Diversity: Finding The Right Words

Why Indigenous Studies Programs Are Valuable For Gen Y


Most Canadians do not know the significance of RCAP, Ipperwash, Bill C-31, the Royal Proclamation of 1763, the Haldimand Proclamation, potlatches, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, Phil Fontaine, the 1969 White Paper or the conflict of Kahnesatake/Oka and how they impact Canadian society in the present.

Furthermore, most do not know the difference Métis, Inuit and First Nations. The reasons Canadians lack this knowledge is because we are simply not taught it: Indigenous people in Canada are treated like one homogenous group which fits the stereotype of either the “Drunk Indian” or the “Noble Savage,” and this viewpoint is found in the media as well as many textbooks.

For the most part, the history of Canada taught from elementary through post-secondary school is entirely from the perspective of the countries that colonized Canada.

The best way to remedy this at the university level is to take Indigenous Studies classes offered through either an Indigenous Studies program or department, which is offered in Canada at most universities.

I recently spoke with Hayden King, who is an Indigenous Studies professor at McMaster University, as well as a member of the Beausoleil First Nation on Chimnissing, and asked him some questions about the benefits of students taking Indigenous Studies classes.

Q. What is the biggest misconception about the Native population in Canada?

A. The biggest misconception? That’s tough to answer – because Native peoples are on the periphery of our public consciousness, the majority of Canadians hold nothing but erroneous perceptions. Though I think the most pervasive misconceptions are of Indigenous peoples as lawless or as dependant. Indeed, it seems the only coverage in the mainstream media relates to poverty (and thus government ‘hand-outs’) or blockades (which leads to ironic notions of Indians being outside Canadian law).

Q. Do you believe the majority of Canadians are knowledgeable about Indigenous issues and history?

A. Absolutely not. Teaching Indigenous Studies really highlights the profound ignorance that permeates the classroom (initially). I think the same situation exists in society generally; probably worse, in fact.

The current situation no doubt has its roots in the early European settlement of Canada. As the influence of Indigenous peoples waned in the late 18th, early 19th century, Canada did its best to ignore Indians – isolating them, marginalizing them economically and politically through legislation and attempting to forget they exist.

So as institutions were developed, Indigenous peoples were left out (and their own institutions destroyed). This continued into the modern era, probably until the 1960’s, when it became legal for Indigenous peoples to organize, hire a lawyer, vote, sneeze, etc.

So for 250 years, Indigenous people were invisible. Thus the ignorance of Canadians.

An Anishnaabe elder storytelling

Q. What can people learn from Indigenous Studies classes?

A. All kinds of things – our courses are pretty diverse, from the Indigenous pre-med classes to Indigenous Literatures and Traditional Ecological Knowledge to the History of Indigenous Peoples Sovereignty. Of course, our first year introductory courses (historical and contemporary Indigenous studies) are pretty popular.

Generally though, I think students can learn a lot. They can learn about the accomplishments and contributions Indigenous peoples have made to global society, they can learn that Indigenous peoples in North America survived the world’s worst holocaust, they can learn about the true history of Canada – not as peaceful (or dull) as commonly thought, and they can learn that, today, while challenges exist – Indigenous peoples are more than just their ‘issues.’

Q. What is the benefit of Indigenous Studies programs and classes in the university setting for Indigenous individuals? How does that differ (if at all) from the gains of non-Native students?

A. I think having an Indigenous Studies program (and hopefully department one day) has a tremendous positive influence on Indigenous students. It gives them an anchor in what can sometimes be an unfamiliar setting and provides a space for them to be Cayuga or Cree or Ojibwe.

In terms of course content, I think the ISP program strives to provide something for Indigenous students to identify with – the university setting is culturally sensitive to Canadians but that doesn’t necessarily include Indigenous peoples. I’ve had some of my Native students tell me about their political science professor who said, “Native peoples didn’t have organized governance structures” or sociology professors who claimed, “the world has never seen a matrilineal society”.

Of course, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy was one of the most sophisticated governments in the history of the world and Nations like the Wet’suwet’en (among many others) are matrilineal. So, at ISP we provide a small degree of balance and try to insert Indigenous peoples into the dominant discourse. This helps Indigenous students understand the truth about themselves.

This differs for non-Indigenous students, but not to a great degree. After all, the majority of my students are non-Native. They get the same content but may process it differently. Generally, what we hope to impart finds parity between both groups – that’s an education.

Q. Is the ultimate goal for Indigenous Studies programs to promote Indigenous Studies and history to the Canadian university population in the hope of removing some of the existing stereotypes and prejudices that exist against Native people?

A. I’m not sure that is the ultimate goal – the ultimate goal, I think, is to develop a rigorous Indigenous research agenda and teaching pedagogies that belong alongside any department elsewhere in the university. But in that pursuit, one of the goals is to promote social justice for Indigenous peoples. That begins with breaking down stereotypes and crushing the mainstream narrative of Indigenous peoples.

Q. When this generation of students who have taken Indigenous Studies classes is appointed to positions of power (in political, social justice and advocacy organizations for example), do you think this will have a difference on how Native people are accepted in society as a whole and will encounter less obstacles when it comes to self-determination issues?

A. I think we’ll be getting closer. It’s always rewarding when a student tells me that he or she is deciding to pursue Indigenous law after university, or their research interests in graduate school will focus on Indigenous peoples. Even if it is as simple as correcting their friends in conversation about racist attitudes – all that makes a difference. But I think we still have a long way to go.

Q. What are the greatest challenges facing Indigenous Studies programs in Canada? What do these programs need to do to be more widely utilized by the university population?

A. I can’t really speak for programs elsewhere, but at Mac there are a few challenges – I think we’re a pretty fringe area so we don’t receive a lot of attention, support and enrollment. We only have two full-time faculty members and no tenure track positions. We always wonder if we’ll have enough money to operate year-to-year and often have to battle to move our classes when they get scheduled on Mondays at 8:30 a.m. (which happens every year).

In addition, the design and methods of education practiced at universities (the classroom, teacher-student relationship, grading) differs from notions of learning among a lot of Indigenous peoples.

But in contrast, we have our own little library, a lounge and computers for students, a photocopier, a stapler – so that’s something. To be fair, I’d think that things are changing at Mac for the better – we have a supportive administration (for a change) and things are looking up.

Q. Why do you think there are so few post-graduate programs in Indigenous Studies?

A. Well, most Indigenous Studies programs are still carving space out at universities. As they develop and grow, graduate studies will follow. That being said, there are graduate programs that do exist at a few schools and, as far as I know, they’re producing excellent academics.

But I’m not sure the goal is always graduate programs. Yesterday, McMaster announced the creation of the Ogweho:weh Language Diploma which will offer a degree in Haudenosaunee languages. This is a collaboration between Six Nations, McMaster and the Indigenous Studies program and something that will make a big difference in helping to revive Haudenosaunee culture.


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