Indigenous Teaching Gardens Open

This past Monday, the Faculty of Education unveiled its new Indigenous Teaching Gardens at an opening ceremony attended by students, staff and the public. While the Indigenous flowers, shrubs and other plants are, in many cases, still just seeds in pots, there was a strong sense amongst those who were in attendance that germination of something special has already begun.

The gardens are the result of a commitment made by the faculty to promote Aboriginal perspectives in education through the support of Aboriginal curriculum initiatives. “At its inception, the concept of Aboriginal plants and gardens feeds beautifully into our ideas for learning and curriculum. It is an explicit way to reveal our faculty’s commitment to promoting Aboriginal knowledge in our courses,” says Dean Snart, who was in attendance at the ceremony.  The faculty has just approved a course for all B.Ed. students that focuses on Aboriginal perspectives that will become mandatory in 2013, with a potential pilot course to be introduced even earlier.  "A number of other Education courses will also offer modules on Aboriginal perspectives,” says Snart, “These commitments put our faculty at the forefront provincially and in good stead nationally. The garden is an obvious and interactive demonstration of these commitments, in that it is exciting and very much hands-on.”

Alongside the intent to increase Aboriginal perspectives in education is the idea that sustainability is an inseparable concept from Aboriginal history. Back in 2011, the U of A’s Sustainability Enhancement Fund provided support for the re-furbishment of the patios in the North tower of the Education Complex which would eventually become the home of the new gardens.

The official website of the Indigenous Teaching Gardens states that it will contribute to sustainability by: providing a space for Indigenous plants which may have been pushed out of their natural habitat by invasive / introduced species from other places; (re)connecting students in the Faculty to life and learning outside the classroom and creating community both within the Faculty and between Faculties, as the spaces will be open for research and events. Funding for plants and work with the students was provided by the Faculty of Education’s special initiatives fund.

Perspectives on the gardens

Alvine Mountain Horse, Elder and graduate student, says, “I did a similar project in 2004 with a group of grade 4 students. My grandma and mom were herbalists and I wanted to preserve the knowledge that they had, the knowledge of plants and their names and uses. We even created a website about Kainai plants and culture. I wanted my students to experience what I experienced growing up - learning about the stories of the plants and their uses. I have gotten a lot of feedback from other people about the project where they say, ‘Oh that reminds me of what my grandmother taught me,’ and people make ties with their own culture and experiences.”

Isabelle Kootenay, Elder, points out that the design of the planters holds strong symbolism for her. She explains, “Two of the largest planters are in the design of a medicine wheel. The very first medicine wheel was found in Wyoming and it was used for calendar purposes. Split into four quadrants, the medicine wheel comes to represent the four seasons, the four groups of people, the four parts of the body (mental, physical, emotional and spiritual) as well as the four seasons (yellow – spring, red – summer, black –fall, and white – winter). Four is a very significant number in Aboriginal culture.”  Kootenay shares that the medicine wheel is a good teaching tool for elementary students as it teaches that all people are included.  “It is a very multicultural. As well, the planting of a garden is very much the same as teaching. It requires a gentle and kind spirit, and a sense of safety,” she says.

PhD student Tracy Onuczko, who taught a curriculum and instruction course for science minors this year, says the goal of the garden project was to demonstrate that engaging students in Aboriginal perspectives in science doesn’t simply mean presenting an example from the textbook and moving on.  “We used indigenous plants from Alberta in the garden. In class we spoke about how place means something important to Indigenous peoples while at the same time discussing why place is important from the perspective of growing conditions and relationships with the organisms in the area. While we were speaking about the concept of biological relationships between organisms, which is repeated throughout the science curriculum, there was the connection to concept of place and sustainability. This to me, became an important discussion about how the 'science' concepts are not separate from what the curriculum might consider an Aboriginal perspective,” Onuczko explains.

“My hope for the Indigenous Teaching Garden is that it becomes a place to begin the often difficult conversation surrounding how pre-service teachers, practicing teachers and students might consider engaging with Indigenous perspectives in their classrooms in a way that honours people and place. Although the garden in and of itself seems to be a simple idea, the discussions the pre-service teachers in the class and the other participants in the project have had, suggest more is going on,” she says.

Florence Glanfield, associate professor and chair, secondary education, also believes the garden has opened up opportunities for important dialogue. She says, “Aboriginal and Western conceptions about the world and the way it works can be in tension, especially in science. For instance, in science we often look at isolated pieces of things, whereas Aboriginal perspectives insist on wholes placed in relationship.”  For Glanfield, the infusion of Aboriginal perspectives in Faculty of Education programs is important as it encourages students to try to understand how to meaningfully talk to their future students about cultural differences.  “We have tried to model how those conversations might be fostered, and what they might look like,” she says.

Dawn Wiseman, a graduate student who also helped coordinate the project, sees the garden project as a significant one in that it represents the direction the province is moving in--it is now required in the Alberta curriculum to integrate Aboriginal perspectives. She says that it is not always easy to integrate Aboriginal perspectives into science lessons, but it is possible. She explains, “My teaching area is in the sciences. With this [project], students can engage with a garden. It is very much a ‘living project.’ It shows them that science is not always in terms of the experimental. Oftentimes, in science, we don’t know the outcome. It is something we need to experience.”

To learn more about the gardens, please visit:

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