The COVID-19 pandemic posed a specific set of challenges for Northern Indigenous communities in Canada. For Indigenous land-based education programs in particular, which require students and teachers to be out on the land together, the shift towards online learning required unique and creative responses from Indigenous communities and land-based educators.
At the Dechinta Centre for Research and Learning , an Indigenous land-based education centre located in the Northwest Territories of Canada, the pandemic posed an initial threat to carrying out our programs, which serve a number of Dene communities in the North. As the pandemic unfolded, Dene Elders and knowledge holders emphasized that returning to the land was a safe way to self-isolate from COVID-19 that would also encourage families to engage in cultural practices and to connect with the land and who they are as Indigenous people. Rooted in our commitment to Dene self-determination, Dechinta refused to shift all of our programming online, and found hybrid solutions that encouraged Dene families and youth to access the land safely.
We also hosted an online webinar series in 2020, and created a subsequent report in 2021 , to examine the risks of moving Indigenous land-based education online and to offer possible solutions, mitigations or alternatives to carrying out immersive group learning during the pandemic.
We have learned through this process that Dene land-based education is possible during a pandemic, but it cannot be done online or adapted to fit ‘Western’ institutional frameworks. It is not possible to remove the land from Dene land-based education because the land itself is the teacher. The land is, and will continue to be, the foundation of Dene land-based education and self-determination.
Indigenous Land-Based Education in Canada: Colonial Resistance and Cultural Reclamation
Indigenous land-based education programs are critical to building a future of Indigenous self-determination and cultural revitalization in Canada. For these programs to succeed, land is not an option —it is a requirement. The land has always been a primary source of knowledge and learning for Indigenous nations, informing ethical practices, political systems, language, and worldviews. Through the violence of colonization and European settlement, these knowledge systems were significantly disrupted as Indigenous communities and children were removed from their lands and community relationships. Indigenous land-based education works to counter this oppressive colonial legacy to restore Indigenous ways of knowing, being, and doing that are intimately connected to land.
A summary of our research (in partnership with Alex Wilson) on the importance of land-based and Indigenous-led programs in Canada has found that these programs are often developed with the following objectives in mind:
- to improve the academic and career outcomes of Indigenous students and to address the disproportionately low high school and post-secondary attendance rates among Indigenous youth
- to improve land-based skills and land literacy among students through Indigenous ways of knowing/being/doing
- to create culturally relevant curriculum for Indigenous students and provide them with safe spaces to learn and practice their cultures
- to create alternative educational options for Indigenous students that are not rooted in systems of colonialism
- to provide a model of education that promotes the self-determination of Indigenous nations by giving them control over their own education systems, and to empower students to become informed and active members of their communities.
Indigenous land-based education is not just another form of ‘outdoor education’ —it is a critical component to nation-building, political and cultural resurgence, decolonization, and addressing gender-based violence. It also plays an important role in both physical and mental health —empowering students, educators, and community members to (re)connect with Indigenous ways of knowing and being, centering them within their own educational programs and giving them the tools to care for themselves, their communities, and their land using Indigenous theory and practices.
Returning to the land: COVID-19 and the Risks of Moving Dene Education Online
Even though land-based practices promote health, resiliency and self-determination for Dene communities, the pandemic made it difficult for Indigenous land-based education programs in the North to operate. Unlike other forms of education, our research found that Indigenous land-based educators in the North faced a specific set of challenges amidst the pandemic, particularly with the move towards online learning. This included concerns around access to internet and technology in remote communities and the possibility of knowledge exploitation when conducting Dene education over the internet.
In particular, we found that teaching Dene (and Indigenous) laws, ethics, and ways of knowing/being must be an embodied experience for students —it requires participants to be in a direct relationship to the land, with each other, and with their instructors and Elders. For example, the ethical practices associated with offering tobacco and praying, harvesting moose or caribou, setting up camp, or harvesting fish, can only be learned on the land. As well, one of the most important parts of immersive land-based education is having students participate in communal life. The lessons of consent, reciprocity, care, and connection that come from this experience cannot be replicated in isolation or online.
In response to these concerns, Dene leaders, elders, communities, and land-based programs found other ways to carry out land-based practices and Dene education in the North. Part of our research involved an interview with Curve Lake First Nations Elder Doug Williams, who reminded us of the importance of centering land and tradition in our responses to COVID-19 as Indigenous people. Doug echoes what many of the other webinar participants emphasized: Indigenous people must find alternative ways to get outside and to practice traditions, while still prioritizing their safety and health. Returning to the land will look different during this time, but when done in a safe and isolated way, can be a source of healing and well-being for communities.
Prioritizing Dene Education During a Pandemic: Supporting Community Well-Being and Self-Determination on the Land
Dechinta responded to the urgent needs of Dene communities during the COVID-19 pandemic by taking new approaches to get families and youth out on the land safely. Starting in the summer of 2020, we pivoted our programming with the Tu Lidlini Dena, Yellowknives Dene, and Dehcho First Nations to support Dene land-based education in the following ways:
- Distributing necessary land-based education resources materials to encourage safe access to the land, and providing funding and bush gear to families and youth
- Developing the educational capacity and skills of youth to articulate Dena/Dene laws in relation to harvesting practices and relationship to the land, including a series of Dehcho videos
- Increasing the amount and diversity of country foods available to the community during a time of economic and food scarcity by paying harvesters to distribute fish, meats and medicines
- Producing resources for multi-generational language use and sharing
- Producing instructional videos incorporating key elements of Indigenous philosophy, ethics, and language
We also hoped to provide both theoretical and practical tools online to educators, students, and community members to support them in navigating their own relationship to Indigenous land-based education and practice in the era of COVID-19. In partnership with Alex Wilson, we worked on a project to compile a document of resources and land-engaged teaching tools compatible with remote delivery. Our webinar research also noted several alternative and safe approaches to Indigenous education when access to land and each other is limited. A full report of these findings is available on our website.
It is clear to us that the wisdom of the land, and its centrality to Dene life and politics, provides the foundation for land-based education, and that online learning formats are not capable of replacing this mode of pedagogy. As we continue to face the challenges of a global pandemic, we will move forward by finding creative and alternative ways to carry out our land-based practices, be in community with each other and participate in ceremony, engage in learning that is beneficial to our mental, physical, and spiritual well-being, and find ways to assert and practice Dene self-determination.
The International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples is commemorated annually on 9 August to raise awareness about the rights of Indigenous Peoples globally. This year’s theme, The Role of Indigenous Women in the Preservation and Transmission of Traditional Knowledge, is an opportunity to acknowledge and reflect on the different ways education systems impact the rights of Indigenous Peoples, particularly women and girls. On this occasion, Education International is launching a blog series featuring the voices and perspectives of Indigenous Peoples and their allies from across the world. The series explores the ways Indigenous education experts, activists, researchers, and teachers, are working to ensure quality education that centres Indigenous knowledge systems.
If you would like to contribute a blog to this series, please contact Lainie.Keper[at]ei-ie.org.
At the Dechinta Centre for Research and Learning we are brought together by our care for the land, each other, and our desire to revitalize and practice Indigenous ways of knowing and being in the Canadian North and beyond. We provide culturally-informed land-based education and community programs in partnership with local community members and elders. We are the only post-secondary accredited land-based program in the world, allowing our students to gain university credits while simultaneously learning cultural knowledge and practices, land-based skills, and Indigenous academic theory on the land.
The report is intended to be a supplement for the COVID-19 Webinar Series that Dechinta hosted in 2020. All videos are accessible on the website www.dechinta.ca/COVID19 and on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/c/DechintaCentre. Written transcriptions of the webinars are also available on the website.
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.