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CAUT Bulletin Archives

June 2010

Trent Leads in Recognition of Indigenous Knowledge

By Penni Stewart
As my Trent University colleague David Newhouse put it, last month, the university did itself proud. The occasion was senate approval of a new vision statement for the university. The outcome of a year-long process of discussion and reflection, the vision says that: “We foster an environment where Indi­genous knowledge is respected and recognized as valid means by which to understand the world.”

This was another in a long series of “firsts” for Trent, which in 1969 established itself as a leader in indigenous education with the creation of an “Indian-Eskimo Studies Program,” the first such program in Canada. That was the tumultuous year in the history of First Nations people when the Trudeau government brought forward a white paper on First Nations, proposing to end treaty rights, scrap the Indian Act and pursue a policy of assimilation. First Nations communities were outraged and the white paper became the subject of aboriginal leader Ha­rold Cardinal’s “Unjust
Society,” a work credited with reversing the government’s position. The call for First Nations control over education followed within a few years of Cardinal’s book.

In 1972, Trent’s program was renamed the Department of Native Studies and more recently the department changed its name to Indigenous Studies. Along the way the university established the first BA and BA (Hons) in aboriginal studies, the first MA, the first indigenous environmental studies program, and, latterly, the first indigenous studies PhD program.

Trent is at the forefront of indige­nous education not only in degree programs, but also its vision of a curriculum that places indigenous knowledge at its centre. Prof. Newhouse, chair of indigenous studies, has described indigenous knowledge as including: “theories of the universe and how it works; the nature of human beings and others; the nature of society and political order; the nature of the world and how to live within it, and human motivation, among many other aspects of life.”

Acquiring indigenous knowledge is not straightforward in the usual academic sense. You cannot just read about it. Learning indigenous knowledge requires cultural immersion and this has been provided at Trent through the inclusion of Elders as teachers. Elders provide the bridge between aboriginal communities and students both aboriginal and non aboriginal. As community historians they bring indigenous oral traditions into the classroom.

At both the undergraduate and graduate level, students are given the opportunity to learn from
Elders outside of the classroom. In the doctoral program students have the option of spending a term working under the supervision of an Elder. And several distinguished indigenous knowledge scholars have been appointed to the faculty on the basis of their cultural credentials.

Another unique aspect of indige­nous studies at Trent is that appointment, tenure and promotion criteria and procedures clearly validate indigenous knowledge and methods. For academic staff across the country who are concerned with issues of equity and inclusion, Trent has, for a long time, set the standard in tenure and promotion to which others aspire.

Candidates for tenure in indigenous studies at Trent can meet the tenure requirements as “a conventional academic scholar,” an “academic with a background in traditional aboriginal knowledge” (as is the case for many Elders), or as a “dual tradition” scholar. Traditional knowledge is recognized as knowledge usually acquired outside of the university and scholarly credentials may be other than advanced degrees or papers published in journals.

Assessing scholarly competence for those in the traditional abori­ginal knowledge stream requires a broad understanding of the accomplishments of indigenous know-ledge scholars, including activities such as participation in ceremonies. Significantly, there is recognition that assessments must ensure indigenous scholars are evaluated by peers who may include members of the “relevant cultural community” as well as members of the department.

Two years ago the Trent administration withdrew support for appointing Elders to tenure track positions. Despite the concerns voiced by academic staff and the faculty association, the issue remains unresolved. Ending these appointments would be a serious blow to indigenous studies. Tenure for Elders recognizes their integral role as knowledge creators as well as knowledge transmitters. It institutionalizes the role of Elders and signifies their place in the academy, and provides continuity for both program and students.

Earlier this year CAUT executive director James Turk and I, along with Prof. Newhouse and Trent University Faculty Association president Susan Wurtele, met with Steven Franklin, the recently-appointed president of Trent University. Our message for Franklin was about the importance of the university’s indigenous studies program to aboriginal education in Canada.

We urged him to maintain Trent’s position at the forefront of abori-ginal education programs by renewing the university’s commitment to the practice of tenure track appointments based on traditional aboriginal knowledge. Making genuine space for indigenous scholars and researchers in the university is a challenge to all of us in the academy. That’s why Trent’s new vision statement is inspirational.