Higher Education Needs Transformation:

Indigenous Community Needs In Focus

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

June 30, 2022

Indigenous-led efforts to revitalize languages, arts, cultures, and heritage are key to strengthening the vitality of Indigenous knowledge systems that have been impacted by colonization. Higher education has an important role to play in this equation.

Yet, post-secondary education in its current form has largely excluded Indigenous Peoples worldwide, to its own detriment and theirs. Historically higher education institutions have not been welcoming spaces for Indigenous people and there continue to be many systemic barriers to Indigenous inclusion in post-secondary communities.

This is what I spoke about this May at Indigenous-focused dialogues that took place during the UNESCO World Higher Education Conference (WHEC2022). This global forum brought leaders together to define a new roadmap for higher education that will respond to the challenges faced by humanity and the planet for the next 10 years. Our two Indigenous circles were a collaboration between the First Peoples’ Cultural Foundation, the Canadian Commission for UNESCO, the Indigenous Advanced Education and Skills Council, Mastercard Foundation, and the UNESCO Co-Chairs in Community-Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education.

The conference was held in Barcelona, Spain, where Columbus landed after he returned from “discovering” the Americas. Seeing the monument that stands in honour of his “accomplishment” was a reminder of the many colonial impacts and challenges Indigenous people face around the world in being able to revitalize and carry forward our cultures when our languages, knowledge systems, and perspectives are still not really respected or a part of higher education.

My attendance at WHEC2022 on behalf of the First Peoples’ Cultural Foundation was made possible by the UNESCO Chairs in Community and Global Education. My focus in attending was to bring Indigenous knowledge, wisdom, and languages to the conversation alongside a delegation of Indigenous academics, policy makers, Knowledge Keepers, youth, and non-profit representatives. Together, we brought Indigenous perspectives to shape the UNESCO Higher Education Roadmap for 2030.

Dr. Laurie Robinson, (IAESC), Francesc Xavier Vila Moreno (Barcelona University), Dr. Lorna Wanost’a7 Williams (FPCF), and Mariona Miret (Occitan translator) gather at Indigenous Perspectives: Advancing Change in Higher Education, a May 17 side event of the UNESCO World Higher Education Conference 2022 in Barcelona, Spain.

I shared about the barriers we face as Indigenous people in receiving the needed education to pursue revitalization efforts. The issues I raised were echoed by the members of our delegation.

  • One barrier is geography. Indigenous Peoples have the right to live and work in their home communities, which are often very far from university campuses.
  • Another barrier is funding. Funding structures that support Indigenous students to achieve their higher education goals is a responsibility of the government to help redress the impacts of colonization.
  • A third barrier is Eurocentrism. Academic fields of inquiry are often structured around Western and Eurocentric ways of knowing, with a failure to adequately recognize and incorporate Indigenous knowledge systems. In the field of linguistics, Indigenous languages are taught through a Western lens, implicitly viewed as inferior to European languages.
  • A fourth barrier even broader than the problem of Indigenous students being alienated from specific academic disciplines is the problem of Indigenous students being alienated from academia as a whole. Admission requirements often fail to acknowledge Indigenous students’ alternative pathways to higher education. Indigenous students and faculty are often not afforded cultural safety on post- secondary campuses and face systemic racism that often goes unrecognized or unchallenged by higher education institutions.

Making space for Indigenous faculty and students, valuing our science, languages, and worldviews, and integrating our ways of learning and processing knowledge in higher learning systems and institutions are real gaps today.

These many barriers are not impossible to overcome. But it will take a concerted and thoughtful effort by Indigenous and non-Indigenous higher education professionals. Some of the shifts that need to happen include:

  • Indigenous communities need a wide range of educational pathways to acquire the diversity of knowledge and skills needed to reclaim and revitalize their languages, arts, cultures, and heritage.
  • Indigenous learners need to be able to access education in their home communities and access funded programs that recognize and incorporate Indigenous knowledge systems.
  • It is critical that there be Indigenous educators leading the way, applying Indigenous methodologies, incorporating cultural teachings, and ensuring students’ cultural safety. We need language learning, teacher training, and other knowledge and skill-building programs. We need accredited teachers to teach Indigenous languages – and even more importantly, to teach in the languages. In the long-term, we need specialized degree programs for Indigenous language immersion educators.
Dr. Lorna Wanosts’a7Williams, Board Chair of the First Peoples’ Cultural Foundation, delivers remarks at the Indigenous circle on higher education at the UNESCO World Higher Education Conference 2022 in Barcelona, Spain. 

During our first Indigenous discussion circle, an amazing B.C. First Nations language teacher and revitalization activist, chuutsqa, shared remarks that were really moving for the entire audience. Everybody was touched by her honesty and clarity around the challenges Indigenous students face in graduate programs. She had such an amazing experience with her master’s program because it was specifically designed with Indigenous students in mind but with her doctoral program, her experience was so different and really challenging.

This young Hesquiaht woman is just so remarkable to me. She learned and became proficient in her nuučaan̓uł language, works with Elders to document it and their knowledge systems, and teaches several nuučaan̓uł/ḥiškʷiiʔatḥ courses. She’s such a capable person, so knowledgeable, and recognized as an expert in Indigenous language revitalization.

And yet it’s disappointing that even such a determined, accomplished Indigenous female scholar and language advocate can experience such challenges in higher education. Her experiences show that post-secondary structures and systems are just not meeting our needs as Indigenous Peoples and that needs to change.

Our delegation’s job at WHEC2022 was to try to shift this by highlighting the critical gaps and needed system transformations. The culmination of our discussions across the Indigenous-led events at the conference will be a report to UNESCO containing solutions for reinventing higher education for and with Indigenous Peoples.

It’s my hope that with my words and those of my fellow delegates, we’ll start to see concrete shifts in the academy, creating more pathways to higher learning for generations of Indigenous people to come.