WINNIPEG, Manitoba - Nuuchal-nulth educator Dr. Richard Atleo, author of
"Tsawalk: A Nuu-chah-nulth Worldview" (University of British Columbia
Press, 2004), spoke with Indian Country Today about the ingredients of a
successful educational system.
Indian Country Today: What should be the goal of indigenous education in
the 21st century?
Richard Atleo: The current goal should be the same of that of millennia
past: Finding and maintaining dynamic harmony.
ICT: How is this achieved?
Atleo: The steps in the educational process are also the same as they've
ever been: Anticipation, preparation, practice and a public unveiling. For
millennia, our children were eminently successful in their training
programs. It's important to remember that Indian education was successful
for far longer than it has been unsuccessful. Indian children grew up and
coped with the difficulties and conflicts of life. Significantly,
traditional education had complete parental involvement. Because parents
understood the curriculum, they could anticipate the requirements of the
training and could direct each child to prepare for a role for which he or
she was best suited. There was also a strong culture of preparation and
endless practice - so much so, that these parts of the process could be
regarded as sacred. Finally, individuals were not unveiled in their new
roles until were ready.
ICT: What about communities that have lost traditional knowledge during the
last few centuries? Are they left without a way to proceed?
Atleo: Though a lot of information that was available to the ancients has
not survived - indeed, some communities are missing most of the specifics
of their traditional knowledge - all our communities know how to re-acquire
it. The principles are there."
ICT: What is the most important underpinning of the learning you describe?
Atleo: Traditional indigenous education assumes a purposeful reality, in
which students engage in activity that helps them discern the role for
which they have been born. Life has a purpose.
ICT: How does that differ from the assumptions of mainstream education?
Atleo: It's based on the scientific worldview, which teaches that there was
big bang, then evolution, then here we are. There is no creator in this
origin story. It is, in the most profound sense, purposeless, so events,
including students' activities - from elementary school through to the
doctoral degree - are meaningless. I'm not sure educators understand that
evolution assumes a world in which some survive, while many fail, and too
bad for them. Further, experiments within the scientific worldview may
reduce reality to one or two variables; then, when they can't find a
connection, they "discover" that parts of reality are disconnected. Of
course, this viewpoint breaks down at the subatomic level, where scientists
are finding reality can be better described as a continuum.
ICT: What effect does this have on education, and beyond that, on people's
Atleo: The scientific stance has an impact on curricula and the
proliferation of disciplines that purport to be unrelated, each with its
competing experts. It also has an impact on students and their families,
even on what happens in the streets, in that people feel disconnected. They
don't believe they are related to or responsible for each other. Malaise is
everywhere in mainstream society. If indigenous communities can communicate
their sense of interrelationship and purposeful existence, that would be a
huge contribution not just to the Americas, but to the world.