Orange Shirt Day and Threads of Change: Indigenous Teachings, Insight, and Voices in the Classroom

By Lesley Machon, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

(ANNews) – I am writing today from my seat on Treaty 7 territory: the traditional lands of the Blackfoot Confederacy: Kainai, Piikani and Siksika, the Stoney Nakoda First Nation, the Tsuut’ina Nation, and the Métis Nation of Alberta, Region 3. Like much of the land we now call Canada, the legacy of colonization has carved deep wounds into the banks of the Elbow River and left jagged scars along the face of the Rockies.

I live on Turtle Island as a settler and a high school teacher, and my job includes thinking about what it truly means to Indigenize education. Provincial mandates and Teaching Quality Standards (TQS) can be starting places, but true reconciliation reaches far beyond bureaucratic boundaries. Infusing classrooms with Indigenous voices requires deep listening, a willingness to integrate profound shifts in perspective, and a sincere commitment to honour the wisdom of Indigenous elders, speakers, writers, scholars, poets, and artists. Even when they are challenging. Especially when they are challenging.

Indigenous Teachings: Revitalizing Classrooms

Indigenous perspectives are not simply pages from texts— though brilliant books have been published by Native authors, and I intend to highlight a few of them. Indigenous Knowledge (IK) has its roots down deep in the earth, in ways that are perhaps difficult for the colonial mind to grasp; like the mycelial network beneath the forest floor which transmits vital information, nurtures communities and ecosystems, and is inherently reciprocal in nature. This is of course, what our land acknowledgements are gesturing towards, however inadequate or perfunctory they may seem at times. They are attempts to acknowledge treaty-breach, broken promises, and the truth that IK is land-based healing, it is somatic ecology, it is ancient and earthy and lived more than studied or theorized about. By giving students access to this rich knowledge base into our curriculums, we breathe life into our classrooms.

This is important for so many reasons, not the least of which are the pressing issues that face Indigenous communities today, as outlined in the essay compilation Indigenous Writes: a Guide to First Nations, Metis, & Inuit Issues in Canada by Chelsea Vowel. From identity politics to the doctrines of colonialism to state violence, including the legacy of residential schools, the sixties and millennial scoops, Inuit relocation, poor quality drinking water on reserves, and the many injustices of the Indian Act, and other assimilation policies outlined in the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. The issues facing Indigenous communities, from social inequalities to environmental concerns, deserve and demand our collective attention. To address these challenges effectively, we must equip students with the tools to navigate these complexities with sensitivity and a sense of shared responsibility.

Incorporating Indigenous content year-round is a way to engage with our past and future simultaneously. We address the past by making reparations for abuse and inhumane assimilation policies, and sifting through the traumatic implications of colonization. We address the future by finding new ways forward. Not just for Indigenous folx, but for each human body occupying space in the greater ecology of Treaty 7, and all of Turtle Island.

Indigenous Insights: Sustaining Ecological Harmony

Indigenous voices, often silenced and marginalized, hold the keys to sustainable and harmonious living. Traditional ecological knowledge is often passed down through oral traditions, storytelling, and intergenerational teachings. From ancient wisdom to innovative solutions for contemporary challenges, Indigenous conservation efforts include a range of resource management practices. Some of these practices address health and food security such as seed-saving, sustainable hunting and harvesting, medicinal plant knowledge, and protection of waterways. Other environmental considerations include controlled burns for forest fires, and habitat restoration through riparian planting and caring for wetlands.

These practices reflect a deep understanding of local ecosystems and a commitment to maintaining a sustainable relationship with the land. For those of us in Treaty 7 who like biking through Fish Creek park on sunny afternoons in the summer, who are comforted by the buzz of pollinators at work, and who don’t want to choke on wildfire smoke…learning how to live in right relationship with the land, matters.

It’s also important to note, ecological knowledge is not static; it evolves and adapts to changing circumstances while maintaining respect for the land and its resources. Ancient practices continue to be relevant in contemporary environmental stewardship and conservation efforts. Traditional ecological knowledge offers valuable insights into sustainable resource management and conservation, which can inform modern approaches to land management and care.

As the world grapples with environmental crises, Indigenous perspectives on stewardship and sustainable living offer us a way forward. Incorporating Indigenous content in our classrooms year-round, allows us to nurture an ecological consciousness that is essential for addressing the pressing issues of our time.

Threads of Change: Orange T-Shirt Day and Beyond

Let us take pause and be present with the truths which are brought to the forefront on Orange Shirt Day. Let the reality of intergenerational trauma seep in, unsettle us, and effect change. And let us move forward into the weeks and months that follow, with decolonization, indigenization, and reconciliation as guideposts.

Orange shirt day can become part of a much larger fabric. We have the opportunity to create a new tapestry together; a quilt that takes us beyond the orange square at the center. We can build a future that honours the teachings, insights, and voices of Indigenous people. In fact, students today, and the ones that follow them tomorrow—human and otherwise—are counting on it.

Indigenous Voices: Tuning our ears to Vocables

The word vocables (Naósska) refers to non-lexical syllables used in singing to convey emotion and rhythm. They have specific meanings and purposes within songs. Vocables are an integral part of Indigenous music and oral traditions, preserving cultural knowledge, spirituality, and the connection to the land and community within Treaty 7 territory and beyond.

Below is a list of artists whose modern echoes incorporate ancestral roots, offering a diverse range of perspectives and styles, and making their work relevant for discussions surrounding Truth and Reconciliation.

Rappers and Musicians:

A Tribe Called Red – Known for blending traditional Indigenous music with contemporary electronic beats, their music often touches on themes of cultural pride and identity.

Snotty Nose Rez Kids – Hailing from the Haisla Nation, this duo’s music frequently addresses Indigenous rights and issues.

Drezus – A Plains Cree rapper from Canada, Drezus has created songs that deal with the effects of colonization and the resilience of Indigenous communities.

Supaman – A member of the Apsáalooke Nation, Supaman combines hip-hop with traditional Indigenous singing and dancing to share stories of his people’s culture and history.

Frank Waln – A Sicangu Lakota rapper, Waln’s music often addresses topics such as identity, history, and the effects of colonization on Indigenous communities.

Lido Pimienta – a talented Indigenous musician whose work explores themes of cultural preservation and empowerment.

Jeremy Dutcher – A Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) singer-songwriter and composer, Dutcher’s music combines classical and traditional Indigenous elements to tell stories of his people.

Samian – A French-Canadian rapper of Algonquin descent, Samian’s music deals with Indigenous rights, identity, and the importance of cultural preservation.

City Natives – This hip-hop group from the Mi’kmaq Nation often addresses issues faced by Indigenous youth, including cultural identity and social justice.

JB the First Lady – An Indigenous rapper and spoken word artist, JB’s music explores themes of empowerment, identity, and social justice.

Spoken Word Artists and Poets:

Gitz Crazyboy – A Cree poet and spoken word artist who explores themes of identity, culture, and resilience.

Tenille Campbell – A Métis writer and poet whose work often focuses on Indigenous identity, love, and healing.

Billy-Ray Belcourt – A Cree writer, poet, and academic whose poetry delves into queerness, Indigeneity, and decolonization.

Painters and Visual Artists:

Although my intention here is to highlight Indigenous voices, it is also possible of course, to speak without any sound at all. These talented humans, spanning various creative mediums, contribute to the rich tapestry of Indigenous art and culture, making their work relevant for discussions surrounding Orange Shirt Day and Truth and Reconciliation.

Daphne Odjig – A pioneering artist whose work reflects Indigenous culture and social issues.

Christi Belcourt – A Métis visual artist who addresses environmental and Indigenous issues.

Kent Monkman – His paintings and performances challenge colonial narratives and explore Indigenous, queer, and Two-Spirit themes.

Fiction and Non-Fiction Authors:

Thomas King – His novels and essays, such as The Inconvenient Indian, offer insightful commentary on Indigenous history and contemporary issues with humor and wit. The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative is another powerful read, where King reflects on the power and significance of storytelling in Indigenous cultures.

Eden Robinson – Known for her novels like Monkey Beach, Robinson explores Indigenous identity and spirituality in a contemporary setting.

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson – A writer, scholar, and musician, her work includes books like Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back, which addresses Indigenous resurgence.

Richard Wagamese – His novel Indian Horse provides a poignant look at the impact of residential schools on Indigenous individuals.

Winona LaDuke – An Indigenous environmental activist and author, her book All Our Relations explores the connections between environmental and Indigenous issues.

Maria Campbell – Her memoir Halfbreed offers a personal account of her experiences as a Métis woman in Canada.

Chelsea Vowel – Author of Indigenous Writes, a collection of essays addressing Indigenous issues, colonialism, and reconciliation.

Robin Wall Kimmerer – her book Braiding Sweetgrass combines Indigenous Knowledge with ecological science and has received numerous awards.

Alicia Elliott – Her collection of essays titled A Mind Spread Out on the Ground won the 2020 RBC Taylor Prize for Non-Fiction.

Tanya Tagaq – her book Split Tooth is a unique blend of fiction and memoir, and won the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2018.

Basil Johnston – an Ojibwa author, scholar, and rider, Johnston invites readers to delve into the richness of Indigenous thought and philosophy. In Think Indian he presents a collection of essays and reflections that explore various aspects of Indigenous culture, spirituality, and ways of thinking.

Our Story: Aboriginal Voices on Canada’s Past – this is a compelling anthology that offers a diverse range of voices and perspectives from Indigenous authors, historians, and storytellers. The book explores Canada’s history from an Indigenous viewpoint, through personal narratives, historical accounts, and contemporary reflections. This collection emphasizes the importance of reconciliation and understanding in the context of Canada’s shared history.

Young Adult Book Suggestions:

The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline – This dystopian novel explores a future in which people hunt Indigenous individuals for their bone marrow, which holds the key to dreaming.

Fire Song by Adam Garnet Jones – This novel tells the story of a young Two-Spirit Indigenous man dealing with grief and identity in a small town.

The Journey Forward: A Novella on Reconciliation by Richard Van Camp – This novella explores the journey of a young Indigenous woman in a healing circle.

My Name Is Seepeetza by Shirley Sterling – Based on the author’s own experiences, this novel follows a young girl’s life in a residential school.

These suggestions offer a diverse range of Indigenous perspectives, experiences, and stories, suitable for educators and teens exploring Indigenous culture and issues.

Lesley Machon is a Humanities Teacher. 



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