Do Native Canadians have special knowledge? - Macleans.ca
 

Do Native Canadians have special knowledge?

Celebrating indigenous knowledge obscures the real problems Native Canadians face.


 

In last week’s CAUT Bulletin, Penni Stewart celebrates Trent University for its commitment to “indigenous knowledge.” Trent, for instance, recently created a mission statement which

foster[s] an environment where Indi­genous knowledge is respected and recognized as valid means by which to understand the world.

What might that mean, exactly? Philosophical quibbles notwithstanding, knowledge is generally understood as belief that is true and justified. Why does Trent need to specifically point out that true, justified beliefs about the world are valid?

The answer presumably lies in the fact that we are talking about “Indigenous” knowledge, here. But why is indigenous knowledge categorically different from other kinds of knowledge? If a thing is true and there is good reason to believe it is true, what difference does it make who believes it?

The key to all these questions, of course, is that Trent is not really talking about indigenous knowledge, but rather indigenous belief. They are talking about the folklore and customs of Canadian aboriginal people and suggesting that those beliefs are just as valid as other ways of knowing, such as, say, science.

From some perspectives, the Trent approach makes eminent sense. If you are an anthropologist and you are looking to study how cultures understand themselves, and how they see the world then, of course, indigenous belief is part of the vast tapestry of human culture. And if the ideas and traditions of indigenous Canadians have been under-appreciated, then well done, Trent, for giving that needed emphasis.

The trouble is, I don’t think that’s what they mean. Or, at least, I don’t think that’s all they mean. I think when they say indigenous belief is a valid way of understanding the world, they mean the actual, real world, and that’s where things get dicey. The traditions of Native Canadians may indicate that a dream about animals will tell the dreamer where those animals may be successfully hunted, and that may be a fascinating chapter in the way various cultures have understood dreams, but it does not make it true about the actual nature of dreaming. Some natives say that the cry of a loon indicates that a moose or deer is nearby. Perhaps it is true, but the fact that it is traditionally believed does not make it knowledge. All cultures have folkloric traditions whose assertions are, in many cases, untrue. The ancient Greeks believed that bees were created spontaneously out of decaying organic matter. In South Korea, it is widely believed that it is dangerous to sleep in a room with a fan on, because, some say, the fan chops up the oxygen molecules and makes them unbreathable. My mother told me that bare feet on a chilly floor would cause me to catch cold. That people believe it does not make it so.

At my own august institution, much has been made about a program in “integrative” science where “western” science, with its narrow view of the world is “enriched”  by the “more holistic sciences” of native peoples. I used to frequently pass by a poster near the integrative science offices, that argued, for instance, that western scientists tended to name living things after lifeless technologies (the fiddlehead fern, for example), while aboriginals named things by relating them to other things in nature (snake plant — though apparently these proponents of “two-eyed seeing” have never heard of spider monkeys or leopard frogs or dogfish or sunflowers…).

This is not to say that indigenous belief might not lead to new scientific discoveries. Ancient cultures used white willow bark as a pain killer before we knew about aspirin. But if I have cancer, I want to know that a supposed remedy has been scientifically tested before I start a course of treatment — no matter how many generations  have endorsed it.

But returning to Trent, we find that the University has not stopped at recognizing indigenous knowledge. In fact, native professors there can be exempted from the normal system of tenure and promotion. According to Stewart,

Candidates for tenure in indigenous studies at Trent can meet the tenure requirements as “a conventional academic scholar,” an “academic with a background in traditional aboriginal knowledge” (as is the case for many Elders), or as a “dual tradition” scholar. Traditional knowledge is recognized as knowledge usually acquired outside of the university and scholarly credentials may be other than advanced degrees or papers published in journals.

Am I the only one who finds that last sentence incredible? Without seeming to bat an eye, Stewart celebrates a discipline that dispenses with normal academic standards simply because they have “other” ways of acquiring and recognizing knowledge. But surely everyone has “other” ways of acquiring knowledge. Advanced degrees and scholarly research are prized among academics not because they are arbitrary keys to an exclusive club, but because they are ways by which one can verify whether the knowledge they represent is reliable.

We would not accept “other knowledge” if it came from most other groups of people. One might learn a lot about poverty in Canada by living through it, and that knowledge and perspective may be valuable, but being poor is not a substitute for a degree in economics any more than being old is the same as having a degree in history. Growing up in Quebec does not make you a sociologist of French Canadian culture any more than stargazing makes you an astronomer. We should do everything we can to encourage Native Canadians to pursue academic work, but pretending they have credentials they don’t have is not the answer.

There are some disciplines where practical experience may translate into the equivalent of a credential. A celebrated novelist may be hired to teach creative writing, for instance. But those are cases where there are specific skills to impart. Native professors aren’t there to teach you how to be a Native Canadian.

In any case, I suspect that many would discount my arguments since Native Canadians are a special case. They have a sacred connection to the earth, and a special spirit that allows them to divine truths that we Westerners don’t have.

I say it simply is not so. It’s a stereotype, even if a positive one, and one that European Canadians love to perpetuate. We love it because it allows us to seem to be helping Native Canadians without actually considering the problems or doing anything to solve them. We don’t have to help them if they are already better than us, right?

I have no doubt that the folks at Trent and CBU and elsewhere mean well, and, maybe occasionally even provide real benefits. But their rosy vision obscures the pressing issues at hand. After all, why should we worry about the high drop out rate of aboriginal Canadians if their own indigenous knowledge is just as good, or better? Sure, Native Canadians have a shockingly high rate of tuberculosis, but never mind that, we created a Research Chair that celebrates their unique traditions. Besides, tuberculosis is just a term made up by western science, and we know how limited their ideas are.

There’s a lot that needs to be done to help indigenous people in Canada. Canada has been ranked the third most developed country in the world, but if Native Canadians were a separate country, they would be sixty-third. Native Canadians need reliable access to clean drinking water, better education, help combating addictions and high suicide rates.

They don’t need to be told that they’re magic.


 

Do Native Canadians have special knowledge?

  1. Indigenous knowledge means so much more than “beliefs”. Oral history, passed down through generations, is only one such example. Knowledge about traditional healing, ways of being in the world, and how to solve problems facing people on a global scale are other examples. I suggest reading or listening to Wade Davis for an in depth analysis of how indigenous knowledge is much more than “beliefs” and “divine truths”: http://www.ted.com/talks/wade_davis_on_endangered_cultures.html
    UBC has also stated its commitment to valuing indigenous knowledge in Place and Promise, the university’s new strategic plan: “The University engages Aboriginal people in mutually supportive and productive relationships, and works to integrate understandings of Indigenous cultures and histories into its curriculum and operations.”
    These institutions should be applauded for having a progressive view toward building relationships with Aboriginal people and toward what constitutes knowledge. The scientific method is only one of many ways of knowing in this world. The sooner we can appreciate this as academics and as citizens, the better off we will be as a nation.

  2. I agree. Indigenous knowledge is just that: knowledge. I remember interviewing a local elder for a research paper once. He was chuckling a bit over a recent book that had been published compiling evidence of the Cascadia Earthquake. Their nation has always known about this quake. It was part of their oral history.

    I suspect that what Trent means by a respect for Indigengous knowledge is really respect for the fact that there is more than one way to acquire knowledge. Something does not simply become real when academics discover it.

  3. I think the commentators, as well as Trent, and possibly other universities, are mixing up their terminology. What Mature Student is referring to is actually Oral History. I’m all for the validity of Oral History, but I think Trent needs to clear up its own language.

  4. I find some of these comments shockingly apologetic. The problem has been hit directly on the head by Pettigrew–pressing issues are being ignored for the possibility that it may cause some cultural offense to dismiss native knowledge as non-scientific. Sometimes meaning well does more damage than it’s trying to prevent. It goes much deeper than semantics as there seems to be a real stigma about how one is supposed to feel about belief systems and the fairy tales of a culture. At its basest, it is religion disguised as science to validate native wisdom and I find it, by it’s very nature, repugnant to consider poppycock on the same level as academic knowledge.

    Is native knowledge worth being studied? Absolutely! It is a fascinating oral culture with wonderful art and fantastical stories of creation and myth. Is it a reliable means of obtaining hidden knowledge not capable of being discovered and verified in the more classical sense? No amount of dripping sentimentality will make it so.

  5. I think that todd misunderstands what we at trent and other places are attempting to do. We do not seek to replace ‘western knowledge’ with ‘indigenous knowledge.’ We seek to enable our students to study the knowledge and wisdom gained from a millennium of experience, observation, reasoning and living in this ecology which we now call North America. For example, we ask our students in our indigenous politics courses to read the Gayanashagowa: The Great Binding Law as a statement of political and social theory. It contains an iroquoian theory of government, a view of the good society as well as postulating a social order and how to maintain it. Students read it along side hobbes and rousseau and paine, among others. In our indigenous theory seminars, students read john borrows, dale turner, taiaiake alfred who have developed their ideas based upon their understandings of traditional teachings about the law and ethical relationships. robert williams (Linking Arms Together) argues that indigenous people have followed a distinct and consistent political theory over several centuries that is evident in examining the literature surrounding treaties). They also read indigenous researchers (battiste, kovach, smith, weber-pillax) who are developing research methods based upon indigenous epistemologies. They also read foucault and gramsci among others. Our goal is to provide all of our students with the best human thinking about how to foster good societies.

    Our indigenous environmental studies programs brings together western science and historic understandings of the environment to tackle real environmental problems on our reserve and rural lands. Our goal is to engage in a dialogue to see what we might learn from each other. Our belief is that solutions to contemporary human problems may require one to step outside the frames and paradigms that created them. We encourage our students to go beyond critique and to seek creative solutions.

    our research as faculty members similarly explores the use of indigenous knowledge in tackling the problems within our own communities. in my own work i am exploring the emergence of aboriginal democratic practices that blend indigenous ideas about the collective with western individualism to create what i call ‘modern aboriginal democracy.’ perhaps some of the practical solutions regarding the political place of women, youth and elders may find some resonance within Canada. Some of my faculty are examining the use of traditional foods in preventing and treating diabetes, another example of the dialogue that we encourage.

    we have had elders as tenured faculty members for more than 30 years. They have contributed enormously to Trent: developing and teaching indigenous language courses, researching and preparing dictionaries and lexicons, teaching about indigenous cultural customs and practices as well as leading seminars and workshops exploring traditional teachings, building our performance program based upon indigenous ideas of performance and serving the university as all faculty do. to gain tenure, they have been evaluated by their academic and cultural peers; to be promoted, they are similarly evaluated; we uphold the notion of peer review in all of our work with indigenous knowledge and indigenous knowledge holders. those who claim to have indigenous knowledge are evaluated by their peers, who are often tougher on them than we would be; indigenous knowledge holders must not only demonstrate the depth and breadth of their knowledge but they must also demonstrate a soundness of judgment and high ethical standards in personal conduct and the use of the knowledge in order to be evaluated as a ‘elder’ and capable of transmitting the knowledge to another generation.

    So far, to the best of my knowledge, the academy has not been diminished by the presence of elders and indigenous knowledge; here at trent, we have seen the visible evidence of the contribution that elders and traditional knowledge makes to the academy. we see it in our students, both aboriginal and non-aboriginal and relationship they establish with each other and their ability to find ways of working together on common projects.

    Has this been easy? No. Unfortunately, we work within a society that diminishes things aboriginal. we work hard though to ensure that those who want empirical evidence before accepting indigenous knowledge have a great deal of it to examine.

    We expect ourselves and our students to constant foster what we call ‘a good mind’, ie a mind that is balanced of reason and passion and that seeks knowledge in the interests of peace. the iroquoian ideal is to use the mind, ie reason, to create peace, which we are much in need of these days. I am proud of Trent for creating the academic space where we can have a dialogue about indigenous knowledge and where others can decide for themselves, after direct experience and disciplined study, whether or not it is valuable for them.

    david newhouse
    chair, indigenous studies, trent university

  6. I agree that there’s a lot that needs to be done to help Canadian aboriginal communities. At first, it might seem like Trent’s celebration of aboriginal knowledge is a distraction from those issues. However, I think it might be a way of helping to give aboriginal spokespeople a stronger position from which to advocate for their communities.

    Regardless of how one defines “knowledge,” I think that aboriginal issues can’t be solved without the consultation & approval of aboriginal people. I also believe that, in the future, broader issues facing Canadians — cultural, economic, environmental, etc. — will only be solved through the synergy of aboriginal and western ideas. Trent’s move may be a way of acknowledging that paradigm shift.

  7. “Is it a reliable means of obtaining hidden knowledge not capable of being discovered and verified in the more classical sense? No amount of dripping sentimentality will make it so.” (Doug MacAulay).

    Doug, the “classical” approach has done more harm than good sometimes.

    For example, take Traditional Ecological Knowledge vs. Classical approaches to ecology.

    But first, let’s try a working with a general definition of TEK. It is is “is an ever-evolving body of knowledge about the environment and its relationship with human beings that is passed down through generations.” (Georgia Straight, 2004) It is not folklore, it is not a fairy tale.

    “Past practices have proven that science is not the be all and end all,” said John Lewis, chief treaty negotiator for the Gitxaa_a First Nation. Lewis has been trying to incorporate TEK within local resource management since 2001. “At the end of the day, you have to look at what science-based management has done to our resources since [European] contact.”
    For example, in B.C. federal fisheries management makes predictions of how many salmon will arrive every year, forecasts that are based on empirical evidence collected by biologists. However, the actual returns often don’t match these predictions.
    In the 1980s and ’90s, that system started to change.
    “Fisheries began listening to what local-level fishermen were saying [and finding] it was as good as or better than what the managers were saying,” Charles Menzies said (UBC Associate Prof).
    When applying TEK, a fisherman would watch a particular fishing spot for years, observing when the salmon arrive and then acting on his observations. By accumulating this observational evidence over decades, and sometimes generations, a body of traditional ecological knowledge is formed and can be used to predict the levels and activities of fish in a given area. Variables such as shifting weather patterns or other environmental changes are observed by the fisherman and noted with regards to their effect on the fish population. By using such long-range data, the TEK can sometimes be more effective in predicting salmon stocks than biological data, which is often collected during intermittent field research trips over a short period of time.” (Georgia Straight, 2004).

    First Nations people also gave us yew for cancer treatment, the Maslow Hierarchy of Needs (Sisika First Nation), aspirin. This is NOT religion or folklore.

    Let’s hope that in 2012, there will certainly be a paradigm/mind shift!

  8. “Is it a reliable means of obtaining hidden knowledge not capable of being discovered and verified in the more classical sense? No amount of dripping sentimentality will make it so.” (Doug MacAulay).

    Doug, the “classical” approach has done more harm than good sometimes.

    For example, take Traditional Ecological Knowledge vs. Classical approaches to ecology.

    But first, let’s try a working with a general definition of TEK. It “is an ever-evolving body of knowledge about the environment and its relationship with human beings that is passed down through generations.” (Georgia Straight, 2004) It is not folklore, it is not a fairy tale.

    “Past practices have proven that science is not the be all and end all,” said John Lewis, chief treaty negotiator for the Gitxaa_a First Nation. Lewis has been trying to incorporate TEK within local resource management since 2001. “At the end of the day, you have to look at what science-based management has done to our resources since [European] contact.”
    For example, in B.C. federal fisheries management makes predictions of how many salmon will arrive every year, forecasts that are based on empirical evidence collected by biologists. However, the actual returns often don’t match these predictions.
    In the 1980s and ’90s, that system started to change.
    “Fisheries began listening to what local-level fishermen were saying [and finding] it was as good as or better than what the managers were saying,” Charles Menzies said (UBC Associate Prof).
    When applying TEK, a fisherman would watch a particular fishing spot for years, observing when the salmon arrive and then acting on his observations. By accumulating this observational evidence over decades, and sometimes generations, a body of traditional ecological knowledge is formed and can be used to predict the levels and activities of fish in a given area. Variables such as shifting weather patterns or other environmental changes are observed by the fisherman and noted with regards to their effect on the fish population. By using such long-range data, the TEK can sometimes be more effective in predicting salmon stocks than biological data, which is often collected during intermittent field research trips over a short period of time.” (Georgia Straight, 2004).

    First Nations people also gave us yew for cancer treatment, the Maslow Hierarchy of Needs (Sisika First Nation), aspirin. This is NOT religion or folklore.

    Let’s hope that in 2012, there will certainly be a paradigm/mind shift!

  9. Trish,

    First, thank you for the debate. Now, you say the classical model of knowledge can do more harm than good. I must respectfully disagree. You have not proven that argument at all nor have you given an example of where this is the case. Science is actually doing more to help the fishing industry than harming it (I’d site you about 30 articles but they are all packed up and in transit to my next home in another city–but what’s the point, you’d be able to find them yourself if you looked). Predictions are predictions. Sometimes they are inaccurate. Will the classical model be right 100% of the time? What is 100% right? Ever!?? But it is much more reliable as a source of valid, qualified information than anything else. Why? Because it’s tested and peer reviewed and falsifiable. Taking information on the word of say an elder is, I dare say, an appeal to authority (one I don’t recognize). I’ll explain more in a minute.

    My argument here isn’t about comparing one to the other but rather it’s that they should not be compared at all because one is scientific and/or academic and the other is basically hearsay.

    Take the point Mr. Newhouse made that the presence of elders hasn’t detracted from academics at Trent–but I don’t see how it could! What it’s presence does is elevate the isolated knowledge of an uncredited source as an equal alternative to modern knowledge that, by the way, the impressionable minds of students should discern for themselves. That is pure balderdash. Being credited within one’s own community is akin to saying gods exists because my friends and family agree and my uncles told me so. If these elders were serious about “peer review” – let them be tested and checked by skeptics. And sure, they could be right about a few things. It’s generations of trial and error, which any scientist will tell you is an inefficient way of testing, they are bound have at least a few hits. I would hope that the majority of educated minds coming out of Trent take the road of higher education rather then putting ivy on their cancer.

    As for the so called shift towards this “new-age” knowledge, I do believe that the west is starting to become more and more secular, last time I inquired. I’ve already heard the repeated raps on the bell jar myself. More are hearing it everyday. So, agreed. And it’s about time.

  10. If you can think of Indigenous Knowledge as an academic orientation, such as seeing things in a math way is different than seeing things in a science way, which is much different than seeing things in an English literature way, then you’ll understand that it is another lens through which to see the world.

    I like that this was posted on Canada Day because it’s a discussion that we as Canadians need to have. As a cosmopolitan society we draw our strength from diversity, and the ways of understanding the world the Indigenous Knowledge brings can only add to our strength and can be seen as another tool in our cognitive toolbox.

    I understand your reflexive dismissal of it as knowledge because of the spiritual component (clearly as a writer you’ve been through some training that taught you that objectivity and spirituality don’t mix), however, in totally dismissing an entire epistemology because of one aspect of it you’re robbing yourself of a true understanding. It’s actually a rather juvenile thing to do and I hope you grow out of it.

    I can think of three cognitive tools that Indigenous Knowledge can contribute to western ways of thinking.

    First, Indigenous Knowledge is holistic. It focuses on the interconnectedness of things and patterns of relationships. Those who study ecosystems will tell you that this is a valuable skill that is useful in disciplines other than ecology, and once you get the hang of systems thinking it’s actually quite handy as a critical thinking tool.

    Second, Indigenous Knowledge focuses on knowing yourself. As a teacher who teaches in an increasingly globalized world I can tell you that this is a very valuable skill. The act of defining yourself, and redefining yourself, both in terms of personal history and your relationship to land and other people is a skill that youth lose out on as their world increasingly revolves around things like the Jersey Shore and Justin Bieber. The ability to reflect and know one’s self is a skill that we need more and more as our identities become increasingly intertwined with technology.

    Third, Indigenous Knowledge is place based. Again, in a world of globalization the emphasis on knowing the place in which we reside is increasingly important. The 100 Mile diet is a sign that people are ready to increase their connection with place. An emphasis on knowing things through a place based epistemology is important when it comes to making industrial decisions. When it comes to waste disposal or selective logging or water management the strategies that work in Kenora are much different than those that work in Kelowna. To know things through a place based lens is different than to know things in a western lens. For example, in a Western lens what is true of Newton’s theories is true in Kelowna and Kenora. However, an awareness of place allows us to be on the lookout for things that change when our location changes.

    Inclusion of Indigenous Knowledge is not new. Many people who are studying global climate change have been relying on Indigenous Knowledge to understand phenomena that western science could not explain for years now. Resource management miniseries also rely on Indigenous Knowledge to inform their decisions.

  11. Absolutely great article Todd. You nailed it.

  12. just another non Anishnaabe who knows very little about Anishnaabe as evidenced by his lumping of all Indigenous and their social plights together. too bad he has not taken the time with Anishnaabe to understand that each community and nation is different from another. My caveat to people is to refrain from believing that Anishnaabe and all communities suffer from poverty,poor housing,low educatonn attainment etc. I am not a substance abuser, am highly educated, have never lived in poverty and for what this is worth live in a very nice home. i am sick and tired of the media always repeating to the world the megative statistics and to challenge them to concentrate on more of the positive when covering Anishnaabe. i will not even argue the benefits of traditional Indigenous knowledge. if you were to take everything and revert to pre colonization who do you think would survive? While i may be dismissed by many i also am allowed to dismiss others.

  13. I’d like to bring this back to Todd’s point about knowledge. He states, “knowledge is generally understood as belief that is true and justified.” This is perhaps where a least one crux of the issue lies–who defines what is “true?” For example, if we look at the field of mental health, there are scads of diagnoses that are considered “true” for westerners, particularly those in North America. Those same diagnoses cannot all be applied to other cultures globally because they either do not occur or the symptoms are attributed to something else. In some cases they are correct. But the issue is in addressing a problem, such as mental illness or environmental problem, the difficulty of having a solution that will work within the cultural and/or environmental context. Thus, “truth” is relative and dependent upon who is putting forward the idea/problem and who must accept the “solution.”
    I’ve had a number of discussions over the past years with many Aboriginal people about wellness and unwellness, and while I rarely have come across anyone who dismisses out of hand western solutions, there is almost always embedded in the conversation “but it doesn’t get at the root” assertion. Again, if one considers the idea that “knowledge is generally a belief…” consider what the belief of secularism, the disconnection between the physical/material world (and more specifically the political and religious aspects) and the spiritual (NOT meaning religious) world has created in terms of disrespect for each other, for the self, for the environment. How does it make good sense, for example, to over-fish the coastal salmon or cod stocks? Yet western society has agreed that all things capitalistic are sacrosanct, and nothing that actually supports the longevity of the environment that we are completely dependent upon or the well-being of all people is really relevant. This is counter-intuitive and counter-productive.
    I am always concerned when these types of statements are bandied about to support an argument such as in this critique. The argument as a whole generally is emerging from a particular lens/worldview that has not and/or cannot shift to other worldviews. There is an underlying colonial and intellectually imperialistic assumption that regardless of other ways of knowing, thinking and doing, that eventually all people will agree that the pillars of the argument are built on strong foundations, and therefore correct. Thousands of years of cumulative information gathering is dismissed as being “folklore” and “mythical.” Yet time and again, this same set of oral history/knowledge has been “proven” by today’s scientists as being correct.
    Does indigenous knowledge deserve to be seen as “as belief that is true and justified?” Absolutely! Just as western knowledge also needs to be recognized as such. What needs to change is the idea that because it is indigenous it does not have the same merits as western science, and therefore cannot be categorized as a “knowledge” set unto itself. To me, that is like saying there can be only one way of understanding the world, prescribed and proscribed by the powers that be. We know that that does not work. Perception is everything. My understanding and knowledge will never be the same as any other person’s about any one thing–despite the likelihood that we will agree on many things. Knowledge as a belief about what is true and justified cannot be a broad brushstroke–it has to be many smaller and cumulative strokes that allow all the colours and textures of many knowledges to emerge.

  14. It is important to keep an open mind. There are different ways that people “come-to-know,” communicate, and validate knowledge and there are unique ways that Indigenous peoples have done, and continue to do this, just as there are unique ways that Western, Eastern, and Arabic cultures do this. The challenge lies in not assuming that one way is more “thorough” or significant than another. They are different and each has something to offer.

  15. As a ‘scientist’ (I study how the brain processes information and how this relates to behaviour) who is well trained in the area of scientific methodology, empirical design, and theoretical development at Trent University, I must say that I must whole-heartedly support David Newhouse’s articulate response to this article. Indigenous Studies at Trent has provided a wonderful resource for many of us ’empiricists’to rethink old paradigms and generate new hypotheses that seek to integrate knowledge and methodologies across disciplines. Having Indigenous Studies here makes me a better researcher. Star (above) has very well articulated 3 ways that this program furthers academic discourse.

    This article dismays me because it seems that the author has focused on a very limited view of what is entailed in ‘aboriginal culture and beliefs’ that seems to be focused on dreams, hunting lore, odd-sounding medical treatments and what is often undermined as ‘quaint but uninformed beliefs’ from westernized perspectives. As David and some of the other responses indicate, this is a very superficial ‘read’ of what an entire group of cultures has to offer academic thinking and I am uncomfortable with the belittling tone. After all, in my discipline we have learned much about how culture, beliefs, and social interactions shape how information is stored in the brain and subsequently, how different organizations of stored memories shape behaviour. I am learning (from an aboriginal framework) new avenues to explore the wonderful flexibility and diversity of the human mind. For example, I remember after one very interesting talk with one of our elders here, I came away with new insight that generated a new idea (study and analysis) for my work on mathematical cognition.

    Thank goodness we don’t just have a cookie-cutter approach of how to be an academic or how our faculty can contribute to the development of an excellent academic program at Trent. I think we have much to learn by breaking the barriers of our stale academic boxes.

    By the way–I have never met an elder yet who used the whole ‘appeal to authority’ as a way to justify their own knowledge (as unfortunately many academics seem to do). I have found that our Trent elders (like many famous educators) prefer to stimulate discussion and challenge existing beliefs in a manner that allows a student (or fellow faculty member) to develop their critical thinking. Perhaps a visit to one of our elders here at Trent might be a useful exercise for the author.

  16. “The key to all these questions, of course, is that Trent is not really talking about indigenous knowledge, but rather indigenous belief. They are talking about the folklore and customs of Canadian aboriginal people and suggesting that those beliefs are just as valid as other ways of knowing, such as, say, science.”

    This quote does not make any sense. Science is not a “way of knowing”. It is a word to describe rigourous inquiry into the functions of reality. because it is an english word, based on a latin word, I think it has become politicized. We forget that all the formality and structure has much deeper roots in human innovation and curiosity. No group academic or otherwise owns science, it is a human force. If, as the writer suggests, the indigenous people of Canada did not discover their means to hunting (or agriculture, medicine, social relations etc) through dreams, then how does he propose they did? I am sure that along with dreaming, the peoples of north america discovered the means to their survival and comfort through generations of systematic observation and experimentation, just like every other group of people on the planet. It is impossible that these people (much the same as all people) did not discover valuable and original insight into their environments along the way. Colonial powers worked incredibly hard to eliminate as much of that insight as possible. That is why there are academic departments dedicated to the study. If things had been different, perhaps all the knowledge would have been originally integrated into the scientific body. But this is not how it happened. in my experiance, modern indigenous scholors work much the same as in any other discipline, sometimes much harder because indigenous “science” has been passed down orally rather then through formal essays and this is looked down upon. Albert Einstien was fond of the saying “not everything that counts can be counted”. Einstien worked with mathematics but valued any means of improving the human condition, or furthering the body of knowledge that is science.

    So why not listen? Science is about skeptiscim not obstinacy.

  17. Matt Jarvis writes: “I am sure that along with dreaming, the peoples of north america discovered the means to their survival and comfort through generations of systematic observation and experimentation, just like every other group of people on the planet.”

    I’m not sure that people have always been so systematic, but Matt, you’re basically making my point — aboriginal North Americans gained knowledge just like everyone else. So there is no special aboriginal knowledge; there’s just knowledge. Native Canadians have their fair share, to be sure, but they don’t have any special other means of gaining it that demands a special category of “Native Knowledge.”