How We Can Honor Indigenous Values in Our Teaching Without Appropriating the Culture
I have always felt connected to Indigenous peoples. Perhaps it is because I am Mexican American and colonization is a part of my ancestry. Perhaps it is because the virtues of Mexican and Indigenous spiritualities in Texas and Minnesota, where I’ve split my whole life, are so universal that it’s hard to not be drawn to their teachings and practices.
As a writer, my Indigenous culture shows up in my poetry. As a teacher, it filters through my relationships with students and into the curriculum I curate. When I was a student, I struggled to see my people represented in curricula, so when I design Spanish and social studies classes, I work to decolonize my lessons and reclaim Indigenous history.
This past June, I received an email inviting me to participate in a webinar on Gratitude-Based Learning (GBL). At first, I was convinced I found a pedagogy ingrained with Indigenous wisdom that could further decolonize my teaching. However, during the seminar, the facilitators jumped directly into piloting GBL activities with attendees. I could not engage because there was no mention of how Native and Indigenous teaching informs gratitude-based learning; the very notion of centering gratitude comes from Indigenous culture, and it felt as if the seminar leaders had appropriated it, claiming it was a novel method of learning.
I fixated on the missed opportunity to honor the Indigenous histories and peoples of North America. I had hoped the seminar would address the tendency to ignore the impact of Indigenous practices in teaching; instead, it was just another example of appropriation. The whole experience left me wondering: How do we honor the original teachers of this nation? How do we, as educators, empower ourselves to affirm Indigenous knowledge as foundational to our practice and move closer to a pedagogy of justice and gratitude in our curriculum? The short answer: it starts with us.
Gratitude Is An Indigenous Practice
When we think about gratitude as a pedagogical practice, we should invoke the teachings of “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer. In this book, she speaks of the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address presented aloud to school children. The address is a prayer of gratitude, reminding ourselves of our inalienable connections to all beings and nature. Kimmerer advises readers that “we must learn to practice gratitude, not just as a fleeting emotion, but as a way of life.”
For me, then, to speak of GBL without acknowledging their contributions is to directly co-opt the wisdom of Indigenous peoples. In doing so, it makes me wonder, what else have we unknowingly appropriated from Indigenous culture? Looking closely at how education has evolved in recent years, we might find that long before the advent of GBL, Indigenous ways of knowing or Indigenous knowledge systems, which emphasize gratitude, collaboration and relationship as foundational to learning, influenced education. Many independent schools like mine have “Portraits of a Graduate”, an outcomes-oriented document that outlines the academic and life skills every graduating student is expected to master. Lifelong competencies such as collaboration, relationship building, becoming a visionary and caring for the Earth are often included as essential to student success beyond their brick-and-mortar education.
Recently, there has been a growing emphasis on creating cultures of belonging and connection not only socially, but within the physical spaces of our schools – a practice that can be traced back to Indigenous living and tribal teaching. It seems, too, that more and more schools plant gardens. Reconnecting students with the natural world as a sacred place to be cared for is yet another method of learning steeped in Indigenous ways of knowing and the fulfillment gained from connecting with nature.
Taking Up and Taking Back
As an educator, I want to adopt a take-back mindset that honors the Indigenous educators and historians who came before me. Hence, when I saw that the facilitators of the GBL webinar were appropriating Indigenous culture, I had to speak up. When the facilitators asked if we had any questions, one of the members of my Zoom breakout urged me to speak up. Shaking and nervous, I told the group how skeptical I was of GBL because it did not give any credit to Indigenous ways of knowing. Little did they know, my courage to question came from knowing that at one point, I also excluded Indigenous history.
In college, I learned about the first wave of feminism as a group of white women fighting for the right to vote. I taught the same topic to high school students in my women’s studies class 20 years later. While I thought I was inclusive and did the work to decolonize my teaching and curriculum, my perspective changed after my social studies department chair encouraged me to watch “Without a Whisper,” a documentary that reveals the influence the Haudenosaunee of Upstate New York had on the formation of the 19th-century women’s suffrage movement. The documentary humbled me and transformed my thinking by unraveling a lie I was taught. I believed that the progress toward women’s equality was because of white women, when in truth, the Haudenosaunee were the original feminists.
Two years ago, when I got the opportunity to teach the Indigenous origins of feminism, it felt liberating to right a wrong. My students and I were ignited with a new sense of purpose and realization that our struggle toward justice and equality actually needed to include all women.
Realizing how exclusionary history could be propelled me to do more. Currently, my Latine identity course has an extensive lesson on redefining La Malinche, a Nahua woman who was Hernán Cortes’s interpreter and guide during the conquest of Mexico. In my advanced Spanish classes, students learn about the Mayan Genocide during the 36-year Guatemalan Civil War. I also highlight slain Honduran Indigenous environmentalist Berta Cáceres, whose fight for access to clean water and affordable land for her people continues today.
Building these lessons into the curriculum makes me feel closer to my ancestors and reminds me how connected my teaching is to Indigenous ways of learning. I want to make it a common practice to interrogate the history we’ve learned and fully embrace the indelible mark Indigenous peoples have left on who we are as educators.
Reclaim Indigenous Practices Together
Speaking up at the GBL webinar was one of the most transformative moments of my school year. Mere hours after it concluded, one of the facilitators reached out to me and apologized for not recognizing the Indigenous origins of GBL. She extended an opportunity to discuss the issue further, and I welcomed the chance to follow up.
In our conversation, the organizers asked me what I thought would be the ideal way of incorporating Indigeneity into their next webinar. In my opinion, the facilitators had to be transparent about the ancestral Native roots of GBL and honor Indigenous activists and teachers like Winona LaDuke, Tara Houska and Linda Legarde Grover who have influenced our teaching practices. Ironically, my conversation with the facilitators centered on gratitude and collaboration; subconsciously, we communicated within Indigenous knowledge systems and found a way to honor the owners and producers of this important framework.
While my own Indigenous roots come from present-day Latin America, I am responsible for decolonizing curriculum and giving ownership of pedagogical practices used in our schools back to Indigenous peoples.
If we want our students to seek truth and justice, we must be willing to be co-leaders and participants in the search. Intentionally including Indigenous culture and GBL as a pedagogy requires ongoing and conscientious work. As teachers, we must continue to use our voices to reclaim Indigeneity within our schools and explicitly name the tools Indigenous people have given to us to be great educators. When we affirm the history of Indigenous cultures in classrooms, our schools become communities rooted in gratitude and healing.