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Learning from Indigenous Peoples for Continuous Improvement: The Mentoring Process

The mentoring process is not easy. It is a big responsibility. Can mentoring be reduced to a series of questions that the mentor can pose to the mentee? No, it is more than that. Mentoring is more comprehensive and at the very heart of continuous improvement and human development.

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In Indigenous culture, mentoring takes time and effort and plays a big role in personal development. The indigenous way is to grow by understanding values. These values are designed to enable the individual to be happy, have a good life, do no harm and continually improve. As a result, Indigenous peoples’ approach to mentoring is necessarily value-based. These values are embedded into the mentoring process and define all interactions between the mentor and mentee.

From the Anishinaabe perspective mentors and mentees are required to live the values of kindness and honesty. Both parties are expected to be kind in their honesty and be able to share honestly within each step in the mentoring process. The mentor is not there to offend, rather the mentor is required to show and teach empathy. The mentee is required to be still and true to him or herself. These requirements are not easy to meet without a lot of self-control and introspection by both parties. Anishinaabe people recognize that being told something isn’t the way to full development. They understand the need to go through an experience to fully understand and apply it. To do this, participants must accept the responsibility to “go see” and open themselves to listen, learn and reflect.

For example, to do a specific ceremony, the individual needs to earn the right to perform it. The individual may learn from an Elder for seven years and beyond. The learning process is free flowing, but the rules of engagement have to be clear and values based. The Elder is there to provide guidance as the individual practices the ceremony and for the rest of his life. In this way, the Elder ensures a safe space for experiential learning. If something goes wrong, it is the Elder that is responsible. Mentoring is therefore a very serious commitment.

Photos by Virginia Stanley

The Inuit people share societal values that not only promote continuous improvement and personal development but define and support the mentoring process. Taken together they form the basis of becoming an able human being.

  1. Inuuqatigiitsiarniq: Respecting others
  2. Tunnganarniq: Being open
  3. Pijitsirniq: Serving and providing for family and/or community
  4. Aajiiqatigiinniq: Consensus decision making
  5. Pilimmaksarniq/Pijariuqsarniq: Development of skills through observation, mentoring, practice, and effort
  6. Piliriqatigiinniq/Ikajuqtigiinniq: Working together for a common cause
  7. Qanuqtuurniq: Being innovative and resourceful
  8. Avatittinnik Kamatsiarniq: Respect for the land, animals and the environment

Ubuntu is a value system quite similar to those of the Inuit peoples. Among Africans, Ubuntu-based mentoring is gaining strength. The standard saying is “a person is a person because of or through others”. In this way, Ubuntu focusses on the responsibility of individuals to each other and fosters teamwork and collaborative environments.

U Universal (working together for a common cause)
B Behaviour (respecting others and the environment)
U United (serving family and community)
N Negotiation (consensus decision-making)
T Tolerance (being open)
U Understanding (empathy, forgiveness, kindness)

As Ubuntu is largely about community, it lends itself to group-based mentoring. As with the Anishinaabe, African ubuntu-based ritual and ceremonies are used to enhance bonding  and promote group learning. In addition, mentors help build participative skills by emphasizing close, trustful and helpful relationships.

This is just a taste of some indigenous practices for continuous improvement. I am excited to learn more from my mentor Dwight Powless and to explore other indigenous practices that foster continuous improvement. My next blog in this series will be about Indigenous storytelling and continuous improvement.

Photos by Virginia Stanley, Canterbury Arts Program, Canterbury High School, Ottawa.
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This article is Part 4 of the series: Learning from Indigenous Peoples for Continuous Improvement

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