Learning on the Land: Tanya McCallum Brings Back Trapline Teachings
“Never in a million years did I think I would be a teacher,” recalls Tanya McCallum. She is Woodland Cree and was raised by her grandparents in what was known as Pelican Narrows, living off the land, hunting, fishing and gathering. Most of her early years were spent on the trapline.
“When I reflect back, those were probably the best years of my life,” she reminisces. Before she went to elementary school, she learned traditional life skills from her family. That education is now referred to as “land-based learning”. Until the fur trade collapsed when she was in the fourth grade, McCallum’s grandmother would get lessons from her teacher to use on the traplines as homeschooling. Her family then settled into their community year-round. She graduated from high school but fell into using drugs and alcohol. McCallum was a follower at the time and felt like there were no professional or educational opportunities for her at home. She ended up moving away.
“Being a teacher was never even in my thoughts. It's just the way life went,” she continues. Her first attempt at post-secondary, an effort to get away from the poverty and addictions in her home community, was unsuccessful due to culture shock. After a couple of years of reflection, she decided to try again, applying to four different programs and getting into all of them. An integrated resource management program caught her eye after a life growing up on the land. The program led to a career in environmental protection and conservation, but lacked Indigenous knowledge and wisdom. She ended up deciding on a career change.
Pursuing teaching next, she pursued a Bachelor of Education, majoring in Indigenous Studies. During that program, she had a cultural awakening as the formal education she had in her home community never taught her about her own culture and identity. Instead, they learned about American and European history. When she continued into her Master’s program, she had a spiritual awakening.
“When we talk about spirituality, a lot of times, it's a touchy subject. Nobody wants to get into it, because they think spirituality is all about religions…. but it's not really. Spirituality is your inner being, that connection you have with the natural world,” she explains. Now she’s working on a doctoral degree with Blue Quills, her fourth round of higher education.
Attendance is something she values in her educational philosophy, but she doesn’t think her trapline school time spent out of the classroom negatively impacted her. “I was out on the land with all that informal education, from my grandparents, and or any other adults around me. It probably had a positive impact on where I am today, which is why I really promote a land-based approach to education. When we're talking about bringing in land-based education into our First Nations schools, we're not trying to eliminate the curriculum. We have to make them both work,” she elaborates.
Her advice for Indigenous students considering leaving their home community for new opportunities is to do so if there’s no growth opportunities for education and to look for educational institutions that integrate Indigenous ways of knowing being and doing. McCallum shares that there is so much more support available for Indigenous students now and leaving home is something she would encourage her younger self to do.
Moving away allows for meeting new people, but can also bring loneliness and culture shock. McCallum encourages students to remember their why, that they are doing this for themselves, their families, and their community. She urges young people to stay strong through adversity and talk through their challenges instead of quitting, something she regrets doing herself and something she sees happening most frequently in the first 6-8 months away.
To maintain her mental health, McCallum looks to create balance between work, school and family. Part of the way she does that is spending time out on the land, far from distractions where she’s able to rejuvenate. Living in a small town where she’s able to easily get to the lakes for fishing, hiking and hunting. Spending time with family fills her cup, too.
When it comes to inspiration, McCallum finds strength thinking of her grandparents. She reflects on the drop out, suicide and incarceration rates of Indigenous people and feels it comes down to a loss of and disconnection from identity. That drives the work she does, knowing the connection to identity can solve so many social problems.
“We need to bring our traditional knowledge, our epistemologies, into our education systems, because a lot of times, that is the only time some people might find who they are as an Indigenous person and identity is very important. You have to know who you are to know where you're gonna go in the future. We need to know our own history, what went down with colonialism to understand where we're going in the future. Otherwise, if we don't do that, then history will repeat itself,” she explains.
To inspire Indigenous youth, McCallum continues offering words of wisdom. “You will face racism. You will face stereotyping. Don't let those be barriers to where you're trying to go… Believe in yourself because if you have it in you to dream, you have it in you to succeed.”
After all, never in a million years did Tanya McCallum ever imagine that she would become a teacher, and that’s exactly what she did. Bringing the teachings of her grandparents to the school system, weaving in traditional knowledge and wisdom, she’s helping Indigenous learners see the world, education and themselves differently.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.
Future Pathways Fireside Chats are a project of TakingITGlobal's Connected North Program.
Funding is generously provided by the RBC Foundation in support of RBC Future Launch, and the Government of Canada's Supports for Student Learning program.