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.

2 thoughts on “The Wish to be a Red Indian

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

    BACKGROUND

    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.

    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.

    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”.

    EMERGING PARADIGM

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

    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).

    MISPLACED SENSITIVITY

    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).

    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.

    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.

    UNNECESSARY

    The position promoting “indigenous only” professors to teach indigenous philosophy is not just a power grab for resources, it is an inauthentic and unnecesary 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.

    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.

    RESPECT AND HONOR – NOT POLITICAL CORRECTNESS

    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.

    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.

    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.

    • Bruce,
      Thanks you so much for your intervention. I will read it with the care it deserves in the next week or so and get back to you with my thoughts.

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