Indigenous Knowledge and Intercultural Dialogue

My previous post concerned some qualms I have about the ways in which Canadian universities are advertising positions asking for applicants to demonstrate how they will incorporate “indigenous knowledge”  into their courses.  As I was finishing that post, I received an email from Bruce Ferguson, an Algonquin philosophy student.  He was writing me as part of a an independent project he had undertaken to canvas Canadian philosophers about their understanding of and disposition towards indigenous philosophy.  The serendipity was spooky.  I told him about the post I just happened to have been working on, and he took the time to post a long thoughtful comment.  It can be found in its original form in the comments section of that post.  Since Bruce’s whole point in writing the philosophical community was to start a dialogue, I tried to respond at length to his substantive points.  With Bruce’s permission, I have re-produced his original intervention and my responses (in italics).

White people can’t teach indigenous philosophy! What?
Posted on February 4, 2017 by maqua2017


I recently started a research project that concerned itself with the clear lack of strategies and plans in which philosophy departments across Canada interact with Indigenous Traditional Knowledge, contemporary Indigenous Thought and ideas about how to systematically study the system of Indigenous thought and then the stupid question of whether indigenous though “qualifies” as philosophy.

This “stupid question” is often also asked of eastern philosophy.  If you were to make the comparison, I think you would find, with few exceptions, (Brock in St. Catherines and the University of Hawaii do take “comparative” philosophy seriously) that  Eastern Philosophy is generally treated as religion or spirituality.  Indigenous thought likewise (and also African philosophy).  Since the beliefs are often not expressed in propositional form, but as overarching world views, they are often not taken seriously as philosophy, because not articulated as arguments.  But of course much of the most important Western philosophy also uses allegory, myth, and metaphor to communicate overarching world views: Plato, most importantly, the long complex histories of Christian, Jewish, and Islamic philosophy, many ecological and eco-feminist philosophies (which often derive inspiration and content from indigenous knowledge); Nietzsche and existentialist thought).  

I literally sent emails to every philosopher I could find listed in a philosophy department website of the post-secondary institutions listed by the Canadian Philosophy Association. While receiving encouragement and thoughts, observations and so forth from professors I noticed an emerging set of themes; self-disqualifying statements,lack of time statements, a few guarded statements of disinterest but mostly (and shockingly) a political sensitivity – privileging the idea that only indigenous people can teach indigenous thought – a trend that I do not agree with and will argue as misplaced and unnecessary.

I think there are two issues with the disavowal of ability.  The innocuous one and one that is true, is that most of us have no education in indigenous thought, either as regards its content or its form (the importance and veracity of oral traditions, how to interpret myths, what to make of the integration of what from a scientific perspective are totally distinct realms of material structure—lands and waters—and symbolic-meaningful cultural systems).  If there is such a thing as indigenous knowledges-  and I think there is-  it has a different structure than western philosophy and science which are, in the main, literalist, written, empirical-logical, and falsifiable or refutable.  The second, and more problematic, might be—and I emphasise might-  a polite way of saying:  I know what I know and I do not want to bother learning, or trying to learn, anything fundamentally different.

In addition to misplaced political sensitivity is the problem of workload and priorities. Philosophers engaged in academia are very busy ensuring their responsibilities to the department are met, they are engaged with students at the level of teaching philosophy and forming “next generation philosophers”. Administration, evaluating students, career and academic interests and priorities all work towards philosophers who are too busy to do philosophy because of a demanding education system. We non-academic types “get it”.


Now here’s the emerging paradigm; Non-indigenous teachers cannot teach indigenous knowledge. – a statement I consider to be pure political and academic rhetoric.

I would repeat my two points above.  I think that you are right in one sense, but not in the other.  In principle non-indigenous scholars can learn and teach indigenous knowledges, I agree, but that would require much learning on our part (and maybe learning such a we are not used to—from elders not from books). It is/would be a big challenge.

So, why would I be against this well meaning and emerging paradigm? Simply because it is misleading, it indirectly validates the other side of the intellectual colonization coin. So let me get into explaining my thoughts on this.

I sense that this kind of political statement is influenced by the indigenous struggle for equality in Canada as well as the development and articulation of indigenous scholars in the sciences and social sciences. The territories of the humanities [philosophy] as a discipline versus the emerging territories of Indigenous studies all coming into conflict with one another and making for a politically sensitive environment that distracts from the role of teaching, learning and developing. I think both disciplines are too focused on themselves and ought to consider inter-disciplinary approaches as a balanced way to explore indigenous philosophy not to appropriate the philosophy but to develop some anchor of understanding that is qualified by relational statements such as “to the best of my experiential knowledge, cultural ability and limits within my life” and this is also true for me as an indigenous person. I can only make limited truth claims that relate to my own experience and shared experiences I have with my group in the human species. Beyond that, the possibilities of meta-analysis of emerging knowledge due to approaches such as ethno-philosophy can then reach beyond socio-cultural and experiential limits I sense (but am not certain of).

I think these points are well-made.  In work I did more than a decade ago (Critical Humanism and the Politics of Difference) I was interested in exploring the common values beneath the different cultural systems in which people live and interpret their lives.  I focused on different groups in struggle (both within and outside the Global North) and abstracted the common themes that emerged.  The overwhelming commonality was that all asserted a right to self-determination and focused on some underlying shared conditions of achieving this goal (control over land and resources, economic forces and political institutions).  I claimed that these underlying conditions framed a core set of human needs (which I have explored in more detail in later work) and thus a core humanity, expressed different in different times and places.  Despite the differences, cross-cultural understanding and political solidarity is possible, because we can each interpret the other from the shared perspective of needs and conditions of self-determination.  Nevertheless (and I probably did not emphasise this aspect enough in the early work), cultural differences are real, and globally enriching, to the extent that they do not depend upon the oppression and domination of others.  The condition of realizing this value is intercultural dialogue and mutual learning, from a framework of equality (as I think you are also suggesting).   


The misplaced sensitivity held by non-indigenous philosophers in this regard ( often encouraged by political rhetoric of indigenous academics who are forging out boundaries to protect their discipline(s) which are often an inter-disciplinary approach with all subjects indigenous) is that it puts a strangle hold on gathering and sharing knowledge; it is an indirect silencer of free speech and thinking, it is a dangerous precedent for a nation that values freedom One professor – in response to my emails – wrote back to me indicating a great interest in promoting and supporting indigenous philosophy in the academy; she discussed this with her indigenous colleagues but was told that her areas of study do not intersect in any way with indigenous philosophy and she could not be of help! How do these indigenous professors/teachers know this, how can they make this as a truth claim? The apparent messaging of these indigenous professors does nothing more than to promote the other side of the intellectual colonization picture. (And I am aware that I am responding to what I heard as a secondary source I have not heard this directly, so this statement is in no way judgemental of those indigenous academics – I treat this as a scenario or thought experiment).

This point raises an important underlying philosophical problem about solidarity:  what if the type of solidarity demanded by the historically oppressed group is passive; i.e., letting the oppressed have their space to find and articulate their voice.  I have no problem with this approach in the sense that one of the key aspects of oppression is loss of voice, not being able to peak in your own voice, and one of the things that non-indigenous members of the academy need to do is to make sure that our efforts to create space for indigenous scholars do not substitute for their efforts and voices.  Well-meaning attempts to broaden perspectives can reasonably be seen as appropriating voice if they are not combined with serious institutional efforts to change the composition of the professoriate.  I think that criticisms of solidarity can go too far, as when some members of oppressed groups argue that it is impossible to understand reality from their perspective and that the only solution is separation of some sort or other (some radical feminists in the 1960’s made this argument, the Nations of Islam make similar arguments vis-à-vis relationships between white and black America.  I take it from your position you would reject separatism, but I think the more limited demand for passive solidarity:  (Let us speak our own voice!!) must be respected by non-Indigenous academics, at least until the composition of the academy has changed more fully).

However, if certain academics believe in what I like to refer to as an academic ghetto of inherent rights to a monopoly on certain discipline then what is the danger here? Nothing less than strangling knowledge! How do we know what intersects with what? The apparent statements from the indigenous scholars imply to me that they have either bought into traditional western divisions of knowledge; perhaps they do not see the validity in promoting a holistic and inter-disciplinary approach that much better reflects an indigenous methodology in gathering knowledge. The approach that is inclusion of all in the creation of ways of understanding what everyone is thinking within our limited ability as humans. Whatever the reason is, I would argue that it is wrong to promote the idea that only indigenous professors can teach indigenous philosophy.

Possibly, but might they not also be saying that prior to a productive inter-cultural dialogue, indigenous thinkers need time and space to think and talk amongst themselves.  Is the division permanent, or a precondition that can one day be dropped once conditions of equality (material, institutional, etc.,)  have been achieved?

Saying that though, there is no excuse for the academies to avoid hiring indigenous scholars because it is precisely that socio-cultural and experiential knowledge that helps a teacher delve further into the subject of indigenous thought, bringing it home as it were. It is an indigenous professor that can bring the non-native student deeper into an indigenous experience. I don’t think the majority of professionally trained philosophers would disagree with that.

I think this argument is dead on.  Real equality of voice and inter-cultural learning requires the presence of members of indigenous nations in the academy (just as the transformation of scholarship that feminism has produced and is producing required the presence of women).


The position promoting “indigenous only” professors to teach indigenous philosophy is not just a power grab for resources, it is an inauthentic and unnecessary condition for philosophy departments to be avoiding the taking on “indigenous philosophy. Are indigenous academics prepared to live the consequences of this separatist position? If only indigenous peoples can teach indigenous philosophy, then does it follow that only western people (white) can teach western philosophy? I don’t think so; in fact, the other danger that comes in this statement is one of indoctrination and not education.

A very important point.  Certainly it would undermine the deep value of including other voices if those voices were then limited to speaking only what the existing authorities are prepared to hear:  the indigenous thought in some sort of ‘authentic” expression, but not interventions on his this thought re-contextualises and forces a re-thinking of the authoritative tradition.  It would also rule out—as you note-  indigenous scholars teaching whatever they happen to want or have expertise in, and that would be just another form of suffocating confinement and exclusions.  The Argentinian-Mexican philosophy Enrique Dussel has some important things to say about what the western philosophical canon looks like when viewed from the perspective of the Global South.   

In the 80’s I was asked by my anthropology professor what was it about me that made me “Indian” (the terms we used back in the day). I could not think of anything that “made” me Indian as I thought everyone else thought like me, I was not sensitive to my own reality. When I told the professor that I did not know, he proceeded with a litany of observations he had about me that was particularly native (if one can anthropologically define “nativeness”). Anyways, he said, how I wrote my papers, how I participated in groups, how I treated others, how I respectfully challenge the establishment of the 80s and so forth gave me away as aboriginal. Go figure.

An additional danger to education by the assertion that “only indigenous philosophers can teach indigenous philosophy” is the lack of a third and “objective” party that can look at indigenous knowledge from a non-indigenous perspective. So, as an indigenous person, there are two take away points for us to consider with regards to the separatist position stated above; (1) Am I not qualified to teach western philosophy because I do not come from the cultural and scientific roots of that philosophy and (2) what are the costs tom my intellectual development by not experiencing objective and third party, western and eastern philosophical input into class discussions, thinking and so forth. Indigenous people must avoid intellectual ghetto’s where we only hear our side of the story. Indoctrination via university education has gone on far too long in the academic establishment and the issue of indigenous academia brings an opportunity to deconstruct that bias for academic indoctrination for community based involvement in the development of knowledge.

I think that your idea of knowledge networks helps avoid these dangers.  Networks interconnect different elements each of which, in becoming part of the network, influences the whole, without losing its unique and particular function.  In the case of knowledge networks, since that which is brought into networked connection are reflective individuals, any genuine network would promote learning and change in all the parties.  I suppose that if indigenous thought is to remain living it cannot simply about the past and present, but will also grow and develop, in complex and critical interaction with European and North American traditions and disciplines.  Those traditions too can learn about their own partiality and blind-spots through real dialogue with indigenous thought, but also, learn something new about the world it sometimes claims to have already mastered.   Beyond mutual learning, one can see the possibility of new forms of hybrid thought develop which (perhaps) eventually grow beyond their particularist cultural origins towards a new human comprehensiveness.


Philosophy and indigenous philosophy should no longer be the sphere of the lone western white male academic, the rest of us have arrived, we want to be taken seriously and we want our ideas analyzed and critiqued from all angles and that includes western bodies of knowledge, scientific scrutiny and so forth. The critique forces us as indigenous philospher-thinkers to dig deeper into our arguments, find ways in which we can validate our arguments in the face of western and eastern academia.

I think this point is very well put.  It is the utmost disrespect to not engage with it critically and to respectfully question it:  for the sake of deeper understanding.  We spare children the full force of criticism because if we clip their wings to early they will cease to grow.  But dialogue between mature cultures and people has to involve criticism, just because no perspective or theory is fully adequate or comprehensive.  The key is to make sure that there is institutional equality (which means that indigenous thought is respected as a complex symbolic mediation of the natural and social world and not some feel good new-agey ‘spirituality’  that white people can drape themselves in to feel better about themselves.

Finally, non-indigenous professors should adopt the idea that they can teach indigenous philosophy in the sense of explaining what they understand the key concepts to be, they can adapt indigenous metaphysical claims (like they adapt other claims from western academic sources) to make their arguments, they can facilitate and challenge indigenous students to dig deeper and look harder through introducing native students to non-native thought and that includes eastern philosophy as well.

This is an important challenge to us all.  I think that if we can learn to teach Greek metaphysics (which was articulated in cultural world very different from our own)  we can learn to teach indigenous thought in the way that you suggest.  I would add that pushing ourselves (white academics) to expand our courses to include indigenous philosophy cannot be seen as sufficient, but only one part of a broader struggle to make the academy more reflective of the cultural etc., complexity of the country.  In philosophy that means learning about Eastern and Islamic philosophy as much as it means learning about indigenous thought.  And, to reiterate, it also means allowing indigenous scholars to develop whatever expertise they want to develop as scholars.   I think your final two paragraphs sum matters up in an appropriately philosophical way, so I leave them as the final words (but not absolutely final, of course. 

I have come to the belief that the nature of the societal trend called “political correctness” has no place in philosophy, it is in the nature of political correctness enforced by political pressure and legal mechanism to silence thought in society and therefore is dangerous. No matter who the source (and many of our people are benefiting by the politics of political correctness) we ought to see the danger of the politically correct theme within the emerging paradigm of “only indigenous people can teach indigenous thought”, which is a very dangerous road to travel.

Finally, non-indigenous professors are quite correct in understanding the limits imposed upon them by not being indigenous with regards to teaching indigenous philosophy; they can’t teach it as an indigenous professor can BUT they can offer things the indigenous professor cannot offer, critique, analysis, challenging our people to think deeper and argue better, these are gifts the non-indigenous teacher can bring to us and I say ‘bring it on!” Please let’s replace political correctness with academic integrity, old fashion courteousness and above all respect in it’s full academic expression.

The Wish to be a Red Indian

If one were only an Indian, instantly alert, and on a racing horse, leaning against the wind, kept on quivering jerkily over the quivering ground, until one shed one’s spurs, for there needed no spurs, threw away the reins, for there needed no reins, and hardly saw that the land before one was smoothly shorn heath when horse’s neck and head would be already gone.

(Franz Kafka, “The Wish to be a Red Indian” Meditations, 1904-1912)

Kafka’s meditation is a brilliant evocation of untrammelled natural freedom and a model of poetic brevity.  It is not a documentary record of “Red Indian” life but the expression of a need to occupy open spaces.   The drama plays out not on the Great Plains but in Kafka’s head, in his room in the Jewish Quarter of Prague (which is everything the Great Plains are not:  cramped, twisty streets, confined, bustling).  Kafka’s wish is to be unfettered, to be free from everything constructed and mechanical (the rider needs no reins or spurs; by the end  even the horse itself is dissipating into into pure motion).  The wish is perhaps not to be some particular other, but, to become one with space and time, pure forward motion.

In that respect it goes beyond the typical sort of European fantasy projection that has informed, since Jacques Cartier kidnapped Dom Agaya and Taignoagny from Hochelaga and took them to France, the European construction of the native as “noble savage.”  Kafka’s wish clearly trades on some of this construction, but also dissolves it into the pure freedom of movement.  It is not the ritual, or the dress (there is no description of the rider at all) or the cosmology that elicits the wish, but rather the space  (and thus the freedom to move through it), that summons Kafka’s imagination.

Deadly irony, then that Kafka was writing this “meditation” at time when that very freedom of movement towards the endless horizon of the Plains had been robbed from their original inhabitants.  After the Indian Wars in the United States and the Northwest Rebellion in Canada, after the destruction of bison herds that were the foundation of the Prairie economy, on those plains and in the cities that colonialism created, a more prosaic reality ruled and rules still:  the reality of displacement, marginalization, racist hatred, poverty, and, violence.  But also:  a history of resilience and creativity, political struggle and demands for redress and social transformation, and also calls for solidarity, not separation, and self-change on the part of the descendants of the European colonizers who have (unequally of course) materially benefited so much from colonization.

An important step towards recognition of the reality of Canadian colonial history and a new political relationship with the people of the First Nations was the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  One of the demands that it made was for a re-thinking of the teaching of Canadian history in particular and educational curricula in general, at all levels, to incorporate indigenous knowledges.  I think this demand is valuable for three reasons:  1) it will present a more comprehensive, and therefore, truer account of how Canada came to be;  2) by presenting a truer account of our history, it will give people the knowledge that they need to overcome the racist stereotypes that still dominate too many white Canadians’ images of people of the First Nations; and 3) it will contest the myth of the ‘noble savage’ naturally at one with nature, and remind people that First Nations’ communities always were and are human cultures with complex symbolic structures and thoughtful relationships to the environment and each other.

Still, as important as the task of re-thinking our history and reforming our curricula is, I worry that it is becoming abstracted from the deeper structural changes a full reconciliation with First Nations communities will require.  Let me give you and example to illustrate my concern.

Recently, I was asked by a former student to write a letter of support for an academic position for which he had he applied.  I noticed an addition to the usual boiler plate about commitment to equity.  The relevant section of the ad reads that the successful candidate will have a  “demonstrated understanding of the ways in which equity, indigenous knowledge, and sustainability are  fundamental to the student experience, to innovative scholarship …”   While there is nothing objectionable in itself about this requirement, I could not shake feeling supremely bothered by it.

On the one hand, there is the usual institutional hypocrisy of these requirements.  At the same time as all universities insist upon equity and sustainability, they trip over themselves to attract private funding, often from corporations who could care less about either, and all of which, no matter what their internal culture, drive the capitalist system and its exploitative, alienating, and habitat destroying effects on people, other species, and the environment generally.

But there was something especially irksome about the inclusion of “indigenous knowledge.”  It is not that I think, as someone who lives within the self-enclosed world of the academy, that historically oppressed people have no business demanding that curricula change to include their previously excluded realities.  Curricula should always be changing to ensure ever more comprehensive scope of coverage and understanding.  If universities want to be at the forefront of progressive social change (and they should)  then academics have a responsibility to rethink what they are teaching and find ways to include the excluded.  To be sure, academics must be in charge of these developments so that the changes are made in a way that coheres with the disciplinary traditions and methods that students still need to know, but the demand itself is legitimate and in keeping with the vocation of the university to make available to students the totality of human knowledge in its on-going development.

So what bugged me? The first problem is that the very idea of “indigenous knowledge”  as a generic universal seems to me to be the product of a European perspective.  Indigenous people are not “indigenous,”  save in contrast to settlers and their descendants.  In their own communities– which would be the ground and source of their knowledge– they are Cree, or Iroquois, or Dene, or Inuit.  Clearly, no one who is not form those communities is going to understand, from the inside, the details, the nuances, and especially the meaning of their specific worldviews.  The abstraction “indigenous knowledge”  thus negates the nature of indigenous knowledge, which is not generic, but always specific to actual indigenous communities.

(Is this not true also of “Europe?”  In a sense it is, but its scientific-philosophical outlook has always been cosmopolitan and universalizing.  It is true that we can identify general differences between French, English, and German philosophy, for example, but most of these philosophers would also identify with a pan-European philosophical project.  That point would apply with even greater truth to the sciences).

The abstract generality of the requirement leads directly to the second thing about it that bugged me.  I have worked in universities for 20 years and studied in them for 10 before that.  First Nations people and their historical knowledges are underrepresented everywhere.  It is overwhelmingly likely that none of the people who wrote this ad were  members of any First Nation.  Who, then, is fit to adjudicate the extent to which any applicant (most of whom almost certainly will be white), is or is not well enough versed in “indigenous knowledge”  to incorporate it in to their teaching practice?  Is this not a case of the colonizer (even if unwittingly)  defining for the colonized the very knowledges that define them?

But then I think:  surely the implications of my being irked are absurd.  One does not have to be a woman to understand that curricula have to include women’s perspectives.  Thus, by analogy, one does not have to be a member of a First Nation in order to understand the need to include First Nations’ perspectives.  I suppose there is some truth here.  Understanding the value of a perspective is different from sharing or living that perspective.

Still, it seems true that with some forms of understanding, inhabiting the perspective is part of what it really means to understand it.  I could read about the cosmology of the Iroquois, for example, even talk with elders about it, and I am sure I could learn to explain it, but if I did not grow up relating to the universe through that cosmology, I would not say that I understood it.  Is the “indigenous knowledge”  my learning to explain it, or is it the living the life from within the set of beliefs?  I would say the later.

So I suppose that what is bothering me here is the (probably) unintentional presentation of ‘indigenous knowledge’ as something that non-indigenous academics can just “pick up”  and mechanically build into their curriculum and that the mechanical addition makes us white academics satisfied that we have incorporated  “indigenous knowledge.”  That is not enough, of course, any more than it would have been enough for male academics to be satisfied that they had included women’s perspectives had they just grafted a “feminism unit” on to their courses, but otherwise failed to hire women.  If there is to be a genuine incorporation of indigenous knowledge into the academy, then the academy is going to have to invest seriously in First Nations’ scholars.  In the same way that the academy has been transformed (and the project is not yet complete) by feminism, which could not transform disciplines until there was a critical mass of female academics, so too the organic incorporation of the perspectives and knowledges and life-ways of the various First Nations can only be accomplished by similarly transforming the composition of the professoriate and student body.

Just as conservatives prophesied that feminism would destroy academic integrity and rigor, so too will conservatives rail against “indigenization.”  But just as feminism brought new perspectives to bear on traditional subjects, expanding their scope, not destroying them, so too will the knowledge of different indigenous communities expand but not destroy existing disciplines.  But that means having indigenous scholars across disciplines, and not only in Indigenous Studies programs, all of whom can cross traditions in the academy, speaking in their own voice within and against the voice of the disciplines in which they work.

Of course, that too is only a partial step in transforming the colonial history of the country.  The bigger issues concern land claims, honouring the treaties, and working out some means of systematically compensating the peoples of the First Nations for the material losses colonialism imposed upon them.