Listening to Land as Teacher

Land as Our First Teacher Conference Report
Conference Report available here

Nanaboozhoo (Greetings in the name of Ojibwe First Teacher)! Dr. Hopi maampii miinawaa (here again). When I first began thinking about ‘Land as Teacher’, I used the phrase “Land as First Teacher” particularly when I spoke with Early Childhood Educators. Initially, I thought this would help people who had become familiar with the Reggio Emilia-inspired concept “environment as third teacher” begin to appreciate Indigenous worldviews that prioritize Land (with a capital ‘L’) in the Early Years.

However, in Ojibwe worldview, Nanaboozhoo is ‘First Teacher’, and the closest word for ‘Land’ is A’ki, as in Doodoom A’ki (Mother Earth). While there are different ways to talk about ‘Mother Earth’ in Ojibwe, I prefer my Auntie Jacque’s teaching from her Doodoom (Mother) which talks about our forever relationship with Doodoom Aki as her children nursing on her Doodoosh (Breast) for our sustenance. I believe this helps all Peoples transition from thinking of ‘land as teacher’, to realizing Doodoom Aki (Mother Earth) as an expression of all life and learning. In Anishinaabemowin/Ojibwemowin (Anishinaabe-Ojibwe Language), the word for ‘teaching’ is a’kinoo’amaage. Some people translate this word as ‘pointing towards and taking direction from‘ Doodoom Aki (Mother Earth) . And this is the focus of my now published PhD thesis titled: Listening to Land as Teacher in Early Childhood Education.

Throughout this research, I talked with Ojibwe Grandmothers, Indigenous and non-Indigenous ECEs, play-workers, and Earth Workers about land-based early childhood education. When listening to these diverse voices that ranged from Youth to Elders from within and without the profession of Early Childhood Education, I was amazed to find that stories that talked about giving young children opportunities to touch the Doodoom Aki (Mother Earth) on a daily basis all followed the pattern of the ‘Seasonal Pedagogy‘! What was more astounding was the fact that the unstructured, land-based play of all children from all cultures seemed to follow that same pattern and that that pattern was precisely how the two Ojibwe Grandmothers shared their Teaching Stories! This caused me to put forward the following diagram that seems to connect to ‘all life and learning’

A Seasonal Pedagogy
Martin Hopi (2021). Listening to Land as Teacher in Early Childhood Education.

Unfortunately, Indigenous perspectives such as this have rarely been considered in mainstream teaching and learning of early childhood education even though Indigenous Knowledge of raising children has been an integral part of an Indigenous Way of Life since the beginning of time. Where I live in Ontario, licensed early learning programs and funded family centres continue to be required by law to follow How Does Learning Happen? Ontario’s Pedagogy for the Early Years (2014). Despite ample western/eurocentric research, there is only one decontextualized reference to Our Children, Our Future, Our Vision: First Nation Jurisdiction Over First Nation Education in Ontario (2012) which means that Indigenous Peoples across Ontario are still being required to conform to settler-colonial education.

“When students do not see their traditional Indigenous knowledge reflected in studies related to science, law, history, geography and philosophy – the message is that their knowledge systems are not as important as settler knowledge systems. While this is a more indirect way of achieving the assimilation of Indigenous peoples than residential schools for example, it is no less destructive”.

Chiefs of Ontario New Agenda Working Group , 2012, p. 2

Like many areas of western/eurocentric sciences, brain science in early childhood development is now catching up with what Ojibwe have always known: the first seven years of a child’s life or the ‘Good Life’ creates the foundation for lifelong learning and health. Not only is developing “culturally appropriate early childhood education” one of the required 94 Calls to Action as a result of the largest class-action lawsuit in Canadian history (TRC, Calls to Action, 2015), Traditional Indigenous Knowledge has a tremendous amount to offer all Peoples in relationship to ‘how learning happens’. For example, careful analysis of Ontario’s Pedagogy for the Early Years reveals that the static nature of the pedagogy is more about what conditions are necessary for learning and less about how it actually happens.

Beginning ‘in a Good Way’ with children’s wholistic (Mind, Body, Soul/Spirit) well-being, is key to moving towards ‘culturally relevant early childhood education’. Through this ‘edge of the bush’ work learning the importance of Asemaa Nitam (Sacred Tobacco First), the act of giving thanks with all nations of children is a really powerful first step towards decolonizing the resource model of education that is being perpetuated by governments and institutions.

“… Indigenous education is not Indigenous or education from within our intellectual traditions unless it comes through the land, unless it occurs in an Indigenous context using Indigenous processes” (Leanne Simpson citing Vine Deloria Jr., 2014, p. 9)