“The rush on Indigenous knowledge systems, teachings, and heritage by outsiders is an effort to access, to know, and to assert control over these resources…As Indigenous knowledge and heritage becomes more intensely attractive commercially, the cognitive heritage that gives Indigenous peoples their identity is under assault from those who would gather it up, strip away its honored meanings, convert it to a product, and sell it.”(Battiste, M & Youngblood, J. (2000) Protecting Indigenous Knowledge and Heritage
A Global Challenge).
On April 19, 2021, we “called in” a number of esteemed Indigenous scholars and grassroots activators to respond to multiple inquiries about Indigenous thought in relation to Indigenous education in light of Laurentian University’s declaration of bankruptcy, the subsequent CCAA proceedings, and the dissolution of the Indigenous Studies Department housed in the University of Sudbury, which is a Jesuit denomination institution and one of Laurentian’s now former federated partners.
Representing different Indigenous Nations, ages, genders, and lived experiences we came together for a “zoom” conversation. Waasekom and, myself, Tasha Beeds, hosted the event with contributions by Edna Manitowabi, Ionawiienhawi Sargent, Celeste Pedri-Spade, Brock Pitawanakwat, Patrick Corbiere, Kahtéraks Quinney-Goodleaf, Quinn Meawasige, Christi Belcourt, Julia Pegahmagabow, Beendigaygizhig Deleary, Abitoonse Giisis, Erica Violet Lee, Waaseyaa’sin Christine Sy, and Tannis Nielsen. We were supported by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA) Save Our Sudbury collective, and Idle No More. The following is a piece I wrote informed by the discussions and conversations with the above mentioned people and through the panel, itself.
Through Laurentian University’s restructuring process and the dissolution of the Federation, one of the two founding Indigenous Studies Programs in Turtle Island is being cut through unilateral processes dismantling a 50 year old legacy created by some of our most esteemed Indigenous Elders, knowledge holders, scholars, community leaders and non-Indigenous allies.
In lieu of an Indigenous Studies Department, Laurentian University’s President states they intend “to honour and affirm [their] tri-cultural mandate” by committing “to an Indigenous Perspectives program,” effectively watering down and appropriating Indigenous spirit, thought, curriculum, languages, and labour. Such an action is problematic because it sets a precedence for other non-Indigenous institutions during times of financial crisis and restructuring. These types of realities may become the norm in a post-pandemic world, leaving universities vulnerable to the heavy hand of corporations and resource extractive industries. Indigenous Studies Departments, emerging from Indigenous communities and Nations, help hold a critical lens towards the current actions of colonialism including that of big corporations, business, and governments who are not invested in the well-being of Indigenous people, let alone our sovereignty and relationship with our ancestral lands and waters.
Indigenous peoples, and our allies, must loudly signal that Indigenous people’s intellectual legacies, knowledge bundles, and cultural inheritances are not items to be traded by the highest bidder and neither is Indigenous Studies, inherently connected to Indigenous Nationhood and sovereignty, disposable. Every corporation and institution on Turtle Island aka North America is built upon Indigenous peoples’ Ancestral lands and waters as is every settler city, cottage, and home. Generations of wealth built on the backs of Indigenous Ancestors while our youth still experience the highest rates of suicide, our people still don’t have access to clean water or food sovereignty, in addition to experiencing death and disease related to colonialism at exponential rates. The pandemic we find ourselves in only exasperates many of our social ills inexplicably connected to the colonial desire to maintain control.
It was because of these social issues and historical injustices that some of the most brilliant and spirit filled Indigenous minds and hearts joined together under the cry of “Indigenous control of Indigenous education” in the 60s and 70s. We remember what they sacrificed for us to get to where we are now while looking ahead for our collective future generations, rallying the truths of reconciliation.
Indigenous Studies is a rich and complex discipline with a rigorous and robust program of study rooted in Indigenous Nationhood and accountable to Indigenous communities. The destruction of the program at the University of Sudbury and the replacement of it with a program that as my colleague Mary Ann Corbiere states: “…simply needs to have 50 per cent Indigenous content to have that designation. It does not matter whether the professor is Indigenous or has specialized in Indigenous Studies,” is a direct assault on our Indigenous intellectual inheritance, our sovereignty, the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action.
Indigenous students and non-Indigenous students will leave Laurentian – are leaving Laurentian. They have multiple options and Laurentian has seriously underestimated the power of youth and their methods of communication through such avenues like social media. Indigenous Studies *as a discipline* helps prepare all students for the reality of a future where Indigenous Nations are among the fastest growing population in our own lands. We are also prosperous *in our own ways of knowing* with those intellectual legacies holding the keys to some of the global issues facing humanity.
Other non-Indigenous institutions are recognizing the value of Indigenous scholarship and supporting it. Furthermore, Indigenous Nations are moving to full control of their own educational structures at all levels of education, including post-secondary. Shingwauk, Kenjgewin Teg, and Six Nations Polytechnic are some of the existing choices for students with more Indigenous controlled educational institutions emerging. The existing Indigenous Studies Departments across Turtle Island have increased enrolments as well in part due to student demand, but also because of the legal and ethical obligations brought to light by our previous generations to have our histories, cultures, and intellectual legacies represented accurately while bringing truth and reconciliation to the forefront.
Pragmatically, as an employer, if you have a choice between a student who has a degree or even a minor in Indigenous Studies versus a certificate in “Indigenous Perspectives” (which is what LU indicates it is going to build), the minor or degree in Indigenous Studies is much more attractive because it indicates a level of academic quality rooted in a long-standing and respected discipline connected to Indigenous communities, people, and Nations. Employers know students who have Indigenous Studies degrees and minors have been given an education within paradigms emerging from our respective Indigenous cultures and taught by Indigenous academics and allies trained in the discipline.
I was told by my union that I would receive my termination letter at the end of this month. I am an Indigenous woman of colour actively connected to Indigenous communities and the promotion of sovereignty and care of the lands and waters as a Midewiwin Kwe and as a Water Walker. I have a BA High Honours in Indigenous Studies and English, an MA with distinction in Indigenous Studies and Canadian Studies, and I am just finishing up my PhD in Indigenous Studies after a leave of absence. I have received prestigious SSHRC Grants for both of my graduate degrees and had another in process as a research affiliated with the U of Sudbury/Laurentian (note: they are keeping my research dollars as part of their insolvency). I have taught for 30 years in the discipline and I am being dismissed in light of Laurentian’s restructuring. My other colleagues, one of whom is Indigenous at the faculty level and others who are Indigenous sessionals and non-Indigenous allies have an equivalent level of education in the discipline with Indigenous community connections and they are being dismissed.
What does our collective dismissal and dissolution of the Indigenous Studies Department tell you about the state of Indigenous education at Laurentian? It tells you we need to re-assert Indigenous control of Indigenous education supporting Indigenous community based education incentives and building their capacity.
In response to Laurentian’s actions, the University of Sudbury indicated it has a charter they would like to provide to Indigenous people in the same way they have provided one for the Francophone people according to the university’s tri-cultural mandate. The media release provided by the University of Sudbury states the Francophones established an ad-hoc committee.
I propose that an ad-hoc committee be established for the Indigenous based charter currently being offered by the University of Sudbury. This committee could be comprised of representatives from Indigenous political, educational, and grassroots organizations who have a vested interest in the continued well being of our respective Indigenous Nations within the context of our own defined parameters in addition to having ancestral connections to the lands Laurentian and the University of Sudbury are situated upon. This committee would decide on movement forward with the Indigenous charter. It could be made up of representatives from the following: Anishinaabek Nation, Kenjgewin Teg, Shingwauk Kinoomaage Gamig, Three Fires Midewiwin Lodge, Minweyweywigaan Midewiwin Lodge, Akinoomoshin, and Niwiijiiwok Doodemak.
Once we have the charter in place, we could open an Inter-Indigenous Nation to Nation University where we would offer Studies from an Indigenous sovereign and spiritual based foundation as is the dream of our Elders like Gmaa Onaubinisay, Dr. Jim Dumont. For instance, we could have Haudenosaunee people teaching Haudenosaunee Studies; Anishinaabe people teaching Anishinaabe Studies; nêhiyaw and Dene people teaching their own Studies; and so forth. We could focus on our own ways of knowing through the lens of our respective spiritual and cultural understandings; we could offer land and water based learning; oral histories and stories; languages and literatures, and the list could go on. We would attract Indigenous students who are interested in learning from each other within our own distinctive Nation to Nation understandings and educational structures vs a competitive, ego-centred, stress filled framework.
In addition, we could have a school of Indigenous and non-Indigenous relations where we could teach non-Indigenous people from our own structures and pedagogies invoking active decolonization processes. Federal funding dollars allocated to non-Indigenous institutions could come to our own people, instead, and non-Indigenous students would pay us tuition dollars.
Indigenous control of Indigenous education could look like Indigenous people coming together supporting one another and sharing strengths, ultimately investing in each other, in our respective obligations and responsibilities to the Earth, Waters, and Creation and to our future generations. Our Old Ones from our respective Nations adapted, shifted, and changed, all the while carrying and protecting our bundles of knowledge and spirituality for us. We have to do the same. We already are in the ways our Ancestors have shown us. This manifestation of our own inter-Indigenous Nation to Nation University would be an extension of the work already being done by our respective peoples because we know, just as our Ancestors did, our collective current children, and our future grandchildren are depending upon us.
nêhiyaw iskwêw/Midekwe/Water Walker/Sweetgrass Roots Activist;
Ron Ianni Scholar/Indigenous Legal Orders Institute, Faculty of Law, Windsor University, Attawandaron, Anishinaabeg, and Haudenosaunee Aki; (soon to be former) Assistant Professor/ Department of Indigenous Studies,Atikameksheng & Wahnapitae Anishinaabeg Aki, University of Sudbury.