“Indigenizing the Academy” without Indigenous people: who can teach our stories?

“The Indigenous person engages in philosophy by thoughtfully examining the world. The outsider examines Indigenous philosophy by thoughtfully interacting with the Indigenous philosopher.”

— Thurman Lee Hester Jr. and Dennis McPherson, “The Euro-American Philosophical Tradition and its Ability to Examine Indigenous Philosophy”1

With the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report on residential schools in June 2015, “Indigenizing the Academy” is a hot topic in Canadian universities. As institutions explore the introduction of Indigenous content, we have to question what is defined as Indigenous content, who this content serves, and how the pursuit of “indigenizing the academy” can easily become exploitative.

In 2013, I helped put together a new syllabus for an Indigenous Philosophy class at my university. The philosophy department wouldn’t consider allowing someone without a PhD in philosophy teach this course, but pairing an Indigenous undergrad with a white philosophy professor was, apparently, acceptable. (Oh, the power dynamics.) Aware of the limitations of our knowledge, we created a course that was largely guest speakers: a roster of amazing Indigenous scholars and elders. This couldn’t have been done, practically or ethically, without immense support from the Indigenous Studies faculty.

Many canonical European philosophers – Hegel, Kant, Locke, to name a few – saw Indigenous peoples as lacking agency, and incapable of intellectual thought. This is the history that the discipline of philosophy inherits, but far from being a legacy, philosophy is still used as a way to signify whose knowledges are legitimate and whose are invalid.

The portrayal of Indigenous thought as simplistic, primitive, and unarticulated is key in the erasure and justification of genocide.

Photograph of a collage of Rene Descartes, juxtaposed with an image of a black man with a machete, so it appears that Descartes is about to be attacked. Text reads: “modern philosophy is largely a reaction to Descartes”

This picture was taped to the door of a professor in the philosophy department at my university.

(a photograph of a collage of Rene Descartes, juxtaposed with an image of a black man with a machete, so it appears that Descartes is about to be attacked. Text reads: “modern philosophy is largely a reaction to Descartes”)

A Case Study in Classroom Colonialism

Originally, “Indigenous Philosophy 115” was registered as a course by a white professor in the philosophy department. Multiple Indigenous scholars on campus were curious about this class and contacted the philosophy department, but attempts for clarification regarding his experience or qualifications to teach Indigenous content proved unsatisfactory.

This September, I decided to sit in on the class with a few friends, and I took notes on the experience. (A bit of ethnography, if you will.)

Field Notes: Indigenous Fauxlosophy

Day One: September 4, 2015

1. The professor starts the class, “Philosophy is not so much about learning about history, I want to know what you think and feel about the issues”. A statement like this wouldn’t fly in any other philosophy class, of course. While universities may have just “discovered” Indigenous philosophy, these knowledges are vast, complex, unique to nations, and well-understood by community knowledge keepers.

2. “I like going into a class where I can make my own views. Not just memorize this, memorize this. Well, what about ME?” The hard, selfless life of a white guy in philosophy. Never hearing your history, having your knowledges mutilated by outsiders. Wait, what?

3. “In philosophy we study pros & cons, different views. In my ethics class I taught about homosexuality from both pro & con perspectives.” Some students shift uncomfortably in their desks. In philosophy, so often, the lives of marginalized people are reduced to thought experiments. (I wrote about this here.)

4. “The United States didn’t give any title to Natives. They have reservations, that’s it.” A fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of Indigenous sovereignty.

5. We begin the reading. He reduces the story to how the Penobscot author is lacking self-esteem as a Native in a “new place”. All the vast, beautiful, endless worlds of Indigenous knowledge to choose from & he starts the entire class with how Native women apparently “lack self-esteem”.

6. “Eunice was from Maine, Penobscot, an group that has been there – well, since contact […] which is impressive because not many Natives were there. How many Natives are in Manhattan now? Washington D.C.? None!” False.

7. The professor’s explanation of Indigenous governance: “It was like university, faculty get together with Robert’s Rules of Order, everyone had input.” False. Bonus points: I know a lot of faculty who would disagree with that assessment of democratic university governance.

8. The last note I wrote down: while discussing the benefits of an authoritarian model of government: “People feel valued when someone takes charge […] there’s less bumbling around, things get done, houses get built”. (If you’re interested in substantial discussions of how First Nations are confronting lack of safe housing as a real problem rooted in systematic underfunding, check out the One House, Many Nations project.)

Day Two: September 9, 2015

We discuss capitalism. A back-and-forth interaction:

A student raises the issue of the Oka Crisis. The professor’s response: “Well the issue there was a golf course. That was local.”

Student replies: “The issue was colonization.”

The professor replies: “Colonization and a golf course. […] those are very particular disputes. Like New Calendonia. That’s a little area of land that the people of Six Nations want, but the people in that area don’t want to give up.”

“I don’t think the author is thinking just of Indigenous people as suffering. There’s all sorts of people who are suffering.”

Student replies: “Isn’t this an issue of white supremacy?”

The professor says: “Why would you say white supremacy? […] Global capitalism now is racially neutral. […] Capitalism goes beyond issues of colonialism or race.”

Day Three: September 11, 2015

We spend the entire class studying the new-agey, super questionable course text and the words of a woman who claims to be Seneca. A quick Google search finds little content other than discussion of plastic shamans. I raise this issue at the end of the class; the professor’s response is “well, she says she’s Seneca!” I wish I had Kim TallBear or Joanne Barker here beside me, right now. 

[[Update, Nov 10: A woman who is part of the author’s community contacted me to vouch for her. Unfortunately, it appears that some facilitators are carrying out “Native American” teachings in her name (in workshops that cost hundreds of euros) now that she is passed. As a non-Seneca, it’s not my role to name the author here.]]

Day Four:

Research discontinued for the sake of my wellbeing and the value of my time.


The Histories of Erasing & Co-Opting Indigenous Knowledge

There is nothing new about white academics being paid to teach about Indigenous people. As Choctaw historian Devon Mihesuah writes, “The greatest body of acceptable telling of the Indian story is still in the hands of non-natives”.2  While some departments may develop Indigenous content courses based on genuine desire for social justice, there are many benefits and rewards for white settlers who decide they want to teach “Indigenous content”. Suddenly, these settlers become the resident “Indigenous experts”, consultants for all things Indigenous. They are asked to sit on committees. The departments receive funding increases and accolades for their efforts. All of this, done, conveniently, without the need for actual Indigenous perspectives.

Moreover, I wonder how the pursuit to integrate “Indigenous content” into all classrooms is rooted in a desire to undercut the growing strength of Indigenous Studies programs, still the home of most Indigenous faculty on campuses. For me, Indigenous Studies is a space where like-minded people can come together to learn, plan, rest, and build strength. (Which is exactly why our gatherings have always been cause for settler concern.)

Finally, the desire of Canadian universities to play a role in “reconciliation” by incorporating Indigenous content and appealing to Indigenous students is driven by corporatization and investments in extractive industry. If they give us some programming, the logic goes, perhaps we will stop complaining about their storage of nuclear waste in our communities

Indigenous Philosophers are accountable to their communities

Indigenous faculty and students are challenging the way this course is presently taught, but little has been done. The justification that forms a fortress around ignorance is “academic freedom”.

In the case of perpetuating incorrect history about Indigenous peoples, understand that your academic freedom has a body count.

We heard comments that this professor’s class was helpful to the cause of Indigenous Philosophy; that we should be grateful anyone was showing interest. This was followed by a suggestion that the way forward was for Indigenous professors to “work” with philosophy professors. A Nehiyaw professor objected, “Why would we spend our time teaching other people how to teach our subjects? And for free?”

As Vine Deloria, Jr. writes,

The researcher has the luxury of studying the community as an object of science, whereas the young Indian, who knows the nuances of tribal life, receives nothing in the way of compensation or recognition for his knowledge, and instead must continue to do jobs, often manual labor, that have considerably less prestige. If knowledge of the Indian community is so valuable, how can non-Indians receive so much compensation for their small knowledge and Indians receive so little for their extensive knowledge?

— Vine Deloria, Jr., “Research, Redskins, and Reality”3


To paraphrase another Indigenous faculty member, “If I walked in and decided I wanted to teach physics, they would laugh me out of the office. So why is it that this university is allowing someone to teach Indigenous content without the proper qualification?”

The Maintenance of White Supremacy

To quote philosopher Dr. Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman, “the effect of #whitecurriculum = we have imbued white male writers with the power & authority to speak for everyone.”

It is white supremacy to believe that non-Indigenous people are automatically more capable and qualified to articulate Indigenous histories, worldviews, and stories.

White supremacy is a white professor deciding, one day, that he’d like to teach Indigenous Philosophy. He is allowed to teach the class and given multiple platforms, including an upcoming departmental colloquium (colloquiums are mandatory for grad students).

Now, wouldn’t it be something to invite one of the many brilliant, accomplished, world-renowned Indigenous scholars on our campus to speak to this mandatory-attendance event? (Obviously, compensation would need to be provided. It is never the responsibility of invited Indigenous scholars to share knowledge to outsiders for free.)

Here’s the thing: even if Indigenous people were to spend our entire lives trying to explain our philosophies to settlers (this would be a great plot line for a horror movie set in Nehiyaw hell, by the way), they still might not get it.

Not only was the classroom content I described above inaccurate, but silly, as well, demonstrating a basic lack of understanding regarding the ways our communities operate. As Thurman Lee Hester Jr. and Dennis McPherson write in “The Euro-American Philosophical Tradition and its Ability to Examine Indigenous Philosophy”, “…to operate within the paradigm of Euro-American philosophy would mean that you are necessarily cut off from any real understanding of Indigenous thought.”4

This is the worst accusation of all for a white male philosopher: the suggestion that he cannot know something, and further, to point out that others have knowledge he might never be able to have. Not as a result of biology (!!!), but as the result of a redefinition of knowledge, giving weight to embodied experience; a recognition of Indigenous epistemic privilege.

Fundamentally, an unwillingness to acknowledge the expertise of Indigenous intellectuals is an unwillingness to concede space, privilege, and authority.

We are our own best wisdomkeepers

ayaangwaamizin

I want to give credit to Thurman Lee Hester Jr. and Dennis McPherson, whose work in Ayaangwaamizin: the International Journal for Indigenous Philosophy perfectly articulates why we are right to be uncomfortable if the “best person for the job” always happens to be a white man:

Even if workable research methodologies can be developed, there are still serious problems that make Euro-American examination of Indigenous traditions harmful.

The most serious is the potential for a scholastic “conquest” of Indigenous philosophy. Any academic book or university class carries with it the imprimatur of authority.

To the extent that these books are authored by Euro-Americans and these classes are taught by Euro-Americans, there is the potential for them to be perceived as the authorities on Indigenous philosophy. This tragic irony is already well underway. Many Indigenous people are reading these books and attending these classes, seeking to understand themselves and their histories. Though some do so quite critically, many assume that these books and classes would not be offered if they were not authoritative.

The damage done to people who believe this is difficult to describe, but can be devastating.

To believe that your own people are not their own wisdom keepers is horrific.5

My aim in writing this isn’t to provide lessons for white educators and administrators to become better at teaching Indigenous content, or to defend the total erasure of Indigenous content by excuse of ignorance. The centering of Indigenous knowledges in universities is important, and it must be done right. If the foundations of the settler colonial state are not challenged, the incorporation of so-called “Indigenous content” into classrooms is a method of continuous recolonization; furthering claims of ownership and authority over Indigenous knowledges and Indigenous lands.

As Jeff Corntassel writes, “Being a warrior of the truth is not […] about mediating between worldviews as much as challenging the dominant colonial discourse.  It is about raising awareness of Indigenous histories and place-based existences as part of a continuing struggle against shape-shifting colonial powers.”

At the same time, respect that Indigenous students are regularly burdened with the task of “being a warrior” as we navigate through colonial institutions that force our disappearance through racist curriculum, only to hear “but we gave you Indigenous content, what more could you want from us?”

It’s important to remember that colonial educational institutions have never been the main method of preserving our knowledge (though we deserve to be safe in these spaces if we choose to be in them, nonetheless).

Our ancestors were imprisoned and even killed for practicing our knowledges, and yet, they persist.

This summer, I heard stories of how the land overlooking kisiskâciwani-sîpiy, where the University of Saskatchewan currently stands, was a gathering place for centuries.

Strange, then, how much it upsets folks when we burn sage and sweetgrass in offices and classrooms.

I heard stories from elders of how Métis and Nehiyaw mothers would construct improvised sweat lodge ceremonies using rocks heated in a frying pan, with blankets thrown over tables. The trick was that it needed to be swiftly dismantled if the Indian Agent were to come to the door.

Kinisitohten?

Now, do you understand?


1. Thurman Lee Hester Jr. and Dennis McPherson, “The Euro-American Philosophical Tradition and its Ability to Examine Indigenous Philosophy” in Ayaangwaamizin, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1997. p 6.

2. Natives and Academics: Researching and Writing about American Indians. Ed. Devon A. Mihesuah. University of Nebraska Press (1998). p. 13

3. Mihesuah, p. 9.

4. Hester and McPherson, p. 6

5. Ibid.

Thanks to Dr. Rob Innes for helping with last-minute edits (and keeping me accountable)

Good Philosophers Don’t Have Anxiety Attacks: on mental health, race, and belonging in the classroom

“When Canadian society says we’re sick that’s like a psychopathic killer complaining to someone he’s tried to strangle repeatedly that she should do something about the marks on her neck and see a psychiatrist about her recurrent nightmares and low self-esteem.” – Richard Bull

Last term, I confided in a professor that I was struggling with anxiety attacks and depression. She seemed understanding.

A few weeks after the class ended, I learned that she had brought the issue up at an informal departmental gathering, telling grad students and professors that anxiety is often an “excuse” used by students who want an easy ride.

I’ve been treated for depression since I was 13 (I’m 23 now), but I had never dealt with panic attacks before last term. Before I had a panic attack, I didn’t understand how they worked. I assumed that a panic attack was something attributable to not having enough discipline over one’s emotions, or something that only occurred during particularly traumatic events.

Seemingly out of nowhere, I had trouble going in to her classroom. I would stand outside the door, pacing back and forth – working up the courage to enter that I knew would never come – sometimes for nearly an hour. Inevitably, I would get upset with myself for not being able to do something as stupidly simple as opening a door and walking into a classroom. “Just do it”, I told myself aloud, but my body would not move. How comical and strange for any onlookers, or for the students on the other side of the door who had no idea of the struggle taking place right outside the classroom. My inability to overcome this predicament using the “rational” part of my brain (a mortal sin for a philosopher) left me frazzled, and though I tried to stop it, I would always start crying.  It was obvious then, as soon as my inner turmoil had manifested on my body in the form of smudged eyeliner and puffy eyes, I absolutely could not enter the classroom. At this point I would give up, go home, and be entirely useless for the rest of the day.

I would never feel comfortable entering a classroom, or meeting, where I can’t afford to show any extra vulnerability if it was visible that I had recently been crying. It is important to me to feel “put together” at school. I take pride in my appearance; it helps me feel confident and capable when I think I look confident and capable. Tanisha C. Ford has an in-depth discussion on the politics of style for women academics of color here. It is apparent that as Women of Color in universities, even as students, we are held to rigorous standards where we are expected to constantly prove that we are worthy of being academics. Presentation, performance, and adornment are certainly a part of this.

I’ve earned a reputation of competence around my school as a senior level undergraduate, but my earlier years were different. As a young Woman of Color (and a visibly Native woman, to boot), not much was expected of me. At my school, 50% of Aboriginal undergraduates drop out in their first year. As the Native woman in a classroom full of white students, studying a white, male dominated discipline, I am aware that my presence is constantly scrutinized. I become the representative for all Native people, and anything I do wrong is attributable to my genetics. If I enter a classroom late, if I answer a question incorrectly, if I misspeak, if I don’t speak, if I speak too much, if I get a bad grade, it’s not just a personal failure but a failed responsibility to break stereotypes and represent all Native people everywhere in a positive way.

…No pressure, kids.

Working with high school and first-year undergrad Native students, I know this pressure is a common source of stress. I, like many others, am the first in my family to graduate high school, and go to university. I am proud of this achievement, but it makes me fear any type of perceived failure to the point where it is often paralyzing. This fear was a major source of my discomfort in the classroom. Well, that, accompanied with a healthy dose of racism.

One of the risks about being in a philosophy class is that you have to be ready to talk about personal, political issues – particularly in an ethics course. Generally, I am not someone who is afraid of standing my ground in these discussions. However, I lost count of the times I felt alienated during discussion in this particular class. I got tired of being the only one challenging casual racism in the pseudo-anthropological musings of my peers on issues of cultural relativism, ex. “Well you know, for the tribal people of X, cannibalism and Female Genital Mutilation are morally acceptable practices. Do you still agree that morals are culturally relative?” that became a near daily occurrence.

At the end of the class, our final essay assignment was based on the following thought experiment by Bernard Williams, from “A Critique of Utilitarianism”:

Jim and the Indians

Jim finds himself in the central square of a small South American town. Tied up against the wall are a row of twenty Indians, most terrified, a few defiant, in front of them several armed men in uniform. A heavy man in a sweat-stained khaki shirt turns out to be the captain in charge and, after a good deal of questioning of Jim which establishes that he got there by accident while on a botanical expedition, explains that the Indians are a random group of the inhabitants who, after recent acts of protest against the government, are just about to be killed to remind other possible protestors of the advantages of not protesting. However, since Jim is an honoured visitor from another land, the captain is happy to offer him a guest’s privilege of killing one of the Indians himself. If Jim accepts, then as a special mark of the occasion, the other Indians will be let off. Of course, if Jim refuses, then there is no special occasion, and Pedro here will do what he was about to do when Jim arrived, and kill them all. Jim, with some desperate recollection of schoolboy fiction, wonders whether if he got hold of a gun, he could hold the captain, Pedro and the rest of the soldiers to threat, but it is quite clear from the set-up that nothing of the sort is going to work: any attempt at that sort of thing will mean that all the Indians will be killed, and himself. The men against the wall, and the other villagers understand the situation, and are obviously begging him to accept. What should he do?

After the professor read this aloud, I sat there with every muscle in my body tensed, wishing for the class to be over so I could leave. The worst part, of course, was that no one objected or even questioned the use of this thought experiment – not even me. I didn’t have the patience to explain why it’s messed up to teach an unnecessarily racialized, stereotypical story that deprives Indigenous people of autonomy, in a classroom where you have one Native student, in a discipline that struggles with inclusion of People of Color and women at all levels.

I had become convinced that I was not welcome and that I did not belong in this classroom, maybe not even in philosophy, and “Jim and the Indians” solidified that thought in my mind. I was rendered voiceless. This is a feeling I wish I could share with the professor who told my peers and colleagues that my anxiety was a made-up excuse; who believed that I just wanted it easy.

The rate of suicide in Canada’s First Nations youth is ranked among the highest in the world. Regardless of intelligence, effort, or rationality, I found myself incapable of finding a place to belong in this classroom, as many school-aged Indigenous youth and youth of color do, and furthermore, I was shamed for my depression and anxiety. I still struggle with anxiety, and though hopeful, I recognize that it is something I will likely have to work on for the remainder of my life. I know I will be in situations in the future where I am faced with more “Jim and the Indians”-style content, and I hope I will not be afraid to challenge it.

I choose to share my experience because as Native youth, we need to be open and supportive of each other regarding our struggles for wellbeing. We need to take initiative to recognize and correct unsafe educational environments, and constantly remember that we belong at the university, regardless of the violence that tells us otherwise.