Academic journal article Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education

Ethno-Ecological Education: Aboriginals Teaching Nature at a Winter Camp in the Canadian Arctic

Academic journal article Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education

Ethno-Ecological Education: Aboriginals Teaching Nature at a Winter Camp in the Canadian Arctic

Article excerpt

For too long, environmentalism has ignored the contributions that can be made by aboriginal peoples. Granted, one does see an occasional poem or chapter by an aboriginal expert in an edited volume, or hear an opening invocation by a 'medicine person' at an environmental conference. Such instances are certainly laudatory. Yet, while not meant to be tokenistic, they certainly appear so. Few environmentalists, if truth be known, have lived for any amount of time in face-to-face interaction with aboriginal peoples, doing the traditional daily tasks of surviving on a sustained basis in a sustainable way, in their natural milieux.

Instead, a 'whitecoat bias' has pervaded the environmental movement, on the assumption that the modern is more effective at preserving the land than the traditional. This assumption, though, is not merely questionable on grounds of social prejudice; it has little empirical basis at all. Whereas aboriginal peoples protected the land for millennia, modern ones have managed to despoil it in a few centuries. Indeed aboriginals, while preserving the land, have not only survived but thrived at the same time. At the least, they may be able to offer a needed dimension to caretaking the earth.

Indeed, something at the very bases of modern and ancient perspectives may account for the differences in the effects of their lifeways. For example, whereas modern science has stressed the separation between humans and the rest of nature, aboriginal peoples see no such gap. Although recently scientists have been forced to accept the value of 'holism,' they have yet to walk their talk. Objectivity is still lauded, even though many scientists themselves, for several decades, have seriously called this view into question. The notion too that humans can control nature is still presumed, although tsunamis, hurricanes, and other events continually mock it to shame, showing that nature ultimately controls us. Modernists also continue to believe in 'progress,' despite a previous century of war carnage, genocide, and environmental havoc--the most destructive on record. The modernist god seems increasingly undermined by its own sacred cow--empirical evidence.

Further, the more that modernists stay isolated from nature in their daily lives, the more they hold to these outmoded, and environmentally unproductive, perspectives. They delude themselves into thinking, in their centrally heated and air-conditioned offices and laboratories that they are somehow above nature and can escape its effects. Aboriginal peoples, on the other hand, living day by day in close connection with nature, indeed in the most extreme locales, have no such illusion. Whereas modernists call such places 'inhospitable,' aboriginals call them 'home.' If aboriginals can thrive on such landscapes, they must certainly have something valuable to teach us about living with nature.

A serious problem, however, arises here. Much of aboriginal knowledge appears inaccessible to the very moderns who need it most. For example, it is oral and not written tradition that has preserved this valuable knowledge, yet modernity is alphanumerically biased. Modernists too have little patience for the long story, even if they were able to access it. And they are less and less able to do so; aboriginal languages, in which are embedded those stories, in particular their ways of thinking about the earth, are rapidly disappearing. Too, the very aboriginals who are most immersed and experienced in the natural way seem to live in the most remote--and to modernists least inviting--locales.

This article is about overcoming these problems by treating aboriginals as eco-encyclopedias that need opening. It describes a program that offers high-school students a chance to experience living on the land in traditional ways by learning directly from aboriginal teachers at a winter camp in the Canadian Arctic. Rather than disprivileging traditional ways as backward and irrelevant for today, the camp brings aboriginal instructors to the forefront as mentors who have something not only

useful, but indeed necessary, to teach us. …

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