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The Problem With ‘Indigenizing the University’

The idea that academics need to “Indigenize” the Canadian education system has become popular in recent years. The Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), Universities Canada, and the Deans of Education all have expressed support for this idea. And the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), created to address the legacy of Canada’s Residential School system, concluded that Canada’s education system “must be transformed into one that rejects the racism embedded in colonial systems of education and treats Aboriginal and Euro-Canadian knowledge systems with equal respect.” The TRC report cites the work of Indigenous academic Marie Battiste and the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples’ statement that “Indigenous peoples have the right to the dignity and diversity of their cultures, traditions, histories and aspirations which shall be appropriately reflected in education and public information.” Specific proposals at various Canadian universities have included curriculum changes, an overhaul of academic disciplines, and the incorporation of Indigenous “ways of knowing” in tenure and promotion processes. Many of these initiatives are based on the larger idea that universities are “colonial institutions” that must be transformed through the “emancipator process” of Indigenization.

But it has become clear that different academics mean different things by the word “Indigenization.” In some cases, advocates for Indigenization have evaded the question of how their initiatives will further the development and dissemination of knowledge in a way that is consistent with a university’s academic mission. Moreover, some Indigenization initiatives may actually hinder the creation of knowledge by stigmatizing certain areas of inquiry or prioritizing political objectives over rigorous scholarship. Such outcomes would not only have a negative impact on academia overall, they would also specifically harm the Indigenous population by encouraging Indigenous scholars to apply themselves toward projects that are narrow, and sometimes even anti-scientific.

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In its invitation to participate in an Indigenization workshop, the Canadian Political Science Association’s Call for Proposals noted that there are at least three different meanings of the term “Indigenization,” as it’s applied to universities: 1) symbolic recognition of Indigenous cultures; 2) greater inclusion of Indigenous peoples and content in existing university structures; and 3) a top-to-bottom “anti-colonial, antiracist reconstruction of education through revision of curriculum and institutional processes.”

By my observation, the first meaning is the one that is most commonly implemented. This symbolic approach typically consists of renaming infrastructure after noteworthy Indigenous people, displaying Indigenous artwork, and publicly recognizing that a particular campus sits on the traditional territory of a particular Indigenous group. At events, one also increasingly observes demands that prayers be held to signal respect for Indigenous traditions.

Unfortunately, these symbolic commitments have sometimes generated controversy, as at the University of Winnipeg in 2015, when presiding Indigenous elders declared that it was in keeping with their traditions that women in attendance should wear long skirts. (Two years earlier, at the University of Saskatchewan, a poster promoting a similar event instructed women to skip the ceremony if they were menstruating.) It also has become common for these symbolic ceremonies to be used to promote contested political claims in regard to Indigenous land rights and historical treaties.

The second definition of Indigenization listed by the Canadian Political Science Association, emphasizing greater “inclusion,” is more substantial. Typically, this approach involves efforts to increase the number of Indigenous professors and students, as well as providing more Indigenous content in university courses. University of Kansas professor Devon Abbott Mihesuah argues that such initiatives provide “more accurate presentations of the past” and will “counteract movies, television shows, literature, and cartoons that often portray Natives as savages, buffoons, teary environmentalists, or enthusiastic supporters of colonialism.”

This definition of inclusion dovetails with the trend toward diversity and affirmative action in universities more generally. But in some cases, it has been implemented in a heavy-handed manner. At Laurentian University in the northern Ontario city of Sudbury, for example, Indigenization ran up against academic freedom when the decision of a Geography-department hiring committee was overridden to ensure that a (less qualified) Indigenous candidate was appointed. Because the process created acrimony, there were fears that the imposed candidate would not be treated collegially, and so departmental members were actually directed to sign a statement asserting that they would work co-operatively with the hired candidate. As an Indigenous career and placement officer at another university told the press in regard to the Laurentian controversy, “If they’ve been made to hire that individual, do you think they will be met with a warm and fuzzy treatment, or are they going to go into an environment that is going to be so hostile that they won’t be able to stay?”

The third definition of Indigenization is more radical, as it goes beyond merely recognizing Indigenous peoples on a symbolic level or increasing their representation on campus. Rather, it casts the entire university enterprise, as we know it, at least, as an inherently colonial and oppressive institution. Some Indigenization activists even suggest that less radical Indigenization measures can actually harm Indigenous groups because “when Indigenous people participate in efforts to make Indigenous thought coherent for university scholars, and consequently the colonial state, they spend less time engaged with institutions of knowledge in their communities.” And so the only solution, they conclude, is to overhaul university curricula entirely so as to prioritize Indigenous pedagogical methods in a way that properly reflects their status as “heirs to vast legacies of knowledge about this continent and the universe that had been ignored in the larger picture of European invasion and education.” Under this conception, which often blurs into broader doctrines connected with anti-colonialism and anti-racism, it is simply impossible for many Indigenous people to be culturally and intellectually authentic while suffering under “elite western canons and with institutional mechanisms [that] function to erase the radical transformative potential of indigenous thinkers in universities.”

In some cases, these abstract theories about Indigenization have become the focus of real workplace grievances. June McCue, an Indigenous law professor who was denied tenure at the University of British Columbia following years of workplace accommodations, objected to the requirement that she publish in peer-reviewed journals, a condition that she said served to discriminate against her on the basis of “race, colour, ancestry, place of origin… and sex.” According to McCue, the university was forcing her to be someone she was not by demanding that she undertake research in non-oral forms, and therefore “significant compromise” was required for her to achieve tenure at the university.

Non-Indigenous academics, too, have been caught up in this issue, albeit in a different way. At my own institution, Mount Royal University (MRU), in Calgary, a non-Indigenous art history professor developed a course about Indigenous art, but ended up not being able to teach it because she was not Indigenous. Such racially defined barriers are increasingly being enforced, as it is now commonly argued that a teacher’s understanding of Indigenous issues must channel internally felt qualities and beliefs that are inaccessible to a non-Indigenous person.

In its most expansive conception, the drive to Indigenize universities is linked to a global campaign against oppressive white values. University of Alberta academic Makere Stewart-Harawira, for instance, has written that:

universities are… the drivers of knowledge capitalism. The conundrum faced by Indigenous scholars and researchers in this environment is played out in our entry into the global market model of knowledge capitalism in scholarship, in the discourses of excellence and best practice, and in academic performance reviews which measure the value of research in terms of its marketability. This substitution of industry and the operation of the market for the pursuit of truth and meaning as the main driver of the academe [sic] constitute a new form of cognitive imperialism which impacts on indigenous knowledge and indigenous scholarship in deeply contradictory but ultimately damaging ways.

And while terms such as “cognitive imperialism” may sound vague (or even meaningless), these ideas take on concrete meaning in the campaign to block academic studies involving Indigenous communities (except in closely defined circumstances), as it is argued that such scholarship represents “a form of violence” aimed at the “naming and claiming of Indigenous peoples.”

In some cases, it is argued that the very idea of a universal conception of knowledge is incompatible with the anti-colonialist mission. Sámi academic Rauna Kuokkanen, for instance, writes of the need for universities to recognize “multiple truths,” reject the constricting ideals of the Enlightenment, and present “Western science” as a “historically and socially constructed” phenomenon that improperly invalidated traditional beliefs under a process of “systemic cognitive imperialism” and “epistemological tyranny.” By way of alternative, Kuokkanen urges a system of “dialogue,” whereby Indigenous and non-Indigenous perspectives co-exist without one exerting primacy over the other. This is similar to the TRC’s call to treat “Aboriginal and Euro-Canadian knowledge systems with equal respect.” But it is not clear how such “dialogues” can be resolved productively, in a university context, when one side is (as discussed below) encouraged to focus on spiritual ideas and folklore that are inconsistent with scientific analysis.

Marlene Brant Castellano of Trent University in Ontario—who served as a co-director of research for the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in the 1990s—maintains that Indigenous “ways of knowing” actually come in three forms—(1) empirical observations, (2) traditional teachings, and (3) “revealed knowledge.” Of these three, the one that comes closest to scientific data collection is the first. But Brant Castellano explains that Indigenous empiricism tends to be subtly different from the scientific variety, because the former involves “converging perspectives from different vantage points over time,” through trial and error, in regard to, for instance, what plants cure certain ailments, the migration patterns of wildlife, and the times when sea ice freezes and breaks up. Eventually, these observations can form the basis of traditional teachings, her second ways-of-knowing category, which consist of lessons passed down orally from one generation to another. But such teachings can also be derived from a third kind of Indigenous knowledge: “revelatory” sources such as dreams and visions—”messages coming from the spirit world and our ancestors,” as Ryerson University Social Work professor Lynn Lavallée has explained.

The Indigenous practice of empirical observation isn’t incompatible with scientific research. It is, in fact, already recognized as “local knowledge,” which both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people can acquire. Traditional teachings also are compatible, insofar as they simply encode observed facts in a form that can be transmitted and usefully applied. But the idea of “revelation” is different, as it blurs the distinction between knowledge and spiritual belief. And while some scholars have attempted to show that “Indigenous sciences” are at least roughly compatible with scientific ideas, it is difficult to see how a system of knowledge built on unfalsifiable faith-based assertions about the universe can be accommodated within the modern secular intellectual tradition. Indeed, even published academic defences of Indigenous epistemologies often make claims that are either explicitly religious appeals to a “Creator,” or are indistinguishable from the somewhat vague claims about human interconnection and binding forces in the cosmos that have long been a mainstay of popular non-Indigenous spiritual movements. University of Toronto Education professor George Dei, for instance, describes “Indigenous knowledges” as relating “the physical to the metaphysical realms of life”:

They connect economic, cultural, political, spiritual, ecological and material forces and conditions. Indigenous epistemologies are grounded in an awareness and deep appreciation of the cosmos and how the self/selves, spiritual, known and unknown worlds are interconnected. The appreciation of the outer self and space is connected to an understanding of the inner sense of self… The dimension of spirituality in Indigenous knowledges provides the strength and power in physical communication. Indigenous knowledge forms are expressive and narrative. They are metaphorical in the use of proverbs, fables and tales. Indigenous knowledges view communalism as a mode of thought, emphasizing the sense of belongingness with a people and the land they share. It is not individualized and disconnected into a universal abstract.

Kuokkanen explains that Indigenous world-views often present the land as “a physical and spiritual entity of which humans are one part.” These attitudes often are shamanistic insofar as it is imagined that an anointed individual “in contact with the spirit world” may “assume the form of an animal when necessary.” Gifts are given “to thank certain spirits for past abundance and also to ensure fishing, hunting, and reindeer luck in the future.” Even rocks are perceived as being “alive,” and “require regular attention” (through ritualized offerings) lest local humans suffer “a loss of subsistence luck, illness and even death.”

In 2018, one of the co-directors at my university’s Office of Academic Indigenization invited an Indigenous elder to give a presentation on “Western Medicine vs. Traditional Healing Medicine.” A member of the audience asked the elder what he recommended for the “gut problems” afflicting her child. In response, the elder stated that the parent should “rub corn pollen on his feet and do a sunrise ceremony.” A number of professors in the Faculty of Science and Technology attending the session acknowledged afterwards that this example of “traditional healing medicine” was completely inconsistent with evidence-based scientific medical techniques (as seems obvious, even to those of us who aren’t doctors). But they remained silent at the event, as did everyone else, out of “respect.”

At a meeting of our university’s General Faculties Council, a few months later, it was noted that the biology department’s program requirements would be Indigenized through “working with numerous community Elders and Knowledge Keepers” to ensure “a diverse knowledge base that includes the traditional Indigenous knowledge.” As an MRU earth-sciences professor archly noted, this would mean that the content included would be “exempt from scientific rigor and scrutiny as practiced in science globally.” To remedy this problem, the professor suggested that the reference to Indigenous knowledge be qualified with the words “as subject to systematic observational testing and/or experimental verification.” This modification was rejected. And when I attended an “Empowering Indigenization Symposium” a few months later, an elder said that his “knowledge” included the belief that trees come out of dormancy in the spring because birds sing to them.

The dissemination of such ideas in a university context should be unsettling to those who observe the important distinction between evidence-based knowledge and revealed forms of spiritual belief. What is even more of a problem is the idea, which has gained considerable currency in Canadian academic circles, that critiquing Indigenous epistemologies as anti-scientific is itself an offensive act that reinforces racist power relationships. Kuokkanen, in fact, explicitly challenges the idea of academic freedom on the grounds that it may serve to permit “racist remarks and colonial attitudes toward indigenous people,” and “has become a tool for some to plunder indigenous knowledge.” Historian J.R. Miller has noted that, even as early as the 1980s, self-censorship had become a fact of life for academics working on issues connected to Indigenous history or culture in Canada, and that “among some native organizations, there is a strongly held view that scholars are like politicians: those that are not with them are against them.” The political scientist Alan Cairns, likewise, has written that the pressure on academics to present themselves as opponents of colonialism has caused them to take on the role of “academic missionary.”

Supporters of Indigenization, on the other hand, believe that Indigenization can yield positive, even utopian, dividends. According to Kuokkanen, paying homage to Indigenous knowledge systems will help enable Indigenous groups to pursue national self-determination through the creation of a new “imaginary” that sparks a rejection of colonial frameworks. University of Manitoba Native Studies professor Deborah Simmons writes that by promoting “subjective understandings of their conditions,” we can enable Indigenous people to become “agents of their own liberation.” University of Calgary professor Betty Bastien argues that “the use of traditional ways of knowing among tribal cultures constitutes the initial and essential step in breaking the cycles of dependency. In this fashion, Indigenous people connect to the sacred, to their alliances, and to the knowledge that is generated from balance, free of dependency. This creates independence because it is self-sufficient and balanced, based on years of intimate observations of the web of place, community, and cycles of time passing.”

It is notable that many of the most grandiose testimonials to the power of Indigenizing the education system (including several cited herein) have been published in journals espousing postcolonial theory, a culturally relativist framework intent on “unsettling” colonialism. Upon researching the literature that supports Indigenization initiatives, one is struck by how frequently the issue is presented in what one scholar identifies as an “emancipatory trend.” In this literature, Indigenous knowledge systems typically are contrasted with a Western intellectual culture that is described as materialistic, individualistic, and often militaristic—as well as detrimental to women, minorities, and the environment; while Indigenous traditions are presented as feministic, socialistic, ecologically sensitive, and sometimes even proto-communist. In 2013, for instance, an editor at New Socialist wrote approvingly of how some Indigenous activists had “critically reconstructed the radical anti-capitalist ethics underlying many Indigenous traditions,” and urged “non-indigenous radicals… to build strong bonds of solidarity with the new indigenous movement, which is now at the cutting edge of opposition to Canadian capitalism’s expansion of ecologically destructive resource-extraction industries.” In the most exalted formulations, these postcolonialist ideas are bound up with Christian-inspired ideas of Indigenous peoples as pacifistic descendants of a New World Eden, where they supposedly lived “a spiritually balanced, sustainable existence… for thousands of years.” From this vantage point, Indigenization isn’t just a way to help Indigenous scholars and correct the errors of the past, but also to move our society toward a mythologized romantic ideal whose lessons are communicated in the sacred, canonical teachings of Indigenous elders.

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Everyone, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike, is free to explore their own spiritual beliefs, of course. But the university is not the place for such exercises. And to imagine otherwise will hurt Indigenous peoples more than anyone, because educational achievement can be improved only if people are able to refine their understanding of the world around them. And such an understanding cannot emerge if ideologically and spiritually encoded forms of obscurantism are celebrated for political reasons.

No good engineer or doctor imagines that revelation supersedes a scientific understanding of biology or physics. And so Indigenous scholars who are encouraged to prioritize the spiritual beliefs connected to their identity will inevitably be shunted to disciplines where such conceits may be protected—which is to say, intellectual ghettoes. This not only denies them the opportunity they deserve, but deprives the rest of us of the contributions they can make to intellectual life. Many harms have been done to Indigenous peoples over the centuries. This should not be compounded by preventing them from joining as full members in the project of knowledge production that will always remain one of the keys to human progress.


Frances Widdowson is a professor in the Department of Economics, Justice, and Policy Studies at Mount Royal University. She is the editor of Indigenizing the Academy: Diverse Perspectives, published this month by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.