Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
Facing Difficult History
There is always debate about changes in the history curriculum when there is one – some levels of schooling include no instruction in history at all – and changes in historical narratives in response to new evidence and/or new perspectives. This is a good thing, there certainly should be constructive debate and consideration of curriculum and updates, because we expect to apply examples from history to help us make sense of and respond to the present. For good or ill, younger students will study history with a tendency to look for heros, villains, and exemplars. That is part of the black and white thinking as at least a first attempt to make sense of things pretty much until each of us has finished the brain development process entailed by the closing stages of puberty. Of course, this is also why parents can get very upset about what their children are learning about history in school, and why certain people who consider themselves "elite" and better knowing than anyone else are desperate to dictate what other people's children do or don't learn. But more often than not, luckily, the people challenging changes in how history is narrated and taught are usually trying to do the right thing. They are worried that students are being taught to be ashamed of themselves or their ancestors, or that they will suffer too much distress if they are exposed to materials inconsistent with highly sanitized narratives. It has been quite intriguing to read and hear all this concern especially from people whose heritage ties back to colonizing countries, because they didn't have much to say about how even those sanitized narratives might be equally awful for Indigenous children, or African-North American children, or... well, there is no sense belabouring the point. One well-meaning commentator protested that now their students no longer respond with joy and admiration of skilled work when they see Indigenous regalia and artwork held in museums. Now, these students are more likely to respond with sadness.
I spent some time thinking this last example over, because something seemed awry with it. Not that it was untrue or exaggerated, far from it. Yet it seemed to capture an important element that is not discussed as carefully or openly as it should be. In my own experience, students from backgrounds where their culture is tied to a colonizing history, may indeed respond with sadness or anger, or indeed both when dealing with specific episodes in the history of the invasion and colonization of canada. It is not my experience, nor based on what I have heard from colleagues their either, that students feel guilty or ashamed of themselves or their ancestors, at least in terms of what they express publicly. Their responses are far more complex than that. Very often they are furious, because the things they had been told before were lies. They want the truth, because they are concerned that actions and organization based on lies cannot succeed. Most of them have learned about at least the second world war, the world war that was supposed to be "the good one." So they have learned about propaganda, invasion, and genocide. These are students who have learned that people who have been inoculated with lies can subsequently persuade themselves or be persuaded to do horrible things, or turn a blind eye to horrible things. These are many people who take seriously the repeated calls in those lessons to never let such things happen again, especially young people who have fresh eyes and are not cynical and jaded. With that noted, is it really a surprise to learn that students from colonizing cultures may respond with emotions like sadness and anger to learning that propaganda, invasion, and genocide weren't invented in the early twentieth century? Worse yet, that the authorities they had originally been taught to trust have been trying to feed them at the minimum lies by omission?
Younger students have gotten less of the older stories, so they will not be as troubled by this aspect of revised and more honest historical narratives. Yet irregardless of age, I suspect many students now do indeed respond at first to Indigenous regalia and artworks in museums with sadness. It is natural that they do, because they have learned that many of those items came yo be in those museums not through willing gifts, but through coercion and warfare. They understand that these many items were created by skilled people who were part of busy communities, and that many of those items played important roles in ceremony, passing on of knowledge and creation and care for family ties. The regalia and artworks are not just "things" cleverly made to be admired for skill. They represent relationships and whole worlds of knowledge on the land and in Indigenous languages, reduced to decontextualized curiosities. I am willing to bet that students respond rather better to museum visits where displays have been redone in a respectful manner in cooperation with the Indigenous owners, even more so if the museum has been taking steps to return what they can and arrange custodial and care relationships with Indigenous communities to take care of what has not yet gone home.
One of the most remarkable experiences of museums I have had have been with students to such powerful places as the interpretive centre at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump or the Niitsitapi gallery at the glenbow museum in calgary. The latter includes a powerful section dealing with residential schools and their impacts, focussing on the fact that despite all the cruel effort wasted on trying to assimilate them, the Blackfoot are still here. Furthermore, it was they who led the design and arrangement of the exhibit on their history and culture, including providing bilingual signage in their language and english, contextualizing regalia and artwork, and providing explanations of why some items once regularly displayed are not treated in this way anymore. Thinking back on it, I reminded all over again of the perhaps not so subtle additional point made: look at what we can do in a good way together. The Regalia and artworks were in context, part of a vivid story of people with names, complex lives, and who sometimes overcame great personal challenges, and sometimes didn't. This is the sort of experience that we are all led to expect from a museum exhibit on such common mainstream culture topics as yes, the second world war, the development of the car, or canada's infamous 1967 centennial.
So with all that said, maybe what those students were responding to with sadness was even simpler, and not critical or arguably deep as frustration with what they now understand to be misinformation about the past and its attendant reveal of authorities taking advantage of their lack of life experience. Maybe they are going to museums or other institutions where Indigenous regalia and artworks are held, and expecting something more like what they read, see, and hear when they go to a similar exhibit on mainstream culture topics and perspectives on events. Maybe they went there, expecting to see helpful dioramas, and maybe a guest like a war veteran or former factory worker, or even one of their relatives serving as guide to the exhibit. Maybe they expected to take part in an exhibit that didn't hold up Indigenous regalia and artwork as curios are effectively war trophies in the supposed battle to impose "civilization." But again, the more simple answer is that they didn't expect to be presented with things to admire in the abstract, which is boring and not particularly respectful. Maybe they were disappointed to be presented with "objects" in a way that reiterates an expectation that they can't handle a more complicated story, which hardly respects them as visitors and learners.