From the First Nations Principles of Learning: Learning has a sense of place

From the First Nations Principles of Learning: Learning Has a Sense of Place

Learning Has a Sense of Place, by Rob Wahl

If there is one aspect of learning that we can look to First Nations People to teach us about is that way in which sense of place conditions our learning. Few grow up with any sense of connectedness to the land. My Mennonite ancestors tried to tell us through their own life's choices that they believed the land to be their spiritual mentor. But few have ever known this connection. Some who live on farms have some sense of it. Those of us who are the descendants of European settlers have this sense that places are about opportunities. We think of "place" in terms of opportunity for prosperity. But for our First Nations friends and neighbors, this has not been the case

Whenever people live for generations in one geographical area, they accumulate for themselves a sense of place. I recall a Rankin Family song on the Radio called Gilles Mountain. In it the family takes a four-wheel-drive vehicle to the top of Gilles Mountain on the coast of Nova Scotia. There they picked berries and reflected on their ancestors who "spent their blood and sweat and tears" to clear the land, build homes and grow hay. The presence of the berries depends on the forest being removed cleared fifty or even a hundred years before by ancestors they had never met. This is but a small example of how learning and place can be interwoven. It leads to a type of learning that is uniquely connected to place in a manner scarcely describable by words. And if the Rankins can so meaningfully reflect on a mere hundred-year history, imagine if that history were thousands of years.

First Nations people use mythology, for example, to teach children the right relationship between the person and the environment. Nisga’a oral tradition teaches children not to abuse animal life. As the story goes, a child caught a salmon in the Tseax River and slits back open with a sharp piece of shale. The shale so inserted caused the fish to swim erratically to the amusement of the children; upon which, the creator responded with the smoke and flame of the flowing lava. Such is the nature of learning, that it reflects as much the relational values around us, as it does the actual content of text so learned. It is a great example of how First Nations' sense of learning as connected to the land is a worthy exploration.


Without a doubt, a holistic, reflexive, reflective, experiential, and relational approach to learning will condition learning every day. It will do so differently in each situation. One may feel attached to the safety of a familiar learning format from our youth. One may do what one remembers, but doing so will not guarantee the same result. To teach our children well requires us to be thoughtful and aware. It requires that we also learn and grow as examples to our children.

Often when exploring the unknown there comes a benefit from the questions so generated. What is the relationship between what is learned and how it is learned? Similarly, do you suppose where we learn could change what we learn? By reaching out to others around us we find points of agreement and shared interest. These become starting points for reconciliation. When people are unable to agree, perhaps on key matters of life and faith, we can at least make peace through mutual appreciation.

Nobody has more interest in healing and reconciliation than Christians. Peace with God is a message of healing and reconciliation. Therefore, we must understand how people around us think. We want to know how people arrive at the conclusions they do. Knowing and appreciating this allows us to build the kind of relationships that will allow us to reflect God’s values to others. When Christianity first came to the Nisga’a People most saw it as a gift from their creator, embracing faith in the Lord Jesus Christ immediately. Many First Nations people have a form of Christianity that is still a remnant of that time. If we pray for the renewal of faith in the Northwest, then pray also that through healing and reconciliation. Pray for freedom among the First Nations people to find the faith of their forefathers.