On Campus

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.

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