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June 1997 - Issue No. #27 (p.15 - 16)

Linking Indigenous Peoples and Environmental Concerns

by Mary Goebel Noguchi

Ritsumeikan University, Japan

In my second-year Oral English and Composition class at Ritsumeikan University, I normally cover a number of social problems and global issues, choosing both topics of enduring interest (the environment, women's rights) as well as current issues in the spotlight (French nuclear testing in the Pacific, U.S. bases in Okinawa). To give students input on issues, I collect at least four newspaper articles on each topic, give each student one article to read at home, and have them discuss these in a class jigsaw activity.

I took up the issue of the Ainu in 1993, the International Year of the World's Indigenous People, and have continued to cover issues concerning indigenous people as they have come up in the news. Now that the Diet (the Japanese Parliament) has its first Ainu member, Kayano Shigeru, Japan's indigenous people are receiving increasing media coverage, and students are more aware of their existence, if not the exact nature of their problems. One challenge in dealing with this issue is trying to avoid presenting indigenous groups as mere victims. A good way to do this is to link this topic with the environment, since indigenous peoples can be seen as groups with environmentally-friendly lifestyles, rather than simply as victims of "encroaching civilization".

The Environmental Element

I start this double unit with a look at environmental issues, since Japanese schools and the media have given them a fair amount of attention in recent years, and students therefore have quite a bit of background knowledge. We begin with a brainstorming session, in which groups compete to see who can make the longest list of environmental problems. This allows students time to activate their knowledge and to learn basic vocabulary in English. I help groups out with wording when necessary. Their lists usually include the destruction of the ozone layer, global warming, excess waste and garbage, deforestation, air and water pollution, and endangered species.

I try to have one recent newspaper article dealing with each of these issues, and allow students to choose which area they will study. Each student writes down two choices on a slip of paper and we draw these lottery-style. The first four people who select a topic get to read the article on that topic. Student interest is diverse enough that I rarely have a student who doesn't get his or her first or second choice, and all topics are covered. The students then read their article as homework and report on it the following week to the other groups. In this way, each student learns about all of the topics.

We finish off this unit by playing a "Jeopardy"-style quiz game(1)The students use their newspaper articles to write the questions for the game. There is always quite a bit of excitement as the competition heats up. Thus the game serves as a fun way to review vocabulary and principles

Learning About Indigenous Peoples

The next week, we move on to our study of indigenous peoples. This is a term far less familiar to most of my students, even when I tell them its Japanese equivalent, "senjumin". For our opening brainstorming session, I have them work in groups to fill in a worksheet with four questions:

  1. Name as many groups of indigenous peoples in the world as you can.

  2. Name at least two things that the cultures of these different groups have in common.

  3. Why are these cultures threatened by so-called "advanced cultures"?

  4. Which type of culture is kinder to the environment: indigenous or "advanced"?

After 15 minutes, we go over the answers as a class. To play up the competition element of Question #1, I ask the groups to take turns giving one example each, and write the names on the board. When a group runs out of examples not already listed, they have to "pass". The group with the most examples thus stands out and gets a nice sense of achievement.

Question #2 is much harder for students, but focuses their attention on why these groups are different from "the rest of us". I strongly discourage stereotyping ("They're primitive", "They paint their faces," etc.) and try to get students to look at how indigenous lifestyles differ from ours. Although I accept a wide range of answers, what I'm looking for are two main aspects of indigenous life. First, indigenous peoples are generally hunter/gatherers who live WITH nature rather than trying to control it. Second, they do not generally have a system of private property; instead, they live as communities that share a large expanse of land, and thus are apt to have their hunting/fishing grounds encroached on by other groups of people.

This leads to Question #3. Because they don't view land as belonging to individuals, indigenous groups tend to get pushed off their traditional lands by people who file claims with governments that recognize private property rights. The law majors I teach find this issue particularly intriguing.

Question #4 is the easiest for students to answer, but it leads them to re-evaluate their opinion of indigenous groups. To reinforce this, I have students read Chief Seattle's Message(2), which emphasizes the need to live with nature. Each student also gets one recent article on a group of indigenous people to present in a jigsaw activity the next week. I make sure at least one article is about the Ainu, so students can see there's a problem in this country, too.

After the jigsaw activity, we move on to study the song "Colors of the Wind" from the Disney movie "Pocahontas", introduced by playing that segment of the video. Whatever you may think of the movie, you will find that the song neatly outlines the contrast between indigenous and advanced lifestyles. Stephen Schwartz, who wrote the lyrics, said in his acceptance speech for the Academy Award for Best Song that he had based the words on Chief Seattle's Message. Because students have already read the Message (I make sure of that by giving them a quiz on it), they can understand the song fairly easily. Moreover, the graphics and music create a bigger impact than plain text.

I end the lesson with a group discussion in which I ask students to think about what they can learn from indigenous people, and, for my more advanced classes, what system might protect their way of life, since they don't have private property like "we" do.

By linking the study of indigenous peoples with environmental issues in this way, I feel I can help students gain a more positive view of their traditional lifestyles and greater respect for their cultures, while also re-emphasizing the lessons we learned about environmental problems.


As explained by Jessica Newby-Kawata in the "Global Issues" Roundtable at JALT95.


Chief Seattle's Message of 1855 (excerpt)

How can you buy or sell the sky? If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them? Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. This we know - the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected. Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web he does to himself.

(3)To learn more about indigenous peoples, read:
The Gaia Atlas of First Peoples by Julian Burger (1990) Anchor Books: London. ISBN 0-385-26653-7

Mary Goebel Noguchi
English Dept., Faculty of Law, Ritsumeikan University, 56-1 Kita-machi,
Tojiin, Kita-ku, Kyoto 603 JAPAN Fax: 075-465-8160


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