V is for Viewpoint: Looking at the World Through Lines and Circles

A few summers ago, I was in a social justice class with a Cree elder. We were talking about inclusion. My Cree classmate had a really difficult time understanding this concept. It finally came to her what the problem was. In her worldview, there was no exclusion, so the concept of inclusion made no sense. You have to believe in exclusion to understand the need for inclusion. In my friend’s concept of the world, everyone belongs. Everyone. Always. By default. The concept of inclusion is meaningless. Like the laws of gravity, inclusion just is.

My friend looks at the world like a circle, the medicine wheel, where everyone has a place. There is no place beyond the circle. There is only in the circle.

So when we wax philosophically and at great length, about inclusion, we are actually saying something very different about what we believe, about how we view the world.

That summer was when I began to think about lines and circles, about how Western culture is always drawing lines. We have come to believe that “morality, like art, means drawing a line someplace” (commonly attributed to Oscar Wilde, although unsubstantiated). We believe that this is what morality looks like: drawing lines.

Indeed in our culture, we are all about the lines, the lines in the sand that define who is us and who is them.

We call these lines all sorts of things.

In education, we have the line between passing and failing, the line between adequate and excellent, the line between high needs and high achievement.

In geography, we have covered the Earth with lines, dividing the planet into hemispheres and time zones and tricky little things called nations. We use lines drawn on a map to tell us who we are and where we belong. We build walls on these lines, thinking it will make us strong.

In economics, we’ve got the lines of profit margins and growth projections, an impossible tangle of capitalism and colonialism.

Both capitalism and colonialism like lines: the lines of constant growth, constant expansion, and the steady rising profit line. Except constant growth is impossible.

We should know that this is impossible.

Naomi Klein (2014) has written that “our economic system and our planetary system are now at war. Or, more accurately, our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth, including human life. What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in humanity’s use of resources; what our economic model demands to avoid collapse is unfettered expansion. Only one of these sets of rules can be changed, and it’s not the laws of nature” (p.21).

As it turns out, all of our lines are not taking us to where we need to go.

One of my 8 year-old students once asked a visiting Saulteaux elder how First Nations peoples came to be here, if they really came from Africa. And this elder painstakingly explained the theory of human migration, including references to DNA and land bridges. But he ended by saying that he and his people didn’t believe any of that anyway. His people have always been here, will always be here.

There is no line between not here and here.

There is just here.

This way of understanding Indigenous presence “deliberately defies a logic of before and after” (Chamberlin, 2004, p.51).

How differently would we behave if we believed in this, in this timeless connection to the land as opposed to the worldview of my ancestors which essentially boils down to a constant search for greener grass?

How would we treat this planet if we believed that we’ve always been here and will always be here, that Mars isn’t waiting?

On that note, isn’t it odd that we call Indigenous peoples nomadic, when they are so intimately connected to the land? And people like myself, who come from generations of constant wanderers, we’re called settlers.

Furthermore, what about how we use the term “primitive”?

Primitive in terms of what?

Joffre McCleary (2017) wrote a letter to the editor of the Barrie Examiner in which he argued that Europeans introduced “woolen blankets, copper kettles and metal implements to the Indigenous people they met” (par. 1) and Indigenous peoples should therefore be more “appreciative of what the Europeans brought with them” (par. 16).

He does not mention small pox, bison devastation or residential schools.

He does not mention pipelines, acid rain or global warming.

So what is primitive? Not having a copper kettle or not being able to live sustainably?

“If the metric were ‘truly sustainable living in symbiotic relationships with the environment’ what we consider ‘primitive’ would change” (Martin Heavy Head, 2017).

Primitive and advanced, nomad and settler, us and them. These are our false binaries.

Trevor Noah (2016) talked about this obsession with binaries in one of his monologues on the Daily Show. “It always feels like in America, it’s like if you take a stand for something you automatically are against something else” (as cited in Miller, 2016, par. 1). He talks about the binaries of cat people and dog people, Red Sox fans and Yankees fans, LOL texters and HA HA HA texters. It’s always one or the other. And this becomes particularly problematic when we are discussing movements like Black Lives Matter which is assumed to mean anti-police. Noah made the point that “you can be pro-cop and pro-black” (as cited in Miller, par. 3) and in reality, that’s what we should all be.

We are, each and every one of us, more than one thing. We are full of complexities and when we use imagined binaries we are simplistically dividing ourselves.

Whether as cat people or dog people, we are all still people.

Over the past few years, Moose Jaw has begun hosting an annual Round Dance. And what a friend noticed was that at first you think of a round dance as round, as a circle. But it’s not. It’s actually a spiral. It does not close off. People stand, hand in hand with their neighbour and move their way around and around. Stepping side to side, in time with the drum, the community all coming together.

And there is always a hand waiting to be held, a neighbour ready to be made, a place in the dance for all who want to join.

We are now living in a time of reconciliation. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada has published it’s final report. A National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation has been created in Winnipeg. All Canadians are beginning to become aware of the large and terrible history of residential schools and our on-going legacy of colonialism.

As we go forward in reconciliation with our neighbours and our friends, with the land and the other inhabitants of it, we need to take a critical look at all these binaries we create.

In particular, as teachers, we need to be thoughtful about the lines we are drawing in our classrooms. Are we teaching that Indigenous peoples came from Africa or are we talking about a timeless Indigenous presence? Are we clear about what we mean when we say primitive and nomadic? Are we trying to include some students because by default they are excluded?

Teaching requires an engagement with complexity and nuance that simple lines and binaries cannot afford us. It is time to think and teach beyond our own limited worldview.

In some ways, our planet depends upon it.

Parts of this chapter were presented at a Discovery Education Ignite session on October 6, 2016.

References:

Chamberlin, J. E. (2004). If This Is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories?: Finding Common Ground. Toronto, Canada:Vintage Canada.

Heavy Head, Martin (@mheavyhead). “If the metric were ‘truly sustainable living in symbiotic relationships with the environment’ what we consider ‘primitive’ would change.” 27 July 2017, 9:06 PM. Tweet. Retrieved from: https://twitter.com/mheavyhead/status/890755359916253184

Klein, N. (2014). This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.

McCleary, J. (2017, July 10). Europeans brought an administrative structure [Letter to the editor]. The Barrie Examiner. Retrieved from: http://www.thebarrieexaminer.com/2017/07/10/europeans-brought-an-administrative-structure

Miller, M. (2016, July 8). Yes, You Can Be Pro-Cop and Pro-Black Lives Matter: Trevor Noah makes a great argument. Esquire. Retrieved from: http://www.esquire.com/news-politics/videos/a46539/trevor-noah-black-lives-matter/