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The Many Faces

What does Indigenization mean?

It is a critical path forward for institutions to create meaningful change and honour Indigenous self-determination.


As we approach 10-years since the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report and 94 calls to action, it is crucial for institutions to reflect on the progress made and the work that still lies ahead. At the heart of this pursuit for postsecondary education lies the concept of Indigenization – a critical avenue for not only acknowledging historical injustices, but also for actively reshaping institutions and systems to empower Indigenous communities.

Indigenization is more than just a buzzword; it is a fundamental shift in how we approach our institutional structures. It seeks to centre Indigenous perspectives, knowledges, and values within institutions that have historically harmed Indigenous peoples. Postsecondary institutions are addressing the calls to action in various ways, with many institutions gesturing to broad, long-term goals of Indigenization and decolonization, while at the same time seeking to bring in more Indigenous students, faculty, and staff.

This work is not without its challenges, as evidenced by the slow progress on the TRC’s 94 Calls to Action. According to CBC News Beyond 94, a resource that monitors the progress of each call, only 13 have been completed since 2015. Of the remaining 81 calls to action, 32 have projects underway, 31 have proposed projects, and 18 have not yet been addressed.

As a member of Six Nations of the Grand River, Tuscarora Nation, I belong to the local community referenced in the University of Waterloo’s land acknowledgement. The university is located on the Haldimand Tract, land that was promised to Six Nations, and is one hour away from my reserve. My territorial responsibilities are deeply connected to my work. I have a responsibility first to my community and then to the institution, which is often difficult to balance.

Many institutions are entrenched in colonial ways of thinking and operating, making it difficult to implement meaningful reforms. For example, the word I hear often is integrate. This evokes the notion of assimilation: Indigenous ways of being, knowing, and cultural practices are welcome so long as they fit into existing structures. True inclusion is making space, opening the circle, whereas integration suggests we find places to squeeze in wherever we can fit.

There is also a lack of understanding among non-Indigenous people about the importance of Indigenization, leading to apathy or even opposition to initiatives aimed at centering Indigenous knowledges. Too often, well-intentioned efforts to Indigenize institutions can fall into the trap of tokenism or cultural appropriation. Some of the common pitfalls of this work include the impression that Indigenous peoples are a monolith. I spend far too much time explaining the difference between Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee peoples, especially when it comes to our cultural practices and protocols. The sometimes-performative nature of this work overshadows projects with further-reaching impacts. Afterall, an overhaul of finance and human resources policies to understand First Nations taxes or culturally informed hiring protocols isn’t very appealing. Folks are often looking for a “quick win”, which often amounts to artwork to put up on the wall. Authentic Indigenization requires genuine partnership and collaboration. It means recognizing that Indigenous peoples are the experts in their own experiences and actively working to dismantle power imbalances that perpetuate colonial dynamics.

Despite these challenges, there are also immense opportunities inherent in the Indigenization process. By centering Indigenous perspectives and knowledges, institutions stand to benefit from a richer, more diverse understanding of the world. My role is embedded in the Faculty of Science, which is not the typical place one would think to find Indigenization. In the 18 months I have been here, we have created foundational content on Indigenous science knowledge systems that was included in a mandatory first-year science communications credit. A new field course on Indigenous medicine taught by Elders and coordinated by Indigenous staff will be running next year. A co-taught biology course using the Grand River territory as a teaching framework will start this fall. An Indigenous Science space is opening this year in the Science Teaching Complex in what is considered “prime real estate” on campus.

I have come to appreciate the genuine, open curiosity of scientists. My greatest allies in this work have been those who are simply wanting to learn. Engaging with Indigenous knowledge systems requires humility and a willingness to listen. The aim is to build strong, reciprocal relationships. They understand that the work takes investment, it takes time, and the effort is not mine alone.

As we move forward, it is essential to prioritize the voices and experiences of Indigenous peoples in the Indigenization process. This means actively seeking out Indigenous perspectives, engaging in meaningful dialogue, and incorporating Indigenous knowledges into decision-making processes and governance. Institutions must be willing to confront their own histories of colonialism and take concrete steps to address past injustices, as well as engage the peoples with deep connections to the territories our institutions occupy. Indigenization can foster a sense of belonging and community, leading to improved educational outcomes and greater overall well-being. Initiatives such as including culturally relevant content into curriculum, supporting Indigenous-led research, and fostering relationships between institutions and their territorial nations are some tangible ways to fulfill these commitments.

By centering Indigenous perspectives, knowledges, and voices, we can begin to dismantle the legacy of colonialism and build more inclusive education systems and practices. As we approach the 10-year anniversary of the TRC’s final report, let us recommit ourselves to the ongoing work of Indigenization, recognizing that the journey ahead will require dedication, humility, and above all, a profound respect for Indigenous rights and sovereignty.

Savannah Sloat is the manager of Indigenous initiatives in the faculty of science at the University of Waterloo.

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