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Teachers, aboriginal perspectives and the logic of the fort

June 3, 2013 Dwayne Donald

We need a new story to guide us

Want a different ethic? Tell a different story.
—Thomas King, The truth about stories: A native narrative (2003)

Over the past decade, I have dedicated a significant amount of time and energy to the complex task of better understanding Aboriginal–Canadian relations and studying how the tensions that characterize these relations find expression in classroom settings today.

Much of what I have learned about these relational tensions has come from spending time with practising and preservice teachers and discussing with them the possible challenges and opportunities provided by engagement with Aboriginal perspectives across different subject areas. Not surprisingly, most of these teachers—whatever their level of experience and subject-area focus—feel woefully unprepared to lead their students in meaningful consideration of Aboriginal perspectives. In my efforts to support teachers and encourage them to engage with Aboriginal perspectives, I have noticed there is a specific spatialized language that many employto describe what they think they are being asked to do as educators. The two main words used are incorporate and infuse, as in “It is important to incorporate Aboriginal perspectives into the unit on ecology.” Let’s pause here to consider the etymology of these two words:

incorporate (v.)  late 14c., "to put (something) into the body or substance of (something else)," from Late Latin incorporatus, past participle of incorporare "unite into one body," from Latin in- "into, in, on, upon" (see in- + corpus (genitive corporis) "body."

infuse (v.)  early 15c., "to pour in, introduce, soak," from Latin infusus, past participle of infundere "to pour into," from in- "in" (see in- + fundere "pour, spread." Figurative sense of "instill, inspire" first recorded 1520s.

Both descriptions are from the Online Etymology Dictionary (

I note that both words are verbs and that they suggest a process or action whereby a smaller component of something is put into a larger body or component. In the case of incorporate,the literal connotation involves bringing something into the body, much like swallowing and digestion, and infuse connotesafocus on pouring and dissolution, much like tea in a pot of hot water. My question is: Why do teachers so often use these words to describe what they think they are being asked to do with Aboriginal curriculum perspectives?

The answer to this question has to do with creation stories and the idea that governments and citizens of contemporary nation-states exhibit characteristics and forward priorities reflective of the "creation story" of their nation-state. The beliefs that citizens hold about the genesis of their nation-state and the stories they have been told about the birth of their country have a significant impact on the institutional, political and cultural character of a country and the preoccupations of its people. In a very real sense, creation stories serve as narrative templates that guide citizens to narrate their stories and those of their nation in particular ways. Most citizens live in the logic of that template.

Perhaps the nation-state that best exemplifies this idea is the United States. The creation story of the U.S. begins with English settlers searching for freedom and independence, who cling to the eastern shores of a new land and persevere despite the constant threat and fear of attack from “savage Indians.”  If we follow the theory that such beginnings have provided a narrative template for the development of the American nation, Americans can then be described as a people preoccupied with threats to their way of life and frequently motivated to act on their fear of perceived outsiders and enemies, be they Indians, British colonists, African slaves, slave owners, Spanish imperialists, communists or (in the current context) Muslim terrorists and terrorist states. The mythological historical narrative of their nation-state has taught American citizens to fear perceived outsiders and regard them as threats to their freedom, independence and way of life.

So what about Canadians, then, and this language problem of incorporate and infuse?

For many generations, Canadians have been told that their country was based on fur trading. In seeming tribute to this genesis, many forts have been resurrected and maintained as national symbols and are today ubiquitous structures on the geographical landscape of Canada. You cannot travel far in Canada without encountering a community that began as a fur-trading post or fort, a town or city that has the word fort in its name, or a historic site or fort recreated as a museum. These celebrations of the history of the nation have fostered the development of a narrative template and colonial frontier logic—delineated by the fort walls—of insiders (settlers/Canadians) and outsiders (Indigenous peoples). A significant teaching of this creation story is that Indigenous peoples and Canadians live in separate realities and that the racial and cultural divides of the frontier are natural and necessary. This highly influential creation story of Canada continues to haunt contemporary Canadian society by defining the terms according to which Indigenous people and Canadians speak to each other about history, memory and society. It is the logic hidden in this story that guides educators to believe that their central task with regard to Aboriginal curriculum perspectives is to bring them inside the fort walls. In this case, then, schools, classrooms and curriculum documents serve as forts of a different kind.

So, what to do? It has become clear to me that we need a new story to help us eschew colonial frontier logics of the fort and renew Aboriginal–Canadian relations on more ethical terms. Such a story would be inspired by the treaties, which teach that we are called to work together in ways that bring benefits to all people who live on the land together. These teachings place emphasis on learning from each other in balanced ways and sharing the wisdom that comes from working together in the spirit of good relations. If more teachers knew stories like this, perhaps Aboriginal perspectives would be considered less as an exercise in incorporation and infusion and more an opportunity for relational renewal and enhanced understanding.


Dwayne Donald is an associate professor in the faculty of education at the University of Alberta. He is a descendent of the Papaschase Cree.

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