Why Settlers Need Indigenous Theory

the colonial problem book pic

By Karen McCallum

Lisa Monchalin’s book The Colonial Problem: An Indigenous Perspective on Crime and Injustice in Canada is a great place to start learning about indigenous theoryAs discussant for her upcoming salon, I wanted to share a few thoughts about why non-Indigenous peoples need Indigenous theory.

Recently, I received an email from Vanessa Watts, Director of the Indigenous Studies program at McMaster University, offering two courses: “Cornhusk Sculpting and Beadwork” and “Residential Schools in Canada.”

I want to introduce the idea of Indigenous knowledge systems through highlighting this dual course offering, because this method of connecting ideas and practices across time and place to show how knowledge comes to be and shapes societies is, to my mind, a key feature of Indigenous knowledge systems. This pairing of history and cultural skills is radically important and vastly subversive – it is a decolonial or an anti-colonial act.

Indian Residential Schooling was a government policy whereby First Nations and Inuit children were separated from their families through coercion or false promises and placed in residential schools, for the purposes of inducting them into settler-colonial culture and thought systems, and Christian religion. The last one closed in 1998 and the Final report of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission names cultural genocide as the organising belief behind these schools.  Children who attended were kept away from their parents and kin, and prevented from learning relevant cultural skills, such as speaking their own languages, and many were subject to abuse.

Beadwork is a tool for creating objects of extreme value and beauty, but it is also a political and diplomatic tool and is used to administrate the oldest political confederacy –the Haudenosaunee Confederacy  – on Turtle Island (the name for North America used by some indigenous groups). The first treaty between settlers and the Haudenosaunee was encoded in beadwork; the Gus Wen Tah or Two-Row Wampum encoded the relationship between Dutch traders and the Haudenosaunee in 1613 and was later transferred to the British in 1664.[1] The Gus Wen Tah still guides diplomatic relations between colonists and First Nations.

To connect beadwork and history not only enables a more complex educational experience for students, but also enacts Indigenous methods of knowledge transfer. McMaster University, where these courses are being offered, is on the territory of the Haudenosaunee and Anishnaabeg peoples. This curriculum is embedded in Indigenous knowledge and methods from its own locale, and tells a fuller story than settler-colonial education.

Indigenous theorists operating outside of – and oftentimes against – Western academia are putting up mirrors, providing scholars from colonial educational backgrounds opportunities to see what they see. The internet and social media have exponentially increased opportunities for settlers to learn from Indigenous thinkers. Settler scholars are invited to make connections between colonial knowledge systems and settler advantage/Indigenous suffering. This understanding matters because the way knowledge is produced, valued, and transferred has very practical applications in the world.

This brings us back to Lisa Monchalin’s book. ‘The Colonial Problem’, posits Monchalin, is that the Canadian criminal justice system still operates with a colonial agenda and does not – was never designed – to deliver justice to Indigenous peoples. Relying on colonial knowledge systems to solve criminal justice problems has resulted in sky-high incarceration rates, brutal violence against Indigenous women, and high rates of victimisation and suffering. She demands that the reader place the issue of Indigenous suffering within the context of violated treaties, concerted efforts by the state to disrupt healthy familial and governance systems, and of the Canadian state’s perpetuation of an agenda of cultural genocide.

Monchalin’s first book is much more than a Criminology text. Rather, it is an embodiment of her knowledge as it comes to her as an Indigenous woman – the first to attain a PhD in Criminology in Canada – a survivor of violence, a University professor, teacher and, yes, a pow wow jingle dress dancer. Monchalin’s text asks the reader to identify where each of us exists in the story of the over-criminalisation and victimisation of Indigenous peoples in the criminal justice system. But her challenge to us is to question settler-colonial knowledge systems more broadly; to not only acquire more information about important issues, but also to question the knowledge systems that inform settlers’ education, our questions and our research.

[1] Susan M. Hill, “‘Travelling Down the River of Life Together in Peace and Friendship, Forever’: Haudenosaunee Land Ethics and Treaty Agreements as the Basis For Restructuring the Relationship with the British Crown,” in Lighting the Eighth Fire: The Liberation, Resurgence, and Protection of Indigenous Nations, ed. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (Winnipeg, Manitoba: Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2008), 23–46.

Karen McCallum is a PhD candidate in Human Rights at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, School of Advanced Study (University of London). She has a research background in interdisciplinary social sciences with an expertise in Gender Studies and Feminist Research (MA, McMaster University) and Environmental Studies (BENV, University of Waterloo). Her PhD project aims to strengthen and support cross-cultural activist alliances between settler and Indigenous environmental organisers in Canada.

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