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Biocultural Education: Connecting Nature and Culture


As a schoolboy on the Tsawout reservation, home to one of four bands of the Saanich tribe of British Columbia, Dave Underwood learned bits and pieces of his native language, SENĆOŦEN. But it wasn’t until after high school, when he took some night classes in the tongue, that he realized the importance of learning a language that is nearly extinct. With only about eight native speakers left, SENĆOŦEN is on the brink of disappearing.

Fired up about the prospect of keeping SENĆOŦEN alive, Underwood joined a fledgling language apprenticeship program launched by the tribe in 2009, with the goal of becoming fluent and working to revitalize the language among the 2,500 Saanich tribal members. Underwood, 32, who commonly goes by his Saanich name, PENÁĆ, now works full-time as a “language revitalizationist” within his community.

MENEŦIYE (Elisha Elliott) works with children on the program to revitalize the SENĆOŦEN language

MENEŦIYE (Elisha Elliott) works with children on the program to revitalize the SENĆOŦEN language

In 2011, in partnership with Terralingua, PENÁĆ and the language program’s seven other apprentices launched the “Bringing Our Stories Back” project to use traditional Saanich stories as a way of breathing new life into SENĆOŦEN. The initial result was two illustrated picture books written in the language to be distributed in the tribal schools. One of these, “The Story of the Bear and the Raven,” is available on Terralingua’s website.

“We kind of became like the arms and legs of the language,” said PENÁĆ, describing the role of the apprentices. “Now is the time. We’ve got to get what we can while the getting’s good, you know?”

His goal in this work, he says, is “to see that language inhabits space in Saanich, that language is a living, breathing thing again, that the essence of it comes back to the community.”

Learning by Meaningful Experience

The effort to revitalize SENĆOŦEN is part of a growing biocultural education movement aimed at linking nature and culture as a way of promoting learning about and respect for both, as well as the intimate linkages between them.

Luisa Maffi, co-founder and director of Terralingua, emphasizes the interconnections among language, traditional knowledge, and the environment. The “Bringing Our Stories Back” project is an acknowledgement that, “So much of language is influenced by place, allows people to talk about place, interact with place.”

But for Maffi, the foundation of biocultural education is much deeper than the cultural or linguistic content of the lessons being taught. The approach is also about how to teach in a way that picks up on the high value traditional cultures place on interactive, relationship-oriented, and place-based learning.

“Learning cannot be just something that you do with your mind,” said Maffi. “It has to be something you do with your heart as well. Learning by meaningful experience, learning by doing, learning from your elders.” These approaches are almost absent in mainstream education today.

“The kind of transformation that’s needed will make hands-on experience of the natural environment and our human environment primary again,” she said. “All direct experience of course can only be local, but by understanding local experience we can get a much better and deeper perspective on global issues and connect the dots.”

Taking Pride in Natural Landscapes and Cultural Traditions

Halfway around the world, in Kyrgyzstan, those same principles are guiding the biocultural education work of the Taalim-Forum Public Foundation, which is preparing curricula and materials to help students engage with the country’s cultures and lands.

“Biocultural education for us is a process of learning landscapes in their connection to local people and local communities,” said Almagul Djumabaeva, the foundation’s director. “These relationships can be seen in ecological knowledge, in the diversity of local languages, in crafts, foods, music, songs and dances, architecture, art, belief systems, and local economies.”

The organization’s flagship project, piloted from 2007 to 2010 and now serving as the basis for a handbook in development, involved educational exchanges between rural and urban Kyrgyz students. Program participants traveled to each others’ homes—the students from the capital, Bishkek, traveling to the village, and vice versa—where they stayed with each others’ families and worked together to document the world around them.

They learned to take pictures, make videos, and write essays as a way to develop their “abilities to sense, to feel, to see the beauty of nature and the beauty of our culture,” said Djumabaeva. “The goal was to make our young students become really proud of the richness and the beauty of their natural landscapes and cultural traditions.”

A young Kyrgyz musician performs on the komuz, a traditional fretless stringed instrument. Tradtional music and local languages are central components to biocultural education curricula. Photo by: Alexander Fedorov

The organization is currently working on a book about this exchange method and seeking its approval from the Kyrgyz Academy of Education. The foundation is also developing a multimedia disk for grades 1-4 and an encyclopedia of Kyrgyz nature for grades 5-9.

While not all students will be able to travel to remote parts of the country — or the city, in the case of village children — Djumabaeva aims to give teachers the tools to teach their students about cultural engagement and connection with the land, both through in-class exercises and local field trips.

Students must learn by, she believes, “not only sitting in the classroom but immersing themselves in nature, immersing themselves in culture, and seeing all these traditions that are very close to nature that we are losing.”

Valuing Nature and Culture in Education

Biocultural education is strongly influenced by the desire to strengthen indigenous cultures and traditions that are increasingly threatened in a globalizing world. Efforts to get young people engaged in folkways and their associated landscapes are central to this emerging field.

In a biocultural school in Huicorachi, Northern Mexico, Rarárumi leaders Flora Ayala and her brother Luis Ayala engage students in land-based learning.

In a biocultural school in Huicorachi, Northern Mexico, Rarárumi leaders Flora Ayala and her brother Luis Ayala engage students in land-based learning.

In northern Mexico, the Christensen Fund supports the education of young Indigenous leaders of the Tarahumara (or Rarámuri) people who inhabit the Sierra Tarahumara region, part of the Sierra Madre Occidental. During school breaks, the students work in local communities on projects in water management, nutrition and agriculture, and community leadership.

In one instance, high school students at the Huicorachi Biocultural School spearheaded a region-wide initiative to create a network of seed reserves and to develop new varieties of drought-tolerant seed stock; to document the dry-farming techniques employed by community farmers; and ensure that food aid reaches their communities. The students’ efforts were aimed at helping the Indigenous Mexican communities maintain agricultural traditions while embracing assistance and new farming technologies to ensure a sustainable food supply, even during a devastating drought.

Such hands-on learning about what it takes to preserve a community’s food ways — including the need to protect native seeds varieties and to grow nutritious vegetables used in traditional dishes — is an excellent illustration of biocultural education at work. This learning can be as practical as it is inspiring, addressing Indigenous life ways as common as growing food and as ethereal as engaging with the spirit world.

And all of it represents a new way of thinking about education. According to Maffi of Terralingua, it’s high time for a shift in how we engage young people in learning: “There is a need for vast cultural change if we’re going to make nature and culture of primary value.”

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