By V. Angela James

The capable person concept originated in the mid-1990s from the Northwest Territories (NWT) Indigenous curriculum documents, and which highlights the Dene and Inuit perspectives on raising and educating children (NWT Government, 1993, 1996).

A capable person is one who has integrity in relationships that honour the self, others, the land, and the spiritual world. Through these relationships, a capable person grows and develops a more expansive understanding of the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual; the four parts of human development.

These are the critical elements that Elders envisioned for their children so that they could become, be, and believe as capable beings who grow and develop into healthy adults, contributing their gifts and strengths to family, home, early childhood centres, schools and community.

As a Métis educator and researcher, my bi-cultural perspective has informed my work. Drawing on life-experience narratives of NWT Elders, a metaphor emerged for looking at NWT early education in the form of an Indigenous tipi. This concept frames the processes of raising children as similar to the raising of an Indigenous tipi.

The tipi metaphor brings meaning to the discussion of how someone develops into a capable person and what influences that growth. There are four structures; the centre with its grounding influences of the circle of self and identity; the tripod of relationality that encourages searching for meaning in time, people and place; the spirals emanating from the centre of the narrative space, with their recurring influences of the ancient and spiritual teachings of Elders’ stories; and the “canvas” covering the tipi, that represents the outside influences surrounding children as they grow and develop into capable people.  

Child Is A Capable Person

© V. Angela James, July 29, 2016 /

By embedding a capable person philosophy, pedagogy, and practice into the curricula of early childhood centres and schools, educators are able to address the continuum of education and respect the child in all stages of her growth and development. In their Indigenous curriculum, the NWT Dene Elders agree that such an approach is not only generative, but also honourable:

‘Among the Dene, it is said that the child is born with integrity. The child has worth. It is the birthright of the Dene child to be acknowledged and respected for this. The child who is not respected cannot become what it is meant to be … [that is] a capable person (Dene Kede Curriculum, Government of the NWT, 1993).’

It is critical in the growth and development of the child into a capable person, that Indigenous education values, beliefs, and ways of knowing have space in the early years dialogue. Educators need to pay attention and practice wakefulness (Clandinin, 2013) in integrating culturally relevant approaches as they relate to the early years, such as acknowledging and acting upon key Indigenous values and beliefs relating to children, including:

  • The reverential attitude towards the child in Indigenous families
  • Parents as the first teachers
  • Grandparents’ (Elders) love for children as the closest love the Creator has for humankind
  • The critical importance of identity and self
  • Honouring place, people and history
  • Spiral guides and spiral learning
  • Spirituality as an extension of culture
  • Welcoming early learning environments for children, family, community, and Elders, therefore creating intergenerational learning spaces

Early learning policy that acknowledges Indigenous philosophies, and cares for Indigenous children must be included across the continuum and become a priority for policy leaders and educators aiming to nurture capable children. If not, the child becomes lost in two worlds, rather than becoming strong like two people (Tlicho Government, 1972), meaning strong in the Indigenous world, as well as in the Western world. As such, it is important to apply elements from the Indigenous curriculum in the early years, and to understand the need to balance these with Western counterparts. For instance, when calling on Western approaches in the early years, educators can add more meaning by referencing some of the Indigenous ways as outlined in the chart below:

Western Approaches:

Indigenous Ways:

Early learning   

Nurturing, love, belonging and trust

Sequential stories

Cyclical learning

Linear and scientific reasoning   

Spiral learning and metaphors


Listening, smelling, touching, tasting

Mindfulness and centering     

Prayer, protocol and ceremony


Mind, heart, body and spirit

Cognitive focus       

Physical, mental, emotional and spiritual


Respect for self, others, the land, and spirit world

Outdoor play  

Four sacred elements: air, water, earth, and sun.

By balancing these approaches, educators will create the conditions that help shape the development of Indigenous children who benefit from culturally sensitive early learning centres. In turn, the centres become beacons of hope not only for the Indigenous families who benefit from culturally appropriate, quality early learning, but also provide an approach for all families wishing to reach reconciliation, relationship building, and revitalization of language and culture, thus bringing hope for children to grow and develop into the capable people they are meant to be.

Author: V. Angela James, July 29, 2016 /

Read James’ full dissertation, The Shaping Influences of a Capable Person here


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Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, BC, Canada.

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