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Can we trust our textbooks?

U of T professors discuss how Indigenous stories have been written over and forgotten
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JULIE SHI/THE VARSITY
JULIE SHI/THE VARSITY

We grow up using textbooks. We grow up believing they’re authoritative sources of knowledge because, from a young age, they’re ingrained into our educational curricula. But we don’t grow up learning that textbooks can carry biases too.

Even the oldest archival resources are subjective, as the information they give is mediated by the perspective of the people writing them. This is especially true of historical representations of Indigeneity. Canada’s reputation as the Great Nice North rests on a whitewashed and a settler-constructed conception of history that both erases and stereotypes Indigenous peoples. False narratives have been replicated in academic resources over hundreds of years, and they continue to be presented as fact to this day.

Each semester, professors at U of T have to decide what material to incorporate into their lessons, which also means deciding what information to exclude. Crowds of students flock to the U of T Bookstore for textbooks. But how can students be sure that they are making worthwhile investments? How can students and professors find reliable resources for learning and teaching?

The Varsity interviewed Brenda Wastasecoot and Tania Aguila-Way about how they choose academic sources and the role they believe that textbooks should have at U of T.

On going beyond books

Wastasecoot is a writer, artist, and assistant professor at U of T’s Centre for Indigenous Studies, and is of Cree and Ininu descent. She spoke to The Varsity about textbook representations of Indigenous history and the importance of making space for conversation and collaborative learning.

“Indigenous people have [always] been invisible in these textbooks,” she said. “I remember textbooks from when I was young, it was maybe one tiny chapter of the whole book… We were like an anomaly.” Wastasecoot was a university student by the time she “learned what really happened.”

In these small chapters, Indigenous history was constructed to portray colonizers in a favourable light. But despite their inaccuracy, these racist settler narratives came to be the dominant ones.

“You don’t tell people that you ripped [Indigenous peoples] off, and threw most of them off, and [that settlers are] on stolen land,” she said.

But textbooks are slowly improving, Wastasecoot said, as more accurate information about Indigenous history is made available. Wastasecoot uses books to plan her courses; they are important to the way she teaches. The physicality of a book is an important space that accurate Indigenous history should occupy.

“For myself, I like to have something in my hand that I can leaf through… [and say,] ‘See, it’s written here!’”

Still, she believes books are best used in combination with other sources. She uses books for information like the history and background of Indigenous peoples. For more current information, Wastasecoot turns to more accessible and easily updated resources on the internet.

Social media, for example, can provide a platform for a more diverse body of voices to be heard, especially ones that are often silenced or decontextualized in dominant media. Sparking these conversations also integrates Indigenous communities into current social conversations, which is important when a lot of existing literature treats Indigenous issues as purely historical. 

An example Wastasecoot highlighted about the internet’s relevance was the outpouring of information on social media about the Wet’suwet’en people and their protests when armed Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers entered unceded Wet’suwet’en territory on February 6 to arrest and remove people protesting the development of a Coastal GasLink pipeline there.

“You can read about it right away,” she said.

The internet also houses great historical resources, such as the University of Saskatchewan’s Indigenous Studies Portal, which includes over 65,000 electronic resources, including archival documents and photographs.

However, Wastasecoot’s students remain one of her main sources of inspiration as a professor. She spoke highly of their creativity and ability to find good articles and sources for their papers. “Students are amazing,” she said. “Some of the things they find [are] really right on to what I want to include in… next year’s course.”

Where books may fall short, Wastasecoot encourages her students to use other methods to excavate forgotten or covered-up stories of Indigenous peoples. This includes the many stories about Indigenous heroes and history. 

Wastasecoot celebrates these successes in her class, in which her students examine the contributions of 30 Indigenous leaders across history, all the way back to nineteenth century Plains Cree Chief Big Bear and up to now, with the likes of Murray Sinclair and Tina Keeper.

Wastasecoot also prioritizes creative and collaborative work as another access point into Indigenous history. Her students complete a project about the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, which reported on the systemic causes of all forms of violence against Indigenous women and girls, including sexual violence.

Working in groups, her students choose a woman from the list on the CBC website, and create creative pieces in their honour. Within these groups, they’re given total creative freedom on how they want to present their pieces.

“Because it’s such a heavy topic to look at,” Wastasecoot said. “I just wanted to get them in there and looking at it in a way that was meaningful to them, so that they could make sense of it themselves.”

She and her students have also taken a walking tour of UTSG that was focused on showing the campus’ Indigenous history.

“What’s under the sidewalk, you know?” she said. “[The students] really loved that. It’s just amazing how much has been covered over… and forgotten. It’s good to know what we’re standing on.”

Choosing which stories to read

Aguila-Way is an assistant professor with U of T’s Department of English, and she is currently teaching ENG252 — Introduction to Canadian Literature. In an email to The Varsity, she broke down the factors that go into structuring her class and achieving her goal of disrupting the dominant settler narratives of Canadian history.

Since ENG252 is an introductory course, Aguila-Way aims to expose students to a diverse body of texts. But she also hopes to historicize and contextualize these texts for her students, “giving them a clear understanding of the historical forces that have shaped the Canadian literary canon.”

“This requires that I teach not just a variety of literary genres, but also the variety of literatures that exist in Canada, including Indigenous literatures, Black Canadian literature, and Asian Canadian literature, to name a few,” she wrote.

Aguila-Way has had success using textbooks and anthologies to achieve her goal, in part because “they compile readings that students might have difficulty accessing otherwise.”

Anthologies, which assemble works by various authors, are particularly beneficial in English courses because of the “paratextual materials” within them, including headnotes, writer biographies, historical documents, photographs, and more.

“[These] can help students understand the cultural and historical contexts of the anthologized texts,” she wrote.

She has opted to assign a variety of primary and secondary sources, including books, novels, poetry, and plays, many of which she has made available to students on Quercus.

Cost is another major consideration for her. “There are some excellent Canadian literature anthologies that I have used in past courses and would be happy to use in my classroom again,” she wrote. “However, a good anthology can cost upwards of $100 and I feel uneasy assigning such a costly text for a course that only lasts one semester.”

At its core, though, Aguila-Way’s class is based on a balance between introducing students to dominant narratives and chronologies, and simultaneously disrupting them. This includes teaching and contrasting settlement narratives from canonical and emerging authors with stories from writers of different races and backgrounds.

“In my module on settlement narratives I teach what is probably the most famous Canadian emigration manual – Susanna Moodie’s Roughing it in the Bush alongside Mary Ann Shadd’s A Plea for Emigration, a nineteenth century emigration manual that was directed specifically at Black people who were considering emigrating to Canada to escape persecution under the Fugitive Slave Act in the United States,” she wrote.

Teaching Shadd and Moodie’s emigration manuals side-by-side allows her to show students that the experience of settlement is heterogeneous, and “could vary greatly depending on one’s race, class, and gender.” It also disrupts the narrative that multicultural and multi-ethnic writing is a recent phenomenon in Canadian literature.

“The history of racialized writing in Canada is as old as the country itself (and far older if we include Indigenous literatures within this category),” she wrote.

In her class, she opens the semester with Indigenous texts by authors like Thomas King and Brian Maracle. They both directly address Indigeneity and Indigenous literature as existing outside of colonial and settler narratives.

The history of Canadian colonization acts as both a basis and a contrast to everything else students read. But she also hopes to expose students to Indigenous literature as a vast and diverse genre, beyond the scope of colonial influence. She highlighted the Truth and Reconciliation era as a major turning point for professors. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established by the federal government in 2008, and uncovered the harsh abuse that took place in residential schools against Indigenous children.

“I’ve noticed that, even in this post-Truth and Reconciliation moment during which many Professors are trying to decolonize their syllabi and include Indigenous writings and perspectives in our courses, there is a persistent tendency to think about Indigenous literatures only in relation to colonialism,” she wrote.

“To me, this kind of framing elides the expressions of resilience, defiance, and cultural resurgence that characterize a lot of contemporary Indigenous writing,” she added. “Thus, in my course, I’ve tried to include texts by Indigenous authors whose work not only challenges colonial renderings of history, but also affirms the resilience of Indigenous peoples.”

When asked if textbooks should be used at U of T, given their biases, Aguila-Way wrote that they should be. However, she also acknowledges that certain textbooks, such as anthologies, can sometimes carry the implication that the writers they represent are the most important and thus ‘worthy’ of being anthologized. 

To combat this idea, she frequently supplements anthologized texts with materials by lesser-known or emerging writers.

The huge range of subjects and sub-subjects in English alone makes it a challenge to choose which stories should be highlighted. Still, she offers a strategy for professors to “encourage a diversity of thought” among their students.

“Reference existing critical debates surrounding the literary texts we are teaching,” she wrote. “Acknowledging these debates not only serves to remind students that there are multiple ways of interpreting a literary text, but it also helps introduce them to the wide array of critical approaches.”

On the future and limitations of textbooks

Wastasecoot and Aguila-Way demonstrated that textbooks and historical resources can be used effectively in their teaching, but they also emphasized the importance of interacting with a diverse range of sources. Textbooks can be a great starting point for further research, and serve as wonderful points of access to topics that are otherwise difficult to discover. But they should not be the only point of contact you have with a subject.

When The Varsity asked Wastasecoot how students at U of T can expand their understanding of Indigenous history that has been excluded in textbooks, she implored people to educate themselves.

“You can Google this stuff,” she said. “It’s right at your fingertips… There [are] many Indigenous authors now, right? There are many more nowadays. And there are many Indigenist authors… people who are not Indigenous but know the story and can be allies.”

She also stressed the importance of connection with other people, to learn and teach together.

“I always allow people to come and audit [my] course,” she said. “I think it’s important to have at least one seat available to somebody, maybe not a student… They just don’t know where to start, so they just start there.”

“And no question is a stupid question to me, because… you’ve just got to be able to ask. You’ve got to feel safe enough to ask,” she added.

One way to create safety is to have these discussions outside of the classroom. Whether it’s a book club or a movie night, “it’s really important to get people talking.”

When I think about all of the history we have left to uproot and re-examine critically, I think about a passage in King’s A Coyote Columbus Story. Coyote, a trickster figure, tells the narrator that she is going to a party for Christopher Columbus, the discoverer of America and the Indigenous peoples who live there. The narrator tells Coyote that Columbus made no such discovery.

“Oh no, says Coyote. I read it in a book… It was a history book. Big red one. All about how Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue looking for America and the Indians.”

“Sit down,” replies the narrator. “Have some tea. We’re going to have to do this story right. We’re going to have to do this story now.”