Educators’ successes, difficulties, and strategies for engaging with Indigenous environmental issues

Teaching about environmental issues linked to Indigenous contexts can be both a challenging and rewarding endeavour for educators. Exploring Indigenous environmental knowledge, rights, and issues are critical to promoting broader understanding and informed citizens, however, educators may be hesitant to engage with controversial Indigenous topics for a variety of reasons.

Delving into complex and heated topics has the potential to raise tensions and create pushback from unsupportive students, colleagues, and administrators. Particularly when working with Indigenous topics, educators face the challenge of providing both historical and contemporary information, as well as addressing colonial prejudices.

Teachers may also be hesitant to engage in these conversations due to a lack of confidence in their own knowledge. They commonly cite concerns that they cannot cover all of the concepts and issues they would like to in a course, due to time and resources constraints. A lack of support and training related to these topics, as well as limited freely available and reliable online resources, can add to the emotional toll on teachers of critical cultural and environmental issues.

To better understand such dynamics, Dr. Greg Lowan-Trudeau investigated the experiences of 10 Indigenous and non-Indigenous educators in K-12 schools, post-secondary, and community-based settings who are passionate about integrating these topics into their teaching. As part of a SSHRC-funded study, he explored their successes, difficulties, and strategies for approaching content and discussions related to Indigenous environmental issues. Dr. Lowan-Trudeau’s study revealed significant insights into the current realities for these and other critical educators.

Engaging the Issues

The participants highlighted the importance of using locally relevant resources and forging personal relationships to support their work. Some of the educators used case studies of local issues to help students make connections with course content. Others preferred to incorporate cases from the recent past or in other regions, as these may elicit somewhat less negative responses from students while also allowing them to make connections to more contemporary and local issues.

Designing courses with readings from Indigenous scholars and including local Indigenous knowledge keepers and Elders can also offer powerful learning opportunities for students. While finding someone with the particular knowledge and community authority required to support a particular initiative (e.g. ceremonial, historical, political, or environmental knowledge as contextually appropriate) may be difficult, raising awareness, recognition, and engagement with local Indigenous peoples and cultures in education is essential.

Using storytelling in various forms (e.g. oral, written, visual) for a variety of purposes is a central Indigenous pedagogy and one that is still relevant and effective today with most students, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike. A number of participants noted that storytelling is often an indirect, but effective, method to broach critical topics and promote deeper, more personally relevant, understanding. Several participants also mentioned incorporating the use of art and film as media to share important stories and connect perspectives, further opening conversation and consideration of potentially controversial topics such as the impact of contemporary resource developments on traditional Indigenous lifestyles or differing perspectives on land use and wildlife management.

A number of participants also emphasized the value of land-based learning opportunities—immersive and experiential trips that take students beyond the classroom setting, often through collaboration between educators, Elders, and other knowledge holders. While some participants noted persistent resistance from colleagues regarding the value of such experiences, significant positive outcomes for students exist that provide enduring motivation for those facilitating such opportunities. Having seen and experienced tangible connections in a less formal land-based setting to the ideas they may have been discussing in class, students often became more invested and respectfully engaged with each other in their critical consideration of Indigenous and environmental issues.

Enacting Resistance

Working to incorporate Indigenous environmental knowledge and issues, in spite of the challenges, these educators are enacting resistance, whether consciously or unconsciously, to systemic and societal issues. Despite tensions and discouragement, their commitment to using these approaches has brought inspiring results. This ongoing effort helps to influence both immediate and long-term changes, supporting a new generation of citizens who are better informed about these topics.

The presence of and access to authentic local Indigenous resources also reinforces that these topics are valued and need to be included in course content. Bringing together diverse groups and ideas from Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in courses helps to raise awareness and promote the respectful sharing of Indigenous knowledges and perspectives.

Dr. Lowan-Trudeau has created a website, including a review conducted with doctoral candidate Teresa Fowler of related K-12 curricula across Canada, to serve as a hub for educational resources on critical Indigenous environmental topics to help address the inadequate supports that exist in this area. Insights from the project will be shared at a public event for university, school, and community-based educators on April 25, 2018.

For more information on the project, check out Dr. Lowan-Trudeau’s Indigenous Environmental Education website


See more from Dr. Greg Lowan-Trudeau on his profile


Connected Citations

Lowan-Trudeau, G. (2018). From reticence to resistance: Understanding educators’ engagement with Indigenous environmental issues in Canada. Environmental Education Research. 0(0), 1-13. [Available Online First: https://doi.org/10.1080/13504622.2017.1422114]

* This study was funded by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Insight Development Grant*