How to Respectfully Teach Indigenous History Month

It is impossible to teach a correct and complete history of Canada without acknowledging Indigenous history. However, for many teachers, knowing how to teach Indigenous history in a respectful and accurate way can be a challenge; so how do we do it?

Teaching Indigenous history needs to be done in the context of seeking to listen, understand, and respect. We must acknowledge Canada’s role in the disruption and subjugation of Indigenous peoples and teach students a complete and accurate history; this also includes learning about residential schools, treaties, and the legacy of colonialism.

Knowing the approach to take when teaching Indigenous history and putting it into practise in the classroom can be challenging. In this guide, you’ll find answers to the most commonly asked questions about teaching Indigenous history, as well as some suggested inquiry project ideas.

What is Indigenous History Month?

Indigenous History Month takes place during the month of June. It represents a time to honour and celebrate the culture of First Nation, Inuit, and Métis peoples in Canada. Moreover, it is a time to reflect on the rich history and heritage of Indigenous peoples in Canada, and to recognize the strength and diversity of Indigenous communities.

This year, Indigenous History Month is dedicated to survivors of residential schools, and also the missing children and families who were left behind. June 21st marks National Indigenous People’s Day, created in 1996 by then Governor General Romeo LeBlanc in response to calls for a national holiday to celebrate the contributions of Indigenous peoples. 

Why do we study Indigenous History?

There are several reasons why studying Indigenous history is important. Above all, the role it plays in closing the gap in understanding the very real and painful history of this country cannot be understated. Although studying Canada’s past can be uncomfortable and potentially divisive, it is important for many reasons:

  • Gives students a full and complete understanding of the important role that Indigenous peoples played in shaping this country 
  • Encourages students to develop empathy and understanding
  • Helps students understand the grievances of Indigenous peoples and also the injustices and inequalities they’ve faced and continue to face
  • Fosters critical thinking and discourse
  • Enables students to better understand the uniqueness of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit cultures
  • Helps them understand and dismantle negative prejudices and stereotypes that exist both in and outside of Indigenous communities
  • It is a component of active citizenship

Above all, learning about Indigenous history helps students to understand the deep roots of history in Canada. Moreover, it encourages them to be more respectful, educated members of society.

Port Harrison (Inukjuak) Federal Hostel, group of students, nuns and Aboriginal men, Quebec, ca. 1890, by Henry Joseph Woodside (MIKAN 3193392)

How can I teach Indigenous history respectfully?

It can be hard to know where to begin teaching about the history of Indigenous peoples. Below is a suggested set of steps for structuring an inquiry about Indigenous history:

1. Put locations in context

A good starting point is to find out where your school is located in the context of Indigenous land; for example, is your school located on the land of the Six Nations? Is it in Mohawk or Algonquin territory? Consider consulting this First Nations map of Ontario to pinpoint where your school is and what Indigenous territory it is located in. Showing Canada from this perspective helps solidify the fact that the buildings and spaces we know today were built on Indigenous land. It also helps students understand the basis for land claim disputes that are ongoing across the country.

2. Provide background knowledge

Providing some background information on the history of Indigenous peoples in Canada is a great next step. In general, students need to develop a sense of place and identity. Also, they need to understand where we came from. By studying a variety of Indigenous communities, students begin to understand the role that colonialism has played in Canada. Furthermore, they see the impact it has had on communities and individuals. Historica Canada has an excellent activities booklet to support lessons like this.

3. Listen to Indigenous perspectives

“Henry’s journal: Experiences of a visit to the Red River in 1800 by Alexander Henry: An interesting paper read by Mr. Bell before the Historical Society.” Reprinted as Henry’s journal: Covering adventures and experiences in the fur trade on the Red River, 1799-1801 , Fairfield, Wash.: Ye Galleon Press, 1982 ([20]p.).

Next, teachers should consider reaching out to local Indigenous communities to provide authentic experiences into the classroom. It is incredibly beneficial to have a community member share their stories. In addition, they can answer questions and transfer their knowledge to students of all ages. This “Listening and Learning From Elders” activity is exceptional in helping students open their minds and hearts to an Indigenous speaker. Moreover, teachers should introduce primary source documents in lessons and teach students how to read and use them.

4. Learn the correct terminology

When teaching Indigenous history, it is important to know and use the correct vocabulary. For example, teachers need to know the difference between “First Nations”, “Métis”, and “Inuit”. In addition, knowing terms like treaty, assimilation, segregation, colonialism, and residential schools are essential when teaching Indigenous history accurately and respectfully. We’ve linked an Indigenous vocabulary terms document to help with this.

5. Let students ask questions

Once students have a solid foundation of historical knowledge, let them ask their own questions. These can be about anything under the scope of Indigenous history – past or present. If your students are new to inquiry learning, conducting a whole-class or guided inquiry might be a better option. In this case, consider using one of these inquiry questions:

  • How can we teach Indigenous history to young students?
  • In what ways can we raise awareness about treaty rights?
  • Why is history understood differently by different groups of people?
  • How did colonialism affect different Indigenous groups across Canada?
  • In what ways did residential schools impact Indigenous communities?
  • How did Indigenous groups live prior to European contact?
  • What are the long-term effects of residential schools in Canada?
  • How are First Nations, Métis, and Inuit cultures different?
  • In what ways did Indigenous groups utilize the natural environment?

We’ve included a PDF of these Indigenous inquiry questions (and many more) to use in your classrooms.

What mini lessons should I teach?

As with any inquiry, some teacher guidance will be necessary from time-to-time. With topics like history, it is important to consider the “stepping stones” of human development. In fact, the Ontario curriculum states that a learning environment needs to consider students’ cognitive, emotional, social, and physical development. Furthermore, social studies teaching needs to touch on students’ sense of self and spirit, as well as their mental health and resilience. Teachers should include the following elements in their social studies teaching:

  • Cognitive development: deals with things like brain development, processing and reasoning skills, use of strategies for learning
  • Emotional development: focuses on things like emotional regulation, empathy, and motivation
  • Social development: deals with things like self-esteem, identity formation, spiritual identity, and the development of relationships
  • Physical development: focuses on the balance between sleep, physical activity, puberty, body image, and nutrition

Planning for mini lessons that address things like identity, empathy, spiritual awareness, and maintaining balance are important when learning about the history of Canada. Here are some examples:

1. Developing Empathy

In this lesson, students understand what empathy is, practice ways to be more understanding, and reflect on the effects of empathetic listening. An empathy questionnaire and role-play cards are included in the activity, which should get students warmed up and thinking about the concept of empathy before diving into their inquiries. A great article outlining the differences between empathy and sympathy can be found here. Certainly, no student is too young to begin learning about empathy.

2. Exploring Indigenous Identity

Four Directions Teachings is an amazing website that explains the importance of spirituality, ceremonies, and Indigenous culture. Their interactive content explains different aspects of the five diverse First Nations in Canada. They also have excellent and complete resources to support the website’s content. Spending some time learning about Indigenous identity as part of your inquiry will help students have a better understanding of Indigenous culture, values, and identity. It is also important that students recognize the differences among cultures other than their own.

3. Understanding Reconciliation

I think it’s important to include reconciliation as its own stand-alone lesson (or multiple lessons). As part of students’ development as informed and active citizens, reconciliation is something that needs to be taught. For example, a few short lessons aimed at respectful understanding will help encourage students to consider multiple perspectives and explore what it means to be an ally. This resource (aimed at students in grades 7-9, but could work in a grade 6 classroom) provides an excellent framework for delving into this topic. Stolen Lives (PDF) and Meaningful Reconciliation (PDF) are also fantastic resources to pull ideas from.

How do I put all this together?

We’ve made it super easy to implement the mini lessons above into a two-week inquiry plan. The screenshot shows one of these weeks. However, students will probably need a few more work periods to complete their inquiries, so be sure to plan for an extra 3-6 hours for this.

If time is limited, these lessons can be taught each day to lessen the total time it takes to complete the inquiry. Alternatively, more time can be dedicated to an inquiry of this size and scope if time permits.

Download the entire 2-week plan here

Individual resource downloads:

KWL Chart (PDF)

Inquiry Planning Sheet (PDF)

Inquiry Checklist (PDF)

Sample Indigenous Inquiry Questions (PDF)

Key Takeaways:

(1) Teaching Indigenous history needs to be done in the context of seeking to listen, understand, and respect

(2) We must acknowledge the effects of colonialism and Canada’s role in the disruption and subjugation of Indigenous peoples

(3) Learning about Indigenous history gives students a full and complete understanding of the important role that Indigenous peoples played in shaping this country

(4) When teaching Indigenous history, we need to provide context and background knowledge, and help students develop skills like empathy and identity

(5) We need to give students lots of time and space to digest information and to also ask questions

How do you teach Indigenous history in your classroom?

What tips or suggestions do you have?

Leave a comment below, or join the conversation on Instagram!

Other resources to support teaching Indigenous History Month:

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