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Equity & Diversity Opinion

Making the Global Local: The Urgency of Understanding Indigenous Thought

By Jennifer D. Klein — March 18, 2019 5 min read
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Editor’s Note: By first focusing on local issues, students can more readily engage with global issues. Jennifer D. Klein, head of school of Gimnasio Los Caobos in Colombia and author of The Global Education Guidebook, shares that connecting with local indigenous cultures is one way to make the local-global connection more powerful.

“We share a sacred endowment, a common history written in our bones. It follows ... that the myriad of cultures of the world are not failed attempts at modernity, let alone failed attempts to be us. They are unique expressions of the human imagination and heart, unique answers to a fundamental question: What does it mean to be human and alive?” —Wade Davis

I’ve been reading Wade Davis’ The Wayfinders recently. Combine this with living in Colombia since July 2017, and I find that my beliefs about what global education is supposed to look like have shifted. While humans are inherently prone to seeing the world from where they’re standing, I have always worked to avoid a U.S.-centric view of global education. Now I sense that global education has to include local connections, meaning that we need to ensure students engage with the diversity of thought and knowledge in their own indigenous communities as a part of understanding the tapestry of perspectives, needs, and life experiences, so many of which might offer us solutions to our most pressing borderless problems.

I have strong memories of my early learning experiences with Native Americans as part of my education in the Open Living School in Colorado. Growing up in a Navajo region meant we engaged with local communities regularly, and my teen peers and I even stood with protesters for water rights. The fact that these memories are so tangible today, over 40 years later, comes from how powerfully transformative they were in the moment. Because I had these experiences early, they became a natural and integral part of my world view, whether I was conscious of it or not, and they offered a sort of cultural pluralism I still try to live by.

A focus on ancient wisdom is all the more urgent today, as The Elders project has suggested repeatedly. All over the world, our indigenous communities offer us ways of living in sustainable harmony with the planet, new ways of seeing our relationship with nature. Our failure to listen is evidenced across our overindustrialized, overcongested planet. All over the world, the clash between modern and ancient cultures continues, and indigenous cultures, less well represented in government and policy, usually lose those conflicts. All around us is evidence of the need to ensure our students learn not to just tolerate but also to respect and learn from these cultures and their elders.

Connecting to Indigenous Communities

Community partnerships with local indigenous cultures are key to connecting students with local leaders. Most communities have outreach or educational coordinators or teachers interested in connecting their community with yours, and they can help facilitate direct experiences for your students intended to humanize and reveal the wisdom of their cultures. Partnerships with such communities should always include a chance to see their observable culture, such as their dance, dress, music, artistry, and food, but should also include opportunities to learn from their ideas about community and family, sustainable living, our responsibility to nature, and the future of humanity.

Educator Resources

When it comes to understanding indigenous thought in communities beyond those we have contact with locally, there are many global education organizations helping schools connect. The Global Oneness Project offers films with a focus on indigenous voices from a variety of global cultures, accompanied by lesson plans with a project-based intent that encourage empathy and understanding.

Edmonton’s Centre for Global Education’s #Decarbonize #Decolonize project connects students from a myriad of countries in the exploration of climate change and its connection to colonization—and the resulting disconnection from and delegitimizing of indigenous thought. Their programming includes various opportunities to connect with indigenous elders and thinkers on a global level, experiences which offer insights into the cultural behaviors impacted by colonialism.

The Connected North project, run by TakingITGlobal in collaboration with Cisco, connects indigenous students in remote parts of northern Canada with classrooms and experts in other parts of the world, with the goal of improving education by increasing the rural students’ access to global thinking. As an added result, young people in other parts of the world have the opportunity to understand the Canadian students’ culture and history.

I would love to see an end to “indigenous museum” projects and other student experiences that perpetuate the misconception that these cultures are gone. But the truth is that indigenous communities are disappearing at unfathomable rates already, according to anthropologists. It is the modern world’s choice whether we allow their continued disappearance and lose all the wisdom and languages that die with them. I believe that education has a central role in ensuring that indigenous thought endures. In the end, ensuring our students connect with indigenous thinking is not just key to the survival of these ancient cultures but also to the survival of every culture on the planet.

“There is a fire burning over the earth, taking with it plants and animals, ancient skills, and visionary wisdom. At risk is a vast archive of knowledge and expertise, a catalogue of the imagination, an oral and written language composed of the memories of countless elders and healers, warriors, farmers, fishermen, midwives, poets, and saints—in short, the artistic, intellectual, and spiritual expression of the full complexity and diversity of the human experience. Quelling this flame, this spreading inferno, and rediscovering a new appreciation for the diversity of the human spirit as expressed by culture, is among the central challenges of our times.” —Wade Davis

Connect with Jennifer and Heather on Twitter.

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The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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