Abo­rig­i­nal ed­u­ca­tor toots her own horn

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Ron Kir­byson

IT is easy for the reader to be an­noyed by the ex­ten­sive pres­ence of the pro­noun in Verna Kirk­ness’s thor­ough, even busi­nesslike, ac­count of her ca­reer as a suc­cess­ful abo­rig­i­nal ed­u­ca­tor in Man­i­toba. Per­haps less re­liance on the dreaded Iword, which seems to pop up on ev­ery page, could have given a more mod­est tone to the style. Tighter edit­ing could have re­duced the amount of trivia, de­tails like the stop where she once caught the bus. The Win­nipeg­based Kirk­ness, now 77 and re­tired, held sev­eral key jobs with the Ed­u­ca­tion De­part­ment, and she points proudly to her high sta­tus in the world of abo­rig­i­nal ed­u­ca­tion.

It’s no won­der that she was re­garded as “Miss In­dian Con­trol of In­dian Ed­u­ca­tion,” for her range of in­volve­ment has been ex­tra­or­di­nary. She de­votes much of Cre­at­ing Spa­ces to il­lus­trat­ing this fact. She can­not be blamed for be­ing am­bi­tious. In many re­spects Kirk­ness has just cap­i­tal­ized on op­por­tu­ni­ties that came her way. She was born on the Fisher River re­serve as a non-Sta­tus In­dian in 1935. Her child­hood con­di­tions were sim­ple. Dwellings had no elec­tric­ity, and a pot-bel­lied stove and coal-oil lamp were ma­jor house­hold items. Kirk­ness re­marks that she never felt poor dur­ing her early years. She was suc­cess­ful in school, pub­lic school rather than res­i­den­tial school, and she made ef­fec­tive use of her Cree lan­guage. While still a teenager she be­came a per­mit teacher, and once she had learned about gov­ern­ment loans she was off to nor­mal school for teacher train­ing. As a qual­i­fied teacher, Kirk­ness ad­vanced from job to job (in­clud­ing po­si­tions at Nor­way House) on re­serves and in Bir­tle res­i­den­tial school. She moved from teach­ing to su­per­vi­sory and ad­min­is­tra­tive roles. At var­i­ous times she was teach­ing while work­ing on a cur­ricu­lum project and a writ­ing project at the same time. As early as 1971 she was show­ing lead­er­ship qual­i­ties, for ex­am­ple, by con­tribut­ing to Wah­bung: Our To­mor­rows, a pol­icy state­ment by the chiefs of Man­i­toba. Her pro­fes­sional life con­tin­ued to branch out, as she matched with part­ners like Ida Wasacase, Flora Za­haria, Laara Fitznor and Bruce Sealey. The lat­ter, a Métis ed­u­ca­tor (and ex­cel­lent hockey coach) and writer, col­lab­o­rated with Kirk­ness on the pub­li­ca­tion In­di­ans With­out Tipis. She spent a term on staff at the Univer­sity of Bri­tish Columbia. She pro­duced a host of ar­ti­cles, which of­ten started out as work­shop pre­sen­ta­tions and found their way into ed­u­ca­tional jour­nals. Her ma­te­ri­als pro­gres­sively in­creased in so­phis­ti­ca­tion as she helped develop cross-cul­tural cur­ricu­lum for so­cial stud­ies. A no­tice­able fea­ture of the text is her rev­e­la­tion of per­sonal in­ter­ests and in­volve­ments. The per­son named Jim is in­tro­duced rather sub­tly at first. As the story line de­vel­ops, Jim as­sumes a grow­ing role. Even­tu­ally he and Kirk­ness are trav­el­ling to­gether, spend­ing months on hol­i­days in Florida. Then they are cel­e­brat­ing, even on New Year’s Eve. At one point they buy prop­erty to­gether. They con­tem­plate var­i­ous per­sonal as­so­ci­a­tions, although they re­frain from the op­tion of mar­riage. Ul­ti­mately they de­cide on sep­a­rate lives, although the reader is left to guess the dy­nam­ics un­der­ly­ing the re­la­tion­ship in the long run. Kirk­ness asks, “So what would I do dif­fer­ently if I were to live my life over again? Her an­swer, “Well, not much.” The com­bi­na­tion of Kirk­ness’s am­bi­tion and her op­por­tu­ni­ties pro­duced a ca­reer re­mark­able by any stan­dard. Ron Kir­byson is a Win­nipeg writer with a long­time in­ter­est in abo­rig­i­nal is­sues.

Cre­at­ing Space My Life and Work in In­dige­nous Ed­u­ca­tion By Verna J. Kirk­ness Univer­sity of Man­i­toba Press, 194 pages, $35

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