Symbolism and Expression Additional Reading

Handing Down Cultural Traditions

The acquisition of cultural knowledge is important to all peoples. Before the arrival of Europeans and the imposition of a foreign colonial educational system, First Nations, and Inuit had their own oral educational system, which ensured that children learned the cultural values and history of the tribe, and they learned a foundational principle—respect others and live in harmony with the environment.

 Aboriginal parents and grandparents, extended family members and elders were responsible for passing knowledge to children. Aboriginal cultures were oral, so knowledge was passed down through stories. Children learned about the world around them and about the relationships between human beings and all other living and non-living things. Early in life, they learned the importance of knowing who their relatives were and the value of the kinship system. They also learned manners and respect and became acquainted with virtues and positive, humanistic qualities, such as love, kindness, honour, generosity, and sharing, which they were made to practice throughout childhood.

Children were taken to social and spiritual ceremonies to observe and learn their people’s customs and practices, often taking part in the ceremonies themselves. During certain ceremonies, children were formally introduced and might be given a First Nations name or dance at their first powwow. Community members conducted the ceremonies, passing along additional knowledge about cultural practices. Often children who are musically talented learned the ceremonial songs and the correct drumming techniques and were recruited as valued members of singing groups.

Traditionally, hunting skills had to be learned. The duty of teaching hunting techniques fell first to the father or to a member of the community who was a great hunter. Boys learned to correctly use their hunting equipment. They were also taught about wild game, the natural world and where animals could be found. Becoming a good hunter depended on the amount of training one received and could take a long time. Proficient hunters were highly valued members of the community. These teachings continue today in many communities.

Mothers and other female members of the community passed homemaking and sewing skills down to the girls. Girls learned how to make clothing and other home products from animals, birds and plants, the raw materials of Mother Earth. They were taught the duties, roles and responsibilities expected of women. Women were important members of the community and often functioned as advisors, healers, and providers. Women had important positions in some of the spiritual societies in the community.

Knowledge was passed down orally by members of the community: historians, healers, those responsible for giving out justice, individuals with special knowledge of the environment, leaders of the social and spiritual societies, and storytellers. Those who were familiar with important legends about each nation’s helper to the Creator, Weesakichak (Cree), Naapi (Blackfoot) and Nanaboosh (Ojibwa), whose earthly exploits had moral messages told stories and ledgends according to specific rules and observances. In other words, education in First Nations and Inuit cultures was seen as a community responsibility.

Today, traditional Aboriginal cultures have been largely displaced by modern North American culture. The impact of the change has been so powerful that today many First Nations parents do not know how to speak their traditional languages. The main reason for this is that traditional cultural knowledge was almost lost when children were removed from their homes and placed in residential schools. School authorities strongly discouraged and punished students for using their language and practicing their cultural traditions.

Nevertheless, there is cause for hope for the survival and revitalization of First Nations, Métis and Inuit cultures and languages today. There are pockets of the Aboriginal population that still have a sophisticated traditional knowledge base. It is through them and a renewed interest in traditional language and culture that cultures will be preserved.