ed. Mihesuah & Wilson, Indigenizing the Academy

It took me longer than I expected to get through Indigenizing the Academy: Transforming Scholarship and Empowering Communities, a collection of challenging and insightful essays edited by Devon Abbott Mihesuah and Angela Cavender Wilson. This is a good thing, though, because to some extent it replicated for me a small part of one aspect of the manifold difficulties faced by First Nations students in Canadian universities. When I was an undergraduate, most early-year courses felt like I was filling in the gaps of material I'd already been exposed to. At the time, I didn't think about students whose backgrounds were different enough from my own that these subjects were entirely new.

There's no point offering a detailed review of this book here, because I need to read it again to get over some of the vertigo. The university described in most of these essays - not just structurally difficult for First Nations individuals to enter into and remain within, but actively opposed to First Nations engagement - isn't the one I recognize as my own. My own practice isn't like that of those described here as opposed to First Nations engagement and independence, and by reflex I oppose the kinds of gate-keeping tactics the various authors object to, as my colleagues would support after I've gotten heated up at a few department meetings over the last couple of years (not about First Nations matters in these past cases, but about equity matters and general fairness).

And yet clearly, I'm more like these authors' opponents than I am like the authors themselves, even though I have no patience with the opponents and every desire for community with the authors.

The clearest example of what causes vertigo for me comes from Joseph P. Gone's terrific essay "Keeping Culture in Mind." Gone argues, from example and from theory, just how it is that psychology must be understood as purely Western, rather than globally applicable. He recounts an incident involving his grandmother, who in the course of a casual afternoon visit broke down in tears while recounting a story about the death of her favourite sister some decades earlier; after she left, another relative (who'd been through therapy in relation to addiction) commented in frustration that the grandmother needed to "confront her unresolved grief." Gone's perspective is instead that the grandmother is required to weep for her sister, even after the passage of considerable time, because to fail to do so would be (in his words) "a morally inappropriate abdication of her kinship obligations." The relative's perception derives from contemporary Western psychology, what Gone terms "unconscious cultural proselytization" by the psychologist who'd worked with the relative. In a Gros Ventres view, there's nothing "unresolved" about this grief, nothing that needs resolving - in fact, resolving it would represent a failure to sustain tribal identity.

Complex stuff.

The copy-editing of this book was a tiny bit slapdash, in that every article has a couple of very minor typos, but the material is important and interesting. This isn't the world I know, so I need to reflect on the extent to which I've been blind and the extent to which I've seen better practices than the ones described in this book, but every single person involved with university instruction or administration needs to read Indigenizing the Academy: Transforming Scholarship and Empowering Communities. Every single person.


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