Indigenous perspectives on truth, academic freedom, and tenure have only recently started to be meaningfully reflected in academic discourse. If embraced, these longstanding approaches to scholarship within Indigenous communities can make important contributions to our campus communities.

Challenging structures of power

Universities are speech communities with a structure of power. Within these communities, a set of norms and rules determines who can speak, what can be said, how one can speak, and the consequences for violating these sometimes unwritten rules. Recently, voices that have previously been silent because they were not welcomed or present on university campuses are now speaking forcefully and challenging existing power structures.

One set of voices that has been absent is that of Indigenous faculty and scholars, largely due to the historically small numbers of Indigenous faculty and students on campus. This is starting to change. Through Indigenization initiatives, universities have been hiring more Indigenous faculty while Indigenous student enrolment has increased significantly over the past decade. Their voices, both individually and collectively, are bringing a new set of ideas, ways of doing things, and perspectives about the purpose and functioning of the academy.

Indigenous scholars encounter academic speech communities that are often remarkably different from those in which they grew up, where independent thought, speaking one’s mind, respect, and humility were cultural norms rooted in Indigenous knowledge and ways of seeing and doing.

For the most part, what we call Indigenous knowledge had previously been part of the academic community through the work of anthropologists who presented it as cultural or folk knowledge. Over the last two decades, it has started to become part of the academic speech community in a new way, through a new set of actors—Indigenous Elders and Indigenous faculty—whose lives and academic work are grounded in both Indigenous and conventional Western knowledge. Most Indigenous scholars subscribe to an ethical speech community developed by Mi’kmaq Elder Albert Marshall: Etuaptmumk or “two-eyed seeing.” This ethic seeks to bring Indigenous knowledge and western knowledge into conversation and dialogue with each other in the continued search for a better world.

In an age of reconciliation, Canada’s universities are called upon to make significant contributions to this important national project. They are expected to research and uncover new truths, and use their considerable powers to foster a climate of reconciliation. The university is a moral and ethical actor in a larger national project of righting the wrongs of the past and creating a just future. It played a role in colonization and is now re-orienting itself for a role in decolonization and reconciliation through a process called Indigenization. Indigenization can be thought of as an ethical project aimed at creating a new speech community that values Indigenous voices and Indigenous knowledge.

Indigenization brings with it several challenges surrounding the core tasks of teaching, research, and service: What should be taught? Who should be teaching? What constitutes valid research? How is this research communicated? What is our service relationship with Indigenous communities? How do we deal with those who are strongly critical of the Indigenization process? What should be done when the views of academics differ from those of the Indigenous leadership? What does academic freedom mean in this new ethical speech community?

Academic freedom and truth telling

Academic freedom is generally understood, in the words of the CAUT, as “freedom to teach and discuss; freedom to carry out research and disseminate and publish the results thereof; freedom to produce and perform creative works; freedom to engage in service to the institution and the community; freedom to express one’s opinion about the institution, its administration, and the system in which one works.”

Freedom, however, carries ethical responsibilities. As Indigenous academics working in the academy, we bring ideas from our national intellectual traditions, generally through what we have come to call Indigenous Knowledge. Knowledge Holders (Elders) have expectations about how this knowledge is treated by the academy: respect for how this knowledge is created, how it is transmitted, who transmits it, when it can be transmitted and more importantly what can be brought into the academy. Their expectations constitute an ethic of care for the academy. How does one practice respect for Indigenous knowledge in a community based upon the notion of challenge as a fundamental approach to determining truth?

Academic freedom is not absolute. It is enacted with a goal of mutual benefit. The foundation of academic freedom is the necessity of telling truths and the freedom from reprisal for doing so. So, the question becomes, can Indigenous scholars bring our truths into the academy and place them alongside other truths?

There is a strong ethical truth-telling tradition embedded in traditional Indigenous teachings. In the Debwewin Jury Review Implementation Committee’s Final Report, Elder Allan White of the Naotkamegwanning First Nation describes the term Debwewin:

Debwewin is a very strong word—an Anishinaabe word—it not only means truth, it encompasses the heart, the heartbeat of the drum, the heartbeat of the individual, what excites the spirit of the body. If you are untruthful, if you deny Debwewin, things will not go the way we want them to go.

Debwewin is one of the Seven Grandfather Teachings—the core ethical and moral teachings of Anishinaabe Elders—to live in “a good way,” to live without conflict or contradiction, and to live in peace with all relations. Debwewin does not mean absolute truth or the only truth. It means to speak only to the extent we have lived or experienced.

Careful deliberation and diverse perspectives

Leanne Simpson, writing in Dancing on our Turtle’s Back, points out that the Anishinaabe have a long history of careful deliberations. Aanjigone, she writes, is “the idea that one needs to be very, very careful with making judgements and with the act of criticism. Aanjigone is a concept that promotes the framing of Nishnaabeg values and ethics in the positive. It means that if we criticize something, our spirit being may take on the very things we are criticizing…” The tradition is also represented by Naakgonige, meaning “to carefully deliberate and decide when faced with any kind of change or decision…to make decisions slowly and carefully.”

Within the Haudenosaunee, the concept of Ganigonhi:oh, “the good mind” illustrates an ethical responsibility to use one’s mind in a way that balances reason and passion. The Condolence Ceremony, used for the installation of Chiefs, is intended to restore the good mind for leaders so that they may carry out their responsibilities:

We now do crown you with the sacred emblem of the deer’s antlers, the emblem of your chieftainship. You shall now become a mentor of the people of the Five Nations. The thickness of your skin shall be seven spans, which is to say that you shall be proof against anger, offensive actions and criticism. Your heart shall be filled with peace and good will. Your mind shall be filled with a yearning for the welfare of the people of the League. With endless patience you shall carry out your duty and your firmness shall be tempered with tenderness for your people. Neither anger nor fury shall find lodging in your mind. All your words and actions shall be marked with calm deliberation. In all your deliberations in the Council of the League, in your efforts at law-making, in all your official acts, self-interest shall be cast away. Do not cast over your shoulder behind you the warnings of your nephews and nieces should they chide you for any error or wrong you may do, but return to the Great Law which is right and just. Look and listen for the welfare of the whole people, and have always in view not only the present, but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground—the unborn of the future Nation. (Gayanashagowa, Wampum 28)

Many years ago, I had an opportunity to speak with Eber Hampton, the President of the First Nations University of Canada, about the academic culture of the university and the challenges it faced. He recounted a story about the negotiation of their first collective agreement. The sticking point was the idea of permanency or tenure. The Board was reluctant to agree to it.

In order to find a way forward, Eber brought together an Elder’s committee to advise the board on how to address the issue. He explained Western academic culture, the roles of professors, and the way permanency is linked to academic freedom. The proper functioning of the university requires professors the freedom to research and teach what they feel is important and to speak without fear of reprisal.

The Elders deliberated for a few days and provided the following advice: Professors have a responsibility to tell the truth, and should be protected while doing so—provided that they do it with respect, kindness, and honesty. The Elders, who were mostly Cree, Dene, and Saulteaux, provided an answer consistent with their values. They braided Indigenous values with academic values.

Professors have a responsibility to tell the truth, and should be protected while doing so—provided that they do it with respect, kindness, and honesty.

In 1972, François Mianscum, a Cree man, appeared in a court case and was asked to swear on the Bible that he was telling the truth. He responded that he did not know whether or not he could tell the truth—he could only tell what he knew. François understood truth as being subjective and based on a diversity of experiences.

John Borrows, a Chippewa legal scholar, explains that, for Indigenous scholars, these diverse truths are seen as important and necessary parts of a larger whole. Through a long dialogue, a better understanding of truth emerges from the interplay of diverse perspectives. This contrasts with the European truth tradition, in which multiple truths are positioned in competition with one another, and only a single, agreed upon truth emerges from the process of challenge.

Complex understanding

Reconciliation adds Indigenous scholars and scholarship to the academy and challenges, sometimes gently and sometimes forcefully, the ethics of the speech community. Central to building an Indigenous academic culture is: the ability to determine the problem to be examined; the parameters of the problem; the nature of inquiry into the problem; the method of inquiry; the data to be gathered; the analyses to be used; the way the data is interpreted; the construction of options and solutions; the dissemination of results; the translation of these results into action; and the eventual re-examination and reappraisal of the scholarship and its ideas. Inherently, these acts challenge the power of academics who have made these choices for us for so long.

Indigenous scholarship comes to the table with a central notion of complex understanding. Complex understanding occurs when we begin to see a phenomenon from multiple perspectives and understand the relationships among these perspectives. Complex understanding does not seek to replace one view with another, but to find a way of ensuring that all views are considered. A phenomenon is not one thing or another, but all things at one time. Complex understanding allows our understanding to shift. It is grounded in a view of a constantly changing reality capable of transformation at any time.

Complex understanding is based on dialogue rather than dialectic. In this sense, it is deeply rooted in traditional Indigenous notions of how one comes to understand. It can create a broader and deeper understanding of phenomenon, fostering a conversation among different disciplines, perspectives, knowledge systems, and methods of inquiry. All without necessarily inviting competition. Challenge is present through the attempt to understand and explain sometimes differing and sometimes similar views.

I recall a talk by a young Indigenous scholar who was studying community dynamics. Educated as sociologist, she characterized what she saw as factionalism. I asked how, based upon her own intellectual traditions as a Haudenosaunee person, she would describe what she saw.

She responded that she saw the search for one mind (which is the Haudenosaunee way of describing the process of deliberation and debate). We chatted for a bit and, after a while, one of my colleagues said that it doesn’t matter what it’s called, it’s still factionalism. Sociology, I remarked at the time, was a little more than 75 years old. The search for one mind was about a thousand years old. Over the past three decades, we have come to understand that both can exist simultaneously.

Engaging in Indigenous scholarship

Indigenous scholarship doesn’t just engage the intellect, it engages the mind, spirit, and body. It considers all in its exploration. Living in an animate universe requires an awareness, a respect for, and a commitment to take care of the lives around us—both human and non-human. Research inquires into aspects of these lives and requires that we build good and respectful relationships with those we study.

Indigenous scholarship doesn’t just engage the intellect, it engages the mind, spirit, and body.

At the start of a research project, ceremonies may be conducted to pay respects to these lives and seek permission to begin our inquiry. We also need to take care of our own spirits and minds so that we undertake our inquiries in a good way. While a sound methodology is important, so is the state of our spirit, our minds, and our bodies.

Indigenous scholarship brings with it a willingness to engage other disciplines and ways of knowing. It does not reject the knowledge that has been gained by the West in its exploration of physical, social, or spiritual reality. Indigenous scholarship brings these ideas to the table and considers them alongside Indigenous ideas, accepting or rejecting them on the basis of their usefulness. The truth test in Indigenous knowledge is: Does this help us to survive and live well?

Indigenous scholarship also brings with it a sense of mind and intellect grounded in the Indigenous experience and perspective. It provides a sense of agency, an ability to shape the world through one’s thoughts, actions, and feelings. All these factors are important for creating legitimacy in the eyes of Indigenous peoples. If Indigenous scholars cannot speak our truths in the academic community, then the ethics of academic freedom are violated and we are strongly sent the signal that we are not welcome.

For many, Indigenization focuses on the work of the academy: educating students, engaging in research, and contributing to community. However, true Indigenization means more than this. It braids Indigenous values about truth and truth processes into academic culture and avoids repeating the actions of Indian residential schools. For Indigenous scholars, academic freedom also carries responsibility grounded in historic ways of understanding the world, emphasizing responsibility rather than freedom.

Borrows’ view that there is diversity in Anishinaabe thought, and that these differences ought to be recognized and reckoned with, should extend beyond the classroom and research. He argues that the reckoning should be framed positively rather than negatively. Like our ideals surrounding free speech and academic freedom, the test is how we deal with the realities of our speech communities as structures of power. How do we deal with unpopular ideas and speech that violate the norms of the community?

Indigenous ethics and respectful spaces

We already have prescriptions against hate speech, personal slander, and verbal attacks. And we have a presumption of civility in our speech acts. However, vigorous debates about ideas too often become ad hominem attacks against individuals and groups, which many find distasteful and do not believe belong in the academy. Borrows would argue that we ought to recognize, respect, and engage. This is the challenge: How do we engage with ideas that we find distasteful or disagreeable?

Two years ago, during the US election, some conservative students at Trent University enthusiastically supported Trump and his “Make America great again” message. A teaching assistant (TA) wanted to ban Trump supporters from the campus. The TA was offended by their signs and t-shirts and wanted to use the classroom as a site for the distribution of a petition asking that these Trump supporters be banned from campus.

The teaching group debated this request vigorously and eventually concluded that banning the students and their viewpoints was not consistent with the academic culture of our department. We urged the TA to find a creative way to present their counter-arguments. If the issue had been about Indigenous peoples and the students took the position that Indigenous peoples were poor because they were lazy, I wonder what we would have said. Could we have reacted with the equanimity that traditional views demand? Adopting an Indigenous knowledge perspective does not isolate us from debate. It foregrounds the ethics of the speech community.

As Indigenous academics, we attempt to react to these situations using two Indigenous ethical concepts: The ideal of a good way grounded in the Anishinaabe Seven Grandfather teachings and the Haudenosaunee ideal of the good mind. The good mind ideal assumes the mind is capable of both reason and passion. It asks us to balance the two, recognizing that both are important. The good way ideal asks us to respect the inherent dignity of all, balancing the desires and needs of the individual and the community.

These ideas and practices have not been part of the wider academic community, nor part of the conversation about academic freedom. We can create respectful space for them by using the Mi’kmaq concept of two-eyed seeing. Albert Marshall, a Mi’kmaq Elder, has brought forward an ethical concept that can be very useful in academic research.

The concept creates an ethical speech community that provides space for both Indigenous and other forms of knowledge in respectful conversation. It affirms that both sets of knowledge have something to contribute to the understanding of the human condition and ought to be included in our teaching, research, and service as academics. It has proven to be foundational in creating a new research community. Perhaps our conversations about inclusion of new voices and academic freedom might also be informed by Indigenous knowledge. Debwewin asks us to consider many truths not just our own.

David Newhouse is a Professor of Indigenous Studies and Business Administration at Trent University. He is also the Director of the Chanie Wenjack School for Indigenous Studies.