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The Moonspeaker:
Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...

Indigenizing the Academy

Some time ago now, the question came up in one of the seminar classes I attended in grad school about how to "Indigenize the academy." There seemed to be broad agreement that this was a good idea, that it had to do with making universities and post-secondary education apart from trade school more welcoming to Indigenous people in general. I agree, that does sound like a good idea. But apart from "making it nicer for those odd people who we assume will find the academy an alien environment" there didn't seem to be much content to go with this concept. Probably it didn't help much that apart from myself, there was nobody else Indigenous in the room, so it was a group of miscellaneous people who think they are white trying to come up with ways to Indigenize the academy. So for me at least, it felt like sitting in a cloud of well-meaning incongruity while people awkwardly tossed around ideas like improving access to academic supports and telling students where they could smudge. The assumption that Indigenous students will generally arrive unprepared for post-secondary education or that we will be poor to marginal students was at best, disappointing. Okay, that aside, certainly an all manner of activities have been taken up within universities in canada. It's worth trying to get an overview of those to get a sense of what Indigenizing the academy can include.

The first major example I am aware of is the process starting in 1972, that led to the creation of the faculty of native studies at the university of alberta. It took roughly twelve years to get from proposals and recommendations to a school of native studies and a degree, and then it became a faculty in 2006. Its programs are very much interdisciplinary, exploring Indigenous histories, cultures, and knowledges. While social work, education, and law seem to have been predominant areas Indigenous scholars majored in for much of the late twentieth century, the verb "seem" is very important. I didn't have to dig hard to find out that besides a significant presence in visual and written arts, there are Indigenous science, engineering, and business majors. Following that thread led me out to the university of alberta's offshoot, the university of calgary, where there is a native centre and an annual native graduation ceremony and powwow. Moving on unsystematically according to places I have seen myself via unrelated personal travel plus academic conferences, there are wonderful Indigenous student centres at the universities of manitoba, victoria, and british columbia, that I am aware of. The university of victoria has been patting itself on the back recently for retrieving its troubled Indigenous governance program and establishing an Indigenous law program plus expanding Indigenous studies as a general area of study. Since the university of victoria is probably one of the most conservative and ironically, racialized person hostile campuses in western canada, this is quite a lot of activity and physical plant committed to improving the campus for Indigenous peoples.

Introductory image from the Indigenous Canada massive open online course run by the university of alberta. Introductory image from the Indigenous Canada massive open online course run by the university of alberta.
Introductory image from the Indigenous Canada massive open online course run by the university of alberta.

So, with that thoroughly unscientific, definitely western-biased survey because I want to stick to what I have seen and verified myself, including that Indigenous people were and are actually using these spaces and taking part in these programs, what does Indigenizing the academy consist of based on these examples? The points below describe processes and goals rather than instant actions, since after all new academic programs and buildings can't sprout up overnight.

  • Create a designated space for Indigenous students, staff, and visiting Elders and scholars on campus. These are also central access points for academic and spiritual services.
  • Define what type of subjects are taken up by Indigenous/Native studies, making sure that Indigenous histories, cultures, and epistemologies are centred in them.
  • Bring Indigenous ceremony onto campus and integrate it into recognition of academic milestones.
  • Make Indigenous peoples visible in a good way, such as by working with Indigenous architects and artists on new buildings and remodels, and especially with the peoples whose land the university is sitting on uninvited to properly acknowledge them.
  • I have directly observed significant changes in university library collections, and talked to people from universities who have observed them as well. Books and articles by Indigenous scholars are far more in evidence, and much better contextual information is provided for older anthropological materials.
  • A growing number of indigenous faculty who are actually in tenure-track positions, not just longterm sessionals regularized into teaching professors.
  • Greater openness to graduate research centring Indigenous epistemologies and concerns beyond education, social work, law, and anthropology. I have seen examples from history, astronomy, and biology.

This is all encouraging, and very practical. So far as I can tell, the drivers to much of this work were and are Indigenous communities all over north america, with serious support from Indigenous peoples from africa, australia, aotorea, and asia. It is a non-trivial level of impact, because even back in the late 1990s when I first encountered the post-secondary education system, none of this work was visible, even at the university of alberta. If as a student you did not have specific reason to look for these things or had somehow stumbled on them, even if you were Indigenous, you could literally never hear about it. Yet, I find myself having some stubborn questions about how this is all working out. For example, it is still standard practice to rename campus buildings that started out with functional designations such as "administration," "engineering," or whatever, to "some white guy's name building." Now, if renaming a building and thereby making harder to figure out what classrooms or services might be housed in it is not considered a problem, my question is, why aren't at least half of these buildings being renamed for Indigenous persons nominated by the Indigenous nations who are hosting the university on their traditional territory, without their consent? Nobody worries about whether the white guy a building is being renamed for is definitely an engineer, artist or whatever, so that needn't be an issue for naming buildings after Indigenous persons either. Or how about striking a working group with the host Indigenous nations to develop a name for the university in their language, and use it? Both ideas could help with getting students to engage with Indigenous histories and languages in a good way. The naming part could also help people engage respectfully with Indigenous epistemology and ideas about what a post-secondary institution should do for community, family, and nation.

For myself, I would very much like to take part in a "pop up Indigenous college" and have that practice take off. I think of it as a sort of cousin to science educator Wilfrid Buck's pop up planetarium. In this case though, the idea is for Indigenous students, graduate and undergraduate, establishing a temporary space to share their research and participate in talks, events, and ceremony with invited Indigenous speakers. The nature of the space is created by the structure used to form it. Maybe in one place that will typically be a tipi, in another a wigwam. For westcoast universities, maybe it will mean intermittently booking a hall in the Indigenous people's house and setting it up in the manner of a longhouse to present research in a way that follows the structure and protocols of how that space works. Maybe it means having a flashmob round dance as a teaching event in and of itself. The idea is not to be to rigid, but rather to respect the ways of the First Nations there – of course! – and also, with permission, to present and perform appropriate ways from other places. In other words, I think we need to get into just taking the space and doing something with it in a good way, not just tangling ourselves in years of wrangling to get the most sensible basic stuff done.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2024
Last Modified: Monday, January 01, 2024 01:26:38