On September 14th, 2023, Indigenous author and educator Dr. Marie Battiste gave a talk titled “Decolonizing Education: Toward Cognitive & Social Justice” to the Memorial University community. See the transcript below:
Amanda Bittner: I am so very excited to introduce you to Dr. Marie Battiste. Dr. Battiste is Innu, a member of the Potlotek First Nation in Unama’kik and a member of the Aroostook Band of Micmacs in Maine. After 28 years of teaching at the University of Saskatchewan, she retired to begin service in her home territory as special adviser to the Vice-President (Academic) Provost and to the Dean of Unama’ki College on decolonizing the academy at Cape Brenton University. A graduate of Harvard and Standford universities, her research and scholarly work in decolonizing education, cognitive justice, and protecting Indigenous knowledges have earned her five honorary doctorate degrees, an appointment as officer to the Order of Canada and an elected fellow in the Royal Society of Canada. Dr. Battiste is a widely published author of journals, chapters, and books… Thank you, Dr. Battiste, for joining us today. We are so thrilled to have you.
Marie Battiste: Well, first of all, let me just begin by honouring and recognizing the land on which we are located… the seven districts of the Mi’kmaq nation in Newfoundland, we call Ktaqmkuk and it is on this land that the conference has gathered on these ancestral lands of Indigenous peoples of which there are many, the Mi’kmaq who hold this land as part of their ancestral seven districts of Mi’kma’ki, the Beothuk, our up the river allies we call them whose history and voice has been silenced, the Innu and the Inuit who hold special relationships with the water, the fish and the animals of the north to stretches to many lands and realms.
I wanted to begin by also honoring my ancestors, my parents, my peoples, and in Mi’kmaq, we say Ta’n Wetapeksi. Ta’n Wetapeksi is where I come from, and it’s important for us to all honor the place from which we come. I come from the strong nation of Mi’kmaq people, who have lived in, my parents have lived in Unama’ki. As well as I grew up in Maine, and as a result of that longstanding relationship in Maine, I am also a member of the Micmac Band of Aroostook, and that also gives me the dual citizenship that I hold with Canada and the United States. Of my family is… my son who is the Member of Parliament for Sydney-Victoria riding…, and our daughters are Mariah and Annie, both very accomplished um Indigenous women. I start off also with recognizing that my sister attended the Indian residential school… and it came at a time during our family’s life when the Government of Canada decided to remove our Mi’kmaq people from their self-sustained homelands and move them on to centralized reserves, my family was moved then to Escasoni for a brief short of time where it was increasingly difficult for my mother and father to live on the very small income and the growing family that they had so they went to the state of Maine to work in the fields as migrant laborers and ended up staying there for the good of over 20 years… My sister spent a number of years at the Indian residential school and suffered immensely from that, and it has been the backdrop of our life. It’s been the backdrop of some of the trauma that we’ve experienced as a family, but it also is an important part of why I do what I do and the work that I’m involved in. As part of my own growing up, I came to recognize that we were more than just Mi’kmaq people in one place but yet I recognized that as I went through school that Indigenous people, whether you are in Canada or the United States or coming from New Zealand or any other country that Indigenous people shared a great deal of experiences together that Indigenous knowledges was probably one of the things that bind us as a people as we were placed-based cultures with very distinctive languages, distinctive world views, that we had strong Indigenous spiritual foundations, a strong relationship with our land and our place in nature and in all of the settler colonialism that we lived with we also had a depth of resilience that was ever present in our lives in terms of how we lived in the flux and also with a great deal of the settler colonialism. In that particular experience, as I went up through school, I realized that settler colonialism was something that was not just regional and affecting my people, but it was something that affected everyone everywhere, and everyone had either benefitted from it or… been harmed by it. So, colonization and marginalization, powerlessness, exploitation, racism, violence, and cultural imperialism were all elements what has been the experience of Indigenous people worldwide.
What I have called and what has been called Eurocentrism, I, in my own studies, I’ve come to recognize that we have all been marinated in Eurocentrism, whether it’s our parents or grandparents or all of us, and that experience of being marinated in eurocentrism presents us with a cognitive frame, a socialization in society that has put us either at an advantage or a disadvantage. In the work of James Blaut, I found this word Eurocentrism that has been something that I’ve come to understand as a European Center characterized by superiority… It was characterized as a singularity that moved out from the center around to the periphery, and it was the center that saw themselves as superior civilizations and superior in its laws and everything that they did was progress, and it was moved then out to the periphery whether it was in Africa or India or South America or in all other countries of the world and it moved in notions that it held a universal value of good and it then diffused out to the periphery, and it became the engine of what I call cognitive imperialism by which whole nations and groups of people have been denied their knowledge systems, their culture, spiritual identities, their land, and their wealth confiscated.
Cognitive imperialism was something that I learned while I was in a class by Martin Carnoy at Stanford University. I took this course, and it was on cultural imperialism, and it was in that course that I recognized that the very imperialism that was coming from this Center, British Center, was mobilizing around the world in all its forms, and it then became the way in which it success and progress was defined so for Indigenous people and many others as well success was recognized as integration and assimilation to colonial British Eurocentric values and norms and languages to their knowledges and to assign as a measurement of value to all of us. It normalized multiple oppressions that were raced, class, and gendered, and evident in the discourses in the laws, in the policies, and all ongoing actions thereafter. It is from those particular elements of these multiple oppressions that in the 60s and 70s that we began to identify the disparities that had happened as a result of that ongoing colonialism and begin to recognize how they had affected women, how they affected blacks, Indigenous people and other minorities and diverse groups around the globe but is so also in that we began to realize how all of the other elements that went with it, the bodies, the collective identities, the treaty rights that all had been ignored, the multicultures, the diverse languages, and how the privileging of certain values and languages had created these diverse oppressions that continue throughout the globe and so it was that building block which was the foundation of one of the Canadian genocidal acts of the Indigenous people, the Indian residential schools of which there were over a hundred of them located around Canada to which all of our children were required to attend and were forced out of their homes and families to attend these schools where they treated them badly and created a cognitive imperialism that has resided with us which we are recovering today.
Over 150,000 children in over 100 schools attended these schools from which they lost their languages and their knowledges, the skills connected to their land, their connections to their family and extended families to their community, their culture, their spirituality to their entirety of their Indigenous humanity, sciences, and knowledges, and it created during the years that I was growing up as a young women and going back to the reserve… was my parents when whenever anybody died we always went back to the funerals and attended and from where I sat I begin to see the kind of despair that the Indigenous or the Indian residential schools had created in our communities and those who left the schools and the nihilism or meaninglessness it created in them when they brought, when they had lost their Indigenous languages or had those eroded when they were trying to struggle with whose values were important to raise their children in and the kind of punitiveness of violence that they had learned in the reserve system was something that I thought was an important element for me to learn from as well as to begin to think about the effects those had had on us.
In the Royal Commission Report of 1996, the report cautions that ethnocentric and demeaning attitudes lingered in the policies of the past, but they also linger in policies that port to work on behalf of the Aboriginal people while actually withholding from them the power to work out their own destiny, and we saw that in the Indian Act and so although no longer formally acknowledged this doesn’t lessen their temporary influence and their capacity to generate modern variants and that is the very thing that I’m talking about today is that educational institutions generally create ideas and concepts and practices that they think are in the good of our people, but they do not lessen the contemporary influence of superiority that resides in them and in them we find there are in the settler relations and narratives, the university disciplinary traditions. Our Eurocentric knowledge system that continues to be privileged to achieve dominance and obscuring what was erased and marginalizing and hiding racism and colonialism. It also was the ways in which our languages and knowledges had been viewed as having no contemporary significance not just only for Indigenous people but for others as well and had very little value for education in universities. The students are Indigenous, students are recruited as a body, but then their sole Eurocentric education and academy and there is very little for them to grow into their Indigenous knowledges and it’s built on a notion of they developing individual capacity and self-development, so they can do the hard work of correcting colonialism and eurocentrism in our communities as well as affecting and carrying the biggest burden of all of trying to change or transform educational institutions from their colonial origins so students, faculty, and staff are living with the dissonance and split-brain consciousness… the kind of thing in which you are having to carry the whole violence of colonialism while you are trying to navigate an education in a school system.
One of the things that I come to learn of more recently is this term called agnology or agnatology, written in a book by the making of by Proctor and Schiebinger in 2008. It’s defined as the cultural production of ignorance or how ignorance is produced through neglect, secrecy, suppression, destruction of documents, unquestioned tradition, and social-political selectivity. Agnology or agnatology is probably more evident today as we begin to see in some political countries, especially the United States, where they ignore, define, and redefine various things like civilization like truth-telling and so on, and that is a whole building block of which all these countries have been born into and grew into, but that has not been totally evident, and now we are beginning to see agnology reappearing as an important element for change in political ideologies.
So what I’m trying to say is, you know, decolonization is something that we all are having to address that each one of us has either been a victim or beneficiary of the same educational system, and few of us are privileged with a knowledge of how to achieve a decolonized education, and there is no silver, if I might say call it bullet, or you know individual kind of approach that’s going to change it all. It’s going to be a massive undertaking for us to be able to understand it and then to work in our own locations as well as in our professions and dealing with institutions at their disciplinary level.
The good part of where things have gone, and it is that, you know, since the, I would say, the late 70s when the various movements of civil rights, the Indigenous rights movements, women’s rights movements and so on. All of these have come about as a result of all of the awareness building that these movements have mobilized in books and being on frontline activist events. So, as a result of this, the Indigenous Renaissance began probably in the late 60s and has been an emerging, growing event with Indigenous elders and Scholars, researchers and activists leading this discourse of respect and decolonization in research, education, and law. It’s been part of the Constitution of Canada, courts and legislation. Also, we’ve had this great non-Indigenous ally grouping that has come through postcolonial scholarship through gender and women and gendered studies and so on, and these allies are developing and have been developing scholarship and theories and alternative approaches to Eurocentrism, colonialism, racism, and oppression to which we have then have critical race theory, anti-racism, anti-colonialism, anti-oppressive theories and practices that are important to the place where we are today.
In Canada as well, we’ve gone through a period of decolonization or internationally. The international decolonization began following world wars with the remedy of the orientation of empire as singular and all-powerful needing to be decolonized, and that came about a recognition of colonial dispossession, enslavement and subjugation, and so human rights laws had moved from international law to decolonization as liberation from colonialism, and that began with first creating the human rights, the individual rights as fundamental to all humans of all nations and then secondly the way in which to achieve that decolonization would be through self-determination of those particular peoples in the places where colonization occurred.
So, decolonization in Canada it came about with the Canada Act of 1982, that creates constitutional fiduciary obligations on Canada and its governments to affirm Aboriginal and treaty rights. It also created the Charter of Rights and Freedoms for designated groups respecting the human dignity of all individuals, but even in the Canada Act, it was that Aboriginal rights could not be trampled on by individual rights, and that is in section 52 of the Constitution Act which is the Canada Act so Canada then further in 2007 affirmed the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous people that was a probably a 25 to 30-year journey of Indigenous people creating that declaration, and that was finally signed by all the countries including the four that initially rejected it including Canada, but in 2007 they approved it and then passed the UNDRIP Act in 2021 and that act will align all laws with UNDRIP.
There are many other activators that have gone along with or have been part of that journey of decolonization. The Royal Commission Report, the TRC calls to action, Universities Canada has come on as of 2016 or 2015 and then the Tri-Council policy on Indigenous research, which was revised in 2018. So, what we have is that you know, the UN Declaration has said that all people have all the rights of human rights, these fundamental rights, as well as they are free and free and clear of the being able to exercise their own collective identities as well as free and equal to all other peoples, they have a right to self-determination and more.
But why decolonization and not just equity, diversity, and inclusion has been a report that we did with the Congress in 2021, and there have been decades of unsatisfactory results of EDI, skepticism of the results of EDI committees and what’s changed and why we still having EDI committees and that Indigenous people have not seen themselves as EDI desert seeking although they are EDI deserving. In other words, Indigenous peoples have seen that their treaty and Aboriginal rights have not been considered in most of equity diversity and inclusion concerns, and these things continue to do ongoing harm to Indigenous people.
Equality and equity are about fairness and human rights, and that diversity has been about acceptance and belonging, but largely, equity, diversity, and inclusion have been about inclusion in the Eurocentric framework and that it is how do we all work within this one framework as opposed to the balancing of diverse frameworks which is why decolonization is a structure and a needed element that helps us to unpack the colonial privileging of certain knowledges and traditions while also recognizing that the reconstruction of Indigenous nations and other people’s identities and knowledge systems need to be the foundation for the recovery of those and the rebuilding and recentering them as in the education and all the social systems, laws that are currently operating.
So, when we think about decolonization and Indigenization and reconciliation, we’re looking at these three different elements of them, and I had Lorna Andrews, who does a lovely video online. You should check her video out, but she offered this framework, which I have adapted here to illustrate the ways in which Indigenization must be led by Indigenous people. It is also a shared responsibility, but reconciliation is a settler responsibility that benefits everything, everyone. As well as a shared responsibility, decolonization then becomes the building blocks of both reconciliation and Indigenization with benefits at large. So, reconciliation, if we look at the TRC calls to action, is a requirement for an awareness of the past, acknowledgement of the harm and atonement that causes an action to change behavior. It’s the head, heart, hand kind of thing that we think about. The head being the way we understand things, the heart being how we process that into our heart to effectively change how and what we do in the future, and so it really needs to continue to address the losses and also the historic barriers and redress the economies and growth and change in Indigenous communities and that as a result, we will then be able to begin to rebuild an Indigenization in the institutions that work to understanding that we need to respect Indigenous wisdom and knowledge and expertise in constructing and co-constructing the laws and policies and practices, programs, degrees, economies, environments, institutions, and societies and it requires Indigenous people to take the lead in this as they move forward with various program changes in institutions.
When we look at decolonization as reported in the Congress report that I show here that you can find online. Decolonization is a necessary and ongoing process of unlearning, uncovering and transforming the legacies of colonialism as well as utilizing the educational knowledge systems available to relearn and rebuild the social, cultural, and linguistic foundations that were lost or eroded through colonialism and then in so doing, it requires us making space balancing generating and enabling diverse knowledges to thrive in the academy as well as in and through educational knowledge transmitting places for Indigenous people the formerly colonized are continuing colonized nations peoples and cultural knowledge systems.
As Tuck and Tang have showed us, decolonization is not a metaphor for social justice, though social justice is necessary. Not a metaphor for diversity, although diversity is important. It’s not a metaphor for critical engagement with history, although history consciousness is needed to be connected to anti-colonialism, and it’s not just an additive content to courses and training but a deep interrogation of how we’ve come to know what counts as knowledge who created the processes, we are now using who benefits and who are the gatekeepers. So, in that deep interrogation, we look to how the institution constitutes itself, its curricula, and its programming. Its methodologies, its theories, its approaches and as well as recognition of how his riches were gotten, lands taken, disciplines created, intellectuals generated, grammars chosen and for what purposes, as well as what damage was done and the notion of how we have to recover and repair the knowledges, the languages, as well as addressing the material gains and lands taken so that makes this a very much a material cognitive and systemic process. …Indigenization inclusion have been more of an assimilation approach, in other words adding people, adding hires, adding courses, adding spaces, adding you know cultural programming has the effect of putting all of the burden on Indigenous people to be the decolonizing face of institutions and that cannot do that reconciliation, education, and institution is where all people now are part of the process for changing education but that too is not enough because often times a lot more might be happening at a discursive level there might be more changes in terms of strategic action plans, more Indigenous hires at the senior level, some power sharing with adding a board member or two onto the governance structure, but it really doesn’t take into consideration what needs to be done in terms of Indigenous people building their own institutions and also drawing upon the strength of the both the funds and the way to gather and to take their knowledge systems and grow maybe separate systems that can thrive at beside other knowledge systems so decolonization, in my view, is not just the navigating of the ship around the islands but rather it is about how do we construct knowledge systems that are both in Indigenous languages similar to French language systems that have their own systems in French and in English and Indigenous languages and there are some growing examples of that around the world and I know that that can work so really builds upon self-determination, the recovery of identities the recognitions of land and placed learning developing Indigenous sovereignty and through reclaiming of our own Indigenous knowledge traditions.
It really means that Indigenous scholars there are many of us who are refusing eurocentrism and their methodologies and practices and creating and developing our own theories or methods and our own Indigegogy as Stan Wilson and Kathy Absolon have talked about in terms of Indigegogy being different from pedagogy which pedagogy operates within a hierarchy structure of a teacher and the school board and so on and Indigegogy is what happens in a system that it comes from the land and also from a more flattened egalitarian approach we are also asserting the right to teach Indigenous knowledges and practices in our own way and using an appropriate our own ethics and our own standards of practice and also creating new ways for disseminating our scholarship and knowledge outside of journals and Eurocentric venues and public venues in our own Indigenous languages and so these require different kinds of action that might be taken by institutions to understand their complicities to challenge the racism and eurocentrism and bring about social justice and indigenization to all courses and units develop a recruitment and hire and retention plan for Indigenous hires to create an anti-racist training of staff assess the effectiveness of the work culture and current policies develop a reconciliation action plan and goals and outcomes for every unit and so on and so if you look at these kinds of things I would like to say that you know Concordia University, if you go to Concordia University decolonizing Indigenous knowledges and pedagogies, you will see an active approach done by… that is ongoing and takes into consideration all these and much more in terms of the work they’re doing and that it really builds on ecojustice and living well in the interconnections of land and languages cognitive and social justice the fair and balancing of education and health and governing and social systems and professions holistic lifelong learning and the building blocks of it from UNDRIP or the UN declaration for the rights of indigenous people and to which that will help us to develop the recovery of our lands our land based communities the respect for those Indigenous knowledges and ways of living together the respect for our spiritual and cyclical renewing traditions and ceremonies our living relation with the ecologies developing enhancing resilience from teachings and advancing resurgence and Indigenous Renaissance and with that I’d like to thank you saying that I think it’s important to recognize that “nothing about us, without us” has to be built into the university structures and that we as the world of cognitive imperialism that silence is the shield of domination. Elizabeth Minnich has offered that in the book Transforming Knowledge, and I appreciate these opportunities. Thank you.
Matt Barter is a fourth-year student in the Humanities and Social Sciences Faculty at Memorial University of Newfoundland, majoring in Political Science with a minor in Sociology. He enjoys reading thought-provoking articles, walks in nature, and volunteering in the community.