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Engaging Aboriginal perspectives in the social studies classroom: New possibilities for the teaching of environmental history

Posted by David Scott
20 January 2014 - 2:06am


In a recent THEN/HiER blog post exploring how educators can take up environmental history, Heather McGregor argues that this can be achieved by helping students better appreciate the ways our view of the environment is socially and culturally constructed. Based on this orientation, she writes:

I would invite history teachers, and historians who help develop resources for environmental history education, to consider more deeply how we can teach students that human relationships with environments and environmental components (any non-human beings) are heavily mediated by changing cultural views. How do we look for, and mobilize, sources that convey different views while taking those views seriously – stretching our minds to imagine what it means when someone understands a rock as an animate being, or a seal as their relative as well as their sustenance? (p. 1)

In making this argument, I see McGregor advocating for an approach to environmental education that seeks to both historicize, as well as better examine, current popularly held attitudes, beliefs, and perspectives towards the natural systems that sustain us. In doing this, she also seeks to open up alternative possibilities –– in this case Inuit understandings of land and animals –– by which human beings can relate to and interact with the natural world.

     This approach aligns with what den Heyer (2009) calls curriculum-as-encounter in contrast to what he terms curriculum-as-thing. He writes:

A distinction between curriculum-as-thing (body of facts, skills, and attitudes to deliver to the student body) and curriculum-as-encounter (ways our shared sense making is itself a historical legacy that requires explicit study) reflects two differing interpretations of ‘curriculum.’ (p. 28)

Within a curriculum-as-thing approach to the teaching of environmental history, the students’ role would be to absorb the relevant factual details laid out in a textbook or lecture, about, for instance, the changing ways humans have interacted with the natural world over time. Within this frame, knowledge is a body of information that is external to the student, which they must acquire to become knowledgeable. However, within a curriculum-as-encounter framework, no such distinction is made between knowledge and knower. Specifically, an understanding exists that the knowledge we possess in the form of conceptual frameworks we use to read the world are not things we think about, but things we think with.[1] Since our shared sense making is the historical knowledge requiring examination, within this space our subjectivity thus becomes the subject under study.

  I see great value in adopting a curriculum-as-encounter (den Heyer, 2009) orientation to teaching environmental history along the lines McGregor advocates. However, what would such an encounter involve and how would this live in the context in which I work, namely the Alberta social studies classroom? My response to these questions is informed by the call within Alberta’s Social Studies Program of Study (2010) to help students “appreciate and respect how multiple perspectives,” and specifically Aboriginal perspectives in particular, “shape Canada’s political, socio-economic, linguistic and cultural realities” (Alberta Education, p. 2). As I argued recently in an article published in Canadian Social Studies (Scott, 2013), I think one way to identify resources that might stretch the minds of our students within the conceptual framework McGregor advocates, involves simultaneously historicizing common forms of sense-making in relation to controversial issues in our world today, and then offering alternative pathways drawn from Aboriginal perspectives to understand and engage these issues. 

To show how this could be done, let me take an example from the grade 10 Alberta Social Studies Program (2007) asking teachers to help students appreciate “multiple perspectives on sustainability and prosperity in a globalizing world” and also explore the “impact of actions and policies associated with globalization on the environment” (p. 36). In addressing Aboriginal perspectives in relation to issues of globalization and sustainability, teachers are given the opportunity to make connections to the struggles of the Beaver Lake Cree to have their treaty and constitutional rights respected in relation to resource developments on their traditional lands (see image above) (Pratt, 2013).

In examining this issue, students would come to appreciate how the Beaver Lake Cree have voiced their conviction that they have not been adequately consulted, as dictated by Treaty 6 and section 25 of the Canadian Chart of Rights and Freedoms, about resource development connected to the Tar Sands. In this regard, they contend that the accumulated effects of Tar Sands development on their traditional territory has destroyed animal habitat and compromised the integrity of rivers that sustain the traditional Cree way of life. These views are articulated in the Beaver Lake Cree Nation’s Kétuskéno Declaration (2008), which states:

This land is our spiritual, physical and economic homeland. We keep this land in honour of ancestors and on behalf of our future generations, so that as long as the grass grows, we can continue our traditional way of life. (p. 1)

And later:

Our responsibility to this land, our ancestors and our future generations cannot be surrendered or abandoned. We have an obligation to ensure that the lands, waters, and resources in our traditional territory are used sustainably and responsibly. (p. 1) 

 In exposing students to this contemporary resource a whole series of avenues for dialogue opens up. Beyond issues of sovereignty and treaty rights, an ensuing class discussion with students could include considering how the Kétuskéno Declaration provides a differing set of value structures from the now dominant rhetoric of globalization predicated on “Homo Oeconomicus” (Smith, 2006) or economic man, where the primary value of the natural world resides in its potential to deliver economic gain. This view can be seen in a rebuttal to the Beaver Lake Cree’s demands made by a spokesman for the Alberta government who notes the economic benefits of Oil Sands development: 

Between 2000-2008 an estimated CAN $87bn ($67.5bn) was invested in oil sands projects in Alberta, that and every dollar invested in the oil sands creates about $6 worth of economic activity in Alberta and another $3 elsewhere. (Jowit, 2009, p. 1)

Although this way of relating to the natural world, alongside a view of human beings as primarily consumer driven animals seeking economic gain, reflects neo-liberal discourses that have dominated public life for the last thirty years, the roots of this worldview stretches much farther back into the past. According to Smith (2008) the origins of this view can be traced back to 1492 with the Columban landing in the Caribbean. As Smith outlines, the tremendous wealth that flowed into Europe after the conquest of the Americas by the Spanish, and then later, by other European states, inspired a complete overturning of the fixed hierarchical theocentric worldview of the Middle Ages. He writes:

Ushered in were new understandings of the human person (now the rational autonomous Subject); new relationships to the natural world (now to be objectively explored, examined, controlled and exploited); new forms of refusal of traditional authority in favour of individual liberty (now referable, for want of a better term, as the ‘protestant reflex’); a new morality of wealth (now if you are poor it is your own fault); and new anxieties about the future arising from a de-divinized public cosmology (now God is allowed only as a private concern). (p. 33)

     By helping students to appreciate the ancestry of this value structure, they could come to see the ways their sense making has been influenced by particular, and increasingly, problematic sets of assumptions. In searching for new models that might inform our stewardship of the natural world, the model of Homo Oeconomicus could then be contrasted with insights, reflected in the Kétuskéno Declaration, recognizing the land as a relative or “citizen” (see Borrows, 2000) and emphasizing the need to preserve it and the living relations on it for future generations. With the realization that Homo Oeconomicus is just one identity formation among many, students would be exposed to the ways we as human beings can attend to the webs of relationships, both human and non-human, we are enmeshed within (Scott, 2013). In this way, a space would be created for an encounter with new ways to imagine ourselves and our connection to the natural world.

     Unfortunately, as I have learned through my research (Scott, 2013), this kind of curricular encounter is all too uncommon. Part of the problem in this regard seems to reside in a belief among many teachers that, as Donald (2009) has outlined, the cultural difference between mainstream Canadian culture and Aboriginal ways of knowing and being is an imposing civilizational rift that can never be traversed. Understood within this frame, only ‘culturally authentic’ individuals are able to speak from an Aboriginal perspective. However, Donald asserts that this logic of insiders and outsiders allows teachers to “retreat behind the comforting shelter of real or passive ignorance that effectively disqualifies them from participation” (p. 32).

     To overcome this divide, Donald (2009) argues that engaging Aboriginal perspectives should entail trying to learn from, not about Aboriginal perspectives (p. 29). Specifically, Donald asserts that educators can respectfully draw on Indigenous wisdom traditions developed by communities that have lived in a particular territory over a long period of time for guidance on how to live well on the land that we now all co-inhabit. In engaging Aboriginal perspectives in relation to environmental history in this way, non-Aboriginal educators such as myself are aided by a rich body of resources and scholarship, like the Kétuskéno Declaration. Ultimately, by exposing students to ways of knowing and being found in Indigenous wisdom traditions as well as sources drawn from Indigenous communities, educators can help both themselves and their students broaden the range of responses available to meet pressing issues of concern in our national and global communities. 

 How do you incorporate environmental history into your history lessons?


Alberta Education. (2010). Program of studies: Social studies, kindergarten to grade 12. Edmonton, AB: Alberta         Education.

Beaver Lake Cree Nation. (2008). Kétuskéno declaration. Retrieved from

Borrows, J. (2000). ‘Landed citizenship’: Narratives of Aboriginal political participation. In W. Kymlicka and W. Norman (Eds.), Citizenship in Diverse Societies (pp. 326-342). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

den Heyer, K. (2009). Implicated and called upon: Challenging an educated position of self, others, knowledge and knowing as things to acquire. Critical Literacy: Theories and Practices, 3(1), 26-36.

Donald, D. (2009). The curricular problem of Indigenousness: Colonial frontier logics, teacher resistances, and the acknowledgment of ethical space. In J. Nahachewsky and I. Johnston (Eds.), Beyond Presentism: Re-Imagining the Historical, Personal, and Social Places of Curriculum (pp. 23-39). Rotterdam/Boston/Taipei: Sense Publishers.

Gillis, J. (1994). Memory and identity: The history of a relationship. In J. Gillis (Ed.), Commemorations: The politics of national identity (pp. 3-24). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Jowit, J. (2009, February 26) Indigenous people in legal challenge against oil firms over tar sand project. The Guardian. Retrieved from

McGregor, H. (2014, January 4). Teaching environmental history and cross-cultural comparison. Retrieved from

Pratt, S. (2013, June 4). Appeal court paves way for Cree nation’s oilsands case to go to trial. Edmonton Journal. Retrieved from

Scott, D. (2013). Teaching multiple perspectives: An investigation into teacher practice amidst curriculum change. Canadian Social Studies, 46 (1), 31-43.

Smith, D. (2006). Globalization and curriculum studies. In D. Smith (Ed.), Trying to Teach in a Season of Great Untruth: Globalization, Empire and the Crises of Pedagogy (pp. 81-98). Rotterdam, NL: Sense Publishers.

Smith, D. (2008). From Leo Strauss to Collapse Theory: considering the neoconservative attack on modernity and the work of education. Critical Studies in Education. 49 (1), 33-48.

[1] Here, I draw on the insights of Gillis (1994, p. 5) regarding the way identities and memory guide thought, belief, and action.