School Climate & Safety Opinion

Toward Love: Honoring Indigenous Land in Our Classrooms

By Christina Torres — July 28, 2019 4 min read
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As Hawai’i moves through its popular tourist season, hordes of visitors will come through the island chain. They’ll enjoy Hawai’i’s beautiful beaches and fantastic mountains, marvel at its unparalleled flora and fauna, and claim to love the “Aloha Spirit” that we believe flows throughout the islands.

After living on O’ahu for eight years, I was a tourist at some point. I, too, was new to the island, marveling and claiming to love the concept of “aloha.” After living on island, though, I have learned that “aloha” is a much more nuanced concept, far more than a greeting. Aloha flows between people, yes, but that love and care flows between Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) and the land itself. Having aloha, for me as someone who is not Native Hawaiian, means respecting and listening to the voices of the indigenous people that come from the land. I am consistently reminded that the land I live on isn’t mine, which fills me with an important tension, gratitude, and sense of humility to be in the position that I am.

It also, fortunately, reminds me that Native Hawaiians are very much a living, thriving culture. This has been more and more evident as the country has been talking about the Thirty-Meter Telescope people are trying to build on Mauna Kea, or Mauna O Wakea, a sacred site for Kanaka Maoli.

There are many layers to this debate, and what has struck me as a nonindigenous resident reading the news and comments is the lack of acknowledgement and understanding American culture has about being on land that isn’t ours. There were a few times I was asked my opinion “as a Hawaiian,” meaning I live in Hawai’i. I’m not Hawaiian, though. I’m a resident of Hawai’i, and to forget or not know that the term “Hawaiian” refers to an indigenous people acts as an erasure of their history, present, and culture. It signifies a huge gap in our education system—one that is indicative of a larger issue with how we treat indigenous people overall.

Indigenous communities are current, living, important groups that deserve agency when decisions are made about their land. We often consider Native cultures through the lens of “history” instead of seeing them as an existing, living people. When we fail to acknowledge not just their past but the voices of its existing members, we perpetuate the erasure of their stories and value to current society.

As educators, we must push ourselves to do better, so that our students do not continue this dangerous view of communities that have been historically silenced. The stereotypes of the “giving Indian” or the “aloha spirit” as a mask to ignore the very real issues these communities face are things we must actively combat in our minds and our classrooms. Just because these cultures can operate from a place of generosity over ownership does not mean they should forsake the claim they have to their space or their sovereignty.

As we begin to (slowly) start thinking about the school year, here are some things we can do to prepare ourselves to better honor the indigenous cultures our students are interacting with—whether or not they know.

Research the land your community is on. “Culturally responsive education” doesn’t stop with our students themselves. We can create a deeper sense of connection to place by sharing the cultures that have been historically on the land we’re on, whether or not members of those communities are in our classrooms. Read up on the indigenous people who come from your space and check out this excellent teacher guide as a resource. Make sure to read Native Land’s “territory acknowledgement” section as well, so that if you choose to do an acknowledgement, it is meaningful and researched.

Seek voices from indigenous communities. When discussing current events, such as Standing Rock or Mauna Kea (and, yes, you should be discussing these events), share voices from those communities with your students. Include indigenous voices in your curriculum. Question the texts you use and push yourself to do better—especially the ones you perhaps once loved but now realize may be problematic. Bring in Native speakers to discuss issues with your students and to share stories of the place as it was and as it could be. Taking on new ideas or initiatives can be daunting, yes, but in order to actually educate kids, we must ensure we are educating ourselves constantly as well.

Know when to decenter yourself from the conversation. We live in an age in which everyone can freely share their opinions. This can be good, but it can also lead us to center ourselves in conversations where, frankly, our opinion isn’t what matters. The communities that are most affected and/or have claim to the place or issues being affected should be the focus of conversations. Their voices should be heard and amplified. There are times where the best thing we can do is to realize that our opinion isn’t the one that needs to be heard and instead make space for the voices of others to be shared.

Claiming to love the land we live on or the community that comes from that land is not enough. We must put that belief into action by listening to the community’s stories and standing with them as they seek justice. In doing so, we collectively move the needle not only toward what is right but also toward a much deeper, more meaningful love as well.

The opinions expressed in The Intersection: Culture and Race in Schools 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.