Engagement, Indigenous Learning, Pathways, Policy

Indigenous Education and Epistemic Violence

Canada’s continuing failures to adequately address the training and educational needs of its First Nation, Métis, and Inuit learners are so profound as to be beyond all serious dispute, and so unconscionable as to constitute a national disgrace. Isolated pockets of academic excellence notwithstanding, a disproportionate number of Indigenous students in every province routinely underperform academically, drop out of school at inexcusably tender ages, fail to graduate from high school in heart-stopping numbers, and are woefully under-represented in institutions of “higher” learning. Put in the language of the final report of the Canadian Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples,[1] educational institutions at every level regularly “replicate the negative features; including scant attention to Aboriginal world views and Indigenous knowledge; that have led [Indigenous] students to drop out of school in the first place.”

Although reactions to such bad-news reports may vary (some are angry, others indifferent or filled with aimless resolve to do better), no one is in the least surprised. Rather, your standard-issue, deeply inured, non-Indigenous onlooker is so well-habituated to the defamatory idea that all First Nation, Métis, and Inuit persons are interchangeable members of a common, always impoverished, and perpetually disease-ridden underclass that further information about across-the-board academic failures serves only to round out their already bleak picture of the Indigenous world. If pressed to account for such well documented academic shortcomings, other and better-intended onlookers more generously point accusing fingers at poverty, or isolation, or the continuing aftermath of historically earlier colonialist practices – ideas that are, no doubt, at least partially correct. Anyone living in abject poverty, cut off from otherwise available opportunities for cultural enrichment, or a victim of systemic prejudice can be equally understood to be a poor candidate for academic success. Perhaps this is all there is to it. Perhaps, if given a fair economic shake, and more warmly clutched to the bosom of mainstream-Canadian culture, existing educational inequities would conveniently disappear. More money and more efficient assimilative practices are not, however, the only available answers on offer.

Alternatively, the educational crisis that so deeply affects many of Canada’s Indigenous communities is, arguably, better understood, not as a symptom of one group’s ineffective struggles to play “catch-up” with their “betters”, but, rather, as an ongoing David-and-Goliath style cultural war – a war in which anyone caught out failing to reflexively subscribe to what Battiste has called the “classic Eurocentric order of life”[2] is automatically demeaned and discounted; a “take no prisoners” war in which adherents to any and all contrasting (and perhaps incommensurable) “epistemologies”, or “ways of knowing”, are simply written off as having failed to grasp the taken-for-true essentials of “Westernized” standards of truth and rightness. In such a wartorn climate, Indigenous students are, then, alternatively understood, not as slackers, but as the innocent victims of an avoidable collision between contrasting ideologies and their associated pedagogical practices – cannon fodder of a cultural clash in which the unrequited educational aspirations of Indigenous learners are too often shrugged off as a sanctioned form of collateral damage reluctantly paid in order to bolster the presumptive supremacy of Westernized, essentialized, post-enlightenment, Judeo-Christian notions of what is right and true. On this alternative account, responsibility for our collective failure to close the many educational gaps that separate Indigenous and non-Indigenous learners is, then, re-read as a natural byproduct of all of those hegemonic ways in which culturally-mainstream pedagogic practices have traditionally ridden roughshod over those epistemic differences that set Indigenous knowers apart from their non-Indigenous counterparts.

How, in this culture versus that, is it to be decided what constitutes bona fide knowledge? Is truth context-specific or is “real” knowledge universal, equally true in all places and for all times?

Among the challenges that such a “paradigm-wars” approach naturally throws down is an obligation (on everyone’s part) to first get clear about how the arbiters of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultures have approached a handful of key questions about knowledge acquisition. How, for example, in this culture versus that, is it to be decided what constitutes bona fide knowledge? Is truth context-specific, for example, or is “real” knowledge universal, equally true in all places and for all times? How are we to best proceed when knowledge stakeholders disagree? How might novices optimally acquire some journeyman-like appreciation of what is standardly held to be right and true? Such classic epistemic alternatives not only pose questions for professional philosophers, but have equally puzzled knowledge stakeholders in every time and culture. More pointedly, and for present purposes, they are also questions that demand answers of anyone presuming to set the pedagogical course for others.

Epistemic Violence

Given the root-and-branch ways in which Indigenous epistemologies have been overturned, it is worth reflecting on the common fate of aspiring learners in just about every previously colonized group one might care to mention. In considering such matters, I tend to imagine myself authoring an apocryphal “self-help” book, entitled something like Epistemic Violence: A User’s Guide – a “how-to” book written for the benefit of anyone aspiring to become an especially good colonizer. Chapter One of this fictional “Operations Manual” is given over to detailing how one might successfully pacify a newly encountered indigenous population by bringing to bear available bits of technological wizardry (gunpowder, antibiotics, etc.), all carefully calculated to persuade the “Indigenes” that what they have traditionally taken to be right and true is actually the mistaken by-product of their own earlier, and now evidently dated, proclivity for “magical” or “mystical” or “child-like” thinking. Successfully duped in this fashion, even members of otherwise well-functioning cultural groups can reputedly be persuaded that assimilation is their only practicable course. There is, of course, nothing fanciful about such Machiavellian maneuvers. Rather it is a piece of the history of very many Indigenous peoples, including many of Canada’s Indigenous peoples.

Of late, however, as the hegemony of classic Western-European epistemologies have been increasingly undermined from within, various Indigenous groups in Canada, and around the world, have similarly come to have their own second thoughts. What was it, exactly, they ask, that – in some all but forgotten pre-contact moment – once defined Indigenous ways of knowing, and why were these homegrown accounts so readily cast aside? Has something of such once-robust ways of knowing persisted into the present, and, if so, how have they served to define what is true about more contemporary Indigenous epistemologies? What costs have been paid by Indigenous cultures of having been bereft (in whole or part) of their own traditional beliefs about belief, and what might potentially be done to rehabilitate those Indigenous knowledge system now eroded by generations of assimilationist practices? Obviously, any attempt to address these and other similarly crucial questions necessarily requires that we somehow get as clear as possible about the particulars of whatever distinctive epistemology, or system of knowledge, might currently be operating within a given Indigenous community, and whether there is any prospect of generalizing such insights across what, in Canada alone, amounts to more than 600 unique indigenous communities. And, more important still, if – as is being proposed here – some important part of our collective failure to adequately meet the educational needs of Indigenous learners does, in fact, turn on our first having failed to adequately take into account those differences that do divide the culturally sanctioned ways of knowing practiced by Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations, what, you might well ask, ought we to do next?

If it were the case that the particulars of such unique Indigenous knowledge systems were already well understood; and if, in some imagined spirit of intercultural sharing and mutual respect, there were a sufficient appetite for real educational change; then everyone’s marching orders would be reasonably straightforward. As Marlene Brant-Castellano made clear in the 1996 report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples: “For Aboriginal people the challenge [would be] to go beyond the deconstruction of oppressive ideologies and practices, [and] to give [renewed] expression to aboriginal philosophies, world-views, and social relations. For non-Aboriginal people the challenge [would be] to open up space for Aboriginal initiatives in schools and colleges, work sites and organizations so that Indigenous ways of knowing can flourish.”[3]

Unsurprisingly, this is not the world in which we currently live. Even where openness to change and mutual respect do exist, it still remains the case, according to Battiste, that “when educators encounter cultural differences, they have very little theory, scholarship, research, or tested practice to engage Aboriginal education in a way that is not [strictly] assimilative.”[4] The consequence has been that existing educational practices have too often functioned as an exercise in “thought control” imposed upon Indigenous learners, rather than as instruments of true intellectual exchange.

The aim of this brief essay is to contribute to this ongoing critique by alerting readers to some of that Battiste calls the missing “theory, scholarship and research” required to bring real change about. 

A Closing Agenda

Any hope for real progress in coming to some better understanding the distinctive “ways of knowing” characteristic of Canada’s First Nation, Métis, and Inuit populations necessarily requires first getting clear about what it is, exactly, that talk of “epistemology”, and, more particularly, “folk” or Indigenous epistemologies, is meant to be talked about – all before attempting to work out what it is that contemporary Indigenous and non-indigenous philosophers, ethnologists, and social scientists imagine to be distinct about Indigenous, as opposed to non-Indigenous epistemologies.

As a way of unfolding this agenda, what remains of the present account proceeds in three quick steps. The first of these simply ventures to make plain what is intended by talk of epistemology, Indigenous or not. Step Two briefly hints at some part of what is currently being said about what might constitute the unique particulars of Indigenous, as opposed to non-Indigenous, epistemologies. Finally, and by way of conclusion, there will be room left only for a brief remarks about the ways in which a more careful study of Indigenous epistemologies might serve to redress some of the educational inequities currently suffered by First Nation, Métis, and Inuit learners.

Persons reared in different cultures are regularly said to frame and defend their understanding of truth and rightness in often radically different ways – ways that promote misunderstandings, tensions, and conflict between colliding cultures. 

Step I: Epistemologies in General and Indigenous Epistemologies in Particular.

Although talk about warring epistemologies (i.e., standpoints, paradigms, frames of reference, rhetorical postures, world-views, knowledge systems, etc.) is everywhere thick on the ground, one could easily be excused for wondering what all these heady terms actually mean. Like other similarly hard-to-pin-down notions, “epistemology” in general, and “folk” or “indigenous epistemologies” in particular, risk qualifying as further instances of those loose, baggy, portmanteau sorts of concepts that can be used to describe just about anything one might wish. Reduced to its barest of bones, however, the word “epistemology” – plain and simple – ordinarily functions as a covering term that references “a branch of… [scholarship]…concerned with the origins, nature, methods of determination, and limits of human knowledge.”[5] “Folk” or “Indigenous epistemologies”, by contrast, amount to more or less the same thing, with the important proviso that they tend to be collectively authored (not by professional philosophers, but by whole cultural communities), and by the fact that they represent implicit or tacit forms of knowledge and practice that commonly ghost beneath the surface of conscious or declarative thought.

Whatever else might be said about them, Indigenous epistemologies are widely understood to vary – often dramatically – from one culture or historical moment to the next. As a consequence, persons reared in different cultures are regularly said to frame and defend their understanding of truth and rightness in often radically different, even incommensurable ways – ways that promote misunderstandings, tensions, and conflict between colliding cultures.

As thus understood, it turns out that the several foundational epistemologies that have dominated the more analytic branches of 20th century Anglo-American philosophy have played to extremely poor reviews among many Indigenous scholars. Such criticisms are owed primarily to the complex relations that are assumed to obtain between power and knowledge – relations that give talk of Indigenous epistemologies an almost inescapable political character. Nevertheless, and because it “barters [well] within the currency of mainstream academia” [6], many contemporary Indigenous scholars have, nevertheless, chosen not to abandon the otherwise suspect study of epistemology, but have instead worked to “ decolonize” and re-“colour” such efforts by taking up the task of “rediscovering and reaffirming” [7] Indigenous ways of knowing. Reclaimed in these ways, the study of Indigenous epistemologies is, according to Meyer, widely regarded, not only as a “sword against anthropological arrogance and [a] shield against philosophical universalisms,” but also as a new key plank in the shared platform of Indigenous studies.[8]

Step II: Demarcation Criteria   

Owed in important part to what has recently become an international renaissance in cross-cultural scholarship, a multicultural cadre of Indigenous philosophers, ethnologists, and social historians have recently mounted ambitious efforts to document and give pride of place to their own non-Western systems of knowledge. Notwithstanding a shared commitment to the context-dependent or situated character of such ideas, certain common claims repeatedly pop up within this literature, perhaps because many of these groups have suffered a common plight.

Key among the common “demarcation criteria” thought to distinguish Western from non-Western ways of knowing are the recurring claims that Indigenous epistemologies tend to be holistic rather than analytic;[9] are context-sensitive and responsive to lived experiences and the social reality of Indigenous authenticity and voice;[10] view knowledge as ecologically situated and unique to specific settings;[11] employ physical geography as a foundation stone of Indigenous knowledge building;[12] make room for the sacred, as opposed to only the mundane;[13] consider certain animals and plants as stewards to certain doors of knowledge;[14] regard, not just individuals, but whole communities as “epistemological agents”; and, consequently, view true knowledge as the result of a process that can only be validated by cultural groups.

Despite this much in the way of agreement among those Indigenous scholars responsible for this concert of opinion, many stalwarts within the “Academy” judge such claims as overly anecdotal and as relying too exclusively on expert testimony, introspection, and informal observations as sources of insight. While such criticisms are not entirely out of place, they have not, for the most part, been followed by any evident sense of obligation to undertake the necessary programs of empirical research required to produce a better rounded picture of what is and is not definitional of Indigenous epistemologies. Where all of this leaves us is that, notwithstanding a welter of ethnographic claims and strong testimonial about the uniqueness of various Indigenous ways of knowing, there currently exist almost no empirically-based accounts of what may be distinctive about the Indigenous or “folk” epistemologies of Indigenous peoples in Canada or elsewhere.[15]

Step III: Epistemic Violence Goes to School   

Among the places where the tensions raised by competing epistemological claims are first and most sorely felt are precisely those explicitly given over to the cultivation of new knowledge – our schools. That is, if – as is widely argued to be the case – Indigenous learners routinely subscribe to culturally sanctioned ways of knowing that are at variance with those of the economically dominant culture, and if the systems of mainstream pedagogy to which they are exposed are principally set within some foreign epistemological frame, then trouble is automatically afoot, and school failures and lost opportunities are sure to follow. Available space allows for only one working example that suggests the rightness of such views – an example owed to the First Nations researcher Stephany Fryberg.

Fryberg’s work-in-progress turns upon what the developmental psychologist Carolyn Dweck has termed “incremental” as opposed to “entity” accounts of learning.[16] Those who subscribe to “entity-based” learning models assume (in keeping with classical Western-European traditions) that competencies are fixed, that academic successes are proof of such latent abilities, and that failures call assumptions about a learner’s basic competencies into deep question. By contrast, those that maintain an “incremental” view (Canada’s Indigenous communities, for example) assign success to effort, and treat failure as a signal that still more effort is required. Working with young elementary school students, what Fryberg has shown is that, in contrast to their culturally mainstream counterparts, Indigenous youth begin their academic life with a commitment to an incremental view of learning, but quickly find themselves out of step with the pedagogic models favoured by their teachers. The heavy price extracted as a result of these children’s forced assimilation is conversion to an entity-based view of themselves as fundamentally incompetent. Fryberg’s work, I suggest, offers something of a template for future studies. It draws upon ethnographic insights emerging from contemporary Indigenous scholarship, it trades upon empirical measurement procedures borrowed from some of the best of recent social science research, and it points to possible ways in which educational institutions might work to better accommodate demonstrated differences in Indigenous and non-Indigenous epistemologies.

EN BREF – Notre échec à combler les écarts d’éducation séparant les apprenants autochtones et non autochtones du Canada peut s’expliquer comme étant un sous-produit d’une pédagogie générique, qui n’a pas fait de cas des différences épistémiques – c’est-à-dire de différences dans les façons de connaître – qui distinguent les connaissants autochtones de leurs pairs non autochtones. On dit que les personnes élevées dans différentes cultures formulent et défendent leur perception de la vérité de différentes façons – des façons qui engendrent des malentendus, des tensions et des conflits entre les cultures qui se heurtent. Et ces tensions se manifestent particulièrement dans nos écoles. Si, comme on le soutient souvent, les apprenants autochtones souscrivent habituellement à des manières de savoir qui s’écartent de celles de la culture économiquement dominante, et si les systèmes de pédagogie générique auxquels ils sont exposés sont principalement fondés sur le cadre épistémique de cette culture, il s’ensuivra nécessairement des échecs des écoles et des occasions perdues.

[1] Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, vol. 5, Renewal: A Twenty-Year Commitment (Ottawa: Canada Communications Group, 1996).

[2] Marie Battiste, Indigenous Knowledge and Pedagogy in First Nations Education -A Literature Review with Recommendations (Report prepared for the National Working Group on Education, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, Ottawa, 2002).

[3] Royal Commission on Aboriginal People.

[4] Battise.

[5] P. Fitzsimons and G. Smith, “Philosophy and Indigenous Cultural Transformation,” Educational Philosophy & Theory 32, no. 1(2000) 25-41, 25.

[6] A. M. Meyer, “Our Own Liberation: Reflections on Hawaiian Epistemology,” The Contemporary Pacific 13, no.1 (2001): 124-148, 146.

[7] L. I. Rigney, “Internalization of an Indigenous Anticolonial Culture Critique of Research Methodologies: A Guide to Indigenist Research Methodology and Its Principles,” Wicazo Sa Review (1999): 109-121, 113.

[8] Meyer, 123

[9] W. J. Ermine, “Aboriginal Epistemology,” in First Nations Education in Canada: The circle unfolds, eds. M. Battiste and J. Barman (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1995), 101-112; Japangka E. W. West, Speaking Towards an Aboriginal Philosophy (Indigenous Philosophy Conference, Linga Longa, Australia, 1998).

[10] D. W. Gegeo, “Indigenous Knowledge and Empowerment: Rural Development Examined from Within,” The Contemporary Pacific 10, no. 2 (1998): 289-316.

[11] Ibid.

[12] D. Foley, “Indigenous Epistemology and Indigenous Standpoint Theory,” Social Alternatives 22, no. 1 (2003): 44-52.

[13] Ermine.

[14] M. J. Chandler, C. Lalonde, B. Sokol, and D. Hallett, “Personal Persistence, Identity Development, and Suicide: A Study of Native and Non-native North American Adolescents,,” Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, serial no. 273, 68, no. 2, 2003.

[15] (for rare exceptions to this generalization see Ibid., and M. J. Chandler, D. Hallett, and B. W, Sokol, “Competing Claims about Competing Knowledge Claims,” in Personal Epistemologies, eds. B. K. Hofer & P. R. Pintrich (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2002), 145-168.

[16] C. Dweck, Mindset (New York: Randomhouse Inc., 2006).

Meet the Expert(s)

Michael Chandler

Michael Chandler is a Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR) Distinguished Investigator, and Professor Emeritus, attached to the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia. His research interests include the study of Canada’s Indigenous youth, and how their struggles to achieve a sense of coherent personal and cultural identity impact on a range of health outcomes and other measures of their socio-emotional well-being.

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