Bridging academia and indigenous environmental philosophy

An original goal of indigenous studies programs remains unfulfilled

During periods of colonization, empires tend to reinforce their knowledge systems over indigenous peoples.

In North America, this goal was achieved through government policy and what Mi’kmaq academic Marie Battiste refers to as “cognitive imperialism,” defined as “the last stage of imperialism wherein the imperialist seeks to whitewash the tribal mind and soul to create doubt.”

In the past, this occurred in more overt ways, such as the residential school system.

Cognitive imperialism still takes place, though in more subtle ways, such as within academic institutions. This is particularly true of indigenous studies programs and programming.

During the 1970s when indigenous activism was on the rise, indigenous studies programming was developed partially as a response to the militant activist agendas of groups such as the American Indian Movement. The hope was that students would not only learn about the struggles of indigenous peoples, but also their philosophies and world views.

Much like African American programs in the United States, where African Americans are at the forefront of the discipline, indigenous programs would be run by indigenous scholars, elders and activists who would impart their knowledge to their students.

Implementation of these programs required unique approaches to learning.

Particularly important amongst these approaches was the planned teaching of indigenous ideas concerning nature-based environmental philosophies by the elders.

Training would be provided to both indigenous and non-indigenous students in subjects such as non-violent activism, as well as protection of the pristine environments that many indigenous peoples inhabit, including the watersheds of the Great Lakes. The concept was often best expressed as a “basic call to consciousness.”

Over the years, indigenous programming and its educational goals have veered away from teaching indigenous environmental philosophies.

Instead, focus is placed upon teaching things such as how Western law applies to indigenous peoples, band management, the utilization of anthropological research methodologies,and Western development theory.

At the University of Winnipeg, the indigenous environmental science program has yet to get off the ground, but is being planned. A new master of development studies with an indigenous focus is now in the works.

The task that is set out for those of us asked to help develop these programs is to find balance between the needs of the grassroots people and indigenous environmental sustaining philosophies.

If we fail to do this then we will have failed those who came before us and helped to make indigenous programming an integral part of our academic institutions: the elders, people at the grassroots level, and the life-sustaining environments indigenous people live in.

Brian Rice is an associate professor of education at the University of Winnipeg

Published in Volume 65, Number 5 of The Uniter (September 30, 2010)

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