A reflection on teaching Indigenous literature in Germany

In UBC’s current Reconciliation Through Indigenous Education MOOC that I’m enrolled in, we’re prompted every week to reflect on how we as educators indigenize our pedagogy. Here’s one prompt that stood out for my thinking, and my response.

What are examples of successes or challenges you have experienced in implementing aspects of an Indigenous education framework or cultural competencies? In your classroom? Workplace (competency)? Curriculum?

I don’t know if I’d call this an unqualified success, but the question reminds me of one thing I did to implement one First Peoples Learning Principle, and meet a challenge in teaching Indigenous curriculum, when I taught Canadian Studies to German graduate students in the University of Bonn’s North American Studies program, in 2006. (I’ve posted that seminary syllabus at [this link on my blog][1].)

The challenge was, basically, the long German tradition of nativist and “noble savage” preconceptions and stereotypes about Indigenous peoples. One of my seminars I pointedly titled “Canadian and First Nations Drama” (to name both while recognizing the sovereignty of the latter). I tried to sequence the assigned play readings in order to immediately challenge the Indigenous stereotypes held in Germany. For our very first reading, I assigned a play by William S. Yellow Robe Jr called The Independence of Eddie Rose (along with most of the other plays in Monique Mojica and Ric Knowles’ excellent 2003 anthology of First Nations drama, Staging Coyote’s Dream). The play follows an Indigenous boy through harrowing encounters with domestic violence, poverty and crime, incarceration, and abuse, through to his escape from such traumas. When I asked for them to share their first reactions and impressions, I got just the response I wanted from the first comment a student made about that reading. The student said, hesitantly, “this play seems very…modern.” 

While teaching that play in Canada might require different tactics to tackle particularly Canadian stereotypes and prejudices, as well as the deficit discourse (all of which Wab Kinew critiques in [this great short video][2]), teaching it to German students provided a way to challenge particularly German preconceptions and misconceptions, like romanticized notions of the “noble savage” and related images rooted in the popular fiction of Karl May (see this [*Walrus* article on “German Indianism”][3]). In that context, the student’s surprise at encountering an indigenous play about poverty, colonial violence, and trauma under late modern capital suggested that my pedagogical hunch had been at least in the ballpark in terms of finding a way to implement the learning principle of prioritizing Indigenous knowledge and to teach Indigenous curriculum towards cultivating clearer understanding of and critical reflection on Indigenous story, performance, and theatre in contemporary North America.

I was unaware of the First Peoples Principles of Learning at that time. However, in designing and teaching that course, I did recognize not just the role but the primacy of Indigenous knowledge. I understood that teaching Indigenous drama meant first making students aware that Indigenous story and performance traditions both predate and are culturally different from capitalism’s cultural industries and institutions. I also tried, as much as possible, to let the assigned texts speak for themselves — to assign readings of Indigenous plays by Indigenous playwrights, and to moderate the students’ discussion and work on the readings with a light touch, to let them engage as directly as possible with the Indigenous texts themselves. As a colleague later explained in elaborating on that kind of “let the text speak for itself” approach — which might at first seem counter to the second First Peoples Principle (that learning is relational) — it is one possible way (though not necessarily either the only or the best way) for a non-Indigenous scholar to position their pedagogy as not appropriation but rather a kind of ally practice, a recognition and prioritization of — and a making of pedagogical space for — Indigenous knowledge and Indigenous art.

  [1]: https://academicalism.wordpress.com/syllabi/canadian-first-nations-drama/

  [2]: http://rabble.ca/rabbletv/program-guide/2013/01/best-net/wab-kinew-five-myths-about-indigenous-people-canada

  [3]: https://thewalrus.ca/2003-10-feature-2/

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One response to “A reflection on teaching Indigenous literature in Germany

  1. Fascinating, particularly that Walrus article. This here German, too, read stacks of Karl May, and ended up in Canada in part motivated by the romanticism of those stories. (One of my first crushes was Winnetou, from an open-air production of a Karl May adaptation I saw when I was 12.) There is a powerful “Other” discourse surrounding the “Red Indian” myth in Europe – much as for some Americans, historic Europe is the land of dreams that gets enshrined in fiction and re-enacted in Renaissance Fairs. Except that there aren’t any medieval or Victorian Europeans around any more who could write from their own perspectives today and set the record straight…

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