Back to top

CAUT Bulletin Archives

January 2012

Indigenous Knowledge Can Enrich Our Campuses

By Wayne Peters
As CAUT president I have the pleasure of attending various conferences, workshops and fora designed to explore issues important to post-secondary education and the academics who give it life. This past November, I joined about 100 aboriginal post-secondary edu­cators and students at CAUT’s third forum for aboriginal academic staff held in Vancouver.
The event began with a ceremony to welcome us and to honor the traditional land of the Coast Salish people. It conveyed a strong message that no matter where we go we are visitors on someone’s traditional land. As I write I am mindful that my home on Prince Edward Island is on the traditional land of the Mi’qmak First Nations people. They call P.E.I. Epekwitk — the island resting on the waves. I encourage everyone to learn on whose traditional land they live and work.
The forum in Vancouver explor­ed two themes: recognizing and naturalizing indigenous knowledge in the academy, and the experiences of aboriginal academic staff in the tenure and promotion pro­cess. Aided by plenary sessions and discussion circles, the group engaged in energetic talks sharing diffe­rent perspectives that reflected both experience and expectation. I want to expand on the first of these two themes.
In the opening plenary session, Maxine Matilpi, a member of the Kwakiutl First Nation in Fort Rupert, British Columbia and a law professor at the University of Victoria, described the pedagogy that goes on under the table. She recounted memories of her five-year-old cousin who spent her time under the table, with the important job of sorting and counting buttons while her mother, grandmother, many aunts and other women made beautiful blankets on top of it.
Maxine’s depiction exemplifies the essence of aboriginal approaches to teaching, learning and scholarship. Indigenous knowledge is embedded within a sense of community. It is gained and passed on by doing. It is experiential, embodied, recursive, fun, and in the presence of elders. In the blanket-making example, everyone contributes to and gains much from the experience, especially the five-year-old under the table.
Across the many perspectives of our different aboriginal communities indigenous knowledge is more than just an understanding of the physical world around us. It also encompasses, in a holistic way, a respect and appreciation for the metaphysical world tied closely to the physical one. However, it is too often seen as being in conflict with the more Eurocentric models maintained by most of our current institutions.
Consequently, it remains a huge challenge to integrate indigenous knowledge into an academy built on frameworks that were never designed nor intended to recognize and support or reward such approaches and perspectives. How, then, do we create an academy that allows aboriginal consciousness, language and identity to thrive without ethnocentric biases?
The way forward was suggested by the second of the forum’s opening plenary speakers — Dan Longboat, a Mohawk from the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory in Ontario and director of the indi­genous environmental studies program at Trent University.
Promoting and advancing the foundations of indigenous knowledge is more than a simple matter of protecting a way of life. It is also a significant act of empowerment by aboriginal people. For too long, indigenous knowledge and people have been seen in a position of deficit, somehow lacking credibi­lity and falling short of “accepted” standards.
Dan maintains that a full-scale transformation in thinking is needed so that indigenous knowledge is seen to come from a position of strength with a great deal to teach and to learn. He believes it is necessary to teach not just aboriginal students about indigenous knowledge but all students to facilitate this transformation.
The best strategy for moving the academy to embrace indigenous knowledge is to actively demonstrate just what aboriginal epistemology can contribute to it. It is a fundamental shift away from studying “about” indigenous knowledge to studying everything “through” indigenous knowledge — a shift away from seeing it as a “thing” to living it as a “process.” It is a shift from thinking how post-secondary education is vital for the advancement of aboriginal communities to considering what contributions made by aboriginal peoples are necessary for the advancement of the academy.
Of course, huge barriers to inclusivity and equity exist on our campuses that preclude aboriginal academic staff members from full participation in the academy and, thus, from creating the critical mass needed to advance such a strategy. Certainly, the deliberations in Vancou­ver did not overlook the existence of these.
One barrier is the lack of recognition for the unique relationships aboriginal academics have with their extended families and communities. They do not disconnect themselves from these relationships — they de­fine who they are. Everything an aboriginal academic does in the academy, then, must resonate within their community. Typically, though, such work is deemed as service rather than the applied research or professional practice it actually is. Gaining acceptance of non-traditional approaches to scholarship remains one of the biggest hurdles to equity.
Another barrier is the excessive workloads that result from the under-representation of aboriginal academics in the academy. In an effort to promote inclusivity, our institutions often expect aboriginal academics to sit on a disproportionate number of committees to provide aboriginal perspectives. Similarly, they tend to mentor many more students than their non-aboriginal colleagues as they are often sought out by aboriginal students to provide ongoing guidance.
CAUT’s bargaining advisory “Bargaining Inclusivity for Abori­ginal Academic Staff” deals with these and other barriers. It provides practical advice for negotiating equity provisions in collective agreements, which would lead to increased representation in the academy through more equitable appointment policies and proactive recruitment procedures, tenure and promotion procedures that recognize non-traditional approaches to scholarships, recognition of the additional workload often carried, and more sympathetic leave provisions to accommodate the unique relationships with extended families and communities.
Attendees at the forum were called upon to be “witnesses” — to recount the events of the forum to others. More likely, though, each of us really needs to be both a witness and an active warrior in the struggle to make our institutions more inclusive if we ever expect to embrace indigenous knowledge on our campuses.