Indigenizing the academy As we incorporate indigenous studies into the curriculum, we should not forget lessons of the past

Indigenous Awareness Week wrapped up at the University of Manitoba Jan. 29 and the theme was integrating indigenous knowledge into the curriculum. Just before the new year, the U of M signed the Manitoba Collaborative Indigenous Education Blueprint, and there has been talk of introducing a mandatory indigenous studies course comparable to what the University of Winnipeg has done.

It sounds great, but this can go one of two ways: the U of M can really get things right if specific changes are made, but all this talk could just be rhetoric with some catchy buzzwords.

Day four was the big day, the main event so to speak. The topic was the mandatory indigenous course requirement.

My own opinion on the topic has been evolving over the past year and the panelists voiced different perspectives for the audience to consider. One said it is not good idea; another said a mandatory course would not be a bad thing.

Manitoba’s Treaty Commissioner James Wilson emphasized that the approach and delivery methods that require detailed attention.

Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair, acting head of the native studies department, made several points. We can’t encase what’s needed in one course, he said, adding that that kind of thinking got us into this mess in first place.

Sinclair pointed out that while Migizii Agamik and Indigenous Achievement are doing good jobs, the native studies department is losing staff. The university needs to hire more instructors to meet demand, he said.

Sinclair said we are looking at what the U of W has done and trying to incorporate what might work for U of M. It is not feasible right now to develop an indigenous course requirement, he said, but an umbrella organization to advise other departments on how to create one is a possibility. We need to teach Canadians in every field what indigenous people have contributed.

My own thoughts are ambivalent about cultural awareness approaches to indigenous education. This can be a step in the right direction, but it can’t turn into a blame game. Nor should we tread down the same path our educators did 40 years ago.

Native studies educator Verna St. Denis warned of the dangers of cultural awareness approaches in her 2011 essay, “Rethinking Culture Theory in Aboriginal Education.”

“We started out a few decades ago in Aboriginal education believing that we could address the effects of racialization and colonization by affirming and validating the cultural traditions and heritage of Aboriginal peoples,” she wrote.

“There is increasing evidence that those efforts have limitations. Instead of doing anti-racism education that explores why and how race matters, we can end up doing cross-cultural awareness training that often has the effect of encouraging the belief the cultural difference of the ‘Other’ is the problem.”

The process of indigenizing the university can be dangerous, especially if we produce more indigenous students that are just minions of the academy, solely using Western theory and methodology. Then we would just be fast-tracking the assimilation process and letting ourselves be their brown gold. We need to use our own ways of learning, which of course include languages.

People in native studies should remember this was the theme 45 years ago after the White Paper; universities just introduced indigenous culture from a Western point of view and increased indigenous student enrolment to access more money. Is this the same Trojan horse making another round, just dressed up a little nicer?

Feature image: A view outside Migizii Agamik. Photo by Carolyne Kroeker.

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