26 How and When to Invite Indigenous Speakers to the Classroom

Skylee-Storm Hogan and Krista McCracken, with Andrea Eidinger


Circle of people in chairs outside
Photograph of Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre educational programming.

In recent years, particularly since the publication of the TRC Calls to Action, there has been an increasing push to integrate Indigenous content into elementary and secondary classrooms across the country. While we believe that this work is essential, recent news reports have given us cause for concern. From the ongoing debates about Quebec’s latest high school history textbooks to the Ford government’s cancelling of the TRC curriculum writing session, there has been a significant pushback against the inclusion of Indigenous content.

Further, while provinces like BC and Alberta are working to integrate Indigenous content into their curriculums, they often fail to properly prepare educators. Several studies have shown that while many settler educators want to include more content about Indigenous history and culture, they often lack the confidence and training to do so. Some well-intentioned teachers either decline to include Indigenous content out of fear of offending anyone or misappropriate Indigenous stories, traditions, and even ceremonies. And in some cases, the results have been extremely problematic or even disastrous (content warning: racist language), and Indigenous educators are often faced with taking up the burden.

With this in mind, we are launching a new Beyond the Lecture mini-series, specifically dedicated to the issue of teaching Indigenous history and the inclusion of Indigenous content in the classroom. Our goal is to provide resources for educators at all levels to help navigate the often fraught terrain of teaching Indigenous content.

For the first post in this mini-series, we decided to tackle the issue of inviting Indigenous speakers into classrooms. To that end, Andrea compiled a list of commonly-asked questions about how and when to invite Indigenous speakers, and Skylee-Storm and Krista have written detailed responses.

When is it appropriate for settler educators to invite Indigenous speakers into the classroom?

This depends a lot on the type of Indigenous speaker you are inviting, your relationship with them, and the context of the class. For example, the circumstances where you might invite an Indigenous colleague into your class to provide a guest lecture are going to be very different from when and how you might invite a traditional knowledge keeper or Elder into your classroom.

It is appropriate to invite speakers into your classroom when touching on topic that are specifically focuses on Indigenous lives, especially if there is not a lot of information on this topic from Indigenous authors. The readings and supplementary information will not give an accurate picture on the Indigenous perspective of their own lives. In classes where Indigenous traditions, ceremonies, stories, or life teachings are discussed it is always necessary to have an elder. No amount of time spent with Indigenous people gives non-Indigenous people the right to practice those things or explain those things themselves.

Are there different protocols for Elders, Survivors, colleagues, or educational liaisons?

Yes, and these protocols are also going to vary by community and geographic region. The Deepening Knowledge Project has developed a guide on inviting Elders into education settings. This guide also provides background on information on the traditional role of Elders.

What are some of the benefits of having Indigenous speakers in the classroom?

It is crucial that institutions make space for more Indigenous perspectives within the classroom and inviting Indigenous speakers is one way to do that work. For classes that deal specifically with Indigenous ways of knowing, Indigenous social issues, or healthcare it is beneficial to have an Indigenous speaker to bring important context and perspective in those areas.

It is easy for Indigenous lives to be reduced to statistics and those do not paint a whole picture for students. For non-Indigenous students this can lead to an oversimplified, colonially beneficial view of contemporary Indigenous life and identity in Canada. For Indigenous students in these courses, it puts them in the shoes of an educator when they should be a student. It is not the job of Indigenous students to educate the instructor or their peers while taking a course, but when there are inaccuracies or generalizations these students must always be prepared to represent hundreds of cultures.

What kind of logistics are involved in inviting a guest Indigenous speaker into the classroom, in terms of how much notice to provide, financial compensation, etc…?

Provide as much notice as possible and be respectful of the speaker’s time and effort.

If you are asking an Elder into your classroom ideally this should be done in person.  Some Elders will accept tobacco when you ask them to share knowledge, but this is not always true and cultural protocols vary greatly between geographic regions. When in doubt speak with your institutions Indigenous initiatives department or a colleague before making your request.

If you are making the request by phone or email you can let the individual know you have tobacco or a gift to offer when you see them.

Make sure someone is responsible for the guest’s entire visit. This means making sure that the individual has transportation to the event, is greeted upon arrival, parking fees are covered/accessible parking provided if needed, and there is some assisting with all on-campus logistics such as food and drink.

What kinds of tobacco and/or gifts are appropriate? Are there certain things to be aware of when purchasing tobacco?

Carleton’s Centre for Indigenous Initiative has developed a guide that discusses how to make a tobacco tie and offering. Where possible tobacco should be locally grown, if that is not possible you can use commercially available tobacco that has no additives. Note that tobacco offerings are not universal across Indigenous communities.  For example, most Inuit communities do not have a tradition of tobacco offerings and as such providing a small gift when you make your request would be more appropriate.

A handmade gift, artwork or item by a local Indigenous artist are appropriate gifts in many cases. Likewise, locally produced maple syrup, wild rice, or other traditionally harvested food is an appropriate gift.

What are some institutional pitfalls that we need to be aware of when it comes to inviting Indigenous speakers?

One of the challenges many institutions face is that their honorarium policies only allow for a very low financial gift to be provided. In cases where departments are seeking to provide greater financial compensation to an Indigenous speaker they are often required to complete additional independent contractor forms, or ask the Indigenous speaker to complete financial forms.  Where possible placing this additional paperwork burden on invited guest should be avoided.

Likewise, all travel and accommodations should be paid for in advance by the University.  You should not invite an Indigenous speaker and expect them to pay for anything out of pocket or wait for reimbursement. This might mean challenging institutional policies.

Looking at policies across Universities highlights the differences in institutional approaches to working with Indigenous speakers. Some institutions have established that it is inappropriate to ask Indigenous knowledge keepers for their social insurance number and you should not ask them to sign a receipt for monetary gifts. Other institutions require that information to be collected as per their accounting policies.  

It is also important to keep in mind that many elders require aids or helpers while they travel, or to perform ceremony. You should accommodate a helper if it is required by that elder, offering to substitute a helper may not always be an option especially for ceremonial roles.

What can I do if I want to invite an local Indigenous speaker, but I don’t have an established relationship with any local Indigenous communities?

Increasingly, many campuses are developing formal relationships with local Indigenous communities and elders. This may be in the form of an Indigenous liaison department, an Indigenous student life department, or an Indigenous support department.  Look to see what people and departments on your campus are already doing this work and ask them for advice.

The important thing here is to realize that relationship building takes work and time.  You should be prepared to do the work and but in the effort. Start by learning about the Indigenous communities around you, learn about both historical and contemporary Indigenous peoples in your region. Be prepared to assess your role and your institution’s role in reconciliation, ask what you are doing for local Indigenous communities and how you can do more.

What can educators do to prepare themselves before an Indigenous speaker’s visit?

Do the work.  Have you taken the University of Alberta Indigenous Canada MOOC or the UBC Reconciliation Through Indigenous MOOC? Have you read the TRC final report? Have you read a range of works by Indigenous authors? If not, maybe start with Indigenous Writes: A Guide to First Nations, Métis & Inuit Issues in Canada by Chelsea Vowel or Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City by Tanya Talaga.

How can educators go about educating their students in proper protocol and respectful behaviour prior to a visit by an Indigenous speaker?

Provide background readings on the topic that your visiting speaker will be discussing.  Likewise, it might be helpful to have a class discussion or question session prior to the speaker’s visit — this can help provide students with background information while also breaking down stereotypes. If you have time, incorporating a variation of the decolonizEd timeline activity can be a really powerful way to talk about colonialism and Indigenous-Settler relations.

If you have the ability and time to incorporate a film viewing into your course there are several available through the National Film Board’s Indigenous Cinema Collection. There is also a collection of short documentaries compiled on CBC’s Through Our Eyes series. Having students engage with these films can help change perceptions on the various forms of Indigenous identity and deconstruct stereotypes.

What kinds of special considerations, if any, are needed when inviting Residential School or Sixties Scoop Survivors?

If you are asking a Residential School or Sixties Scoop Survivor to speak about their experience you should also be asking them what type of supports they would like in place for their talk. Would like like a health or cultural support person present? Do they want to be able to smudge prior to speaking?

You also need to think about building supports for your students, particularly Indigenous students who might be in your class. First hand accounts about Residential Schools can be traumatic and triggering for intergenerational Survivors, you need to make sure you aren’t causing unintentional harm to your Indigenous students.

What happens if a student causes a disruption or is rude to the Indigenous speaker?

Question periods are great ways for students to understand the issue more completely and for the instructor to gauge where the gaps in information have formed. If students or colleagues are dismissive in comment or question periods it is important as the instructor to support the Indigenous speaker to the best of your ability.

It is common for the lived experiences of trauma, racism, and violence to be dismissed by those holding privilege or those without an accurate understanding of the contemporary realities facing many Indigenous communities across Turtle Island. You must never allow this student to feel correct in this assumption. Many times when people hear these stories they may feel anger, they may feel like they are being accused of something, and they undoubtedly have their own life struggles which may lead to comments such as: “It happened a long time ago, get over it”. Further class reflection on blame and privilege positionality might be needed.

If students are responding inappropriately to ceremony, ignoring protocol maliciously, or questioning Indigenous spiritual practices it is important to call them out. If they do not seem to care about respecting the space it may be necessary to remove them from the space. It is the student’s right to ask questions and have their own beliefs. However, it is racially and colonially violent to allow students to mock and degrade a people who have already been though these things under state order.  

If the student is extremely out of line shut them down as quickly as possible. Apologize to the speaker. It may be necessary to provide the speaker with space for medicine. If possible, create a space and time for restorative measures. Having the class gather with yourself and the speaker to form a talking circle could be an option for repairing relationships. It is also a great way to have students process why those behaviours are harmful and how those ideas further perpetuate racism and colonialism.

What are some common mistakes that settler educators make when it comes to inviting Indigenous speakers?

Not paying them. Seriously, you need to pay folks for their time. Likewise, not every everyone is comfortable in front of a classroom setting. Do not make assumptions about folks wanting to speak to your class.

How can sessional instructors invite Indigenous speakers, when so many lack sufficient resources to do so respectfully?

One way to do this is to work with other colleagues in your department or institution to bring Indigenous speakers in for a larger event. This allows for the some of the logistical burden to be spread among other faculty.

If it’s not possible to bring an Indigenous speaker in, what are some other ways that educators can incorporate Indigenous voices into the classroom?

There are a number of great articles and audio-visual material that have been created by Indigenous scholars and Indigenous communities.  If you are not able to bring an Indigenous speaker into class, you can start by adding more Indigenous voices to your syllabus.

Some resources to get you started:

Are there any special considerations when it comes to educational levels? Are there different protocols or guidelines for elementary, secondary, and post-secondary levels?

Make sure that the speaker you invite is familiar with the education level you are teaching. It might be helpful to provide the speaker with information on what you have spoken about in class already, so they aware of the students’ knowledge level.

Increasingly, at the elementary and secondary levels school boards have dedicated Indigenous liaison teachers or administration staff. If you are unsure of how to go about contacting a local Indigenous community or speaker I would suggest starting by seeing what resources are available through your school board.

Are there any additional resources you can recommend?

Some institutions have developed policies which can provide guidance for inviting Elders and Traditional Knowledge Keepers into University spaces.  These are worth taking a look at and encouraging your own institution to create a similar policy.

In terms of locating a speaker, particularly for a larger event, the International Indigenous Speakers Bureau can be a helpful resource.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Beyond The Lecture: Innovations in Teaching Canadian History Copyright © 2019 by Andrea Eidinger and Krista McCracken is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book