An educator’s reflections on “An Indian Father’s Plea” By Christoph Teschers

I came across this open letter a couple of year ago, and although it is dated and from another continent, it is a powerful text to help us reflect critically on cultural difference and diversity again and again. I still use this text in my teaching today and I re-read it occasionally as it becomes relevant in my courses around inclusive education.

In this article, Robert Lake explains to the new teacher of his son, who just entered mainstream primary at the time, some of the cultural background and previous learning of his son Wind-Wulf. Lake tries to help the teacher understand that their quick labelling of Wind-Wulf as a ‘slow learner’ is inappropriate and damaging. What I find most striking in this text is the clarity with which Lake shows the damaging and potentially devastating effect unreflected actions, such as questioning the student’s traditional name, can have on the development of a child’s or young person’s identity, self-worth and pathway in life. Lake gives insights into the upbringing of children in a tribal context and, in the second half of the letter, explains the rich areas of knowledge Wind-Wulf has already gathered that are likely completely unknown to his white peers and his teacher alike. Lake stresses that ‘difference’ does not mean ‘disadvantage’ and invites us as readers to reflect on  our own assumptions and pre-conceptions of ‘disadvantaged’ children – culturally, social, economic and otherwise.

Towards the end of the article, Lake also encourages the teacher to allow Wind-Wulf to share his areas of knowledge with his classmates and his teacher, as he alerts to the fact that all children in this national context have the right to learn about the tribal and cultural history of the country. This line of argument resonates very well with our New Zealand context where all (young) people have a right (and obligation under the treaty) to learn about the cultural heritage of this country. Similarly to Lake, Prof. Angus Macfarlane (2015) in the New Zealand context advocates the importance and relevance of indigenous knowledge and coined the concept of He Awa Whiria - the ‘braided river’, where indigenous and western knowledge intertwine, compliment and strengthen each other. Where different perspectives meet with open minds and open hearts, new knowledge and new ways of thinking can emerge.

Reading Lake’s text again for this review, today not only as educator but also as father of two young children, I am strongly reminded of how volatile and formative young children are and how powerful, if not overpowering, we as teachers, educators, social workers, parents, and adults in general can be. Lake reminds us of our responsibility as adults to respect each child as a human being from birth and to try not to hamper their healthy development through our own ignorance or preconceptions. Self-reflection and critical evaluation of our own actions, as we emphasise regularly in teacher education, emerges again as fundamental for professional practice with vulnerable people.

 

References:

Lake, R. (1990) An Indian Father’s Plea. Education Week, 2(1), 48-53. Retrieved from https://www.edweek.org/tm/articles/1990/09/01/an-indian-fathers-plea.html

Macfarlane A. (2015) He Awa Whiria: Toward a braided rivers approach to theory and practice. Wellington, New Zealand: Families Commission and Steering Committee.