New online course counters harmful stereotypes about Indigenous peoples

Course delves into origins of 10 common colonial misconceptions, why they persist and how settlers can help overcome them.


Writer, filmmaker and associate professor Tasha Hubbard is a co-creator and instructor of a new online course aimed at countering harmful misconceptions about Indigenous peoples in Canada. (Photo: Supplied)

When one of Janice Hurlburt’s friends posted on social media about a carved “totem” pole she’d received as a birthday gift from a non-Indigenous artist, Hurlburt was quick to message her.

“I suggested to her that she could call it a sculpture, just not use the word ‘totem,’ because it’s specific to a cultural practice, and it’s sacred.”

Hurlburt’s gentle heads-up to her friend was one small way she learned how to be a settler ally to Indigenous people, after taking NS 161: Countering Stereotypes of Indigenous Peoples. The new University of Alberta course digs into and challenges prejudices and misconceptions harboured by society.

“It’s made me more aware of the different stereotypes out there and the harm they do,” says Hurlburt, a retiree who enrolled to learn more about Indigenous issues.

“The course has opened my eyes, opened my heart and given me a greater respect and appreciation for the Indigenous peoples of this land and what they have to deal with on a day-to-day basis.”

Digging down to the roots of stereotypes

Offered online through the Faculty of Native Studies, the course asks students to question “what they think they know about Indigenous people,” says Tasha Hubbard, a member of the Peepeekisis Cree Nation, an associate professor, filmmaker, and one of the course’s creators and instructors.

The course opens by exploring the foundation of colonialism — which is at the root of stereotypes about Indigenous people, says Hubbard. She designed the lessons along with PhD student and podcaster Molly Swain and former faculty colleagues Savage Bear and Sara Howdle.

“We talked about what the course could look like and all agreed we needed to spend some time just making sure students understood what a stereotype is, how they work and function, and then give some foundational knowledge to understand the space in which colonial stereotypes came to be, and how they are perpetuated.”

The course explores how those stereotypes contribute to the oppression of Indigenous people, she adds.

“We look at the life-defining instances of how stereotypes can work. There are cases, for example, where people have died through lack of care in waiting rooms because of assumptions that health-care workers have around Indigenous people.”

The course also explores the effect of microaggressions — hurtful day-to-day indignities such as an Indigenous shopper being followed around in a store.

“People who haven’t lived with that treatment don’t understand the impact that can have,” Hubbard notes.

The course unpacks 10 common colonial stereotypes of Indigenous people, and how those beliefs were “deliberately created and perpetuated” by settler colonialism, she adds.

One of the myths, that Indigenous people are inherently lazy, particularly stood out for Hurlburt, who was dismayed after learning about its merciless origins.

“The reality is, Indigenous people have had obstacle after obstacle put in their way to keep them from doing better than white settlers,” she says. “There was a deliberate decimation of the buffalo herds, so Indigenous people were starving, and were moved onto reserves, to change the focus onto farming. But the land they were given was unsuitable and the tools they were given were substandard. When they found success in communal farming, the government broke the land into plots.

“It’s completely disgusting and heartbreaking to learn that this is how Indigenous people were, and are, being treated.”

The course tackles why settler society is invested in keeping these stereotypes alive, says Swain, who is Métis, and one of the instructors.

“Stereotypes continue to function as a way to dehumanize Indigenous people and naturalize our ongoing dispossession and marginalization,” she says, noting that the settler colonial system is positioned as “self-evidently superior to Indigenous lifeways,” and settlers as “naturally” superior to Indigenous people.

“This benefits settlers by allowing for the discursive and often physical ‘clearing’ of the land for their use, enrichment and enjoyment. Indigenous people, of course, continue to be present on our lands, and here stereotypes justify sidelining, erasing or rejecting our needs, concerns and rights by conditioning us as two-dimensional tropes that vary from denigrated to hypersexualized to threatening, depending on the situation at hand.”

The course was an eye-opener for Vince Jobling, who wanted to learn more after he took Indigenous Canada, the U of A’s open online offering of 12 lessons exploring the diverse histories and contemporary perspectives of Indigenous peoples living here.

The retired family counsellor was saddened to see how Indigenous families are stereotyped as dysfunctional.

“I’ve learned that pre-colonial Indigenous family life was night and day more functional than that of the colonizing cultures.” The misery imposed by residential schools is “unspeakably tragic,” Jobling adds. “It’s so difficult to repair intergenerational damage.”

Hurlburt believes the lessons she learned in the course pose tough questions for settlers like her.

“To accept that these stereotypes are false and harmful, we would have to analyze our policies and rethink them, and that would mean giving up a lot of the gains that colonial society has made through ongoing exploitative and unjust practices.”

For his part, Jobling now questions the idea of “superior” civilizations.

“The course challenged my belief from childhood that Britain, where I was born, and Canada, where I live now, are both benevolent, polite and morally superior nations, and assumptions that ‘civilization’ equals ‘superior.’”

Flipping the narrative

Hubbard hopes everyone who takes the course comes away with more awareness of how to resist those stereotypes in daily life.

To help with that, the course suggests ways to effectively and safely challenge stereotypes.

One way is by “flipping the narrative” when someone says something prejudicial, Hurlburt learned.

“Settlers talk about the ‘Indian problem,’ but if you flip that and talk about the ‘settler problem,’ that’s the real problem. If news sources talked about land ‘protectors’ instead of land ‘protesters,’ it would totally change the narrative. They are not nuisances who cause traffic jams, but people with a profound love for the land.”

Instead of arguing with someone who disagrees, it’s better to ask where they’re coming from, Hurlburt learned. “It might plant a seed to think about where they got their information.”

Jobling says he knew little about Indigenous peoples or cultures when he emigrated to Canada in 1981, but says the courses he’s taken “have broadened my mind and opened my eyes.” He plans to enrol next in the U of A’s Indigenous Peoples and Technoscience course.

“From what I’ve learned so far, it’s apparent that Indigenous peoples historically have had a much clearer and wiser understanding of the relationship that human beings have with Planet Earth and her creatures than colonial settlers have had.

“I want to take more Indigenous courses to help me clarify who I am and how I am related to Planet Earth.”

Hurlburt says she’s now more aware of the “privileged white settler zone” she occupies.

“I’ve realized there are Indigenous people having to struggle against the weight of stereotypes that are false, but that still deeply influence how society treats them. These stereotypes are sort of frozen in time and we need to say, ‘OK, it’s time to stop thinking this way.’”

The three-credit course is open to undergraduate students from around the world and can also be taken on a non-credit basis.