Metro Morning

How blankets can teach 500 years of Indigenous history

A simple exercise, requiring only blankets and a script, can be a powerful education tool for Indigenous and non-Indigenous participants alike.

Indigenous educator would like schools across Canada to incorporate blanket exercise

Students at a Toronto school participate in the blanket exercise by standing on blankets, which represent land. (Kairos Canada)

The exercise begins with simple materials - just blankets and a script - but it can end with powerful takeaways, and even tears.

As the World Indigenous Peoples Conference on Education continues in Toronto this week, educator Sara Anderson is hoping to demonstrate how the so-called blanket exercise can make Indigenous history come to life for participants.

In the exercise, blankets are laid out on the floor and participants are invited to step onto them as Indigenous peoples.  

The blankets, explained Anderson on Metro Morning, represent the land.

At that point, a narrator and facilitator playing a European begin to walk the group through a script.

"When the European first arrives, there's a better relationship between Indigenous people Europeans, you have people interacting and mixing with each other," she explained.

Living out history through actions

Greater numbers of Europeans who arrive later in the script bring diseases and some participants are asked to leave the blankets to represent people who died.

Blankets are also folded or moved, showing the way land was taken and groups were re-located.

Toronto students in a circle at the conclusion of the blanket exercise, after all of the blankets have been folded or moved to represent land being taken and relocation. (Kairos Canada)

"There's usually a lot of emotion. Usually at every blanket exercise there's a few tears," said Anderson.

"For non-Indigenous people, there's often a lot of anger or guilt that they didn't know this or that their ancestors may have taken part in this."

Anderson always ends the exercise with a talking circle to debrief on what happened.

From head to heart learning

She feels that it sidesteps learning from a text in a way that makes history more immediate and real for those taking part, imparting "heart knowledge" rather than just "head knowledge."

"Moving through history, living it out through actions, allows people to connect with it in a different way," she explained.

It's something she'd like schools across Canada to consider incorporating into their classrooms.  

"One of the elders I work a lot with says 'there's a reason why truth comes before reconciliation,'" she said.  

"The blanket exercise is a tool that allows us to have that fundamental base level of understanding and truth."

With files from Metro Morning