Wednesday, April 28, 2010

I'd Like To Spank The Academy...

Recently I attended a conference hosted by Jeanette Armstrong’s En’owkin Center at Penticton BC. For 3 days, mostly indigenous, academics from an array of disciplines from North America, New Zealand and Europe presented on various aspects of their theory, research and practice. The conference was called Transformation and Praxis and it came just when I needed it.

Typical lecture subjects ranged from forestry, water issues, language and history and generally speaking, the theme or point wasn’t commercial, it was real. I know this is a poor sentence and sounds vague but what I mean is that regardless of the topic or the presenter, most, if not all seminars were decidedly lacking in a commercial bottom line. In fact, it seemed that commerce was often the key factor that hindered much of what most are trying to accomplish in their chosen field. Add to that, the common experience of utter disregard or disrespect for indigenous methodology in the academy was clear. I can’t recall anyone who didn’t experience the same type of hardship within their respective institutions over the fact that Indigenous people don’t seem to get into these fields to exploit but rather to serve their communities (and no - I’m not naïve – I am very aware we have just as many exploiters and money shaker-makers, as any body else but c’mon we’re people too, ya know!). This stood out as the indigenous bottom line for me. I saw mostly PhD’s (or candidates) and master’s scholars detailing their research and their experiences in trying to learn how to help their communities. They want to learn so they can help their people. Universities don’t support this philosophy as it pertains to aboriginal people in any real way (of course some individuals in a particular institution have been supportive but they had to be found, at times in very obscure places around the world but then again that’s what good scholarship is).

For instance, one lecturer detailed her pioneering work in geographical satellite mapping of forest species types, locations and densities. Now the big forestry companies are very keen to utilize this kind of technology and information obviously to maximize their exploitation of this resource. But this individual is trying to use the information to find ways of enacting responsible and real sustainable forestry practice (not the completely inappropriate and misleading industry definition of “sustainable”). She also seeks to collect data in order to prevent industrial forestry practice from occurring near important traditional aboriginal hunting and fishing places and near important river systems and watersheds. Her expertise and knowledge of non-indigenous forestry practice shows clearly that it destroys the health and vitality of aboriginal land and water (eco-systems and bio-regions). As industry now knows, you cannot clear cut a mountainside, then plant small saplings of a cheaper, genetically modified (and often foreign to that area) species and say that the forest will simply grow back in time. Old and moderate growth forests only work because of their unique and abundant density and diversity and inter-related nutrient exchange at points located below tree lines or nearer the forest floor. Add to this the fact that snow, precipitation and its runoff is now completely altered and unfiltered and serves mainly to choke and contaminate any river system or freshwater source that lies below it, not to mention the large scale impact on wildlife that comes with road construction and installation of machinery by the forest industry. Sending a bunch of pot-smoking summer students out there after the fact, planting saplings for minimum wage is not sound, sustainable or ethical forestry practice. - - The presenter wants to identify areas that if forested, will have maximum negative impact on aboriginal people. Industry wants this information in order to build the cheapest roads to get to these very same places. Why does industry not go elsewhere? Because the reason aboriginal people inhabit these areas in the first place is because of its richness and density in natural resources. The ironic fact, aboriginal people have been there for untold thousands of years…but you would never know it, so expertly and deftly has their use of indigenous knowledge and practice been in place. - - So this person is under immense pressure because forestry provides millions to universities in endowments and grants solely for the purpose of accessing more efficient means of industrial scale forestry methods (i.e., to make more money, faster).

Next, our brightest minds must deal with the fact that at that non-indigenous academia is often reluctant to endorse the information we've cited - your sources for information and knowledge need to be cited, this is not the problem, in fact it's good. Though universities and other bodies claim to respect indigenous and “traditional” knowledge, when it comes time to assess or adjudicate material wherein a traditional source (i.e., information or knowledge not found in a liberry or a book) has been cited, the scholar (student, researcher etc) often has an uphill climb in having the work approved, endorsed, sanctioned, certified or accepted. Now some readers at this point will think: well, screw them we don’t’ need…blah, blah, blah…But the people engaged in this struggle are every ounce as committed as anyone else. They take on these challenges with a warrior’s spirit. They actively seek and find those places within and without that need to be found. When necessary, they engage with the oppressor, confront the barrier…and proceed. Research and learn about what Indigenous people have done for themselves in places like Hawaii and New Zealand. Look at the models they have developed for teaching their people their way. It’s very interesting and very powerful.

What’s really powerful is that they can now (indigenous scholars) more frequently and specifically articulate with data this “inter-related or inter-connectedness” that indigenous people have been speaking of since contact. In the past, there were simply linguistic barriers to mutual learning. I am not referring to the concept being new as of contact I am speaking of the effectiveness (or lack of) and difficulty in mutual understanding, based on language.

Vine Deloria Jr., Jeneatte Armstrong, Leroy LittleBear, Hunani Kay- Trask, Jack Forbes are just some of our people who have not compromised their spiritual or cultural selves to reach previously uninhabited places in the academy. And people like Armstrong and LittleBear, each of whom is a fluent speaker of their own nation’s language first, are also more articulate than most people whose first language is English (i.e., white people). What this does is that it gives no place for non-indigenous academia to run. They can no longer blame OUR deficiencies or OUR inabilities…they can only exhibit their unwillingness to see…and they do. Their (silence) is deafening but antiquated ideas and methods are on their way out…all sensible people know this. But just because they bury their heads in the sand doesn’t mean we’re going to…*(sigh)…(I'm so happy).

I mentioned at the top that this conference came along just when I needed it. This was in reference to frequent company i had been keeping that consistently slandered people who chose to pursue goals at universities, colleges and various institutes. If people could have seen the power inherent in stories of the struggle to achieve in the hostile and often lonely halls of academia, one couldn’t help but be inspired. For me I wanted to high five these women (as usual, it is mostly women, doing the hard work…but that’s a topic for another post) because of what they were giving me. Just hearing of their trials and tribulations AND, it must be said, their PROGRESS proved that nothing we do is in vain. I had been letting all these bad vibes sink in about what value he, she, they or it was having and I was slowly starting to give my power away to influential people (Indian lefties, yet…and I am one) and their cult of “the system.” Then creator sends me to this conference and I am restored and my faith and conviction gets stronger. Now more than ever, I see attitude is everything.

For those of a particular or hardcore stance, those who wield culture like a weapon, who have no room for other points of view who, have deemed and judged others (see previous blog on “judgment”) inferior or deficient…thank you for caring enough to share your opinion. We understand you don’t believe approaches such as education or other areas of endeavor (art?) are necessary. But I am so glad to disagree (what’s difference between you and them? They ALSO have god on their side, remember?).

It is necessary and difficult. But it is necessary in the same way we need people (wherever they are) to learn and practice traditional language and ways of knowing. In my own experience I have been to lots and lots of places to learn and find teachings that I now carry but these things were gathered with a respectfully critical process that takes nothing at face value (nothing). It is not helpful (or realistic) to think that only in the country does one have access to their cultural and spiritual influence and power. If that’s true, then most of us are wasting on our time aren’t we? Fundamentalists – beat it! I love my fellow sojourners and spiritual groove locaters and self/spirit makers who have no choice but to seek and find solace, comfort and power in these places in the heart and in the hood. Wouldn’t everybody love to have an island, cottage or home (a home, home on the rez) to retreat to a place to go to replenish? But we make do and some of us do the best we can for ourselves and each other. I see the willingness to engage at every level in every field and in every way that is meaningful and it’s powerful also. It is in keeping with traditional values I’ll have the reader know.

In fact, I would contend that most of these presenters I wrote about are solidly immersed in a traditional, spiritual and/or cultural identity and practice. You’d have to be to make it in the hostile environment of “higher learning” (or amid the urban wilderness) while hanging on your soul.

These scholars are working tirelessly to better themselves and their lives, and their communities. In the process they are creating space in these institutions and the larger society for their people to follow and contributing to a body of knowledge useful for a type of student after them. Eventually we will cite our own people in our work and in our scholarship and it will not be questioned. The idea is that down the road we have our own institutions, with our own curriculum, based on our own knowledge, values and philosophies and practices based on our own ideas of what is appropriate and most useful to our people.

We have a long way to go but what alternative is there? The only way to get through…is to get through.

Two Indians stood at the bottom of a mountain, each needing to be at the top by sundown. The one Indian started off and looked behind him to see the other sit down and bow his head. “What are you doing?” he asked.
“I’ll never make it in time…I am praying hard the Creator gives me wings.”
“Good idea,” said the other, “but I think I’m going to head out and pray along the way.”

© 2010 Champsteen Publishing

1 comment:

  1. Interesting. Very. I went to a similar Indigenous Women's Conference who were presenting their thesis to the community. And it was all the same struggle. Having to argue our inherent Traditional Knowledge and Research Methodologies. From all the women who presented they were all strong, determined and well-versed in Traditional Protocols. In fact, these scholars and academia folk were bringing Indigenous intelligence and our own academia to the forefront. They were celebrating our Traditional Knowledge and Research Methods. We do have our own way to look at things, observing life, the inter-connectedness of all. They were bridging the gap. They were raising the bar. They were challenging all in attendance to bring their game. And like you said, they are warriors in every sense of the word. They are the ones who are really making an impact where these types of conferences can happen and dialogue and sharing can happen. One Anishnaabe:kwe stands out for me, Dawnis Kennedy. She was remarkable. She sited her thesis as a floral beadwork design. She reflected on Anishnaabe traditional knowledge and tradition policing and law practices that already exists. And she explaining her process of the design and said her thesis is done, now she just has to write for her PhD in Law. There you go. She is my hero.