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Decolonizing Science and Higher Education

Dr. Lorna Wánosts’a7 Williams, Board Chair, First Peoples’ Cultural Foundation

December 20, 2022

Around the world, Indigenous Knowledge, people, and perspectives have been ignored and systematically excluded from higher education and conventional science. This pervasive phenomenon is complex and multi-layered but amounts to continued intellectual colonization.

Indigenous students and academics not only face many barriers to entry and participation in academia, but also often lack adequate support to pursue meaningful studies and thrive. Post-secondary institutions have not been welcoming spaces for Indigenous people and too often, “decolonization” and “Indigenization” are just superficial buzzwords. 

Indigenous Knowledge systems and languages have been around since time immemorial and contain important concepts that are not only valuable but necessary for the continued existence of humankind and Planet Earth. However, these bodies of knowledge are generally not given the same consideration as Western knowledge. This means there’s a lack of meaningful educational opportunities that respond to urgent issues facing Indigenous communities, like declining Indigenous languages. 

These issues have been documented in papers my colleagues and I have developed (listed below) and presented at several forums in recent years, including various UNESCO global summits and events. Last month, I brought these perspectives to an international conference marking the 30th anniversary of the UNITWIN/UNESCO Chairs Programme in Paris focused on the transformation of knowledge for just and sustainable futures. 

I attended on behalf of the First Peoples’ Cultural Foundation because our vision as an organization is for Indigenous languages, arts, and cultural heritage to be strong, supported, and passed on from generation to generation. We’re committed to rebuilding and restoring our unique Indigenous Knowledge and cultural systems that were disrupted and suppressed through centuries of colonization. 

Western education has been a key driver of this problem. For example, residential schools intentionally separated many generations of Indigenous people from one another and our lands, attempted to wipe out our beliefs, traditions, and languages, and taught us that our knowledge and ways of being were unsophisticated and less than. But the negative impacts of colonial education – residential schools, day schools, industrial schools, and public schools – forced on us are not just limited to the past, including that our people continue to need to leave their home communities for education. 

Today’s higher education systems and the concept and practice of science need to be totally reshaped to meet the needs of Indigenous people and communities.  

Indigenous inclusion needs to be prioritized and intentionally planned for – from curriculum, to operations, to academic culture – throughout every higher learning institution to make them sanctuaries for growth that support Indigenous faculty and students to succeed with their education, research, teaching, and training. This includes removing geographic barriers and making it easier for them to remain active in their communities. 

Meaningful and practical opportunities need to be created for Indigenous students to gain the critical knowledge, skills, certifications, and employment to be able to protect and rebuild fluency in their mother tongues through immersion learning and becoming accredited and specialized Indigenous language teachers. This includes being able to achieve degrees from higher education institutions and accreditation from credentialing bodies that recognize Indigenous knowledge and perspectives.

A concerted effort to elevate and integrate Indigenous Knowledge, people, and perspectives in higher learning and science, and to support the reinvigoration of Indigenous languages and cultures will not only benefit Indigenous communities and help redress the impacts of colonization, but also contribute to better information and solutions for a world in desperate need of change. This is what my colleagues and I have been advocating for and will continue to promote. I invite you to delve further into the issues by checking out the reports below, which include several calls to action. 

I would like to recognize the many Indigenous leaders, academics, and organizations, as well as non-Indigenous allies, from around the world who shared perspectives at dialogue sessions on higher education and open science recently and over the last several years. Their dedication to working together to drive the transformation and decolonization of these institutions is inspiring. 

Special acknowledgement goes to Dr. Budd Hall and Dr. Rajesh Tandon, UNESCO co-chairs in Community Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education; Laurie Robinson, chair and executive director, Indigenous Advanced Education and Skills Council; UNESCO, the Canadian Commission for UNESCO (CCUNESCO), and Mastercard Foundation for supporting our work. 

Further reading:

  • Indigenous Perspectives on Higher Education(May 2022)summarizes discussions that took place during the Canadian Commission for UNESCO Virtual Circle on Indigenous Perspectives on Higher Education in 2021. The paper was the impetus for including Indigenous perspectives at the 2022 UNESCO World Higher Education Conference.