Lessons in life principles from the Okanagan people

23 October 2011 · 6 comments

in General Commentary, International

When it comes to blogging, I have a mix of posts. Some are written completely spur-of-the-moment based on an event or activity. Others are written on a Saturday night in front of “Britain’s Got Talent” or the “X-Factor” as a semi-social activity. Some are a work-hibernation stash. This means they are written over a holiday period to allow me to post even during very busy work times or when I’m away on holiday. Then there’s the ones like this which were begun months ago and added to little by little. Piece by piece.

These are usually posts which require me to think a little more carefully. Or that have content that’s particularly close to my heart. Or both. This is one of those posts. I’m actually rather nervous in that I would hate to misrepresent a traditional community’s philosophy and approach. I apologise in advance and welcome corrections!

The Okanagan people know that their total community has to be engaged in order to achieve their sustainable lifestyle. This is true of any community. Dis-engagement leads to breakdown of support and trust, and a negative spiral can begin which can be hard to reverse. Thinking of a school community in terms of its engagement may be a good indicator of the sustainability and true success of a school’s vision, values, principles and actions.

The Okanagan people have life principles which underpin the decision-making processes within their communities…

Firstly each individual may be gifted but their full human potential is only actualised through their physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual well-being. These four aspects of well-being rely on external things.

The Getting It Right For Every Child programme in the Scottish education system puts the eight well-being indicators at the core of any plan that is constructed or reviewed. They are used to summarise the child or young person’s needs that will be addressed. It is very much emphasising that external support can make a positive difference to a child. What an interesting parallel to the first life principle.

Second, each person is part of a family, regarded as the powerful life blood of cultural transference which ensures the well-being of each generation.

The positive local and school cultures need to be nurtured, recognised and celebrated. Each person has a vital role to play. This is often most noticeable when there is a vacancy such as the need for a janitor or long-term teacher. Perhaps this is a key question to ask all those who are part of a school, both in the short and long-term. What part do they envisage playing within the whole school community? What legacy do they hope to leave? When do we ask this of children, young people, families and staff? If we did, what would the answers be?

Third, the family system is the foundation of the community which is regarded as a living network. This spreads its life force overs centuries and across physical space, acquiring collective knowledge. This helps secure the well-being of all.

Thinking of a family system, and immediately the learning community of Teacher Tom‘s Woodland Park Cooperative Pre-school and other such establishments spring to mind. The warmest schools are those where parents are fully involved and their input is truly valued. They are establishments that leavers return to, either as volunteers, staff or as parents. A positive cycle of belonging is in place. Puget Sound Community School also embrace a community and family ethic (and also happens to be based in Seattle). The I Ur och Skur schools of Sweden also expect a high degree of parental involvement with many volunteering to support the school during and outwith school hours.

At the moment I’m not so sure within Scottish education that we think about our role within a long term context that is needed to ensure a living network that is sustained, nourished and manages to grow within our ever-changing society. I still feel that at a societal level, schools have yet to fully embrace the true potential of parental involvement.

Finally the community is regarded as a living process that interacts with the land. Much of the Okanagan belief system celebrates life and regarding the plants, fish, birds and animals as relatives who share their lives with the human community. It’s about the inter-connectedness that exists and our responsibility to every living thing that we are connected to.

Such a holistic view of any human community seems an alien concept within our society which is so isolated and disconnected from the natural world to which we belong. Yet there is now reams of evidence that suggests that direct, frequent contact with the natural world is vital for our health and well-being. Whilst we continue to keep ourselves apart and fail to consider the environmental impact of our actions then arguably we are failing our children and setting them up to fail in the future too.

This was exemplified years ago when I attended a meeting as a headteacher to look at sustainable development within schools. The subject of school buildings came round and I suggested that perhaps if the group and the local authority were truly serious about sustainable development then the construction of new schools would be based upon the principles of earthships and other eco friendly dwellings. It was the equivalent of admitting that I was a member of a far-out religious sect. My suggestion was treated with suspicion and ridicule.

There is always debate about the effectiveness of school systems. Perhaps the trick is to look beyond the traditional boundaries of education and consider approaches based on learning to live healthily, well and lightly on the land.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Kierna C October 23, 2011 at 10:18

I can see why you had to take your tiem to write this very thoughtful piece Juliet. I believe early years people have always embraced the whole family when a child starts pre-school but do think that our primaries need ot learn to do this too. As the old African saying goes about the whole village to raise a child, we all meed to realise this too. As for the sustainable buildings – common sense surely? great post!


Juliet Robertson October 23, 2011 at 19:22

Thanks Kierna – I think I probably should have added that there’s no point in hanging around waiting for the system to change. It won’t – we have to do the work here 🙂 I’ve a follow-up post that links nicely to this.


KAREN GREEN October 23, 2011 at 20:56

Love that concept Juliet… “a cycle of belonging”… inspirational, definintely something to aim for!v 🙂


Juliet Robertson October 24, 2011 at 17:45

Thanks Karen – I just like the idea that humans already have strategies and approaches that have worked through generations – why re-invent the wheel?


tomsensori October 25, 2011 at 02:57

Juliet, I am wondering if the Okanagan people are an insular group or do they also believe their engagement has to be with a greater community?


Juliet@CreativeSTAR September 30, 2013 at 08:27

Hi Tom

Sorry it’s taken me so long to respond. I missed your comment first time round. I believe they do engage more widely and beyond their community. There is a website with more information http://www.okanaganfirstpeoples.ca

Best wishes


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