Indigenization Guide: Appropriate Use of Indigenous Content

The following is an excerpt from Pulling Together: A Guide for Curriculum Developers by Asma-na-hi Antoine, Rachel Mason, Roberta Mason, Sophia Palahicky, and Carmen Rodriguez de France. 

When selecting resources for your curriculum, it is important to incorporate authentic Indigenous resources. But what does it mean to be authentic? And how can such resources be incorporated in a respectful way? As a curriculum developer, it can sometimes be hard to know if efforts to bring Indigenous content and pedagogy into curriculum are a respectful inclusion or an instance of cultural appropriation.

Cultural appropriation

Cultural appropriation can be understood as using intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone’s culture without permission. It is most likely to be harmful when the source culture is a group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways (as with Indigenous Peoples), or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive or sacred (Scafidi, 2005). However, it is not always simple to identify when cultural appropriation is occurring. Let’s explore two examples of learning experiences that use creating poles to understand the nuances of cultural appropriation.

Example 1: Cardboard Box “Totem” Poles

In the learning exchange video series “appropriation,” Susan Dion gives the example of elementary school educators having their students make “totem” poles out of cardboard boxes. She explains that this activity trivializes the importance of poles in Haida culture. Dion compares making totem poles to having children make a model of a Catholic chalice and host and pretending to give and take first communion. This would be clearly recognizable as inappropriate and offensive.

Example 2: Thunderbird/Whale Protection and Welcoming Pole: Learning and Teaching in an Indigenous World

The University of Victoria’s course, “Thunderbird/Whale Protection and Welcoming Pole: Learning and Teaching in an Indigenous World” for the faculty of education was pedagogically based in an Indigenous teaching and learning experience. The course involved the construction and installation of a thunderbird/whale house pole, and pre-service teachers, education graduate students, and faculty worked alongside an Aboriginal artist-in-residence and an Aboriginal mentor carver/educator. As part of an interactive learning community, the students experienced the principles of traditional Indigenous ways of teaching and learning including, mentorship and apprenticeship learning; learning by doing; learning by deeply observing; learning through listening, telling stories, and singing songs; learning in a community; and learning by sharing and providing service to the community.

In the first example, cultural appropriation occurred for the following reasons:

  • Indigenous communities that created totem poles have been exploited through colonialism in many other ways. They were not involved in the assignment to make poles, and they did not grant permission to the teacher to make poles.
  • Poles have a spiritual significance, which was not honoured in the activity.
  • The creating of the poles was not interwoven with Indigenous approaches but was a one-off assignment within a predominantly Westernized approach.

In the second example, making poles was a respectful activity for the following reasons:

  • Indigenous community experts were actively involved.
  • The activity was deeply integrated with Indigenous pedagogical approaches.
  • The spiritual significance of the pole was recognized by following proper protocols and values.

Cultural appropriation can feel like an ambiguous topic, and the fear of appropriating may lead educators to shy away from Indigenous content or issues. But this is not an acceptable response. Instead, what is required is that educators think through considerations of cultural appropriation carefully. They need to build connections with Indigenous communities so that they can incorporate Indigenous culture in ways that are not harmful or exploitative. This may be harder work than simply adding an Indigenous text, speaker, or activity into a course, but it is the responsibility of all educators to engage in this work.

This history is a shared history. It’s our shared history. If you live on this land, then you’re in a relationship with First Nations people whether you know it or not. So teaching the history, teaching the content is your responsibility. And I say that, but with a word of caution, because you can appropriate, and sometimes make a mistake around appropriating … If you don’t feel comfortable, then that’s an indicator that what you’re planning to do is maybe not a good idea. Sometimes if you think, “If an Aboriginal Elder came into my classroom and saw me doing this, would I feel defensive?” And if you answer yes, then it’s probably not a good idea to do that.

– Susan Dion, 2013

Activity 1: Including Indigenous Stories

Time: 5 min

Type: Individual

In this video Including Indigenous Stories,[1] Dr. Jo-ann Archibald (Stó:lō Nation) explains how stories reflect a worldview and discusses how we need to be aware of and understand protocol, context, and process when using Indigenous stories whether they are traditional or based on personal experiences.

Activity 2: Reflection on Cultural Appropriation

Time 10 min

Type: Reflection

Reflect on the following questions:

  1. Have you seen examples of cultural appropriation? Have you seen examples where culture was integrated respectfully? How did they feel different?
  2. In your work, who could you turn to for advice on how and when to use Indigenous knowledge in your curriculum?

Authentic resources

Another important consideration is how to recognize authentic Indigenous resources. In some cases, resources dealing with Indigenous content may contain inaccurate information or unfairly represent the unique experiences and worldviews of Indigenous Peoples. This can promote stereotypes and misunderstanding. In contrast, authentic resources can deepen understanding by bringing Indigenous voices and perspectives into the curriculum.

It is not always easy to identify authentic Indigenous texts. According to the First Nations Education Steering Committee (FNESC, 2016), authentic First Peoples’ texts are historical or contemporary texts that:

  • Present authentic First Peoples’ voices (are created by First Peoples or through the substantial contributions of First Peoples);
  • Depict themes and issues that are important within First Peoples’ cultures (e.g., loss of identity and affirmation of identity, tradition, healing, role of family, importance of Elders, connection to the land, the nature and place of spirituality as an aspect of wisdom, the relationships between individual and community, the importance of oral tradition, the experience of colonization and decolonization);
  • Incorporate First Peoples’ storytelling techniques and features as applicable (e.g., circular structure, repetition, weaving in of spirituality, humour).

In trying to decide whether a resource is authentic, you may consider:

  • Using pre-vetted resource lists such as the ones developed by First Nations Education Steering Committee[2].
  • Consulting with the Indigenous education office at your organization.
  • Reaching out to other educators who incorporate Indigenous resources and content in their classrooms. Ask them how they chose their resources. What factors did they consider?
  • Ensuring that proper copyright and protocols have been followed to obtain permission, particularly when using resources found online (such as songs or artwork).

It is important to recognize that local cultural protocols exist around the use of Indigenous resources. In the mainstream academic system, copyright is used to ensure permission for written resources. In Indigenous cultures, oral permission is required to use cultural materials or practices such as legends, stories, songs, designs, crests, photographs, audiovisual materials, and dances. These practices and materials are often owned by specific individuals, families, or groups, and permission to use them may be considered in the context of your relationships with the owners, your intent, and the way in which you will be sharing the practices or materials. If you or your institution have not obtained permission, it is important to investigate and secure permission from relevant individuals, artists, families, Elders, hereditary Chiefs, Band Councils, or Tribal Councils prior to using any materials. Permission may be specific to a single use; if you are using the resource for a different context than permission was originally obtained for, you may need to reach out to seek permission again.

For more information on deciding whether a resource is appropriate, review pages 8–16 of the guide In Our Own Words: Bringing Authentic First Peoples Content to the K–3 Classroom [PDF].[3] Although this guide was developed for K–3 educators, it includes many important considerations when choosing authentic Indigenous resources.

Activity 3: Authentic Indigenous Resources (I)

Time: 10 min

Type: Individual

Consider the following resources and determine if they are authentic Indigenous resources. Why or why not? You can do this activity with the actual resources selected from your university library. Ask a librarian to help set up a similar exercise, and then invite colleagues to join for a discussion of authentic resources.

You will see that the answers can be quite complex, and many resources require thought and further investigation to ensure authenticity.

Note: If you are not using the online version of this resource, you can access the question and answers in Appendix G.


Activity 4: Integrating Indigenous Resources in Your Curriculum (I)

Time: 60 min

Type: Individual

Choose a curriculum that you have developed or that you are currently developing. Integrate Indigenous resources into the curriculum and provide a rationale for why you chose those resources. When you are considering which resources to use in developing your curriculum, consider:

  • Who could you reach out to for recommendations?
  • How can you find local resources?
  • How can you find First Nations, Métis, and Inuit resources?
  • How might you involve non-textual resources, such as dance, art, oral stories, and ceremony?

  1. Including Indigenous Stories video: 
  2. Resource List Developed by the First Nations Steering Committee: 
  3. In Our Own Words: Bringing Authentic First Peoples Content to the K-3 Classroom: 
  4. The Truth about Stories: 
  5. Dances with Wolves DVD: 
  6. Explore the Animals: Northern Coast First Nations and Native Art Colouring and Learning Book: 
  7. Orca’s Song by Anne Cameron: . 
  8. Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden: 

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