Identify and Knowledge in Indigenous Young Children's Experiences in Canada

By Ball, Jessica | Childhood Education, September-October 2012 | Go to article overview

Identify and Knowledge in Indigenous Young Children's Experiences in Canada


Ball, Jessica, Childhood Education


By watching, listening, experiencing, and participating, everyone learned what it was to be one of the People, and how to survive in community with others. Learning how to care for oneself and others, learning relationships between people and other things, learning the customs, traditions, and values of a community: all these understandings and more were the daily course of lndigenons education. (Cajete, 1994, p. 176)

In Canada, as around the world, large numbers of Indigenous children encounter culturally dissonant learning environments in preschools and schools. Many of these children experience serious challenges, in part because of a striking mismatch between their early learning experiences in the family and community, and the expectations, perceptions, and task demands of non-Indigenous educators. These mismatches undoubtedly contribute to frequent identification of First Nations children as having learning disabilities, and to consequently high rates of early school failure and drop-out (Assembly of First Nations, 2005; Richards, 2008). "Thus, it is crucial to understand the ways in which Indigenous children are ready to learn, and to acknowledge the skills, interests, and knowledge they have developed in their families and communities during their early years.

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Indigenous peoples in Canada include four main populations: First Nations, Metis, Inuit, and urban Aboriginal. Many different cultural and language groups are found within each of these populations, each with their own history, community structures, and socialization practices. Indigenous children's early experiences in Canada vary along a continuum, from being raised in traditional cultural ways that tend to flourish in rural, remote, and isolated settings, to being raised in ways that greatly resemble the dominant Euro-Western hybrid culture that defines growing numbers of families in metropolitan centers along Canada's southern border.

The author focuses on First Nations children in Canada because of two decades of partnerships with them in order to deliver a bicultural, post-secondary diploma program to prepare early childhood educators (Ball & Pence, 2006). The observations and insights offered here are gleaned from a number of research projects about the development of First Nations children. It is worth noting that many Indigenous scholars identify commonalities among Indigenous populations around the world (Battiste, 2000); thus, some concepts discussed here may be generally relevant to working with other Indigenous groups and may help early childhood educators to reflect upon the knowledge that Is transmitted in the various cultural groups.

This article highlights First Nations children's participation in family and community activities in order to learn such time-honored concepts and skills as the heritage Indigenous language, a literacy of the land, and the right time and place for different kinds of activities and expressions. The discussion emphasizes how these early learning opportunities stimulate First Nations children's cultural identity and spirituality and concludes with how teachers can create a culturally safe environment for building children's self-concepts as capable learners.

Indigenous Knowledge

What is Indigenous or community-specific knowledge in the context of children's early learning experiences? Emery (2000) defines traditional knowledge as "a way of life, an experience-based relationship with family, spirits, animals, plants, and the land, an understanding and wisdom gained through generations of observation and teaching that used indirect signals from nature or culture to predict future events or impacts" (p. 37). He also distinguishes between ancient and modern traditional knowledge: ancient knowledge is "passed down from generation to generation," while modern knowledge is "that which is acquired in present-day circumstances, and will be handed down in generations to come" (p. …

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