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Smart Ideas: Q&A  
Jo-ann Archibald on Indigenous “story work”

By TIM LOUGHEED | September 7, 2016

This series sponsored by the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences features notable humanities and social sciences researchers with smart ideas for a better tomorrow. This month we speak to Jo-ann Archibald, who is completing her term as associate dean for Indigenous Education and is director of the Indigenous Teacher Education Program (NITEP) at the University of British Columbia.

Jo-ann Archibald-150x225Jo-ann Archibald, also known as Q’um Q’um Xiiem, is from the Stó:lo Nation. In her 35 years at UBC’s Faculty of Education, she has been at the forefront of efforts to ensure that teachers in the province’s classrooms have a keen appreciation of the culture of Canada’s First Nations and an understanding about the impact of Canada’s colonial history, and to ensure that many of those teachers are of indigenous origin. At the heart of much of her work has been the central role of storytelling. As she explains, the act of sharing a narrative can provide the foundation for profound personal and social change.

How did you first develop an interest in the role that stories and storytelling could play in education?

Dr. Archibald: In 1972 I became an elementary school teacher for several years in my home area of the Sto:lo people in the Fraser Valley. I thought the curriculum needed to have more from the perspective of Indigenous people and I had the privilege of working with elders on Sto:lo history and culture. Stories became a core part of that work as I listened to stories from these elders and documented them.

What I really learned from them was the process of understanding stories. A person may come across an Indigenous story and think there’s not much to that story. But, if they really understood the traditional process of making meaning through story, they’d see that these stories are quite powerful. That was why I spent years working with Indigenous elder storytellers: to learn about making meaning with and through stories for educational purposes. I termed that “Indigenous story work” because at our cultural gatherings we usually had a spokesperson who stood up and said, “My dear friends the work is about to begin.” When we’d hear that phrase we’d know that it was time to pay attention. That was the start of my Indigenous-based journey in education, which continued to my PhD and throughout my professional career.

Where did that journey take you?

Dr. Archibald: Because of the impact of colonization and the banning of many of our important cultural traditions and ceremonies, a lot of that was denied our people. It was fortunate that there were cultural knowledge-holders and elders who resisted and continued to practice some of the oral traditions, especially with stories. I found through my doctoral studies, and various research projects that I’ve undertaken since then, that we have Indigenous storytellers of all ages. It’s important to acknowledge them and start to bring back and use storytelling more.

There are traditional stories but then there are also life-experience stories – stories of resilience, of overcoming problems, making connections and building family and community relationships. We can use life-experience stories in much the same way we use traditional stories. Whether it’s teaching in the classroom or at the community level, we should be talking with one another, getting away from our technological gadgets for a while, connecting with one another through stories.

How do stories help us build these important personal connections?

Dr. Archibald: Stories are very holistic. They can help us learn using the intellect; they help us identify emotions; they are spiritual, touching our inner being, who we are as individuals; and they help us reflect upon our actions. For children in school, it is a way to think about how they learn to get along or how they might help one another or think about feelings. The teacher uses a story, for example, where a trickster gets into trouble and the idea is to figure out how to problem-solve. It’s really engaging to be a part of the story. It’s about the power of using your imagination, your critical thinking, and your creativity to think about actions that one might take or ascribe to a trickster.

The story won’t tell you what to do, it will just sort of stop abruptly when this character is in trouble. That can be a signal for me as the listener – the learner – to start working with the story and then imagine what I might do to get out of the predicament that I’ve gotten myself into. I might think that I should have been more respectful of other people’s property or I might have asked for help from the family or the community. There isn’t one “right” answer; in fact, everybody’s answers are valued, which is a form of inclusive education.

We may have a sharing session about what meaning we get out of the story and then the synergy happens. Then we can talk about what were some of the similarities and the differences of people’s understandings. Where I still think we have a lot more work to do is in families and in communities, to use stories to create whole, healthy human beings. We can still do much more in the schools, but I believe that Indigenous stories and storytelling have started to gain more interest and acceptance from teachers as an important learning tool for all students.

What role has NITEP played in these changes within schools?

Dr. Archibald: I love what I’ve been doing here at UBC, being able to teach and use storytelling and stories for teaching at all levels. My roles within the university of course include much more, but the storytelling is a really important part of my identity as an Indigenous person, educator and researcher.

NITEP is a Bachelor of Education degree program for Indigenous people. We build upon their Indigenous culture and knowledge through Indigenous education courses, the cohort/family structure of the program, and mentorship from elders and Indigenous educators. We facilitate the NITEP students’ development of their own cultural ways of teaching and learning, while they are learning everything else they need to be an effective teacher. So NITEP provides an Indigenous education specialization for its students. That’s been going on for 42 years, with many of its alumni working in leadership positions now in educational systems, and they’re making policy and curriculum change.

What does the broader application of storytelling look like in practice?

Dr. Archibald: There is one project with a local First Nation, the Musqueam people, which is called “Awakening the Spirit: Revitalization of Canoeing in Musqueam.” The Musqueam community wanted to find a way to have the young people more engaged in some of the traditional ways of canoeing that developed cultural values, strength and pride. The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council funds this project. The research team consists of principal researcher Shelly Johnson, a professor in the School of Social Work, with co-researchers Corrina Sparrow, manager of Social Development for Musqueam; Andrea Lyall, First Nations coordinator in the Faculty of Forestry; and me in the Faculty of Education.

We worked with Elder Dick Louis from Musqueam and others in B.C. communities to find a Red Cedar tree that he could use to carve out a canoe. It took quite a while to find one that was long enough and it was about 350 years old. This project documents the process of making the canoe and the cultural knowledge and processes connected with canoeing.

We have heard stories from the elders and other cultural knowledge-holders about the process of making a canoe and the value of how we learn from nature. We have heard stories from women family members about their roles in supporting the canoers; family members of the late Dominic Point, a master canoe carver who taught others to make canoes and paddles, and to become canoe pullers; and youth and adults who participate in day-long canoe journeys.

When they tell the stories, you can see and feel the pride of their identity and achievements. People are interested in the stories, which we’re documenting in writing, photos and video. I share this project as an example of how story work can be powerful in a research setting to build family and community spirit.


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