Aboriginal Peoples: Literacy and Learning
by Eileen M. Antone
Sekoli Swa kwe kon, Onkwehonwe ni:I Onyota’a:ka Tsi twa ka tuh ti. London Ontario Akta Tyot su nit
ne Hotinnoshoni ne yukats, kale Kaliwisuks ne yukats Eileen Antone ne ah slo ni kik ne yukats.
Ano:wal ni wa ki ta lo t^
Participants at the Symposium
(Left to right) Elder Grafton Antone, Eileen
Antone and Peter Gamlin (principal investigators), and Research Assistants
Rhonda Paulsen, Lois
Provost Turchetti, Julian Robbins, and Moneca Sinclaire.
Sekoli is a formal greeting in my language. Swa kwe
kon includes everyone that is here. I am one of the
Original People of North America also known to
Aboriginal peoples as Turtle Island. I come from
Onyota’a:ka, known as Oneida First Nation of the
Thames, near London, Ontario. My name in the
Longhouse is Tsyot sˆnit. Ka li wi suks is my research
name. Ka li wi suks means “she who gathers
information.” An elder who was a participant in my
original thesis research gave this name to me. I am from
the Turtle Clan. Eileen Antone is my English name.
In working with Aboriginal
literacy, it is important
that I introduce myself in the Oneida language, as
language is an integral part of the literacy of
Aboriginal people. Identity is also an integral part of
Aboriginal literacy, so it is important that I identify
myself to you as a member of the Onyota’a:ka First
Nation and a member of the Oneida Turtle clan.
Aboriginal education became the focus of my work
when I realized that, though I am an Aboriginal
person, I was unaware of my heritage and history. I
wanted to know why I did not have the traditional
knowledge that is the basis of Onyota’a:ka life.
My original research was a
sociological study of education for Aboriginal people in Canada. Through
in-depth inquiry into the education of Aboriginal
people in Canada, I found that the goal of the Euro-
Canadian education system was to educate Aboriginal
students to an individualistic worldview, based on the
knowledge that came from Europe (Antone 1997).
Education was a process of assimilation whereby
Aboriginal People were to be absorbed into the Eurocentric
society (Wilson 1986).
The goal of the Euro-Canadian education system
was to educate Aboriginal students to an individualistic worldview.
The main strategy which the Government of
Canada used to accomplish assimilation was the
Residential School system, in continued existence
from the late 1800s to the late 1900s in different
parts of Canada. This system removed the children
from their home communities and the influence of
their parents and extended families (Knockwood
1992). The impact of these schools was that many
Aboriginal people lacked the skills they needed for a
high quality of life in either Aboriginal or European
society (Barman 1986:112).
Aboriginal practitioners began to
explore and build connections between
Aboriginal literacy, healing, community
development and self-determination.
Early literacy programs in Canada continued the
aims of assimilation. They tried to teach learners to
read and write in the English language so that they
could find work in the dominant society (Barman
1986:112). These literacy programs did not seem to
help, as Aboriginal people continued to have high
unemployment rates (McCallum 1997).
In 1987, Aboriginal people in Toronto began
a literacy movement to improve the quality of
education for their learners. Aboriginal practitioners
began to explore and build connections between
Aboriginal literacy, healing, community development
and self-determination (Gaikezheyongai 2000). These
visionaries saw another way, one not based on the
constant negation of Aboriginal views and values
(Battiste 1986). Their efforts to enhance literacy for
Aboriginal people continue today.
Literacy and Learning Project
The Literacy and Learning project collected
data from Aboriginal communities in the province of
Ontario between 2000 and 2002. The research team
consisted of Dr. Peter Gamlin and myself as principal
investigators, both from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education
at the University of Toronto (OISE/UT). We worked with five Aboriginal students:
Sinclair, Ed.D. Candidate at OISE/UT; Lois Provost
Turchetti, M.Ed. Candidate at OISE/UT; Julian Robbins,
Ph.D. Candidate at Trent University; Rhonda L. Paulsen,
Ph. D. Postgraduate student at OISE/UT; and Heather
McRae, M.A. Candidate at OISE/UT. Heather joined us
in the fall of 2002 to help bring this project to a close.
The research was a collaborative work, in
partnership with the National Literacy Secretariat,
the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and
Universities and the Ontario Native Literacy
Coalition (ONLC) and OISE/UT. The
ONLC currently serves a
membership of twenty-six Native
literacy programs throughout
Ontario. Our research data
came from urban and rural
affiliated with ONLC ,
as well as
not connected to ONLC.
There were three phases to this research project.
The first phase consisted of a literature review,
which situated Aboriginal literacy in the context of
Native education as a whole. The objective of the
literature review was to illuminate some of the potential directions that Aboriginal
literacy in Ontario might take in the
context of academic “dialogue”
currently occurring in Native education.
Our intent was to facilitate a process to
ensure that Native literacy in Ontario is
perceived wholistically. In conjunction
with the literature review, we developed an
annotated bibliography as well as a list of Native language resources and websites.
In this paper “Aboriginal” is used as a generic term to include all Aboriginal people in North America,
including Status and non-Status Indians, Metís and
Inuit. “Native” is used interchangeably with
Aboriginal. The collective name for the Original
people of North America has gone through several
modifications with the changing political climate. As
an individual I have experienced these changes and
I am quite comfortable using the word “Native” to
talk about my work and all my relatives. I also use
the term “First Nations” interchangeably with
“Native” and “Aboriginal”. The term “Indian” is legal
terminology used in legislation such as the Indian
Act, which governs the First Nations People of
Canada. Where experience in a particular territory is
under discussion, the Nation name (e.g., Odawa, or
Oneida) is usually preferred.
“Aboriginal Literacy” describes Aboriginal Peoples ’
distinct perspective on literacy, in the context of
Native education as a whole, and includes culture
“Traditional” refers to protocols in keeping
with Aboriginal Traditional Ecological
“Practitioners” is used to refer to
Aboriginal Elders, Traditional Teachers,
literacy teachers, librarians, storytellers,
tutors, culture-educators, administrators
and resource personnel.
The term “Wholistic” describes the
Aboriginal philosophical approach to
learning, in which everything is related.
By extension, the human being is
considered an entire whole – mentally,
physically, spiritually and emotionally at
one with the cosmos. This is distinct
from a holistic approach in which the
term related is taken as simply meaning
interconnected. (Antone 2003).
The second phase of the research included
interviews and focus groups. The major objective
was to gather, document and understand the
experiences of program personnel and learners,
acknowledging Aboriginal wholistic
approaches to learning and “best
practices” in literacy training
programs. A second objective
was to identify the barriers and
supports experienced by
Aboriginal learners in literacy
The third phase of the
research involved a two-day
symposium. Nearly eighty
practitioners came together for
the Native Literacy and Learning–Aboriginal Perspectives Symposium
held at OISE/UT on May 3 and 4,
2002. Elders Lillian McGregor and
Grafton Antone provided opening
and closing each day, respectively.
Aboriginal literacy researchers
Ningwakwe Priscilla George and Sally
Gaikezheyongai gave keynote
presentations. Lillian McGregor, Jacqui
LaValley, Grafton Antone, Jan Longboat,
and Joe Paquette provided a roundtable of
Elders and teachers. Fourteen practitioners
presented on a broad range of topics related to
barriers and supports in literacy, ranging from
“Healing the Spirit” to “Deaf Literacy”.
Culturally appropriate practice is
flexible and effective because it
reframes Aboriginal perspectives in a
The presenters, Elders and teachers who
participated in the symposium were invited to a
one-day follow-up workshop in mid-October 2002.
Significantly, these gatherings created forums for
Aboriginal literacy practitioners to come together
and discuss issues that would enhance literacy for
the learners in Aboriginal programs. These
gatherings were also a way to encourage, enhance,
recognize and validate practitioners’
accomplishments. Practitioners were able to develop
teaching methods, practices and administrative
processes and share their findings from the literacy
Four clear and consistent findings came out of the
interviews, symposium and follow-up meeting. First,
there was complete agreement from practitioners that
(a) Aboriginal literacy comprises a distinct, culturally-appropriate
and wholistic perspective on literacy; and
(b) a proactive response to this wholistic perspective
needs to be taken.
Secondly, practitioners agreed that there
single type of Aboriginal literacy program or “best
practice”. Effective and successful programs and
practices are those that learners perceive to be
directly relevant to their own environments and
cultural traditions. Consequently, effective and
successful programs are those in which learners are
motivated to participate.
Practitioners stated that culturally appropriate practice is flexible and
effective because it reframes
Aboriginal perspectives in a positive light. As long
as funding arrangements are predicated on
governmental criteria-based outcome objectives that
do not take Aboriginal cultural perspectives into
account, culturally appropriate practice cannot be
recognized and achieved.
Practitioners also observed that there
was very little understanding of, or funding support for,
Aboriginal adult literacy programs that include
intergene rational literacy participation and practices
Finally, practitioners described Aboriginal
literacy as distinct from mainstream literacy in that it
reflects Aboriginal worldviews in two particular
ways. The first is the intergenerational or
multigenerational expression of Aboriginal literacy
which includes how literacy extends to all areas of life. The
second is the particular learning process by which teachers become learners
become teachers. As Cajete (1994) describes it, this
learning “unfolded through mutual, reciprocal
relationships between one’s social group and the
natural world... involved all dimensions of one’s
being, while providing both personal development
and technical skills through participation in
community life.” Practitioners, learners and their
families need this approach to achieve their place as
respected and contributing members of both
Aboriginal and Canadian society.
We must continue the work of our earlier
visionaries by exploring and building connections
between Aboriginal literacy, healing, community
development and self-determination.
Eileen Antone is a member of the Oneida of the
Thames First Nation. She is a faculty member in the department of Adult
Education and Counselling Psychology at the Ontario Institute for
Studies in Education, University of Toronto (OISE/UT). Dr. Antone also
works with the university’s Transitional Year Program assisting Aboriginal
students to achieve university studies.
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on Learning Experiences of all Onyota’a:ka. Toronto: Unpublished
Thesis-University of Toronto.
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