Creating Space: My Life and Work in Indigenous Education

Creating Space: My Life and Work in Indigenous Education

Verna J. Kirkness

Reviewed by Michael Marker

There is no such thing as Indigenous education. There is only cross-cultural education containing negotiations between both Indigenous people and the settler societies that colonized them. Understanding the past is essential, but even if we could reassemble the systems of pre-contact learning, it would be less useful today than illuminating the persistent collision points of Native and non-Native social systems and cultural values. In more direct terms, an authentic analysis of what has been named Indigenous education is never just about Indigenous cultures; it is actually always about Aboriginal-non-Aboriginal relations. Verna Kirkness makes this point clear in her story of how she has created both space and change by traversing the barricades between Indigenous and non-Indigenous societies. Dedicated to integrating Indigenous knowledge within disciplines and university degree programs, she devoted her career to vigorously engaging with institutional power and demanding inclusion -- not isolation -- for Aboriginal students. Her story, if we listen closely, could cause us to rethink our current era and re-evaluate our “advances” in decolonizing the academy. In this, her autobiography, Verna ruminates on just how much space the university might be willing to concede to Indigenous knowledge systems and values. Her story suggests that change is both slow and complicated.

As an Indigenous scholar, I have seen too many colleagues and new programs despair of providing the kind of institutional cultural critique that distinguishes Verna’s legacy. Instead, there is a growing -- and I think dangerous -- trend toward moving Indigenous students and content into separate spaces where students and ideas alike will not collide with the epistemic expectations of the western academy. This retreat into native space at universities is at the same time both a strategy -- sometimes born of resignation -- to provide safe haven for Aboriginal students, and a move to allow the globalized university to continue with business as usual without the disruptive effects of countervailing Indigenous knowledge systems. Indigenous students and Indigenous faculty offer a challenge to the core educational tropes of progress. In classrooms, they tend to invoke an unwelcome version of the history of colonization in North America. Echoing the eminent Lakota scholar Vine Deloria, Verna’s career says loudly that Aboriginal history, values, and knowledge are not just for Natives. Contained in these life-ways are the templates for living in a sustainable ecological relationship with the land. Also implicit in these knowledge systems are the polemics to critique and illuminate a self-destructive modernity.

In an unassuming and conversational style of writing, Verna chronicles her childhood – she was born of Cree heritage on Manitoba’s Fisher Reserve in 1935 -- family life, and years as a schoolteacher in rural Manitoba. A leader in Indigenous self-determination, she contributed to such quintessential policy documents as the progenitive Indian Control of Indian Education (1972) that changed the landscape of schooling by placing many bands in charge of their own education systems. Verna is so much the Elder one sits with, making a basket; teaching us to make this basket with stories and humour. She narrates the conditions of life on the reserves, at day schools, and residential schools. She worked with important leaders such as Chief Simon Baker, editing his autobiography, Khot-La-Cha. Verna explains how the now famous UBC initiatives such as NITEP (Native Indian Teacher Education Program) and Ts”kel (Indigenous Graduate Studies) began; she also narrates how the First Nations House of Learning came to be built. Without overstating her role, Verna nonetheless played an almost Promethean part in this history.

Verna was mentor to a fledgling group of Indigenous scholars who are now faculty at Canadian universities. Speaking personally, many of us made our way through graduate school with Verna’s patient and persistent support. As the present director of Ts”kel, I am the inheritor and benefactor of the creative problem-solving, vision, and prodigious work ethic of Verna Kirkness. While those of us who were inspired by her at UBC know how she changed the educational landscape, many outside the field of cross-cultural education may not be familiar with Verna’s contributions to Aboriginal communities and to Canadian life. This book will give them an introduction to a widely respected educator and now, elder.

This book, for me, has one disappointment -- and it is minor.  I wanted some mention of an essay Verna co-authored with University of Alaska’s Ray Barnhardt, a visionary in anthropology and education. “First Nations and Higher Education: The Four R’s—Respect, Relevance, Reciprocity, Responsibility” Journal of American Indian Education 30: 3 (May, 1991) became a beacon and remains a guidepost in Indigenous research methods. The article contains core principles for engaging power. An argument for Aboriginal access to higher education, it also advocates the application of Indigenous knowledge as a tonic for an atavistic and intransigent academy. It would be interesting to learn what Verna thought about this published work, what conditions and conversations led to its writing, and how much it actually advanced university policies about research with Indigenous peoples. Verna notes that she “discouraged outright” (136) researchers who proposed unhelpful projects for Aboriginal communities.

My own experience is that this article is often used in a narrow and partial fashion. Many researchers now simply reference this piece perfunctorily as an attempt to satisfy the concerns of ethics committees. Such boards are increasingly aware of the political and social consequences of irresponsible research performed on Aboriginal people. They are unlikely to approve proposals unless they have some minimal assurance that academics will be polite listeners and cautious writers; that they will be sensitive to the desires of Aboriginal communities. Verna and Ray made it clear in this essay that engaging with Indigenous knowledge systems and making space for Indigenous students would not be simply an equity move for the unproblematic inclusion of a marginalized population. On the contrary, a credible Indigenous presence at universities would necessitate a desperately needed metamorphosis regarding values, policies, and the goals of higher education. This would mean a cultural transformation that placed land and an ancestral ecological mind at the centre of our understanding of what it means to be human.

Like Vine Deloria and other Aboriginal scholars, Verna had her “misgivings about Native Studies departments….” She “was afraid they would become a ghetto for Native Students” (126). She spent her life and work creating space for Indigenous knowledge and students. She never wanted a separate space, but rather she wedged an integrated space into academia by insisting that the university accommodate an Indigenous critique of education. I recall Verna inviting a UBC vice president to meet with a small group of us graduate students before the Longhouse was built. The vice president explained that we could not have our elders sit on supervisory committees because they didn’t have PhDs. Verna in a serious but sardonic tone said, “Oh, but you’re wrong; they do have PhDs… in our culture.” The vice president was silent and left shortly after that moment. I am quite certain that Verna was not asking that we suspend the requirements for doctoral degrees because they are culturally specific forms of educational accomplishment that have not validated Indigenous knowledge. Instead, always the teacher, Verna was trying to show us what educational theorist Lisa Delpit has asserted: those who are immersed in the culture of power are often the last to admit that a culture of power exists. The standards for what counts as valid knowledge are largely chosen in arbitrary ways that reflect the cultural hegemony of the academy. Verna was simply illuminating this condition for both the Indigenous graduate students and the UBC vice president.

Perhaps, reflecting on the recent history of nascent Indigenous presence at universities, we might ask what decolonizing or creating space really means? If it means that more Aboriginal students and faculty are joining campuses in segregated spaces, well that is one thing and we are probably advancing in this goal, albeit ploddingly. However, another more elusive and fundamental measurement might be to determine, not how much Indigenous students are able to celebrate their culture, but how much Indigenous knowledge systems are actually coming into contact with the culture of power in the academy. The result of our advancement and healing will not be in how many Indigenous students and faculty can be brought to the university, but rather, how the culture of power will change because of the presence of Indigenous people and Indigenous knowledge.

Creating Space: My Life and Work in Indigenous Education
Verna J. Kirkness
Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2013. 208 pp. $34.95 paper

BC Studies 184 (Winter 2015)