Reclaiming Disability through Pimatisiwin: Indigenous Ethics, Spatial Justice, and Gentle Teaching

Ethics, Equity, and Inclusive Education

ISBN: 978-1-78714-153-7, eISBN: 978-1-78714-152-0

ISSN: 1479-3636

Publication date: 9 May 2017


The situating of pimatisiwin as a framework for spatial justice and self-determination aids educators in strengthening their understandings of Indigenous knowledges to support an authentic inclusion of Indigenous students with disabilities. Through the sharing of Canada’s colonial history, and by critically examining the principles of care within special education, the author exposes its relationship with ableism, normalcy, eugenics, and white privilege to show how Indigenous peoples continue to be marginalized in the twenty-first century. This justice work asks educators to shift their perspectives of inclusion and wellness through the insertion of an Indigenous lens, one to help them see and hear the faces and voices of disabled Aboriginal children and their kinships. The chapter discusses the social model of disability, the psychology of Gentle Teaching, Indigenous ethics, and principles of natural laws through the voices of Nehiyawak and other knowledge keepers, in order to suggest an agenda for educators to come to an understanding of an emancipatory and gentle education. Spatial justice and Indigenous epistemologies merge as synergistic, inclusive, and holistic entities, to support Aboriginal children and youth as both they and those who teach learn to celebrate disabled ontologies. The chapter concludes by presenting how Gentle Teaching and Indigenous ways of knowing should be honored in this quest of creating an equitable, caring, and inclusive society for all disabled Indigenous children and youth.



Kress, M.M. (2017), "Reclaiming Disability through Pimatisiwin: Indigenous Ethics, Spatial Justice, and Gentle Teaching", Ethics, Equity, and Inclusive Education (International Perspectives on Inclusive Education, Vol. 9), Emerald Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 23-57.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2017 Emerald Publishing Limited


Racism and homophobia are real conditions of all our lives in this place and time. I urge each one of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives here. See whose face it wears. Then the personal as the political can begin to illuminate all our choices.

– (Audre Lorde)

Social, economic, and legal chronicles found in health, social services, and educational discourses often project Indigenous 1 peoples as marginalized figures subsisting in conditions of poverty and dismay. Frequently, media portrayals of northern reserve life show Aboriginal peoples trapped by an interminable colonial existence, and while these impositions project racialized cycles of dysfunction, Indigenous peoples, with and without disabilities, find themselves unfairly exposed to discourses of pathology, inequities in services, and the unwritten effects of normalcy 2 (Davis, 1995, 1997; Durst, 2006). As practitioners cling to labels of at risk, disruptive, abnormal, angry and dis-engaged, a pathology of the Indigenous body has become the grand narrative of Indigenous peoples, and those who view them. Conversely, recent cases of child and youth health traumas, addictions, homicides, and suicides in La Loche, Saskatchewan, Cross Lake, Manitoba, and Attawapiskat, Ontario, show us these are not simply perceptions. These narratives are realities for some Indigenous communities. Please keep in mind that although these stories are fixed on “damage-centered research” (Tuck, 2009) or discourse, they are not the only narratives depicting Indigenous peoples; these instances do illustrate significant despair, young people beyond hope, and communities immersed in continued colonial struggles over the protections of both kinships and lands.

Certainly, the prevalence of disability-related identities grows exponentially in fragile communities, and the degree of pathology, embodied and assigned by medical and educational authorities, is often reflective of the social determinants of health, 3 and related to the high rates of addictions, injury, accidents, violence, and suicidal behaviors found among Indigenous youth and adults (Durst, 2006; Loppie Reading & Wien, 2009; Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP), 1996). Evident economic, health, and social inequalities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities exasperate living circumstances, and bring further disablement to community members (Blackstock, 2009; Durst, 2006). For the most part, Indigenous peoples do not see themselves, their lives, or their communities as peoples or places defined by a pathology. Rather, they believe their Indigeneity serves as the platform for resistance and a return to pimatisiwin, or wellness (Blackbird, June 6, 2008, personal conversation).

In fairness to both parents and educators, Indigenous families with disabled children do face immense challenges, often without adequate or equitable support, little or no advocacy, and certainly without culturally appropriate protocols, resources, or understandings. With this in mind, I urge educators to take actions which directly oppose neocolonial impositions of ableistic and racist dogmas found in special education policy and practice. Although negative conditions may indeed exist as stark realities, and pathological images may continue to creep into the psyches of educators during this transformation, the emphasis for all educators must remain on actualizing the potential for child and youth well-being. By inserting a lens with an Indigenous worldview, a Cree or Nehiyaw worldview, for example, educators open greater possibilities of movement to spatial justice, gentleness, and respect in an ethic of inclusion. A Nehiyaw worldview contextualizes what pimatisiwin (Cree for the good life) (Ratt, 2014, in Kress, 2014) means for disabled children and their families, as it gives opportunity for an Indigenous ethical framework to be adapted prior to the offering up of special education, or what is seen as the preferable option, an inclusive education. Finally, this Nehiyaw worldview encourages educators to adopt Kanawayhitowin, an Indigenous foundation of care, and Gentle Teaching (McGee, 2000; McGee & Brown, 2007) as the basis of this transformation (Kress, 2014).

A Colonial History: Disabled Remnants and Cultural Genocide

Some have argued that maintaining Indigenous people in poverty and sickness is part of the calculus of doing business. (Jeff Reading and Bernie Farber)

For hundreds of years, Aboriginal peoples have found themselves entangled in a web of deception, terror, and genocide. The 1876 passing of a sweeping piece of federal legislation known as the Indian Act, and the subsequent restrictive revisions of this act over the past 140 years, through several amendments and policy enforcements, continues to levy a diminishing and inequitable relationship between First Nations peoples and the Crown. Those implementing the act fail to address issues of colonial offenses, inequitable funding structures, and the fallout from current policies accentuated by racist and antiquated service (Blackstock, 2009, 2012). The illusion of social and health benefits is real; those afforded to First Nations while compared to the benefits of other Canadians are substandard, and in some instances, absent (Blackstock, 2009). In 2015, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2015a, 2015b) squarely placed the responsibility of this entanglement, that of existing intergenerational trauma among Aboriginal families in Canada and the continued imposition of the Indian Act, upon the Canadian government. Stories of residential school survivors and their families point to the dispossession of children and traditional lands as part of a severed pimatisiwin (good life) within Nehiyaw (Cree) and other Indigenous nations. Recognizing this severing of wellness is paramount in understanding how Indigenous peoples are viewed, treated and dishonored by our current social, economic, political, and justice systems in Canada. Layered colonial transgressions continue to impact disabled Aboriginal peoples, in particular, and while often deterring educators and social providers from accessing the tools and processes required to decolonize both themselves and the educational systems they work within, the neocolonial policies of today minimize Indigenous knowledges and voices.

In what has become known as Canada’s cultural genocide, the residential school era and those who managed it are responsible, in large part, for the legacy of Indigenous intergenerational trauma (Ross, 2006, 1992/2009; Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015a, 2015b). At the start of the 1800s, the Government of Canada sanctioned Catholic, Anglican, Protestant, and Presbyterian church authorities to deliver a western education for Aboriginal children between the ages of 4 and 15, a system of learning whereby children would be assimilated into the body politic of the colonial world. In this transition, church and state authorities took First Nations children to residential schools often hundreds of miles from their homes and families. These “stolen children” endured eugenics and medical experimentation, forced labor, insufficient and rotten food, sexual abuse, beatings, physical punishments, and torture for speaking their languages and for defying nuns and priests who were work supervisors, teachers, and religious authorities (Boyer, 2014). The imposition of English was punitive, painful, and damaging. Rather than clearing a path to an enjoining type of social capital 4 , these schools brought a cultural demise, manifesting in broken spirits and severed identities of children and families. Few residential school survivors were accepted within the colonial and racist society responsible for their assimilation, and many endured severed family relations resulting in compounding disabling conditions through accidents, addictions, and attempted suicides (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015a, 2015b).

The Indian Act ensured control, dispossession, assimilation, and diminishment of Aboriginal peoples, their lands, and their knowledges. It created divisions among nations, kinships, and genders. In many cases, relationships among the Métis, and many of their neighboring First Nations, often extended families, were fractured beyond repair. Many who lived during these times lost intimate connections with families, lands, languages, and for some, the will to live. For Indigenous peoples within the borders of this new Canada, the disruption of an egalitarian and traditional life, the banishment of culture, language, ceremony and spirituality, and the dispossession of children and lands, through enforcements associated with the reserve system, the pass and permit systems, residential schools, and the 60’s scoop, 5 imparted a cultural genocide which resonates today through the malaises of colonization (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015a, 2015b). This residue contributes to mountainous statistics of trauma related to health issues, disorders, and disabilities among First Nations, Inuit, and Métis (Kress, 2015). Today, incidences show exorbitant rates of HIV/AIDS, alcohol and substance abuse, poor mental health and related illnesses, cancers, circulatory diseases, digestive disorders, and birth anomalies as plagues among many Aboriginal communities (Kress, 2015; Loppie Reading & Wien, 2009; White, Beaven & Spence, 2007). Poverty, poor economic and social conditions, and environmental injustice, all cited as causations in this demise of health and wellness, have to be considered in the context of a disability profile (Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions, 2011; Kress, 2015). Although one cannot examine every digression within the notion of disability and Aboriginal peoples, the implications of the eugenics movement of the early 1900s – sterilization, racial profiling, coercion, relocation, and segregation of Indigenous peoples – are found in indices of contemporary systemic racism, ableism 6 , and white privilege 7 . Although the formal practices of eugenics softened in the early 1970s, the dogmas of this era live on in current day policies and are found in practices of medicine, genetics, rehabilitation, and special education (Boyer, 2014; Dyck, 2013; Kress-White, 2009).

Family and community discord, youth disengagement, sexual and physical abuse, and both settler and familial violence against Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit peoples follow kinships throughout our lands (Kress, 2015). Instances of discord, hopelessness, and trauma are typical within northern reserves. Suicide statistics of Inuit youth and young adults are cited at a frequency of 11 times higher than all other Canadians (Watkins, in Kress, 2014; Kress, 2015). Recently, more than one northern community has called upon the Government of Canada to declare a national emergency due to youth suicide and homicide related deaths. These realities impact the mental health of all Indigenous peoples, and persons with disabilities to a greater degree (Durst, 2006; RCAP, 1996):

As far as Aboriginal people with disabilities [are concerned] … we are less recognized and the most violated against by both races, both sexes, and both communities. We are raped by disabled men; we are raped by disabled women; we are raped by Aboriginal women; we are raped by Aboriginal men; we are raped by white women; we are raped by white men. And believe you me we have been raped by our medical attendants, doctors, nurses, occupational therapists — you name it, we’ve had it. We know what it is like to be down low, but for God’s sake, you don’t have to keep us there either. (J. Johnny, November 18, 1992 as cited in RCAP, 1996d, p. 56)

This quote presents the harsh reality many disabled Aboriginal peoples endure today. Cycles of abuse and tyranny, and the paternalistic interventions of the past, have not disappeared with the cessation of residential schools and other restrictive systems. Rather, they are prevalent in all western states. For systemic change to occur, this devaluing of Indigenous bodies and spaces requires a profound disruption (Charlton, 1998; Durst, 2006; Kress-White, 2009; Kress, 2014).

Intersections of Racism and Ableism in Special Education

[The] real disability is racism. Our people are crippled by racism.

If my family had a good place to live, had enough food, so would I …

We want our treaty rights. (Lakota Woman)

LGBTQ and two-spirit peoples, children, youth and adults with disabilities, and Indigenous women and girls are often targeted victims of violence within communities, both urban and remote, Indigenous and settler (Disabled Aboriginal Women’s Network, 2015; Durst & Bluechardt, 2001; Fey (2001), Sobsey, 1994; Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 2015a, 2015b). Disabled Aboriginal peoples who are forced to leave northern reserve communities and relocate to urban settlements in order to access western medical supports often experience accentuated forms of racism, and the compounding effects of isolation (Durst, 2006; Durst & Bluechardt, 2001; Durst, Morin, Wall, & Bluechardt, 2007; Pengra & Godfrey, 2001; Stienstra, 2002). Armed with this knowledge, few persons carry a desire to be labeled; and even those who might benefit from a disability classification recognize the damage an identity of this nature carries. Fearful attitudes often perpetuate the construction of normalcy, and while a social adherence to “normal” as virtuous, moral, and preferable grows (Charlton, 1998; Davis, 1995), those with disabled ontologies continue to sit on the margins and become more isolated. A history of colonial policy shows how disabled peoples are:

isolated, incarcerated, observed, written about, operated on, instructed, implanted, regulated, treated, institutionalized, and controlled to a degree probably unequal to that experienced by any other minority group. (Davis, 1997 cited in Barnes & Mercer, 2003, p. 41)

Negative associations with the disabled body and ill health reflect a peoples’ margin of discrimination, and the imposition of human rights infractions and genocide are found worldwide (Charlton, 1998). Many Indigenous persons with disabilities endure racism in health care, educational, or disability-related services (Durst, 2006; Razack, 1998a, 1998b), and countless others have been silenced by helping professionals espousing “equal treatment and best practice” in education, health, justice, and social services (Linton, 1998; Slee, 2001). Cliché as it may be, “ableism is alive and well,” particularly, in the western world. Reliant on the protected phenomena of normalization and whiteness, systemic ableism impacts Indigenous peoples in the most significant of ways (Davis, 1997; Durst, 2006; Durst & Bluechardt, 2001; Durst et al., 2007; Razack, 1998a, 1998b).

One comes to appreciate the complexity of a disabled identity by examining intersections of oppression and the subsequent barriers these colonial systems present. A multitude of contexts must be pieced together to understand how the negative construct of disability is protected, and how disabling variances of the human body impact pimatisiwin. When non-Indigenous practitioners attempt to gain this understanding, a willingness to accept the deconstruction of intergenerational trauma is paramount. Within this acceptance, practitioners must recognize their own complicity in previous dismissals of these memories. An analysis of the disabled state helps one deconstruct imposed non-Indigenous “wisdoms” and remnant practices of the past to unearth the realities of intergenerational trauma. Often, entrenched artifacts of erroneous ideologies block educators from returning to teachings of Indigenous well-being (Ross, 2006). As disabled persons are placed into convenient packages, the system of special education often perpetuates the labeling, slotting, separating, and administering so often found in the practice of the “benevolent humanitarian” (Allan, 2015; Slee, 2001; Tomlinson, 2014).

Histories show depictions of Indigenous collectives, once healthy and vibrant, as contemporary memberships with dashed hopes and compromised health. Historically, many kinships revered people with embodied differences, particularly children with intellectual disabilities; however, it seems this phenomenon is no longer evident (Charlton, 1998; Kress-White, 2009; Morris, 1991; Pengra & Godfrey, 2001, p. 36). We know, for example, in some communities members with multiple disability designations face insurmountable barriers which impact their lives in negative ways and impair their ability to flourish (Durst, 2006; Durst et al., 2007; Stienstra, 2002). These persons rarely complete high school education, nor do they obtain access to employment or other amenities vital to their economic and social capital. Rates of experiencing incarceration are often greater than rates of high-school graduation for Aboriginal youth, and the growth in mental health and addictions-related disabilities are stark reminders of a bleak future (Kress-White, 2009; Kress, 2015). Although it is recognized that significant traumas and distresses are collective occurrences in Aboriginal communities, it has not always been this way. One way in which educators and other social providers can proceed within an ethic of gentle care and respect is by supporting Aboriginal peoples, themselves, to gather the stories about these histories.

As medical or educational specialists, we often view disability and disabled peoples from a euro-centric perspective, and so often the insights found in special education scholarship invariably place the experiences, identities, and embodiments of disabled peoples at the margins (Linton, 1998; Slee, 2000, 2001; Tomlinson, 2014). Rarely are intersections of ableism, racism, sexism, or classism scrutinized by educators when offering up advice or service to parents or youth. The exception is found in those who situate these constructs within discourses of critical disability theory, including the social model of disability, Gentle Teaching, or Indigenous frameworks of health and wellness (Allan, 2005, 2015; McGee, 2000; Pothier & Devlin, 2006; Razack, 1998a, 1998b; Rioux, 2001; Slee, 2000, 2001).

The practice of pathologizing Indigenous bodies within special education services has a long Canadian history – eras of industrialization, medicalization, rehabilitation, and eugenics – justify torturous residential school experiments, child labor, sterilization, and institutionalization, all of which gave Aboriginal peoples much to fear (Boyer, 2014). In these years, while bureaucrats dueled for top roles in directing “special education” institutions and peoples, the politics of assimilation were protected through a stance of “benevolent humanitarianism” (Tomlinson, 2014, 1982). This protection stands today as there is an “assumption that the profession [of special education] is an embodiment of benevolence and therefore beyond reasonable critique” (Danforth & Jones, p. 10).

Disabled Indigenous peoples are often reminded how fragile their quest for interdependence is when residues of the eugenics era continue to filter in and out of the educational institutions they attend (Boyer, 2014; Dyck, 2013; Eugenics Archive, 2015; Linton, 1998; Slee, 2000). Today, a small number of disability “experts” champion Indigenous worldviews as frameworks for new policy and program development. However, rarely do those in helping professions reflect on how Indigenous transformation could impact the health and self-determining practices of Aboriginal youth for the better (RCAP, 1996). Most troubling, especially for young peoples, is the act of demarcation – a pathology discourse in which special education is protected. It tears at the “Indigeneity” of a person by placing an individual on the very margins of humanity. Simply put, able-bodied, white, and privileged persons uphold these boundaries and accept abjected images of disabled or Indigenous peoples (Linton, 1998; Morris, 1991; Razack, 1998a, 1998b; Tomlinson, 2014). The ingrained bias of being “able-bodied” creates an inability to see “the other” and it often deters educators from recognizing the depth of a human, and his or her interconnectedness to all living.

Through demarcation, the intersections of ableism, racism, and sexism become more and more pronounced, and discriminatory views and actions are further upheld and protected (Vanier, 1998). Civil rights journalist Joseph Shapiro has this to say about perceptions of able-bodied colleagues, and even friends:

The non-disabled … do not understand [the] disabled ones. That was clear at the memorial service for Timothy Cook, when long-time friends got up to pay him heartfelt tribute. “He never seemed disabled to me,” said one. “He was the least disabled person I ever met,” pronounced another. It was the highest praise these non-disabled friends could think to give a disabled attorney who, at thirty-eight years old, had won landmark disability rights cases, including one to force public transit systems to equip their buses with wheelchair lifts. But more than a few heads in the crowded chapel bowed with an uneasy embarrassment at the supposed compliment. It was as if someone had tried to compliment a black man by saying, “You‘re the least black person I ever met, as false as telling a Jew, I never think of you as Jewish, as clumsy as seeking to flatter a woman with, you don‘t act like a woman.”. Here in this memorial chapel was a small clash between the reality of disabled people and the understanding of their lives by others. (Shapiro in Slee, 2004, p. 49)

Although this is a poignant example of disability discrimination, it also exists as yet another unintentional omission of the racist suppressions of Indigenous peoples. Indigeneity is, after all, about relationship, and in order to instigate justice for children who are both disabled and Indigenous, educators must learn firsthand how Indigenous activists, self-advocates, and parents resist actions that oppress or degrade the human experience of their family member. As they learn from resisters, educators see the necessity in decolonizing this medicalization of humanity through voice and story. This work of allyship leads to a collective vigilance which exposes the bias of whiteness within the disability movement itself, and it aids educators in understanding the impact colonization continues to have on Indigenous peoples (Boyer, 2014; Durst, 2006; Kress, 2014).

In this change, activists, Indigenous peoples, and inclusion specialists alike veer from discourses of pathology, and the medical model of disability itself, to advance a counter-position honoring the nature of Indigenous embodied realities of children and youth in schools and communities. Sporting a social-cultural-political framework, the social model of disability has been stretched over the decades to revere ontological knowledges found within disabled peoples (Thomas, 1999); and it seems its social-relational stance is vital to the well-being of all Indigenous peoples world over (Boyer, 2014; Durst, 2006; Kress-White, 2011, 2009; Kress, 2014, 2015; Linton, 1998; Slee, 2000). As a framework of legitimate discourse within disability studies, this model endorses rights to justice while recognizing all persons hold value and deserve equal opportunities and equitable services (Linton, 1998; Pothier & Devlin, 2006; Slee, 2001):

The social model is not about showing that every dysfunction in our bodies can be compensated for by a gadget, or good design, so that everyone can work an 8-hour day and play badminton in the evenings. It’s a way of demonstrating that everyone – even someone who has no movement, no sensory function and who is going to die tomorrow – has the right … to be treated with respect. (Vasey, 1992, p. 44)

For allies, the acceptance of the social model of disability creates a shift from “fixing” a disabled person to encouraging a move in transformation. It lays a foundation for open and collective opposition to ableistic discourses and systems that perpetuate derogatory imagery, hegemonic and power positioning, and blatant human rights infractions against disabled peoples. Adherence to the social model of disability not only provides educators a disability framework by which to eliminate barriers associated with social, psychological, and physical discriminations, it allows for growth in sensitivity and acceptance of social and cultural contexts, the necessary precursors for equity and inclusion. Although, engagement in what may be seen as defiant actions could be accentuated through this adherence (those opposing special education discourse and practice), the social model of disability allows educators to become aligned with the self-determining protocols of Indigenous peoples. With care, this model has potential to exist as a decolonizing tool as it “involves recognizing, then shedding, the mindset associated with colonial processes by which one culture subjugates another and defines it as inferior” (Weaver, 1999, p.222).

A fundamental shift to the social model of disability creates the space for a positive Indigenous ontology to take hold while dismantling the colonized projection of disability and the shielding of normality (Blackstock, 2008; Kress-White, 2009). By accepting an Indigenous “way of being” within the social model of disability, educators acknowledge a safe space in which to honor the person, and his or her embodiment (Martin, 2003). This grand shift calls for ethical, moral, and legal considerations which respect the traditional worldviews of disabled Indigenous peoples as they determine, create, and occupy chosen spaces, and embrace particular ways of being and knowing (Blackstock, 2008; Ermine, 2007; Martin, 2003). Additionally, it helps educators appreciate a pathway to connect disability and impairment as one within this “embodied ontology … [and it shows them how] the reality of one’s disability [is held] within a complex social network” (Mcilroy, 2005, para. 4). Within this embodied ontology, there is no static existence; rather there is fluidity and a synthesis of embodiment that continues to be produced through ever-growing social networks and the ongoing changes found in day-to-day life, similar to those in Indigenous knowledge systems (Ermine, 2007).

For Indigenous peoples, ontology is a fused and critical aspect of traditional knowledge and contemporary being. This being, Indigenous and disabled, with links to distinct cultural histories, both individually and collectively, rarely fits within a binary of a western disability ideology, as this often imposes a false consciousness or internalized state of oppression (Durst, 2006; Mcilroy, 2005). Through embodied sensibilities, a positive disability ontology should be considered a significant feature of emancipation for disabled Indigenous peoples. The ontological intersection of disability and Indigenous identity produces an epistemology or way of knowing which impacts social networks, both Indigenous and western, and how one approaches the pathway to pimatisiwin. Changing ingrained narratives takes time and patience. It is here that educators and students alike can learn from the stories and histories of Indigenous elders and knowledge keepers – and those who help dissect the production of negative ontologies and disability oppression as applied to Indigenous peoples.

Of Spatial Justice, Truth, and “The Other”

When I see a person in a wheelchair I don’t see a disabled person.

I see someone who is different than me. (Steve Whitehat)

Discerning educators are obligated to inspect the spaces we have created for and with Indigenous children, youth, and adults. Vanier (1998) highlights how physical, psychological, and symbiotic places hold opportunity and capital, love and empowerment, and conversely how some spaces and practices perpetuate domination, subjugation, and exploitation. Our Canadian histories also show us how geographical, imaginative, relational, and emotional spaces have confined and subjugated Indigenous peoples, and others labeled as poor or disabled, through the control, extraction, and manipulation of resources, knowledges, bodies, and lands (Boyer, 2014; Kress, 2014). In this consideration, policies and practices protected by the Indian Act are dubbed as forms of spatial injustice, individually and collectively, as they represent a measure of space set aside for those defined as “the other” (LaRocque, 2010; Vanier, 1998).

Prominent Plains Cree Métis scholar, poet, and professor Emma LaRocque directs us to the gaze of the colonizer in her seminal writings When the Other is Me – Native Resistance Discourse 1850-1990 (2010) and Defeathering the Indian (1975). As she shares her life knowings through the literatures of juxtaposed and conflicted Canadian histories, she points to Aboriginal peoples as they move in and out of these spaces preserved for “the other.” Along with LaRocque (2010), Razack (1998a, 1998b) reflects on how the colonialist gaze of dehumanization presents romanticism, exaggerated difference, and the reality of internalized racism. Psychological theories and practices use discourses of “the other” to marginalize and demarcate Indigenous children and adolescents, those especially with disabilities, behavioral issues, gender variances, or other positionalities distinct from the definitive construct of normalcy (Davis, 1997; Razack, 1998a, 1998b; Vanier, 1998; Wotherspoon & Schissel, 2001).

Invariably, disability “experts” themselves frequently consume the upholding of space for “the other.” Rather than seeing themselves in a space of fluidity along with those they serve, they are complicit in protecting their personal and professional statuses of privilege (Kress-White, 2009). These members not only control political, economic, and social policies and practices, they systematically determine placements in this category of “the other,” and how that occurs and is maintained. Under the guise of “benevolent humanitarianism” (Tomlinson, 2014, 1982), those who dominate fields of human service protect the discourse of “the other” and while ensuring their own power and livelihood remains intact, uphold abjected views of a disabled ontology (Ferri & Connor, 2006; LaRocque, 2010; Wotherspoon & Schissel, 2001; Vanier, 1998). Tomlinson (2014) draws our attention to the bureaucracy and growth of special education, financial resourcing of schools within the processes of diagnoses, expanding mandates of those who hold “power” over youth with disabilities, profitability of the pharmaceuticals and neuro-scientific professionals, and fragmentation of parent-educators relations (Allan, 2015). While little critique of this “special” system occurs, the demarcation of Aboriginal children and adolescents grows, particularly in the category of “at-risk” (Wotherspoon & Schissel, 2001).

Within their analysis of “at risk” Indigenous children, Wotherspoon and Schissel (2001) show their disdain of the “special education” growth industry, and they warn educators who aspire to the duties of assessing, labeling, placing, and keeping Aboriginal children in special and segregated environments to proceed with caution (Kress-White, 2009). This frenzy of “working” for the disabled “comes perilously close to nineteenth century eugenic theories, and the medical textbooks which confidently showed pictures of the warped brains of criminals and the mentally retarded” (Tomlinson, 2014, p. 71). Inclusive education scholar and educator Julie Allan points to the psychopathology found in secondary level schools to show how, “the mentally abnormal child is now principally represented as presenting danger and risk, and with these new identifications come a set of practices which are concerned with control, containment and governance and are aimed at protecting the securing of the school and societal population” (Allan, 2015, p. 44).

Within this framework of “at risk” lies the ideology or space of normalcy (Davis, 1997), and as it conceals the humanity found within a disabled child, her deficit identity, sharpened by special education, soon supersedes all other human characteristics to become the child in her entirety. So often, worldviews presented by Indigenous peoples, depicting both their challenges and gifts, are invariably diminished, rejected, or ignored altogether by leaders in education and social services as the “at risk” narrative prevails (Durst & Bluechardt, 2001; Wotherspoon & Schissel, 2001). Not surprisingly, few researchers show interest in learning more about Aboriginal peoples’ authentic familial or community contexts (Blackstock, 2011; Durst & Bluechardt, 2001), and in many ways, disabled Indigenous peoples continue to be situated as the most marginalized of all peoples in today’s society (Campbell, 2008; Davis, 1997; Ferri & Connor, 2006; Vanier, 1998).

In addressing this, I ask: how might educators come to understand a notion of spatial justice, an Indigenous justice, in which Aboriginal peoples, their humanities, their bodies, their kinships, their lands, and their ways of knowing are honored? Perhaps a deconstruction of historical and contemporary bias and privilege, the acceptance of diversity as a valued necessity, and the embracement of Indigenous knowledges may segue to the envisioning and creation of safe spaces for all learners. What must educators consider in this realm of justice and truth?

There are no simple answers, and so I begin with a call for an ethical awareness of spatial justice, this “intersection of space and social justice” which ensures the protection and survival of spaces and voices (Design Studio for Social Intervention, 2015, p. 2). Embedded in the context of an Indigenous spatial justice is a critical approach to understanding social, cultural, economic, and environmental interactions, and the interdependent and self-determining practices found within Indigenous knowledges and communities. Soja (2010) indicates spatial justice is not a substitute for other forms of justice; rather, it is “a means of amplifying and extending these concepts into a new area of understanding and political practice” (Soja, 2010, p. 5). This envisioning calls us to enter the political as we create spaces of all types, importantly, those in which people enter by choice and which promote equity, access, safety, and healthy living. In these spaces, all peoples have the right to be safe regardless of ability, gender variance, sexual origination, and racial, cultural, or tribal positionality (Soja, 2010). Edward Soja (2010) reminds us how “thinking spatially about justice can uncover significant new insights that extend our practical knowledge into more effective actions to achieve greater justice and democracy” (Design Studio for Social Intervention, 2015, p. 3). This framework gives educators opportunities to recognize links between colonial histories and the pedagogies and practices of today’s schooling for disabled Indigenous children. When youth of all Indigenous nations have access to social capital, their educational, cultural, economic, social, and health rights are honored. For First Nations, this acknowledgment infers treaty promises are respected and implemented. However, when these rights are disrupted, what determines the role of obligation in which educators dissect and dismantle the multiple intersections of practices that continue to impede Indigenous children from a full life or pimatisiwin to build a-new?

Firstly, I propose that one must learn about three important ethical aspects of spatial justice which are connected to Indigenous identity and growth: (1) the right to be and become; (2) the right to thrive and express; and (3) the right to access and connect (Design Studio for Social Intervention, 2015, p. 2). It seems when these rights are denied or when access to service is limited on the basis of what we know to be an equitable education and a suitable placement, then Indigenous children with disabilities, those living in poverty, and those who identify as LGBTQ or two-spirit, for example, experience a type of subjugation, or worse, a human rights violation which impacts life itself. We must ask ourselves what these rights mean in the context of delivering an ethical education or being an ethical educator. Although we are armed with understandings of equality, duty to consult, and other legalities of our governmental systems, it seems we continue to struggle with the meaning of an equitable and inclusive education. When Indigenous peoples no longer feel hopeful, safe, or loved, I am certain they are experiencing some form of discrimination or spatial injustice. Simply stated, when human rights infringements enter the physical and psychological spaces of Indigenous peoples to impact pimatisiwin, the rights of spatial justice are interrupted and the society as a whole suffers. It seems then, in order for change to occur, these rights must be placed at the heart of an ethical and inclusive framework, an education of conscientization, and a truth telling process to help each one of us understand the complexity of a disabled ontology (Freire, 1970). Through critical conversations, educators can be guided to move beyond the simple discourses of racism, ableism, sexism, and homophobia, for example, to understanding impositions caused by the neocolonial realities of gentrification, relocation, isolation, and institutionalization, and how these impositions infringe on social, cultural, economic, and environmental rights of Indigenous peoples in Canada.

The Ethics of Indigenous Worldviews

For the Cree or the Nehiyaw, it is often an internalized memory that sets the stage for the emancipation of a people (Anderson, 2000; McLeod, 2007; Michell, 2005). One cannot separate health, wellness, the body, or life itself from a Cree (or Indigenous) ontology (Adelson, 2000), or from a renewed pimatisiwin:

A sense of health – or of being Cree, for that matter – cannot be understood outside the context of colonial and neo-colonial relations in Canada. Indigenous Canadians – Indian, Inuit, or Metis – continue to live with the effects of displacement, discrimination legislation, failed attempts at assimilation, forced religious conversion, and pervasive racism. (Adelson, 2000, p. 9)

Warmly encouraged by teachers and disability professionals who engage in gentle movements, this disruption can bring empowering and transformative models of support to disabled persons. Renewal and wellness, harmony and health, can only exist within a culture of balance, interdependence, and synergy (Blackstock, 2008; Boyer, 2014; Vanier, 1998). In my examination of Gentle Teaching 8 (McGee & Brown, 2007), I have discovered a psychology that aligns itself within Indigenous cultures, and with the teachings, ethics, and natural laws of Indigenous peoples. Understanding ontology, or a way of being, from a perspective of Indigenous wellness requires a fresh lens in which to see disabled Indigenous peoples. This shift to gentleness is a prerequisite for conscious educational action, as it exists as a precursor for the development of authentic, inclusive, and caring services for Indigenous peoples.

Pimatisiwin is defined by Herring (1996) as a type of self-actualization in which “Native cultures emphasize cooperation, harmony, interdependence, the achievement of socially oriented and group goals, and collective responsibility. Thus, the goal is more akin to family and tribal self-actualization” (Herring, 1996, p. 74 in Hart, 2002, p. 96).

Many Indigenous peoples guided by factors of spirit, or, in the case of Cree peoples, Wahkohtowin – the relational breath of life itself – show that “life is experienced as a series of circles, in which change is not an irreversible line but a curve bending backwards toward its beginning. Time extends from far in the past to far into the future” (Nelson, Kelley, & McPherson, 1985, p. 237). Infusing pimatisiwin into the practice of inclusive education requires educators and Indigenous peoples to enter into reconciliation and to plan together for this creation, this new shift. In this reference, Hart (2002) sees the concept of pimatisiwin as a model of decolonization and a strategy for enhancing self-actualizing growth through healing: “ … reaching the good life involves sharing, which, linked to equality and democracy, reduces greed, envy, and conflict” (Manitowabi & Shawande, 2011, p. 453; Hart, 2006). The imperatives of this foundation affirm the importance of Indigenous lead, community-based perspectives on healing and cultural revitalization:

We have to recapture our peoples’ language, history and understanding of the world, take and live those teachings which will support us in this attempt to overcome oppression and reach mino-pimatisiwin – the good life. On a spiritual level, we must learn and understand the values and beliefs of our people and freely decide those which we will internalize. We must validate these values and beliefs through our spiritual expression and daily practices (Hart, 2002, p. 32).

To encourage Hart’s advocacy of pimatisiwin as a decolonizing strategy, I point to Blackstock’s Breath of Life Theory (2011), Ermine’s The Ethical Space of Engagement (2007), and Brant’s (1990) Native Ethics and Rules of Behaviour as they assist learners in grasping the depth of Indigenous knowledges. If educators view ethics as the “capacity to know what harms or enhances the well-being of sentient creatures,” and “how our actions may infringe or violate the spaces of others” (Ermine, 2007, p. 195), they often self-reflect to see whether their actions or non-actions infringe upon aspects of another’s spatial justice. By examining the work of these scholars, educators start to elevate Indigenous worldviews, and begin to see how:

images of [disabled] Indigenous peoples are created through western systems and institutions, [and how these] same image[s] can also be controlled and manipulated to suit Western interests. As Indigenous peoples, we have lost our most precious of all human rights – the freedom to be ourselves. Our existence is reduced to a meaningless and marginal part of broader Canadian life to be silent and ultimately controllable (Ermine, 2007, p. 199)

Blackstock’s Breath of Life Theory supports Ermine’s notion of engagement (2007) while merging Indigenous knowings, ontologies, and ethics with a western theory of physics – the theory of everything – to proclaim if “relational worldview[s] … are out of balance within the framework of community culture and context, then risks to the child’s safety and well-being will increase” (Blackstock, 2011, p. 3). In her understanding of a good life, or pimatisiwin, Blackstock (2011) advances Cross’s (1997) Indigenous interpretation of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to highlight the placement of community actualization through spirituality, love, belonging, and relationships, as those needs of primary consequence, and above those of other individualized needs. This worldview also protects principles of holistic growth found within medicine teachings – here the physical, emotional, spiritual, and cognitive needs of the child or youth are equally significant and honored. As realities of life experiences and intergenerational traumas may enhance or disrupt this worldview, educators are advised to analyze their actions, and the needs of disabled children and youth, through the contexts of culture, seven generations’ thinking, 9 and relationality found within distinct Indigenous communities (Blackstock, 2011; Fitznor, 1998; Hart, 2002).

Prior to engaging in and applying western modes of disability support, educators should be aware of principles supporting Indigenous ways of knowing. Ontology, positionality, relationality, and voice are critical entities for the self-determination of Indigenous peoples (Fitznor, 2006). Mohawk psychologist, Clare Brant (1990) has been long revered as a gentle practitioner who understands the recurring behaviors of Indigenous peoples, particularly when trauma arises. Brant’s work across Canada and other parts of the world validates his knowledge of multiple Indigenous clans, including those of the Mi’kmaq, Mohawk, Iroquois, Cree, and other plains peoples. In this work with kinships and practitioners, Brant calls attention to several ethics and principles that remain embedded in the knowings and blood memories of Aboriginal peoples. The first of these is the ethic of non-interference – here Brant (1990) calls for patience, as Indigenous peoples, including parents and caregivers, follow this premise with children and youth. A child is not told what to do or forced into a situation of doing; rather, he or she is given time to make a decision and instigate this personal choice. This ethic is supported by many of the other concepts Brant (1990) defines as critical in the understanding of behavioral outcomes. Some of these include concepts related to time and timing (the timing must be right); the principle of sharing as paramount (extends to protocols of equality and democracy among the membership); gratitude and anger are rarely shown, and emotion is kept in check (responses are not always evident, and external praise, punishment, and other types of reinforcement educators use have limited effect); modeling as teaching is elevated (and takes precedent over shaping and other western understandings); and finally, the concept of withdrawal or conservation is used frequently, and especially if one is placed in an anxiety-provoking situation (Brant, 1990). These inherent ways in which Indigenous peoples govern their emotions and actions are critical understandings that caregivers and educators can learn from. It is up to the teacher-learner to take the first steps to understand this engagement, as without a clear understanding of the Indigenous ways in which some children may express themselves, based on protocols, community mores, and elements of internalized memory, one cannot possibly understand what types of interventions might lead to support or inclusion.

Blackstock (2011), Brant (1990), and Ermine (1995) all call for a return to ancient knowledge in understanding the ways in which Indigenous peoples can be supported; the evidence is mounting that western methodologies are not conducive or helpful (RCAP, 1996; TRC, 2015a, 2015b). As protocols found in ancestral knowledge and ceremony are vital to the collective well-being of Indigenous peoples, they call for educators to accept Indigenous worldviews as vital knowledge forms and distinctions of survival, and to honor social, historical, and political contexts of Indigenous knowing through language and land, spirituality and culture, while privileging Indigenous voice, experiences, and lives (Martin, 2003).

In Ermine’s advancement of an ethical space, he calls for the merging of western and Indigenous principles to “entertain the notion of engagement” (Ermine, 2007, p. 202). Privileging of Indigenous voices is absolutely critical; however, both Indigenous peoples and educators must recognize how working with allies may benefit disabled Aboriginal youth and adults in need. Ermine (2007) explains that the creation of an ethical space not only ensures a location for respectful dialogue, “it can [also] be used to bridge [colonial] tensions by allowing for safe knowledge exchange between two worldviews” (Zehbe, Maar, Nahwegahbow, Berst, & Pintar, 2012, p. 43). It is in this space that colliding worldviews have the most potential in coming together for the higher need of Indigenous peoples (Ermine, 2007).

In the creation of an ethical space, Indigenous peoples invite educators with a depth of deconstructed disability knowledge to join them in conversation. First Nations, Inuit, and Métis are waiting to tell their stories and, in turn, they require a sharing of yours; one cannot gain knowledges and insights from one community without a commitment to authentic sharing and reciprocity with the other (Kress, 2014). In its own way, this movement to Gentle Teaching may reinforce the conceptualization of an ethical space, a treaty space, and a space in which a nation-to-nation relationship may make a significant difference for peoples marginalized within colonial systems. As Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples of Canada, we are entwined within a treaty relationship, and in this we are obligated to learn from and to support one other. It is within the we, rather than the you-I dichotomy of western ideology, that the foundations of Gentle Teaching and treaty are advanced. Cree scholars Willie Ermine (2007) and Michael Hart (2002) advocate for all individuals, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike, to take responsibility for personal growth and change. Like Freire (1970), they encourage self-reflection in order to help us discover the we. These reflections and sharings activate intuition, healing, and growth, and the pathway to pimatisiwin as the “overall goal of healing, learning, and life in general” then becomes visible (Hart, 2002, p. 44). Adherence to Indigenous protocols defining respect, responsibility, reciprocity, and reverence aids one in discovering self-determining actions, processes that define both ethical and authentic engagement.

Honoring Indigenous Identities and the Premise of Becoming

The old man said, to have been born imperfect was a sign of specialness…

The old man explained carefully that in the old days, if a child came with a hare-shorn lip, it wasn’t a terrible thing or a hurtful thing; it meant the child’s soul was still in touch with the Spirit World. (Yvonne Johnson)

Monture-Angus (1995) claims an Indigenous knowing of truth is located within the self, rather than measured from the outside, through influences and entities. Human embodiedness, evolving through knowing, becoming, and doing, deserves reflection:

A fundamental difference between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal societies (is) the way in which truth is located. Truth in non-Aboriginal terms is located outside of the self. It is absolute and may be discovered only through years of study in institutions, which are sanctioned as sources of learning. In the Aboriginal way, truth is internal to the self. (Monture-Angus, 1995, p. 217)

This Indigenous truth rests on the notion that all beings are interconnected with each other, the cosmos, ancestors, lands, customs, ceremonies, and so forth; no one or no entity holds power over another (Battiste, 2008; Wilson, 2008). Similarly and inherent to an Indigenous understanding of truth is the journey of self-discovery and relatedness, or in Nehiyaw knowings, Wahkohtowin. A basic principle within Cree natural law, Wahkohtowin resonates with other nations and the Indigenous knowledge keepers of those territories (Bearpaw Media Production, 2009). Blackfoot elder Narcisse Blood (2015) shares his understanding of relatedness and humanity with educators:

you are a person first …your career should not be your identity, in western world it becomes your identity, for us no. You are a Niitsitapi first, that is a doctor first, that is a teacher, not the other way around. If we can get this back to this then we can teach the new comers of what they should have paid attention to then …the whole notion of citizenship and community would be prevalent. We are, in fact, all related, and we should take care of one another, and not look down on each other. That goal of Blackfoot throughout your life, it’s not about being Blackfoot, it is about becoming Blackfoot throughout your life. In other words, becoming a human to its fullest. (Blood on Vimeo, 2015)

The sentiment of Blood’s reflection is alive in all Indigenous knowledge systems and like the teachings of the Nehiyawak, he tells us to put aside colonial understandings and learn about both others and ourselves through non-judgment, love, and service. I am not speaking of a western “benevolent humanitarianism” (Tomlinson, 1982), rather, it is advocacy for a way in which educators can open their hearts and minds to the teachings of traditional knowledge keepers and disabled Indigenous peoples themselves. Although careful attention to Indigenous language helps one learn about these Indigenous ways of knowing, a cycle of lifelong teachings, through understandings of ceremony, natural law, and Indigenous ethics, are required by the learner. In Nehiyaw, for example, the understanding of Kanawayhitowin helps us see this vital role.

Kanawayhitowin is a Cree word that calls for the spirit in each of us to come forth to protect each other, and in a sense, all living entities. The English translation generates an idea that all peoples have a responsibility to care for each other’s spirit and in turn, to care for all life forms and Mother Earth. This concept of a network of caring – the caring of the spirit for all entities – is central to the evolution of understanding how and why Indigenous knowledges … are critical, resistive, empowering and required. (Kress, 2014, p. 94)

By adding storywork (Archibald, 2008a) to this Nehiyaw reflection of care, one begins to acquire knowledge about Indigenous peoples with disabilities. Several scholars, including Archibald (2008a), Boler (1999, 2004), Razack (1998a, 1998b), and Senehi (2002), reference story as an avenue to Indigenous, collective, peaceful, and unsettling processes, necessary for human conscientization and social change (Freire, 1970).

Boler (1999, 2004) and Razack (1998a, 1998b) encourage the use of story in disrupting dominant and complicit discourses, and in finding and understanding the type of empathy useful in repositioning one’s bias. As Razack (1998a, 1998b) reminds us, this emotive analysis should not stand alone. Those using story as a catalyst for change should remain cautious as it takes time to recognize the privileging of one story over another. Senehi (2002) advances sensitivity notions of dialogue as tools in a transformative process between individuals or societies in conflict. Her analysis shows how empathetic, careful, respectful, and heart opening listening generates an avenue for social change, in the community, and within the truths of individuals. Archibald (2008b) signifies how, “The words story and work together signal the importance of undertaking the educational and research work of making meaning though stories, whether they are traditional or lived experience stories” (p. 373). She advocates for the learning of seven Indigenous teachings – respect, responsibility, reciprocity, reverence, holism, interrelatedness, and synergy – to guide those using story (Archibald, 2008). With Indigenous knowledge keepers the understanding of Wahkohtowin fuels interconnection, multiple perspectives as truth, and intuition and feeling all as sacred.

This exchange brings forth several Indigenous keepers who have contributed to discourses on disability. Notably, You’re Not The Indian I Had In Mind helps educators throw off skewed and negative stereotypes and labels, while gaining insights about the varied ontologies held by Indigenous peoples (King, 2003). Among Indigenous authors, Yvonne Johnson, Thomas King, Tomson Highway, and Richard Van Camp have decisively contributed to a disruption of negative Indigenous ontologies associated with disabling conditions. Recently, photo-voice artist Belinda Mason captured the strength of disabled Aboriginal peoples in her home country of Australia. Unfinished Business is an emotive and self-determining storywork which projects a social history of discrimination, and peoples teetering between emotional, physical, and social poverty and the jubilance of resistance, pain, strength, ability, joy, and sorrow (Davey, 2016). The views of disabled Indigenous peoples, the context of their families, and the responses afforded to them by the wider community are critical factors in these stories. All of them move non-Indigenous peoples away from the romanticism, curiosities, and fear found in “the other” (LaRocque, 2010), by generating empathetic avenues to compassion, respect, and gentleness (Boler, 2005).

In King’s (2003) Afterward – Private Stories, he presents himself as the friend who remained a silent observer in a family situation that clearly required his support. This story of a young teen with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) and the family breakdown that ensues is void of Indigenous knowledge in a traditional sense; however, what holds the truth in this story, what moves the reader from a stereotypical reference of Indigenous disability, is King’s analysis of himself: his greed, selfishness, and western detachment. It is this antithetical perspective that can help educators accept a contemporary truth of Indigeneity and disability. In its entirety, The Truth About Stories (King, 2003) gives readers an opportunity to reflect on notions of realism through circumstances of both disempowerment and emancipation.

In a contrasting and complementary way, Tomson Highway’s poetic and emotive storying in The Rez Sisters (Highway, 1992) gives credence to a colonial disempowerment while showing the inherent Indigeneity of resistance and fortitude. Highway (1992) aptly portrays colonial violations, the spatial injustices endured by Indigenous peoples, as he shows the disruption of Cree and Ojibwa knowledge systems, and the fallout of cultural genocide as ascribed to sexism, racism, and ableism. His Cree ontology, and the experience of growing up in northern Manitoba and attending residential school as a young boy, are infused in a storywork defining colonial oppression and abuse, inclusivity, and Indigenous ethics. Conversely, it is he who often speaks to audiences about how one comes through darkened times to move into places of light, hope, and growth. Although Highway (1992) and King (2003) both tell stories of young women with developmental disabilities, Highway’s focus (1992) projects feminine, holistic, and familial Cree and Ojibway knowledges, which highlight intuition, spirit gifts, and humor as protections against hardship, discrimination, and exclusion. King (2003) focuses on the conventional family breakdown by greying the images of familiar patterns of disability strife seen in western homes. Regardless of fiction or realism, these writers project disabled identities that filter in and out of Indigenous ways of knowing and being (Martin, 2003). Highway’s family uses community, gentleness, support, and humor, while King’s becomes insular, frustrated, and overwhelmed. One remains unsure about how the young woman in King’s story was served; however, Highway’s Rez Sisters projects a story of hope. It lays out the gifts and the inconsistencies of every member of the clan by showing how no one member is more important than the other, and this includes the young woman with a disability. I share these stories and encourage their reading, not so one may be chosen over the other, but to present the depth of disability issues, the assortment of disability identities, the understandings of disability within Indigenous families, and the ever-growing need for storying within Gentle Teaching.

A Spirit Filled Gentleness: Embracing Wahkohtowin as Life

Our relationship with our mother the earth, the water, with all of the different plants, medicine, the herbs, the animals, the birds, all the four legged being[s].

Everything we encounter in our lives there is a relationship that we are always reminded of and are mindful about. We see ourselves belonging to the entire existence of our world; we are not separated from anything. Wahkohtowin talks about embodying that entire holistic idea of how we exist. (Fred Campiou)

My discovery of Kanawayhitowin and Wahkohtowin afforded a personal clarity of Indigenous ontologies, and the knowings and spirits within. These foundations of Nehiyawak knowledges present a paradigm of gentleness and love, as they ensure secured spaces for those seeking pimatisiwin. As a breathing life-giving force, Wahkohtowin has the capacity to infuse natural law, Indigenous ethics, and spiritual growth within and through human action. In this understanding of relationality or Wahkohtowin:

people must adhere to the Creator’s laws that govern relationships between all things (wahkohtowin) and the laws that direct us to have good relationships between people (miyo-wîcehtowin). Living within the boundaries of these laws will ensure that the people will feel safe, secure, and able to live “the good life” (pimatisiwin). (LaBoucane-Benson, Gibson, Benson, & Miller, 2012, p. 5)

In Nehiyaw worldview, Creator offered peoples sacred gifts, including “the people, land, animals, and plants. The second gifts were metaphysical in nature and included the rules and values that guide our many relationships” (Cardinal & Hildebrandt, 2000, in LaBoucane-Benson et al., 2012, p. 5).

These natural laws indicate a human adherence to Tapowakeythi tamowin (truth), Kisewatisowin (kindness), Asakiwin (sharing/caring), and Tapwiwin (honesty) as a practice supporting balance, synergy, and holism with all other living entities (Hart, 2002; Michell, 2005). Additionally, they complement the practice of Gentle Teaching as psychology of interdependence and love (McGee, 2000; McGee & Brown, 2007). Alex Wilson (2014) references this natural law of the Nehiyaw:

I always return to the Cree philosophy of sakihiwawin – showing love in our actions. I think that philosophy is there for a reason – it has not only sustained us, but enabled us to survive for 50,000 plus years. It’s a natural law, or energy, and when it is interfered with, there are physical and spiritual consequences. (Wilson, in Kress, 2014, p. 271)

In understanding Wahkohtowin, and the values infused within, we come to see Indigenous ontological relationality as kindredness. Here we begin to know our own existence as gentle teachers, and as we direct ourselves to Kanawayhitowin, we learn to see the other as self (LaRocque, 2010; Vanier, 1998). A Nehiyaw or Indigenous worldview breathes life into understandings of human capacity as it shows how the spirit of a human is as integral to identity as are body notions in the construction of a disabled person (Blackbird, February 6, 2012, personal conversation; Blood, 2015; McGee, 2000). Recognition of human ontologies as spirit filled, vulnerable, and connective to each other, and to other living species, broadens our ways to become loving and authentic (McGee, 2000; Vanier, 1998). Dr. John McGee says that:

as caregivers, we have to see the human condition as consisting of much more than observable behaviors. This mind-body-spirit assumption places us as co-participants in a process of becoming more fully human. It liberates everyone from the loneliness and self-isolation of individualism. (Creative Options Regina, 2015a; McGee & Menolascino, 1991)

By exploring foundations of Indigenous ethics, educators learn to develop a philosophy of gentleness integral to Indigenous ways of knowing. I believe the teaching of Wahkohtowin has the capacity to assist educators in developing an authentic understanding of disabled Aboriginal peoples and their needs, as this Cree philosophy opens a human consciousness in helping educators recognize that relationships of humanity extend far beyond themselves to all other living entities, other living creatures, lands, waters, air, and the cosmos itself.

In a similar way, caring relationships infused with dignity, respect, and love are central to the psychology of Gentle Teaching. McGee (2000) asks supporters to look at themselves, their positionalities, and their spirits of gentleness firstly, before any other engagement is offered (Vincent, 2015). As a Gentle Teacher, I believe one must be deeply committed to self-reflection and personal change, this being a critical foundation to the Nehiyaw knowings of Wahkohtowin and pimatisiwin. If the “central care giving intention of Gentle Teaching is to focus on a mutual change process leading to companionship and community” (Creative Options Regina, 2015b, p. 4, para 2), then a willingness to reflect upon self and to openly learn about Indigenous knowledges must be embraced.

Dr. John McGee’s development of this interdependent psychology is integral to the wellness and peace of all peoples. His historical successes with gentleness in the support of peoples everywhere, including street children in Brazil and developmentally disabled persons warehoused in other countries, gives opportunity for caregivers to really begin to understand what it means to be safe, loved, loving, and engaged (McGee, 2000). Here at home, and in partnership with First Nations, Cam Dore and the H.O.M.E. Society of Canada have led the way for change, supporting Indigenous men and women with fractured ontologies and disassociated bodies, hearts, and minds. By merging the philosophies and practices of Indigenous knowledge and ceremony with Gentle Teaching principles, Dore, his colleagues, and First Nations elders serve disabled Aboriginal peoples with dual diagnoses and challenging behaviors. In this practice, teaching methods used by staff integrate natural laws, Indigenous ethics, and well-known virtues such as prayer, respect, compassion, honesty, unconditional love, tenderness, consistency, reciprocity, and inclusion to facilitate authentic community and kinship integration. Gentle Teachers come to see a person with a significant difficulty or disability in the same light as we see ourselves, or our own brothers and sisters. When entering this “conscientization” (Freire, 1970), Gentle Teachers emulate the teachings of wise elders, and seek to accept, respect, and support in ways that allow for healing and openness (Vincent, 2015; Wesley-Esquimaux & Smolewski, 2004). The H.O.M.E. Society brings cultural, spiritual, traditional land-based practices and ceremonies of First Nation communities to the people they serve. Sharing circles are sometimes merged with kitchen talks, and the cultural practices of smudging, dancing, singing, and drumming are incorporated into the daily lives of these men and women.

Gentle Teaching, of course, is not just about the person in need. It is also about the caregiver as “it calls for transformation in our inner lives, the way we see ourselves and others, and the recognition that unfolding interdependence is a vital and central dimension of our life-condition” (McGee & Menolascino, 1991, p. 4). Elders and traditional peoples work in partnership with staff on this journey, as teachers and care providers also learn to support and guide themselves through self-reflection and love (Dore & TSA-ME-GAHL, 2011).

Western caregivers, educators, and social workers have been taught to use practices of control and discipline to generate behavioral changes in Aboriginal children and youth, albeit without much success. Through a careful examination of Ermine’s (2007) directives for ethical engagement, educators see how imposing values, beliefs, and actions are detrimental, and how we must change to embrace a journey of ethical inclusionary practice. Through this “conscientization” (Freire, 1970), aspiring Gentle Teachers recognize how educators and therapists are conditioned to hold on to fears associated with disabilities, and how an expression of person’s ontology or perhaps “abnormal” behavior is essentially an individual’s call for support, love, and gentleness (McGee, 2000; Vanier, 1998). Often, the challenging behaviors of others incite fear, angst, anger, frustration, and disdain (Morris, 1991; Vanier, 1998), and while it is important for educators to acknowledge their fears and frustrations, all who teach must recognize how these personal values and emotions have weighty influences on those we serve (Allan, 2015; Slee, 2000, 2001, 2004).

The tools of Gentle Teaching support caregivers as we learn to use presence, hands, words, and eyes to generate feelings of unconditional love and inclusivity, and to comfort and nurture a person with a broken spirit (McGee, 2000). Instilling elements of safety and love is primary in the support of a person who is learning, and as McGee (2000) indicates, for a young person to learn to return love and to become engaged, she must feel safe and loved first. Descriptors associated with presence, words, hands, and eyes include soft, slow, predictable, quiet, calm, warm, relaxed, generous, compassionate, and loving. As within Indigenous circles, a person coming to support another must learn to enter with humility, knowledge, and faith. Again, Gentle Teachers remind us that customary behavioral modifications seldom work with wounded persons, and that they do not wait for the vulnerable to do something good to be recognized; in a Gentle Teaching model, recognition and love are generated through conscious support, inclusive thought, and mindful action (McGee, 2000; Vincent, 2015).

Within this gentle philosophy is the need for educators to dedicate a mindful practice or attentiveness to the relational ontologies of which Indigenous peoples hold. Just as every living being is connected to Wahkohtowin, so is it that the spirit of land, culture, and language is infused within the ontology of every Indigenous person and their family members. Supporting educators must sharpen their sensibilities by listening, sensing, conceptualizing, assessing, modeling, engaging, and applying knowledge that has been shared by the person or their family (Martin, 2003). In this way, a Gentle Teacher gains the trust and respect of the individual and the larger collective, and begins to move into a place of light, where an authentic relationship can be built (McGee, 2000). Thoughtful educators learn about rules of behavior for Indigenous peoples, as some communities may have specific ethics and protocols that influence the responses a child may exhibit (Blackstock, 2011; Brant Castellano, 2006; Ermine, 2007). In this sharpening of the senses, one consciously takes the time to learn these protocols – principles of non-interference, collective sharing and gratitude, modeling and observation in learning, and withdrawal until the time is right (Brant, 1990) – to ensure the environments they occupy become places of gentleness.

Gentle Teaching may appear simple, and yet it is a very disciplined and purposeful form of caregiving, teaching, and mentorship. As it presumes mindfulness from those who follow its principles, mentors from around the world recognize the framework of nurturing, companionship, connectedness, and authentic community building as the strongholds of the Gentle Teaching movement (McGee, 2000; Vincent, 2015). It seems those who practice Gentle Teaching innately recognize human suffering, aloneness, choicelessness, and oppression as detriments to a life of joy, health, and pimatisiwin. As such, these educators attempt to generate conditions for unconditional love, inclusive support, and renewed voice, particularly for those who need it most. These mentors reflect upon their own gifts and vulnerabilities, and change or adapt their behaviors and actions prior to assessing, modeling, coaching, or teaching others. The policies, practices, and environments governing their actions are simultaneously organized and assessed for gentle practice, and as leaders, these facilitators learn to habitually listen to the voices of Aboriginal peoples. As accurate modelers and assertive coaches, these mentors teach administrators, other educators, families, and volunteers about the techniques and tools found within the pillars of Gentle Teaching; and in this way companionship, connectedness, and love are infused in the homes and schools they occupy. Within the set of competencies that Gentle Teaching International proposes, mentors and educators are encouraged to act as advocates in the widening of a culture of gentleness; all know Indigenous families are integral partners in this quest.

Wahkohtowin highlights human cries for nurturing, companionship, and acceptance in this search for pimatisiwin. In this understanding, self-advocates and allies see self-determination as a platform of interdependence and inclusivity, and a celebrated disability ontology as a complimentary status to both entities. Collectively, educators hold a responsibility to carve out and protect the spaces disabled peoples occupy through the dismantling of special education and the adoption of an Indigenous social model of disability. As Gentle Teachers, we are here to provide an ethical space for those whose voices are most vulnerable, to model effective practices of safety, love, and engagement, and to teach others in our classrooms, courtyards, gymnasiums, and pools that the psychology of gentleness sets the stage for spatial justice, inclusion, and peace. Indigenous culture and storywork, and the knowledges and spiritual wisdoms of disabled peoples bring many gifts, not only to Aboriginal peoples, but also to those who serve and learn from their presences.

In creating a culture of gentleness, I challenge educators to truly see the person they are serving. Allow Indigenous peoples to reach for pimatisiwin without placing impending bias, barriers, or blockades upon their paths. Learn from the elders and the gentle ones as you remove the shields of ableism, racism, and sexism, and other prejudices tied up in normalcy – so you can reach for an understanding of what it means to “become fully human” (Blood, 2015; Vanier, 1998) within the reality of an Indigenous spirit. Only then will the spirit of Kanawayhitowin emerge and an encasement of Wahkohtowin – truth, love, holism, connectedness, and interrelatedness – appear in your life. In this way, you will discover the spirit of what it means to be a Gentle Teacher.



Self-identifying persons who are culturally distinct, multigenerational occupants of a specific land base; as a group or kinship, they are protected by specific rights-based legislation related to geographical territory, culture, language, and oral tradition. The lands of ancestral territories most often support Indigenous peoples or they have a historical alliance to subsistence-oriented production. Many speak an Indigenous language, often a minority language within their recognized state country, and honor and practice traditional ancestral teachings and ceremony. Indigenous peoples include Aboriginal peoples of Canada – First Nations, Inuit, and Métis – legal and colonial construct produced by the state (Kress, 2014).


A profiling of the able-bodied person as one who holds a normal or standardized body, while disabled individuals, and the bodily variances they present, are deficit entities. Normalcy (also normality) privileges the able-bodied position, through a series of medicalized categorizations and systems. Intersections of heterosexuality, maleness, and whiteness may attach themselves to the construct of able-bodiedness.


The social determinants of health can be categorized as distal (e.g. historic, political, social, and economic contexts), intermediate (e.g. community infrastructure, resources, systems, and capacities), and proximal (e.g. health behaviors, physical, and social environment) (14–16) (Loppie Reading & Wien, 2009, p. 1).


Social structures and patterns which bring support to youth in the pursuit of wellness goals; social trust of the individual or group, community support, and social networks all contribute to social capital


The reserve system, the pass system (sanctions for members to leave the reserve, harvest, or sell a product tightly controlled by the Indian agent), the residential school era, and the 60’s scoop (a mass removal of Aboriginal children into the child welfare system from the early 1960s to the late 1980s, in most situations without the consent of their families, clans, or bands) operated as key structures in a strategy to assimilate Indigenous peoples within Canada.


A pervasive and systemic form of discrimination and exclusion impacting those with physical, emotional, cognitive, or sensory disabilities. Similar to racism and sexism, ableism impacts individuals whose positionalities fall outside of what is deemed “normal.” Values and beliefs about health, beauty, productivity and value of life are propagated through social media and societal constructs of normality.


Advances the universality of white-skinned people and their experiences; these exist to mark others as different, exceptional or abnormal while a white embodiment is projected as normal and desirable. Critical race theory is used to deconstruct white privilege to show how racism and racialized societies advantage white societies of people through cultural affirmations, social statuses and freedom of choice.


An interdependent model of psychology founded by Dr. John McGee while working with street children in Brazil.


Seven generation thinking implies one considers both ancestors’ wishes and wisdoms, and the needs of the seven generations yet to be born while making decisions that impact the future of a nation.


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