This blog is based on Coleen O’Connell’s chapter in Culturally Responsive Teaching and Reflection in Higher Education, edited by Sharlene Voogd Cochrane, Meenakshi Chhabra, Marjorie Jones, and Deborah Spragg. 

A Passamaquoddy elder and healer, Fred Pollack, lives in a small house perched on a granite hill overlooking Passamaquoddy Bay where Canada’s Maritime Provinces meet the United States. He smiles broadly as I greet him with a hug as he arrives at the field station for his teaching stint with Lesley University graduate students in the Ecological Teaching and Learning MS program. He listens generously as students introduce themselves and he makes comments and sometimes jokes about the information that is shared. For the next three days we will talk with him over meals, go hiking in the woods to gather medicinal plants, get sticky with the sap of a balsam tree, climb ladders to tap pine trees, and sit with him at a Passamaquoddy sacred site as he speaks about his life growing up on the edge of this continent.

Some of his stories are painful to hear, especially those about his treatment at the residential school set up specifically to assimilate Indigenous children. Fred has many stories and they are shared either in small groups while hiking through the woods, while eating together at the dining hall, or in the larger group as we sit in a circle. By the time he leaves, most of these teachers can now say they have their first Native American friend. And by sharing so authentically with Fred, the graduate students determine that their teaching about Native Americans will never be the same again.

I could not bring students to this ecological field program in Maine without introducing them to, and including, the voices of living Indigenous inhabitants. It is through such experiences that students begin to identify that their own concerns for the natural world are congruent with the teachings of Native cultures. They begin to see that becoming allies with Native cultures is an act of reciprocity that holds within it a kernel of hope for our world.

In my first days of the field program, I survey my mostly white graduate students. I ask the following questions, (and I encourage readers to take this survey, and see if there are areas about which you could learn more):

1) How well do you know Native American History in the US? How did you learn what you know?

2) Are you familiar with the Doctrine of Discovery and Manifest Destiny – both concepts within US doctrinal history that have vast influence on the oppression of Indigenous people on this continent?

3) Do you know who are/were the original native people of where you live?

4) Do you have a Native American friend? What tribe? How did you come to know this person/family?

5) Have you ever visited a Native American reservation or community? Which one(s)? What was your experience?

6) Do you include Indigenous cultures in your teaching curriculum? If so, describe how you do that.


It has been my experience that most white educators have a very limited understanding or knowledge of Native American history and as a result do not incorporate any Indigenous cultural work into their curriculum. More shocking to me over the years is how many students state that they had no idea that there were still tribes organized and living in America. Most cannot name the local tribe that inhabited the place they now call their home.

Becoming an environmental educator has afforded me the platform in which to correct the ways in which we teach about Indigenous people. As I came to understand the degradation of the environments of planet Earth, I began to also understand that Indigenous cultures had a well-developed ethic brought from thousands of years living and thriving with the land.

In my teaching I not only encourage teachers to become friends with Native people, but to go further and become allies. In becoming an ally, we use our own white privilege to speak out about injustices, to teach culturally accurate history, and create a consciousness about the rightful place of Indigenous people in our diverse country.

When the students return to their home places from the field program, one of their fall assignments is to discover who the Indigenous people are in their bioregion. It is in this assignment that I begin to explore with students how to become an ally to native people.

It starts with research and curiosity. Google, historical records at the town library, books written by local authors, organizations in the area all contribute to this knowledge.

By beginning to pay attention to the history and presence of Native people in their bioregion, educators can begin to search for Native organizations or Native presentations that are offered locally. They find social events where native people are present and as speakers and workshop leaders, Pow Wows, and other events sponsored by the local tribe.

Classroom educators can start by inviting a Native person to present to their class; not once, but multiple times. Each time the relationship with the Native person becomes stronger, more familiar, and a friendship begins to form. Becoming aware of Native history, different from the one most of us were taught in our American History courses, will hopefully provoke a desire to speak in support of native initiatives moving us from friendship to being an ally. Supporting the efforts of Native people around the world to retain sovereignty of their lands, to prevent further degradation of Earth, and to honor the diversity that makes our planet operate in healthy systems, is to speak for oneself. Native people ask us to have gratitude for Mother Earth and to arise each day in thanksgiving; a simple request.

What Native people want for their children, I want for mine. In this way we can work together to insure that future generations will have what they need to sustain them. We have only to look to our Native neighbors to find comrades in this uphill battle to save the planet for all life. We are all related.


Coleen O’Connell is Director of the Lesley University Ecological Teaching and Learning MS Program, teaches Graduate Education courses, and serves within the STEM Science division. She has had a lifelong relationship with various Native American cultures. In addition to many speaking engagements, O’Connell was the Maine Environmental Educator of the Year in 2013. 

Share this on: Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Email this to someone