Discipline systems which do not recognize Native beliefs towards the rights of individuals will not be as effective as systems which are designed with a Native viewpoint. Discipline stems from a belief that someone else is in control. Respect stems from the belief that every individual is responsible for themselves, and it is the responsibility of others to teach respect. Within a classroom situation, it is the responsibility of the teacher to help guide students into acting in a responsible manner.
We must be careful when generalizing because generalities can become so general that they are worthless. Generalizations can also lead to stereotyping. As we explore concepts such as assumptions, values, and beliefs, we must understand there is a wide variation between people within a society, let alone across societies. Anytime we generalize, we must question ourselves to ensure the generalizations are still useful.
In the past, before European influences, Native people had their own social systems which addressed issues such as discipline and respect. Each nation had their own system which obviously worked for them. With the arrival of the European came European world views, which were not compatible with the local Native peoples' views.
School discipline policies are usually based on Euro-Canadian belief systems and not on Native beliefs. With the tremendous changes in the beliefs, over the past couple of decades, of the rights and responsibilities of individuals, discipline systems need to be re-evaluated. Canadian society has undergone huge social changes and current ways of interacting with students needs to be evaluated in light of these changes.
In today's world, Native students are exposed to both Native and mainstream cultural beliefs. What happens in many (not all) Native homes there is some level of dysfunctionality. In dysfunctional homes, the Native belief system that use to function is not functioning properly. Add to this the mainstream value system which the student does not fully understand, and you end up with a student who is having problems coping. This mixing of these world views, none of which the student fully understands, creates numerous problems. The typical response many students give when confronted with a problem is to respond in a negative way.
These three value systems are often in conflict
with many Native students.
The challenge facing teachers is to understand the problems these world views create in students. Once a teacher understands the basic issues, they can then plan ways of dealing positively with Native students.
In the past, in a healthy Native community, here is how respect and freedom of the individual would probably be played out.....At a meeting I would say something that not everyone would agree with. An elder may tell one, or more stories that relate to what I said. The elder would not say, "You are wrong!". To contradict me in public would be more disrespectful than what I did. It would be my responsibility to listen and learn from the elder.
If I didn't listen, the elder may visit me later and tell me more stories. He/she would not tell me I was wrong. They would try to show me "how it is" from their knowledge and experiences. If I refuse to listen, more elders may come and talk with me.
If I continued on my own way, a choice would be made by the elders. If what I was doing was completely wrong with respect to the norms of the community, I would probably be banished, or killed. If what I was doing was different from what the community believed, but was not critical to the well-being of the community, my individual rights were so important, and respected, that I would be left alone to do what I wanted.
This form of respecting personal space is still evident in many Native communities today. For example, when out hunting, if everyone agrees to hunt in certain locations and meet at a specific time, a hunter can change his mind without the consent of the others and it would be totally acceptable.
There is evidence of this strong respect for the rights of individuals throughout modern-day Native life. Young children are given responsibilities that others feel are unacceptable. As a result, Native children develop socially very quickly. They often have large responsibilities at young ages. Many children who have both parents working often are given additional responsibilities as well.
But...today, in many Native communities, that old, healthy system is not functioning properly. This results in many social problems in homes, and these problems are brought to school. If the school system is not prepared to deal with the students in respectful ways, the students end up being victimized at school as well as at home.
Please recognize as we discuss freedom from a Native perspective, we are generalizing and one must constantly ask oneself "Does this apply where I live?" There is a wide range of beliefs even within an individual society, let alone across several Native nations.
In the past, the rights of the individual,
and of the community, were monitored by
the community. Where an individual imposed
upon the rights of a group, the community
would take action.
With the arrival of the Western justice system, the rights of the community were taken away from the Native people. Today, this results in many problems, as communities look towards "someone else" to solve their problems.
The taking away of the responsibilities of the community have resulted in the creation of two types of truth in many Native communities. There is the "court truth" which is usually not accurate, but which many people like to go to in order to avoid reality. The second type of truth is "community truth." Community truth is what is actually going on in the community. If I were to ask about ten people in a small Native community to identify the drug pushers, bootleggers, wife abusers, etc. they would all identify these people. This is a "community truth" and it is much more reliable than the "court truth." It's not used because of the code of silence.
The code of silence is taught from an early age. Children are taught, mostly through observing body language, that certain things are not to be shared. This included telling about negative experiences they encounter. They are taught to "hold it within."
Another important concept in many Native communities is face skin. Face skin is what keeps a Native person dignified. In most Native communities, it is wrong to brag. Even talking about what one has done is often considered bragging. If you talk about yourself in a positive way, you are bragging, and have no face skin. In western society, it is completely acceptable to talk about what one does. It's wrong, in most Native cultures, to talk about self.
In western society, it is common for a person to hide behind masks. In most healthy Native societies, it is wrong to act knowledgeable. If you act knowledgeable, you are "losing face skin." It's wrong to show off what you know. That's why the response the elder made makes sense. He is acknowledging his humility when he says, "I hope I don't give you wrong information."
Another concept that is in direct conflict between the two cultures is the idea of individuality and community. In western society, the rights of the individual are critical. In most Native societies, the rights of the community are critical. In the past, in many Native cultures, if a person from the Wolf Clan insulted a person from the Crow clan, the complete Wolf Clan was humiliated. Everyone from the Wolf Clan had to pay the Crow member something so the Crow member would forgive, and forget, the insult. Thus, the actions of one person impact upon the complete community. There are remnants of this still observable in many Native communities.
In the past, in many Native societies, there were times when people had to work together. An example would be during salmon season people would work together to build fish weirs. During the spring, high water would damage the weirs and everyone would have to join in to repair them. Fish was shared and stored for the winter. To not work as a community meant less food during winter months.
During the winter, family units would move back to their own winter hunting areas. If a family wanted to leave their hunting area and hunt in someone else's area, they would have to get permission from the people who traditionally use the area.
At this time of the year, families had to be completely self-sufficient and independent. They could not function as a larger community as they did during the salmon season because there was not a good enough concentration of game to sustain large numbers of people in a small area.
Non-Native authors often comment on the struggle Native people have between community responsibilities and individual responsibilities. They put the two on a linear scale and write how the Natives are always struggling between the two. I have talked with several Native elders from different nations and they always smile. In simplest terms, their response is always, "we work as a community when we have to, and we work alone when we have to, there's no struggle! Both are important and must be done." To them, there is no internal struggle between the responsibilities of the community and of the individual. Both were necessary for survival. There is no dichotomy as suggested by non-Native writers, this duality is a western concept.
This dependency upon each other has created a strong "extended family", bonding within many communities which still exists today. Native people also had to get all their food from their immediate surroundings and so developed a strong, healthy respect for the world in which they lived. This dependency on each others, and the environment, along with the individual independence has created, in each nation, a Native respect and freedom value system which can be extremely useful for working with Native students.
To put everything in perspective, many Native peoples believe that the sun and earth are the most important, followed by plants. Without the sun and earth plants can't live. Next come the animals. They depend upon plants, earth and sun for life. Finally comes man. There are no plants or animals, except those domesticated by man, that depend upon man for survival. Man must accept his humble place on this planet.