Barriers to addressing settler colonialism in outdoor education programs include lack of understanding, fear, and adherence to white ignorance

Brooks, S. D., Sabzalian, L. ., Weiser-Nieto, R. ., & Springer, S. . (2023). “We should have held this in a circle”: White ignorance and answerability in outdoor education. The Journal of Environmental Education, 54, 114-131.

Scholars in Indigenous studies have identified ways in which educational programs and curricula socialize students into settler colonialism and the erasure of Indigenous culture. This paper describes an ongoing research partnership between two Indigenous studies scholars addressing this concern in outdoor education programs. Their work included the development and implementation of a series of professional development workshops for outdoor educators.

Concerns addressed during the workshops included ways in which outdoor education tends to reproduce stereotypes of Indigenous peoples and appropriate Indigenous knowledge systems. Key concepts discussed during the workshops included Indigeneity, culture, Indigenous knowledges, and land. Participants were introduced to a curricular framework to help them reshape their thinking about their curricula and pedagogy. The framework included six orientations: “place (recognizing local Indigenous homelands and nations), presence (emphasizing Indigenous presence and contemporary issues), perspectives (infusing and learning from Indigenous perspectives), political nationhood (affirming and teaching about Indigenous nationhood and sovereignty), power (challenging colonial relations of power and recognizing Indigenous peoples’ collective power), and partnerships (establishing meaningful, mutually beneficial partnerships with Indigenous peoples).”

Results of post-workshop surveys and follow-up observations and discussions indicated that some participants struggled to connect outdoor school with colonialism. They also had difficulty understanding the key concepts presented during the workshops. Some participants remained “deeply entrenched” in their “white ignorance” or “commitment to not knowing.” They actively “evaded anticolonial responsibilities and commitments.”  Other workshop participants, however, “recognized that their programs were complicit in colonialism” and worked to revise their curricula and programs to remove colonial ideologies and Indigenous erasure. Some of the participants who had developed a critical consciousness surrounding colonialism’s lasting impacts felt overwhelmed with the magnitude and complexity of what needed to be done to address the issues of colonialism in their organizations and programs. Some of these participants also expressed fear about possibly being offensive or disrespectful if they attempted to include Traditional Ecological Knowledge in their programs. They expressed concerns about not getting it right.

The researchers concluded from this study that “we cannot ‘workshop’ our way out of settler colonialism.” They noted how some educators remained “invested in white ignorance” and were not open to rethinking and revising their programs. Others who understood the need for anti-colonial content and commitments needed ongoing guidance and communities of practice to support them in creating and implementing anti-colonial curriculum. The researchers offer specific recommendations on how individuals and programs can begin the process of addressing settler colonialism and Indigenous erasure.

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