Indigenous Education is hindered on by a variety of factors. This post is a personal reflection on the cultural and literal barriers that arise, and impede Indigenous youth from obtaining higher levels of education:
My name is Elias George; I am Oneida, from the Oneida Nation of the Thames. I belong to the Bear Clan. I am part of the team of Focus Forward for Indigenous Youth. Education in my experience has been hindered on in Indigenous communities due to many environmental factors. This is my story, and in it I will tell from my experience why the education on reserves is failing.
The Indigenous population in Canada has among one of the highest dropout rates for secondary school education. This is an important fact to my story because although this is a problem, a problem that everyone recognizes, it is a consequence of generations of abuse, mistrust, and mistreatment. The importance of education has been lost. It has become an idea in my community that ‘white’ people are bad. You don’t want to be a ‘white’ person, and you don’t want to be like ‘them’. After all, they forced our ancestors into residential schools. They forced us onto reservation land. They broke the treaties of our ancestors. In my community being ‘white’ is as bad as it gets. Wanting to pursue a higher education is acting ‘white’. See the problem? The idea is that attaining higher education is something that ‘white’ people do, and to be like a ‘white’ person is wrong. Despite the fact that attaining an education is something that can help further the development and infrastructure in a community.
Another aspect of life on the reserve is a fear that “if you leave, you may discover something better and not want to come back”. This is a very frequent reality in many communities. I know this first hand; I have left my community, and I even today I hesitate to return. After I left my reserve and have attained my education, I find the idea of returning to the community difficult. I don’t feel a sense of belonging. A lot of my friends now are ‘white’. I don’t know the language like I once did. And I don’t feel the same kind of anger towards the ‘white’ people. When I think about the reserve I think about my family that is there. I think about how I have not seen my cousins in over 4 years. I think about how I still have not met my newborn cousin, who is now going to be turning 4 years old. I think about how the only times I have seen family have been for funerals. I also think about how much work that needs to be done in the community. I want to go back to my home, but I fear that I will be looked at as an outsider and not someone who is truly part of the community. I fear that I will return and that no matter how hard I try, the community will not be receptive to the ideas that I am presenting to rebuild our pride and self-worth. I wish that I could return to my community and feel at home; I have so much that I want to share and so many ideas that could help bring pride back to my people. However, I’m afraid that my community doesn’t have enough pride in themselves to want to be better.
There is so much shame that it becomes a toxic environment. Selling cigarettes and becoming a bootlegger do not seem like bad ways to make a living. Drinking and getting high every day is a normal reality. Living in a state of poverty is an ordinary existence. I went to a school that had asbestos. The water on my reserve is not potable. Yet my reserve is 15 minutes from London, Ontario: A city with a population of over 300,000. Both my grandfathers are survivors of residential school. My father did not graduate from high school until he was 44 years old. The circulating idea is that “if my parents have made it by without an education, why should I get one?” This way of thinking is becoming an accepted ideology in my community, because in my community people are just trying to survive. Education seems less important when you can make money selling dope or robbing someone. When you’re living in the community, you see the drugs, the crime, the abuse. The toxic environment becomes normal. Not wanting to go to school becomes normal. Education is a key component to the development of sustainable infrastructure, yet education is not a key component to survival. And when you live in an environment as toxic as some can be in Indigenous communities, you only focus on surviving.
I do not say these things to demonize my people. Or to build a fear of them. I say these things because it is important to recognize that education is a problem, but it is not THE problem. The problem stems from hundreds of years of murder, rape, and a government that forced my grandparents and their grandparents before them into residential schools. It stems from a mistrust with a government that has broken treaties and lied through their teeth. The problem is an anger and hatred that is deep rooted in our culture against ‘white’ people. These feelings, unfortunately, do more harm than good to us. However, even with all these problems I still have hope. I have hope that despite hundreds of years being told that we are not human, that we remember what it means to be good people again. I believe that we will get back to loving ourselves, our community, and our culture.
Focus Forward for Indigenous Youth is giving the communities they work with an idea that to pursue a higher education and bring some sort of infrastructure back to your community isn’t being ‘white”. Focus Forward is giving the idea that to help ourselves, we need to be good people again. That to pursue a future that will help your family and the future generations after you, is being a good person. Focus Forward is here not to build structures in the community. It is here to give pride and self-love back to the youth in community.