J is for Jobs: White Teachers and Cultural Appropriation

“They want our stories without our bodies.”

This tweet haunts me.

I, like most teachers in Canada, am White (Ryan, Pollock, & Antonelli, 2009). Despite increasing racial diversity in our general population, Canada’s teaching force continues to remain disproportionately White. And while teachers are mostly White, our students are increasingly from a diversity of racial backgrounds.

I cannot change my race, nor the required relationships between my students and myself. But this disconnect is becoming increasingly problematic.

Twice this year I have been called out for my Whiteness by Indigenous parents. I have been asked: “Why are there no Indigenous teachers to teach my kids?” I don’t have an adequate answer. I see their point.

Even though I am constantly trying to provide culturally responsive learning opportunities for my students, I will never be enough. My actions cannot replace the need for a culturally diverse teaching body. And there are problems with me getting too good at teaching in this way. I am running the risk of making Indigeneity seem like a quantifiable list of performable and “knowable characteristics [that] can be studied, known, and managed” (Razack, 1998, p.10). I know that Indigeneity is not like that, but do my actions show that I know?

Indigenous knowledge is made up of place-based, embodied understandings that have been developed and sustained by Indigenous civilizations over millennia. Indigenous knowledge is often oral and symbolic, passed on through “modeling, practice, and animation, rather than through the written word” (Battiste, 2002, p.2). It is not possible for me to become an Indigenous knowledge keeper. I am not leading that life.

Nonetheless, I continue to try to provide my students with authentic experiences for them to learn from and about Indigenous peoples. But the more work that I do to bring Indigenous knowledge and culture into my classroom, the more I mask the very real and pressing need to hire Indigenous teachers.

From the outside, it can look like schools are doing the right things. Schools can hold round dances, tipi raising ceremonies, attend pow-wows and have assemblies to honour Residential School survivors. But on the inside, the make-up of our national teaching body has not changed. Indigenous teachers have few full-time positions in school buildings and students are missing out from learning about Indigenous history and culture directly from them on a daily basis.

This feels like a classic between-a-rock-and-a-hard-place scenario.

On one hand, I am called to challenge the Eurocentric ways of knowing, to create an “ethical space of engagement” (Ermine, 2007) for all of my students, which is rich in diversity and which centers Indigenous voices.

On the other hand, I am White, along with the vast majority of my colleagues, and doing this work can disguise the lack of racial diversity in our education system.

Plus, I just can’t do the work. I don’t know how to drum, bead, smudge, put up a tipi or any other culturally important practice. So I have to find creative ways of presenting these learning opportunities to my students and continually risk doing it wrong. It feels like I am damned if I do and damned if I don’t.

In the Fall of 2016, our school purchased a traditional moose-hide drum from a Cree (nihiyaw) friend of mine. We used the drum in an Indigenous Leadership program that he ran in the evenings at our school in the Fall. We are now running an evening drumming class under his direction and we’re learning to sing a Cree honour song.

This class is made up of students from all over the city from all backgrounds. With my friend’s permission, I am taking this learning back to my own school’s Treaty 4 drumming club, which I run on my own every week during one of our lunch hours, when he is not available.

The lunch-time Treaty 4 drumming club is more accessible to our students and allows us to have more time to practice the skills that are being taught in the evening class. We are hoping that the Treaty 4 drumming club will be able to drum and sing for our Heart Garden ceremony to honour Residential School survivors in June.

But for me to run this drumming club on my own is dodgy. As a White Settler, I am walking a very fine line between culturally responsive pedagogy and cultural appropriation.

Recently, Zoe Todd (2017, April 27), a prominent Métis academic, published a blog post entitled: “Indigenous stories, knowledge, legal traditions, ontologies, epistemologies as unceded territory (or: Hands Off of Our Teachings)”. I can’t help but feel that I am implicated. I am helping to teach my students a Cree honour song and this song is part of a large body of Indigenous knowledge and cultural practices that are unceded territory, unsurrendered Indigenous property.

Todd writes that institutions who seek Indigenous knowledge but who refuse to hire Indigenous bodies are “inherently violent spaces” (par. 3). In the wake of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Final Report and numerous Calls to Action, educational institutions throughout Canada are undergoing a push to ‘Indigenize’, to add Indigenous knowledge and culture to their programs.

Todd writes that co-opting Indigenous knowledge in this way is just another form of extraction that has been re-packaged as reconciliation; Indigenous knowledge has become a kind of currency that is being concentrated in the hands of non-Indigenous scholars and teachers.

It is White people who are coming to “control the flow of this knowledge and the parameters of these relationships” (par. 5). I can see how this would feel like violence.

This extraction of Indigenous knowledge falls into what Dr. Aileen Moreton-Robinson (2015) has called ‘white possessiveness’. Moreton-Robinson’s uncle is quoted at the beginning of her book:

“The problem with white people is they think and behave like they own everything” (Dennis Benjamin Moreton quoted on pg. xi).

Todd argues that Indigenous knowledge is unceded, that it has not been surrendered to non-Indigenous hands and therefore cannot ethically be possessed by White people because there has never been “a reciprocal and accountable framework to negotiate its entry” (par. 12) into non-Indigenous spaces.

This quest to Indigenize may instead be a quest to extract and possess without reciprocity.

So, what would a reciprocal and accountable framework be for this drumming project? How can I, as a White Settler, ethically lead a group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous students to learn a Cree honour song? Is this even possible?

The easy answer would be that it cannot be done and that I should quit.

But where would this leave my students? It is me doing this poorly, or it doesn’t happen at all.

Erica Violet Lee writes that the centering of Indigenous knowledge is important, “but it must be done right”. And I agree. But what if it takes time to get it right?

Ian Campeau, an Anishinabe DJ who is part of A Tribe Called Red, tweeted a “Simple rule of gauging cultural appropriation: ‘Nothing about us, without us'” (2017, Apr. 29).

Teacher Monique Cadieux, photo by Peter Power for the Toronto Star

Perhaps that is where Guelph teacher, Monique Cadieux, went wrong. Cadieux was at the heart of a cultural appropriation scandal in November 2015 when she won an Honourable Mention for the Toronto’s Star’s Teacher of the Year Award.

She won, in part, for incorporating traditional Indigenous knowledge ceremonies such as smudging, the medicine wheel and a talking rock into her classroom practice.

While Cadieux states that she did consult elders prior to bringing these ceremonies to her classroom, there does not seem to be any ongoing Indigenous presence in her work.

Ron McLester, the director of aboriginal education at Mohawk College in Hamilton, called Cadieux’s work “inappropriate” (CBC News, 2015, Nov. 13, par. 3).

McLester argued that the way forward is for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to work together and that this requires more than connecting once. “[I]t’s a lifetime to learn about smudging…it’s a lifetime to learn about the medicine wheel. Those things need to be respected the same way any knowledge base would” (par. 12).

Amanda PL, photo by Martin Trainor/CBC

Just this past week, Toronto artist, Amanda PL had her upcoming exhibit canceled due to concerns over cultural appropriation. PL’s work is heavily inspired by the Woodlands style of painting made famous by Anishinaabe artist, Norval Morrisseau. PL is not Indigenous herself and again, appears to have no ongoing connection to an Indigenous community.

So, perhaps it is best to start there. Being culturally responsive and avoiding cultural appropriation means creating on-going, meaningful relationships with Indigenous people. It means providing my students with as many opportunities as possible to learn directly from Indigenous knowledge keepers. It means asking Indigenous parents and friends to evaluate my work and participate in our Indigenous programs. And it means continuing to advocate for more Indigenous staff.

After attending one of my lunch-time drumming club meetings, an Indigenous parent told me that she hoped this kind of drumming group would start up in every school. This is a program that begins to meet the needs of her son. However, she recognizes that doing something like this on a large scale must be done cautiously.

Meme via F. A. I. R. For Accurate Indigenous Representation in the Media

Last night, I brought my concerns about cultural appropriation to my Cree friend again. I told him my worries that this song wasn’t something for me to have.

He assured me that songs are not like stories, which are traditionally owned by families. Songs, he said, are a gift from the Creator and after they are sung once, they belong to everybody.

“Who is everybody?” I asked. “Everybody everybody, like White Settlers myself included, everybody?”.

He said everybody, everybody. The Creator does not discriminate. As long as we work to do this in a good way, this is a good thing.

I have also had a local Saulteaux elder sit in on our lunch time drumming group and he has assured me that we are going about it in a good way. He passed on some drumming advice that an elder had given to him: “Don’t worry about missing a few beats. You can always pick them up later.” Practice makes perfect.

I think this drumming is important, important enough to risk doing it wrong, important enough to tiptoe, in a nervous fashion alongside cultural appropriation. I know that both drumming groups are leading to an increased Indigenous presence in our building. There are Indigenous songs and stories trickling into our hallways as well as Indigenous bodies sitting around the drum. I know that both my Indigenous and non-Indigenous students are learning crucial lessons about our history and our present, about Indigenous resilience and strength, about reconciliation in a way that can’t happen in a traditional classroom setting. And I know that I will likely make mistakes but that I will keep trying to do better.

My hope is that in a few years or maybe even sooner, I won’t be leading this drumming group anymore, an Indigenous teacher will. But until that time, I will do my best not to mess it up.


Abdi, M. (Muna_Abdi_Phd). “…Peter Sellers played an Indian Angelina Jolie played someone who is mixed race They want our stories without our bodies” 2016, June 25. 7:34AM. Tweet. Retrieved from: https://twitter.com/Muna_Abdi_Phd/status/746683046745747456

Battiste, M. (2002). Indigenous Knowledge and Pedagogy in First Nations Education: A Literature Review with Recommendations. Prepared for the National Working Group on Education and the Minister of Indian Affairs. Retrieved from: http://www.afn.ca/uploads/files/education/24._2002_oct_marie_battiste_indigenousknowledgeandpedagogy_lit_review_for_min_working_group.pdf

Brown, L. (2015, Oct. 1). Guelph teacher Monique Cadieux looks to First Nations to inspire students. Toronto Star. Retrieved from: https://www.thestar.com/yourtoronto/education/2015/10/01/guelph-teacher-monique-cadieux-looks-to-first-nations-to-inspire-students.html

Campeau, I. “Simple rule of gauging cultural appropriation: ‘Nothing about us, without us'”. 2017, Apr. 29. 8:53AM. Tweet. Retrieved from: https://twitter.com/deejayndn/status/858318209576861696

CBC News. (2015, Nov. 13). Using First Nations icons in school ‘not culturally safe,’ says educator Ron McLester. Retrieved from: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/kitchener-waterloo/first-nations-culture-in-classrooms-can-be-inappropriate-says-ron-mclester-1.3318105

Ermine, W. (2007). The Ethical Space of Engagement. Indigenous Law Journal 6(1), 193-203. Retrieved from: http://ilj.law.utoronto.ca/sites/ilj.law.utoronto.ca/files/media/ilj-6.1-ermine.pdf

Lee, E. V. (2015, Nov. 9). “Indigenizing the Academy” without Indigenous people: who can teach our stories? Retrieved from: https://moontimewarrior.com/2015/11/09/who-can-teach-indigenous-philosophy/

Moreton-Robinson, A. (2015). The White Possessive: Property, Power, and Indigenous Sovereignty. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Nasser, S. (2017, Apr. 28). Toronto gallery cancels show after concerns artist ‘bastardizes’ Indigenous art. CBC News. Retrieved from: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/toronto-gallery-indigenous-art-cancels-amandapl-1.4091529

Razack, S. (1998). Looking White People in the Eye: Gender, Race and Culture in Courtrooms and Classrooms. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press.

Ryan, J., Pollock, K., & Antonelli, F. (2009). Teacher diversity in Canada: Leaky pipelines, bottlenecks, and glass ceilings. Canadian Journal of Education, 32(3), 591-617. Retrieved from: http://www.cje-rce.ca/index.php/cje-rce/article/view/3053/2341

Todd, Z. (2017, April 27). Indigenous stories, knowledge, legal traditions, ontologies, epistemologies as unceded territory (or: Hands Off of Our Teachings). Retrieved from: https://zoeandthecity.wordpress.com/2017/04/27/indigenous-stories-knowledge-legal-traditions-ontologies-epistemologies-as-unceded-territory-or-hands-off-of-our-teachings/

2 Responses

  1. Thanks Claire for this thought provoking article. I like that you are working within the tension and not running from it. You show awareness for what you have not come to know, may never know, and would like to know. I will be sharing this with a group of presenters for an African Heritage Marketplace event we are putting on with our board. It will be very useful.

    1. Claire Kreuger

      Hi Myrtle. Thanks for reaching out. It’s nice to know these posts are still being read! Let me know if I can be of any more assistance and good luck with your event. -Claire

Leave a Reply