous Science and Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Wisdom.
- Recognizes and engages the expertise of local Aboriginal people and links their current observations and understandings to a vast historical and cultural database gained from observation and experience.
- Enables Aboriginal students to understand the importance of science in their daily lives and its relationship to themselves, their community, and the world in which they live.
- Celebrates equity and diversity and recognizes equity and diversity as essential.
- Instills concepts such as giving back to the earth, prayer, offerings, and stream restoration.
- Where possible locating science concepts and practices in First Nations languages to provide a better understanding from a First Nations perspective.
- Enables Aboriginal students to be successful in school and not lose their cultural identify. (Snively & Williams, 2006, p. 232)
These essential points are reflected throughout the context, framework, research methods and expressions of Aboriginal education presented in this project. The research project drew upon the wisdom, knowledge and experience of Elders and community leaders in order to identify both science content elements of Indigenous Knowledge and TEK, as well as identify culturally appropriate and effective ways of teaching and learning science. The intent was to strengthen the connection of Aboriginal children to the land through their Elders, and to develop a new expression of science education for Indigenous children in the 21st century.
Building a Community of Researchers
By working with Aboriginal graduate students, rather than with practiced researchers, this project was unique in that it was designed to promote capacity building amongst Aboriginal peoples. Although this was an important key element of the research project, it had the difficulties of attempting to work with a cadre of inexperienced graduate students, many of whom were at the beginning stages of taking graduate level research courses.
The Graduate Program in Environmental and First Nations Education
During the summer of 2004, an off-campus Graduate Program in Environmental and First Nations Education was offered to both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students in ‘Yalis (Alert Bay), British Columbia, home of the Kwakwaka‘wakw people. The aim of this graduate program was “to bring together Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal persons to work together in learning about the forest and ocean environments, respecting the cultures of Aboriginal people, and educating future citizens to make wise decisions regarding long-term sustainable communities and environments” (Snively, 2006). Because the majority of graduate students were full-time teachers, the program was developed to take place in three summer sessions.
The graduate program explored a range of research methods deemed culturally appropriate for the research phase of the project: participant observation, informal interviews with Elders and resource persons, participatory action research (PAR), metaphorical interviews, student drawings, students as researchers creating videos of their choice and archival research. In these studies, cultural validity was assured by having Aboriginal teachers as researchers, Aboriginal Elders and groups participating in identifying the content and teaching strategies of the local science curriculum, participating in the teachings, and identifying culturally appropriate assessment practices.
The first summer session combined a variety of experiences with the natural environment with primary historical documents on BC First Nations’ history and culture, including input from First Nations’ Elders and other resource persons. Courses focused largely on topics dealing with the TEK of several First Nations of BC; current educational issues relevant to Aboriginal peoples; the knowledge and skills of WS; community-environment relationships; and the contributions of both WS and TEK to environmental knowledge, and the resolution of environmental and resource problems.
Although much of the program was team taught, the combined program of courses included Community, Culture and Environment taught by historical researcher John Corsiglia; Ethnobiology of British Columbia First Nations taught by ethnobiologist Dr. Brian Compton; Mythology, Stories and Science, taught by Yup’ik science educator Dr. Oscar Kwagley; and Environmental Education taught by Dr. Gloria Snively. “A key tenant was that environment and culture could not be considered separately, there could be no course on Kwagu’ł culture that was not also about the Kwagu’ł environment. Culture and environment are inextricably linked and must be treated holistically” (Snively, 2006, p. 203). Common experiences included direct experience with the Elders, and conducting archival and museum research associated with historical events related to colonization and decolonization.
Experiences with Elders and community leaders were coordinated by Gloria Snively and Gwi’molas Vera Newman, a Kwakwaka‘wakw language and culture teacher; and included informative and inspiring presentations by Chief Kwaxalanukwa’me’ ‘Namugwis Bill Cranmer, Chief Nulis Edwin Newman, 93 year old ‘Mam’xu’yugwa Auntie Ethel Alfred, Ga’axstalas Flora Cook and ‘Waxawidi William Wasden, Jr.; and day hikes and extended boat trips led by Wadzidalaga Wata Christine Joseph, Gwi’molas Vera Newman and Tłalilawikw Pauline Alfred. Topics included the use of Kwakwaka‘wakw traditional herbs, traditional medicines, the ethnobiology of marine forest resources, principles associated with language and culture, and historical cultural events. Western Science specialists gave presentations, including whale researcher Dr. Paul Spong, marine biologist Michael Berry, ethnobiologist Brian Compton, and anthropologist Dr. David Garrick.
By bringing together Elders and acknowledged specialists in the key inter-related disciplines, and by providing both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students with a total emersion experience in a dynamic Aboriginal community, the program provided a unique interdisciplinary starting point for designing research projects and developing educational programs and curriculum materials.
During the winter of 2004/5, the students took Field Based Research Methods taught by Gloria Snively that was designed to help the students begin to think about their research proposals. During the summer of 2005, they took two courses that were designed to provide additional research skills and focus on concepts associated with the current project: Aboriginal Ways of Knowing taught by Dr. Wanosts’a7 Lorna Williams and Interpretive Inquiry taught by Dr. Ted Riecken. Finally, during the summer of 2006 the students took Marine Biology for Teachers from Dr. Rick Kool at the Bamfield Marine Science Centre, a world-class teaching and research facility located on the outer west coast of Vancouver Island.
Although we consciously avoided teaching science and environmental courses in an assimilative way, the students were expected nevertheless to understand the world through the eyes of the Western scientist, just as they were expected to understand the world through the eyes of Aboriginal peoples.