Decolonizing vs. Indigenizing

Curriculum and Pedagogical Approaches

Indigenous-based curriculum should be prefaced by an introduction into Indigenous research ideologies and research methods.

A First Nations Two-Spirit student
(The Mapping Project 2020 [PDF])

Decolonizing Approaches

Decolonizing approaches center on learning about the colonial histories, ideologies, and contemporary conditions shaped by colonialism, settler colonialism, and imperialism. This approach may also involve de-centring Western knowledge systems, such as by focusing on knowledge produced by Indigenous, Black, global south/global two-thirds/global majority, and/or people from racialized, marginalized, and diasporic social locations, or what Kelebogile Zvobgo calls “historically excluded” and the University of British Columbia calls “historically, persistently, or systemically marginalized (HPSM) groups” (UBC Equity and Inclusion Office).

At an individual level, non-Indigenous faculty can approach the call to decolonize by becoming familiar with the debates and models around doing decolonial work in their field(s) and by engaging with Indigenous peoples, cultures, nations, communities, and scholars. Likewise, faculty can learn more about the various decolonial movements and approaches and how these raise different pedagogical and political concerns, such as Black decolonial approaches. Whether implicitly or explicitly using the language of “decolonization,” a similar approach can be used: teaching about colonization, de-naturalizing Western knowledge systems and traditions as universal, and learning about the lives, experiences, and perspectives of Indigenous peoples and colonized peoples.

Unsettling versus Decolonizing: Indigenous Approaches to Decolonization

While departments, programs, and individual faculty members have worked to incorporate decolonial material and approaches in their courses, Indigenous peoples, nations, communities, and scholars have questioned the relationship between decolonization and colonial nation-states. Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang (2012) [PDF] critique the turn to decolonization as a metaphoric approach to diversifying curriculum, instead calling for a decolonization approach that centres on land repatriation to Indigenous peoples. Rather than using decolonization as a metaphor for justice, Tuck and Yang call for an unsettling of settler colonialism—a process that makes colonial institutions, like education, incommensurable with Indigenous sovereignty and futures (2012). Similarly, Glen Coulthard (2014) argues that attempts to recognize and accommodate Indigenous peoples within colonial institutions reinforce rather than decolonize colonial systems.

Regardless of the possible limitations of decolonization as an approach to curriculum and pedagogy, the concept of decolonization remains a compelling call to action for systemic change at the institutional level, such as through:

  1. Ethical hiring of Indigenous peoples at all levels at the university using Indigenous-led protocols (Lawford and Coburn 2019);
  2. Working with local communities around land repatriation;
  3. Reparation through designated funding and resource allocation;
  4. Requiring training at all levels of the post-secondary institution on the history and contemporary conditions shaping Indigenous peoples – including anti-discrimination and anti-bias training.

Black Studies Approaches to Decolonization

A number of scholars across Indigenous Studies, Black Studies, African Studies, pan-Africanism, Afro-pessimism, Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Latin Studies, Critical Ethnic Studies, and related fields have debated the relationship between the concept of decolonization across Black and Indigenous frameworks (Byrd 2019; Harris 2019; Medak-Saltzman and Tiongson 2015; Sexton 2016), with many scholars arguing that Indigenous and Black peoples have shared yet different legacies of colonial violence (Day 2015; Dei 2018; Karuka 2017; Lethabo King 2019; Maynard 2019; Simpson 2016). For Harris (2019), the connection between Black and Indigenous struggles is articulated through the project of white supremacy and white property, wherein whiteness is “a construct that depended upon the global expropriation of land and labour from Blacks and Indigenous peoples” (222). Jamilah Dei-Sharpe (PhD candidate at Concordia University) draws on George Dei’s 2018 work to argue that epistemic decolonizing must be grounded in community mobilization and activism; the centring of Indigenous and African intellectual traditions in the curriculum through “relationality, sharing, reciprocity, spirituality, agency and communal accountability” (154); and through the incorporation of community learning with Indigenous and African elders and knowledge-sharing with global educators and amongst peers (171). At the root of this work is a critique of the erasure of Black histories and state violence in education and the role of decolonizing curriculum that transforms anti-Black ideologies within education. This area of work calls for building connections between the history and legacy of colonization and slavery in ways that build solidarity between Indigenous and Black liberation struggles.

Debates in Decolonial Frameworks

Despite the strength of building solidarity across decolonial struggles, some Indigenous scholars and communities have critiqued the connections between Indigenous and non-Indigenous struggles, which they argue risk erasing or conflating the specificity of Indigenous experiences and peoples, particularly with regards to land claims, land repatriation, Indigenous resurgence, and sovereignty (Cook-Lynn 1997; Lawrence and Dua 2005). This topic has been most readily debated by Lawrence and Dua (2005) and Sharma and Wright (2008) over the role of migrants, immigrants, and racialized people in the project of settler colonialism. Although further discussion of the debates on this topic is beyond the scope of this guidebook, readers who may be interested in further scholarly discussion in this area can check the Academic Scholarship on Decolonization and Settler Colonialism in this section for appropriate resources and further discussions on decolonial frameworks.

If you’re interested in political and conceptual differences and convergences between Black and Native Studies that lie at the foundation of many of these debates, see Sexton (2016); for discussions of antiblackness and Indigenous studies, see Byrd (2019) and Harris (2019); or for an investigation into the collapsing of Indigeneity and diaspora in the Caribbean, see Newton (2013).

Indigenizing Curriculum and Pedagogy

The Indigenization of curriculum and pedagogy involves centring Indigenous knowledge systems and perspectives from Indigenous peoples, nations, and communities over those of Western and colonial knowledge systems. Rather than rely on Western critiques of colonialism, this approach involves bringing to the forefront Indigenous models and methods of knowledge, education (teaching and learning), research, governance, etc. While non-Indigenous faculty may use the strategy of Indigenizing their courses—by reframing their syllabi and assignments using Indigenous knowledge systems, texts, materials, and perspectives—there are ethical questions about whether Indigenization can happen without a transformation of our universities to center Indigenous peoples as teachers, administrators, knowledge holders, and community leaders. Further, the role of post-secondary institutions and education in both historic and contemporary colonization raises questions about the impact of strategies around Indigenization that risk tokenizing or exploiting Indigenous scholars, thinkers, and community members. Faculty who choose to take an Indigenizing approach to their teaching by reorganizing their courses to centre on Indigenous knowledge and perspectives might do so by incorporating field-specific content that is Indigenous in origin and/or reworking non-Indigenous course content through Indigenous methods and approaches.

Settler Colonialism and White Supremacy

Another approach faculty can take when thinking about decolonization and Indigenization is to complement learning from Indigenous perspectives with learning about colonialism, settler colonialism, and white supremacy (Mackey 2016; Morgensen 2011). These approaches can help non-Indigenous students better understand their own role within systems and structures of historic and ongoing violence through the relationship between institutions—such as the state, education, legal systems, etc.—and systems of power. Understanding white supremacy as a colonial and institutional structure and not simply as a personal prejudice can deepen decolonial pedagogies and help students understand the importance of Indigenous knowledge systems, traditions, cultures, communities, nations, and peoples.


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Better Practices in the Classroom by Natalie Kouri-Towe and Myloe Martel-Perry is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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