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Different Knowings and the Indigenous Humanities

From: ESC: English Studies in Canada
Volume 38, Issue 1, March 2012
pp. 141-159 | 10.1353/esc.2012.0009

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In the 2010-2011 academic year, an interdisciplinary group at McMaster University planned and hosted a visiting speakers series for the Department of English and Cultural Studies on the theme "different knowings." The organizing group included scholars from English, gender studies and feminist research, religious studies, and indigenous studies, and the series was organized in honour of the final year of the Canada Research Chair in Diversity in Canadian Literary Cultures. As the various speakers came to campus, we conducted video interviews with them and then excerpted short clips from the videos, aimed at classroom use, that are now being posted at the Studio on Canadian Literary Cultures website (see www.literarycultures.ca). The following interview with the indigenous humanities group—including in this case Marie Battiste, Isobel Findlay, Len Findlay, and James Youngblood (Sákéj) Henderson—is the full, unexpurgated interview conducted at McMaster University with Daniel Coleman on 23 March 2011.

Essentially, the speakers/video series is meant to address the question of if and how the university can be a place of different knowings—different epistemologies, different knowledges. While the university is commonly understood to be a place where different knowledge systems enter into dialogue and debate, the institutional structures of the university tend to acculturate and conscript different kinds of knowledge into their own existing categories for what can be known, how knowledge can be organized, and what forms of knowledge are credible and legitimate. Recent scholarship has insisted that "there is no global justice without global cognitive justice" (Boaventura de Sousa Santos), that "economies of credibility" (Miranda Fricker) are often dominated by "cognitive imperialism" (Marie Battiste), which reduces our ability to perceive a "world of different knowings" (Linda Hogan). While some scholars have called attention to the possibilities for a "pedagogy of crossing" (M. Jacqui Alexander), and for the importance of "cross-talk" (Diana Brydon) between Western-colonial knowledge traditions and their "others," other scholars have warned of the difficulties in finding "ethical space" (Willie Ermine) wherein cross-cultural and cross-epistemological dialogue might take place without the dominant and existing systems of knowledge assimilating their "others" into their own assumptions and protocols (Lee Maracle). The Different Knowings series is meant to investigate the possibilities for productive dialogue between different knowings and particularly to ask if and how the university can create spaces for this kind of dialogue.

Of primary concern in this complex of questions is the role of the humanities, for, as Sákéj Henderson said in a talk on the indigenous humanities, delivered at the University of Saskatchewan on 31 March 2008, the Eurocentric humanities have been the ammunition used against indigenous and colonized peoples throughout the colonial endeavour. The purported lack of arts and letters amongst people who occupied resource-rich territories during the colonial scramble for African, Asian, and American wealth served to rationalize their colonization and indentureship within not only plantations and reservations but also within the Eurocentric curriculum of residential and missionary schools. This, despite the many kinds of literacy and art-making that all people have developed around the world and throughout history. Nonetheless, the perceived lack of humanities, as articulated by major European or Euro-American philosophers from Francis Bacon and Immanuel Kant to Thomas Jefferson and David Hume, provided the rationale for the enslavement, displacement, and epistemicide practised against indigenous peoples around the world (see Gates). Indeed, as Sákéj Henderson and Marie Battiste note in this interview, the battle to attain recognition as humans, as "persons," continues in contemporary struggles of indigenous peoples today at the United Nations. To put it bluntly, the traditional canons of the humanities have a long record of firing cannons of inhumanity.

As the following interview with the indigenous humanities group indicates, material decolonization, material liberty, and dignity for colonized peoples comes hand in hand with intellectual decolonization. To borrow from Ngugi wa Thiong'o's famous title, politics, economics, and other structures of human interrelation cannot be decolonized without decolonizing the minds of people on all sides of the colonial relation—colonists, compradors, colonials, colonized, and postcolonized alike. Decolonizing the mind involves a rejection of diffusionism, the notion that knowledge spreads one way from ancient...

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