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Learning from Indigenous Peoples for Continuous Improvement: Mentoring Techniques

In the academic world, memorization is often given priority over doing. Among indigenous cultures, the emphasis is on experiential learning. Indigenous peoples use a variety of mentoring techniques to establish a culture of continuous improvement and create a safe space for practice.

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A Positive Mentoring Relationship

For some indigenous peoples, personal growth is like a tree that spirals ever upward. The goal is continuous improvement. Indigenous mentoring recognizes that It is important to have a positive relationship with a mentor until the point that the individual is well on his or her way. To maintain this relationship, the mentor creates a feeling of comfort and connection with his or her mentees that sustains them and enables them to stay on the right track over the long term. The key is about being kind and honest. Mentoring is not about rubbing mistakes into the mentees face, rather it is about learning in a safe environment. To maintain this forward momentum, Indigenous mentoring changes as people grow. Over time, the mentee understands that he or she also has a responsibility to nurture the relationship and to renegotiate it as he or she gains understanding.

Ceremonies as reminders

Ceremonies can serve as reminders. Smudging is a ceremonial way of removing negative energy and can also be a reminder to be kind as we do what we need to do. For example, sweetgrass represents kindness as the sweetgrass doesn’t cause burns. Smudging before an activity, provides an opportunity to cleanse, to feel good and to put aside negative thoughts; but can also remind us physically and spiritually to be kind in our interactions with others.

Storytelling as a Tool for Reflection

Storytelling is an integral part of the mentoring process. Every culture has its own stories that remind their people about important values. Storytelling enables mentors to gently prod mentees to reflect rather than telling them that they made a mistake. The story is usually about someone else that made a mistake, but the mentees know that the story is being told for a reason.

In indigenous culture, there are stories for different situations: entertainment, teaching and /or to get a certain perspective. Stories may be told in a simple way; but can gain in meaning as the person evolves and can see different implications. Some stories are told at certain times of the year and some stories are told only by older people. Other stories are told to one person but not to a group.

Photos by Virginia Stanley

Stories about Nanabush are very popular among the Anishinaabe for teaching and mentoring. The Lakota people tell stories about Iktomi. or the Spiderman to teach values.  Among the Mik’maw in Atlantic Canada, stories about  Glooscap provide moral or social lessons. Anansi the Spider serves a similar purpose and stories about this trickster are popular among West Africans, Caribbean peoples and among African Americans. These stories provide a safe way to get a point across without calling a person out directly. At the same time, these stories teach that it is important to take a balanced view of people.  Because these characters have both good and bad traits, they are not to be taken too seriously.  They all teach us to get along, to look at the positive things and to be thankful for them rather than dwelling on the bad things.

In closing, I am grateful to Dwight Powless for his mentorship as I explore how indigenous values and practices contribute to a culture of continuous improvement that can speak to and for all of us.

Photos by Virginia Stanley, Canterbury Arts Program, Canterbury High School, Ottawa.
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This article is Part 5 of the series: Learning from Indigenous Peoples for Continuous Improvement

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