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Chanie Wenjack School

Gowski College in the moonlight from across the Otonabee river
for Indigenous Studies

Chanie Wenjack School

Indigenizing Your Organization

The meaning of Indigenization in our universities

By David Newhouse​

We give thanks for the rising of the sun and the light and life that it brings. We give thanks for another day of life. Traditional Haudenosaunee protocol requires that we begin with an act of thanksgiving to remind us of the nature of the universe, its structure and functioning, the roles and responsibilities of all aspects of it, and to foster an attitude of humility and respect.

Today, university protocol requires that we also acknowledge the original inhabitants of this land and their descendants who have lived here for millennia and whose way of life has changed significantly over this time. We are reminded that we are part of a long line of human and non-human inhabitants of this land.

Starting in this traditional way by giving thanks helps us as we consider how to approach the Indigenization of the university. This project is a uniquely Canadian effort and one that we ought to approach with careful thought and action. What does Indigenization mean? What does an Indigenized university look like and how does it act? Can we extend traditional Indigenous practices to scholarly endeavors? Can we create norms and methods of scholarship that are appropriate to Indigenous intellectual traditions? How do we bring Indigenous knowledge to the uni­versity? These are all examples of the questions we ought to be asking each other as we move along the path.

Indigenous peoples have been part of the university experience in North America since their establishment in the 17th century. We have been mascots, students, administrators, professors, and objects of research. There is, after 100 years of research, much written about Indigenous peoples: some of it is even accurate and useful. It would be fair to say that Indigenous peoples, like Europeans who study the humanities, did not attend universities to find themselves, to study themselves, to learn about their culture, or how their societies functioned. Indigenous peoples were initially enticed to enter universities as preparation for high-level participation in the labour market, or to meet the goals established for them by groups outside of Indigenous communities. The university served as another instrument of assimilation. If we are not careful, Indigenization can repeat the mistakes of the past.

Elders within our communities, who have always been supportive of improving education levels but have been wary of losing cultural identities and languages, are now urging us to look forward and not backward, to understand the past and to work to ensure that we do not replicate it.

Four years ago, the university I work in underwent a visioning exercise. The new vision included this statement: “Indigenous Knowledges are a valid means by which to understand the world.” These are 12 small words, but a good rebuttal to the denial of the last few centuries. It’s a small action, but our futures are built from thousands of small actions.

Indigenous peoples are seen by the academy as people with culture. We add to the multicultural dimensions of the institution. We help universities to chalk up the diversity and equity points. And in many places, in many ways, Indigenous cultures are present and visible. This cultural representation project is important. However, it risks being only decoration. The real work of the academy is about knowledge and its production and transmission from one generation to another.

One of the central desires of modern Indigenous society is to use ideas from Indigenous cultural and intellectual traditions to build better lives, better families, clans and houses, leaders, communities and nations. As pragmatic peoples, we also use those we encountered in places like the university.

The modern university is the institution humans have developed as the site for the exploration of 
ideas, building knowledge of us and our world, examining our problems and proposing solutions. The university as institution has spread throughout the world. However, it has not, until recently, been part of Indigenous intellectual and institutional heritage. That doesn’t mean however that as latecomers that we cannot influence it or be part of it.

I see Indigenization as occurring in phases. These phases are not linear, but in a modern complex institution like a university, one can be in all phases simultaneously depending upon where one is located within it.

The first phase involves bringing our bodies into the university; the institution has noticed our absence and frames it as social or educational inequity. The goal is to improve the enrolments of Indigenous peoples in the academic programs of the university. This phase may involve the creation of support programs as well as targeted programs that are deemed to be of interest to Indigenous peoples. This phase involves limited institutional change and adjustment.

The second phase involves bringing our cultural practices into the university. The institution creates spaces where we may have feasts, powwows, Elders and traditional peoples. This phase involves adjustment to the physical praxis of the university as Indigenous peoples cultural presence emerges.

The third phase involves bringing our knowledge and creating a place for it in the praxis of the university: research and teaching. Indigenous studies programs or programs related to Indigenous peoples have been the main sites for Indi­genous knowledge engagement. This phase has an early or entry phase in which Indigenous know­ledge is introduced to students through the academic literature and limited engagement with Indigenous knowledge holders. There is a second part to this phase that sees Indigenous knowledge holders are engaged as academic instructors and researchers.

The fourth phase involves the spread of Indigenous knowledge beyond its foundational area in Indigenous studies. Indigenous knowledge and knowledge holders appear in other parts of the university: philosophy, business, education, environmental studies, literatures, politics, etc.

Modern Indigenous society is also defined by a post-colonial consciousness: aware that colonization has occurred in many ways; aware of the implications of colonization and choosing deliberately, consciously and systematically to deal with that colonization. It is a society that is coming to terms with what has happened to it. It is a society that is determined to overcome its colonial legacy. It is a society that is starting to possess the ways and means to achieve its own goals and has gained the confidence to create something new.

I see the fostering of Indigenous scholarship rooted in traditional Indigenous thought as a fundamental part of Indigenization. The ability and capacity to decide for oneself what is a problem, the parameters of the problem, the nature of inquiry into the problem, the inquiry itself including the definition of method, the data to be gathered, the analyses to be done, the interpretation of data, the construction of options and solutions, the dissemination of results, the translation of these results into action and the eventual re-examination and reappraisal of the scholarship and its ideas is central to the idea of an Indigenized university.

Complex understanding is based on dialogue rather than dialectic. In this sense, it is deeply rooted in traditional Indigenous notions of how one comes to understand. The notion can create a broader and deeper understanding of a phenomenon. It can foster a conversation among different disciplines, perspectives, knowledge systems, and methods of inquiry. It fosters understanding without necessarily inviting competition. Challenge is present through the attempt to understand and explain the sometimes differing, sometimes similar views.

As Indigenous peoples, we do not have a tradition of separating the spiritual from the secular. Our history does not include the Christian religious wars that ravaged Europe for a few hundred years. For tra­ditional people, the spiritual and secular are intertwined, forming a seamless reality.

The spiritual also reminds us of the ethics of our work, to approach it, as the Anishinaabe say, in a good way, and as the Haudenosaunee say, with a good mind. The spiritual also reminds us of our responsibilities as academics to tell the truth, to be conscious of our method and to be aware of our emotions and their effects. The spiritual envelopes us in an ethic of responsibility, respect and relationship. It does not allow us to live outside the world, but requires that we live fully within it.

Haudenosaunee political theory would conceptualize the Indigenization project as ‘extending the rafters.’ The addition of a new family to our Longhouses required the addition of extra rooms. The rafters were extended to add these new rooms.

We are now part of the academy. Our bodies are here. Our minds are here. Indigenous knowledge is here. We are at the woods’ edge.

The academy is a powerful in­stitution. It is not immutable. Its rafters have been extended many times over the centuries. Bringing Indigenous knowledge into it will not destroy it, nor will it shake its foundations. The primacy of reason is important, even to those who hold to the idea of the good mind. Indigenization is a project of dialogue, discussion and debate.