Aboriginal Culture and Language

Education: How Does Aboriginal Language and Culture Fit?


The topic of Aboriginal Education is something that is deep rooted within North American history. There is a long debate of how to go about integrating Aboriginal culture in a way that sufficiently supports Aboriginal learners as a means to adequately teach First Nation culture and language. Although historically there has been some attempt to implement Aboriginal language and culture into Canadian curriculum (Kitchen,2009; Skinner, 1991; Hongyan ,2012), according to various research, the intended results and outcomes of such a plan has not yet been founded. St.Denis (2007) argues that “Aboriginal students are, in part, living out a long-established, politically charged script of who belongs and what it means to belong to an Aboriginal community” (p.1069). Research has identified that there is not only an issue with Aboriginal identity among students, but there is a significant need to implement First Nation culture and language into schooling in order to effectively meet the needs of all students.

Lack of Language and Culture

Research findings indicate that there is a long standing failure of implementing Aboriginal culture and language within educational curriculum. Research indicates that the government has attempted, for a long time, to preserve Aboriginal language and culture. This is shown through the Language Act of 1991, which identifies its purpose “To assist Native Americans in assuring the survival and continuing vitality of their languages” (Native American Languages Act of 1991, 1991, p.3).

However, “a mutually satisfactory approach to language and culture in First Nations schools has not been reached” as of 2014 (Morcom, 2014,p.10). Currently, “the Ontario “provincial curriculum does not allow First Nations students to learn in their own language or learn their own history in a meaningful way” (Kitchen, 2009, p.358). Kitchen (2009) identifies that The Department of Indian and Northern Affairs policy “seeks to align First Nations systems with provincial systems and make ‘little reference to the role of educa­tion in strengthening and supporting First Nations’ languages, cultures, and knowledge’” (p. 357). So, research has suggested that although the government has eluded to including such relevant culture and language for Aboriginals into curriculum, this has not occurred within the education system.

Some may argue that culture and language are entirely separate from schooling, or that even language and culture are not the same thing. However, according to Skinner (1991 ) “"Language and culture are to sides of the same coin"” (p.22). One cannot essentially exist without the other and both are needed to create a culturally sound, and linguistically skilled education.Skinner (1991) notes that “language is critical in maintaining cultural continuity and Native identity” (Skinner p.11). This is important when viewing curriculum and the reforms needed for education.

Chirubini (2010) identifies that “many Aboriginal languages, which are steeped in rich cultural knowledge, are at risk of extinction” (p.333). This is a reality among Aboriginal people. According to Statistic Canada (2010), “Among the Aboriginal population, 18% of children aged 14 years and younger had knowledge of at least one Aboriginal language compared to 37% for those aged 75 years and over”. Furthermore, “Although there have been many calls for Aboriginal language maintenance and reclamation, Aboriginal languages are continually dying,” (St.Denis, 2007,p.1077)which is due to the lack of implementing language standards within curriculum. Research depicts that there is clearly no emergence created in terms of saving Aboriginal language, and making it a priority within Canadian schools. This is clear when identifying that “Aboriginal language instruction has not been made as readily available as French language instruction” (St.Denis, 2007,p.1077). The fact that Aboriginal language is not being viewed with the same importance as French, or English, gives reason to the decline of Aboriginal language among communities, and raises question as to what needs to be done in order to protect First Nation language and culture.

Although much research noted the importance of this issue, others did note that there was some success with integrating language and culture into education. It has been suggested that course offerings have somewhat attempted to be more inclusive of Aboriginal culture. Levin (2009) admits that “More recently, Canadian colleges and universities have become more receptive to Aboriginal students in terms of course offerings and student services” (p.690). However, (Hongyan, 2012) argues that such offerings do not meet cultural needs of Aboriginals. Another important success was the implementation of language programs. Morcom (2014) describes the “Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey Agreement in Nova Scotia, which is has resulted in culture-based and strong language immersion programs with an average graduation rate of 87.7%”(p.6). Others such as Skinner (1999) identify that language immersion programs do exist within schools, however “ After the second grade, instruction in the Native language is reduced due to various factors, including the shortage of bilingual teachers, lack of curricular materials, and…lack of commitment by the community and the school” (Skinner, 1991,p.12). So, although these programs are offered, they are not being successful in creating a true culturally and linguistically sound future for Aboriginal students. Research was conclusive in identifying the imminent problem with language at a rapid decline, and the lack of cultural and linguistic content in current forms of education.


According to researchers, there needs to be a link developed between Western mainstream education, and Aboriginal culture and language. Curwen (2003) notes that there is a strong importance of spirituality among all students being that “spirituality unites the human part of all of us and permits the differences to exist; through our spirituality we find our connectedness to one another” (Curwen, 2003,p.144). This is especially true when we look at connecting the relationship among Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students. Not only is there connectedness in the sense of one’s spirituality, but there are many commonalities in ideologies. Skinner (1991) notes that “Amid our cultural and linguistic diversities, there are generic values which unite us (p.17). Curwen (2010) agrees by stating “One's spirituality is the inner resource that facilitates knowing oneself, one's surroundings, and finding meaning for oneself in connection or relation to those surroundings” (p.147). Therefore culture is essential to every individual student, non-Aboriginal or Aboriginal. Curwan (2010) furthers this concept by claiming that “living in the relationships between these connections is the ‘manifest spiritual ground of Native being,’” (p. 147). Furthermore, moral education holds great importance when we look at Western education. Aboriginal education plays nicely into this concept. Curwan’s (2010) qualitative study identifies that in regards to teaching, Elders often identify that “to be wholly human means to have a good sense of right and wrong and to be able to act on that knowledge ... [and] the purpose of education is ‘learning to be a human being or how to live a life of the utmost spiritual quality’” (p.150). This closely ties in the Western ideology of education and links with the Aboriginal world of thought. It is important to teach these concepts to all students.

Although historically some may have thought that there is nothing to share in regards to the past, others such as St.Denis, 2007 & Chirubini, 2010, believe that colonization and racialization act as means to tie Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people together. St.Denis (2007) suggests “by acknowledging a common experience of colonization and racism educators can enact solidarity and join together to challenge racism and racialization” (p.1087). There is an opportunity to connect one another in the present by learning from the past together. This creates a senses of community among learners. Chirubini identifies that “Such institutions – spirituality, language, governance, law, marriage, clan, intellectual/cultural property, and education, to name a few – reflect the epistemic heritage, the values and beliefs, of a culture around which a community, a nation, and individuals may align their existence” (p.333). Culture is something that is created among a community, which includes both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.

Curwan argues that there can be a culture where Aboriginal tradition is celebrated along with a culture of connectedness among all students. He identifies the ways in which students learning can bring them together. The use of Howard Gardiner’s Multiple Intelligences is critical within mainstream education. Likewise, Aboriginal culture can be viewed as “an eighth intelligence that is added to Gardner's (1993) seven intelligences” (Curwan, 2010, p.151). Curwan (2010) notes that it is essential to use this ‘eight intelligence’ so that Aboriginal students may think about a topic as long as needed to develop meaning and feeling through the learning experience (p.151). Aboriginal students often reveal this distinct world view as they are permitted to think and to discuss a topic long enough that they express how they think, feel, and experience information. This benefits both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students.

A sense of connectedness among Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals will provide a protection of culture, as well as a promise of a prosperous future. Monroe (2013) signifies the importance of connectedness for the future in claiming “21st century learning requires that all students begin to see with multiple perspectives, by coming to know one another in ways that do not treat one knowledge as the knowledge and all other knowledge as other” (p.325). Both Aboriginals and non-Aboriinals need to work together to create current knowledge and develop a sense of community culture. Curwen makes a significant point in identifying that “Traditions are only one aspect of the ever-changing dynamic within a culture” (Curwen, 2003, p.150).This therefore presents that culture is not something stagnant from the past. It is important for Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals to view culture as something that is based on tradition, but is implemented in a current world. Understanding native culture needs to be a two way relationship. Paquette (2014) discusses that both Aboriginals, and non-Aboriginals needs to learn of the past, and move forward in a way that benefits all students. To further the argument that there needs to be more connection made to include culture from all angles, there is also the argument that Aboriginals need to be included in Western ideology as well. “Aboriginal education must also provide a reasonable degree of parity with the content and quality of mainstream education” (Paquette, 2014, p.3). With the goal of education to send graduates onto employment, the reality remains that the job market is heavily intertwined with Western ideology and skill set. Paquette (2014) furthers his explanation by stating that “To survive and to maintain credibility with its Aboriginal and mainstream constituencies, it must do an excellent job of teaching and fostering indigeneity as well as an excellent job of educating First-Nations students to reasonable parity with their mainstream peers across the principal components of mainstream curriculum” (p.4). As a result, the research concludes that culture indeed needs to be developed via a sense of connectedness among all peers within the education system. There is strong evidence pointing to the many similarities between all cultures, which should be focused on within education in order to preserve culturally sound members of society.

Content Vs. Accomodation

Research shows that education for Aboriginals does not adequately support First Nation culture and content which needs to be restructured in order to achieve Aboriginal student success. Approaching Aboriginal education with true cultural lenses will allow the successful implementation and development of Aboriginal content rather than accommodation. Skinner (1991), identifies that the North American way of ‘including’ Native culture is actually assimilation. Hongyan (2012) agrees and states that “Unfortunately, Aboriginals have traditionally only been studied, rather than consulted, considered or respected, and have even been seen as a disadvantaged class” (p.53). Although there has been some effort made to include Aboriginal content, many argue that there is not enough focus on relevant Aboriginal content rather than a story of the past (Hongyan, 2012; Skinner, 1991; Paquette, 2014). Research suggests that the ways in which Aboriginal culture is integrated into curriculum is in very small ways, and is often a brief occurrence. Hongyan (2012) describes in detail how one might view Aboriginal culture:

Incorporating Aboriginal cultural content and perspectives, in this regard, does not mean making a teepee or an igloo in Art class, an Aboriginal dance in Physical Education class, or reading a book written by an Aboriginal writer in Language Arts class. Instead, entrenching. Aboriginal heritage into a significant portion of the curriculum should help young Aboriginal students emerge as confident individuals who recognize that they are valued within Canadian society and begin to believe that they are fully capable of making a contribution (p.54).

There is clearly a need to reform the way in which educators view integrating Aboriginal culture in a more conclusive way. Native culture can not stand as a single day of action, but rather needs to be integrated and celebrated every day. Curwen (2010) argues that “to focus on traditional dress, food, music, ceremonies, and artifacts freezes a culture in time and perpetuates stereotypes. Artifacts are static. People and their values, beliefs, feelings, and thoughts are dynamic, and these define the culture” (p.151). Being able to define what Aboriginal culture is in today’s world, requires both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal collaboration. Although there is some attempt through various such activities, education needs to include all of the culture, and not a mere snippet of traditional First Nation culture. Paquette (2014) echoes the sentiment out forth by Hongyan (2012) in regards to a lack of relevant content in stating that education “can hardly lay claim to being an authentically Aboriginal … or to leading toward renewal of Aboriginal ontologies and epistemologies” (p.2). Research shows that much more needs to be done to include meaningful, relevant, culturally sound content. Without such reform, Aboriginal students will continue to be impacted negatively. Curwan (2010) notes that “Aboriginal students often fail because the system fails them by not empowering them to connect with others and with their learning in ways that are meaningful to them” (p.165). The focus on culture needs to be pushed forward without viewing Aboriginal culture as something that is to be ‘accommodated’. True content needs to be integrated in order to successfully achieve an equal, culturally sound educational platform for all students.

Inclusion Needed to Benefit All

Not only is it important for First Nation people to have access to, and experience, culturally sound curriculum, but all students will benefit from this restructure. Researchers (Curwen, 2003; St.Denis, 2007) acknowledge that the lack of cultural content, and reluctance to teach about Aboriginal content, negatively impacts all students. The history of Aborignals is very important not only for themselves and their own community, but also for all students who are non-Aboriginal as well. There is the common thought that without knowing of the past, and coming to understand it, then one will repeat it into the future. It is essential for all Canadians to learn about the past, and work together to rebuild the future. Researchers do suggested that it is through this teaching one another of the past, and working together, that the future will then redevelop itself in regards to Aboriginal issues and racism. “By co-creating a learning experience, everyone involved generates a critical consciousness and enters into a process of empowering one another. With such empowerment, Indian people become enabled to alter a negative relationship with their learning process” (Curwan, 2010, p.162). There is much racism to discuss when looking at the past which is relevant to today’s state of Aboriginal culture and language. St. Denis (2007) notes that it is important to make known that “Aboriginal people did not lose their Indigenous language; it was shamed, beaten, and tortured out of them” (p. 1073). Without identifying these key events from the past, one is unable to understand their culture in its entirety. St.Denis (2007) goes on to state “Aboriginal teachers and people when equipped with a critical anti-racist analysis would be better positioned to challenge such effects of racialization by developing a critical analysis of how whiteness has been produced as superior” (p.1083). Research shared this common theme, that with teaching about racism and the history of racism in relation to Canada and especially Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal relations of the past, that together all students would benefit by creating their own future.

Curwan (2010) also brings up another point when he notes that due to the turbulent history that Aboriginals have endured, that “not all Aboriginal students know their cultural heritage and that they hold differing ideas about spirituality. Therefore, the wise teacher begins with what the student knows and wants known by others” (Curwan, 2010, p.161). Because of the broken past, teachers need to start with the students. Education can not assume that all Aboriginal students understand their cultural history in the same capacity and detail. Everyone develops their culture based on their own experiences. It is important to remember this when addressing Aboriginal students in relation to cultural issues. St.Denis (2007) states that “Cultural identity is not something that already exists, transcending place, time, history and culture. Cultural identities come from somewhere and have histories” (p.1070). Therefore culture needs to be a continuous development of a people, which includes those within their community.

Educators Need for Requalification

Various researchers have identified that there is great responsibility on the educators to integrate culture and language within the North American curriculum. St.Denis (2007) recognizes that there has been precedence in attempting to continue Aboriginal language development in the 1970s, through a mission which “included producing Aboriginal teachers who would play a central role in language and cultural revitalization” (p.1075). This shows that there was a desire and goal to build an educational platform where Aboriginal language and culture would have a strong footing, however this attempt failed. Levin (2009) notes that education currently “need[s] more Aboriginal teachers and administrators, and more Aboriginal resources and materials” (p.690). St.Denis (2007) claims that today, culturally sound Aboriginal educators defined by “speaking one's First Nations language, having knowledge of and participating in a myriad of spiritual practices, and knowing traditional stories and other cultural practices” (p.1076). However, “Not all Aboriginal teachers and educators are able to be, as the Royal Commission proposes, "fully grounded in the teaching traditions of their nations" (St.Denis, 2007, p.1081). It is argued that “Non-Aboriginal teachers, in particular, should receive additional training to prepare them for cross-cultural situations” (Hongyan, 2012, p.54). Kitchen (2009) emphasises the importance of “preparing Aboriginal teachers so that they understand their languages and culture and have the skills to teach through culture and the ability to teach Aboriginal languages through immersion” (p.356). Arguably, without re-educating teachers, most would be unable to develop a culturally sound learning environment. Research suggests that teaching to Aboriginals is very important in today’s world. Although viewed a minority, “ 50,312 Aboriginal students [are] currently enrolled in provincial elementary and secondary schools (18,300 First Nations, 26,200 Métis, 600 Inuit) and a further 5,212 students living in First Nation communities are being served by local school boards through various tuition agreements” (Chirubini et al., 2010, p.331). Therefore, researchers are trying to signal importance to transforming not only the schools, but preparing the many educators who are Aboriginal and non- Aboriginal in order to successfully provide adequate content to all learners. This was a significant step, which needs to be made in order to include relevant cultural content in Aboriginal education.

Future Research

Although there are numerous reports regarding the current state of today’s education which emphasize the need to include Aboriginal cultural and language content, little focus has been given in researching the necessary tools in order to reach the end goal of having a culturally sound learning curriculum and environment. Many qualitative studies have been conducted, however very few actually define what is needed to achieve success. Much of the current research has elaborated on the need for curriculum reform to include Aboriginal culture and language going forward. Skinner (1999), and acts such as the Languages Act of 1991, show that the 90s were a time of initiating a push towards a better future, however as shown by more current research, the results have been minimal in addressing current Aboriginal education issues. Research has primarily been of qualitative nature. Researchers such as Curwan (2010) have interviewed Elders as a means to identify what culture means to them, and what culture and language should be implemented into current curriculum. However, there is a lack of current research identifying the content necessary to allow curriculum to be inclusive of Aboriginal culture and language. Researchers need to develop a definition of culture, as a standard for moving forward. Furthermore, Monroe (2013 ) identifies that it is essential to realize that “today’s students (tomorrow’s adults) must learn more than discrete bits of information and decontextualized skills to prepare them for the increasingly complex world of the future” (p.319). Aboriginal communities, and non-Aboriginal communities need to come together to define what it is that is needed to meet the needs of everyone in today's world. Research shows that there is a vast amount of similarities in both worlds, and now there needs to be movement towards bridging both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal education to the forefront in order to progress forward. This includes making Aboriginal culture and language a priority and integrating such culture and language within all curriculum, mainstream or otherwise.