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.