Indigenizing the academy: Insurgent education and the roles of Indigenous intellectuals

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Jeff Corntassel, University of Victoria
Guest Contributor

This blog post is part of the Federation Equity Issues Portfolio’s ‘Transforming the Academy: Indigenous Education’ series, which will be the focus of the Portfolio’s programming at Congress 2011.

When I’m not on my home Cherokee territory, I always start my talks by acknowledging that I’m a visitor on a particular Indigenous nation’s (or nations’) homeland.  Folks have asked me over the years why I do this and my answer is always simple: It is to honor the ongoing relationships that Indigenous peoples have with their homelands – regardless of what yonegas (white settlers) are calling it on their colonial maps.

In some ways, however, this is more than simply acknowledging that I’m a visitor on Indigenous homelands.  It is a call for justice and for returning stolen lands to the Indigenous peoples who maintain a special relationship with that place. But this kind of talk makes those who have benefitted – and continue to benefit – from living on Indigenous homelands a little uncomfortable.  I see this settler discomfort as a teachable moment and as a way to promote an honest dialogue about the need for the state and settlers to make amends to Indigenous peoples today.

Some scholars – like Paulette Regan in Unsettling the Settler Within and Megan Boler and Michalinos Zembylas in Discomforting Truths: The Emotional Terrain of Understanding Difference – have discussed this approach as a “pedagogy of discomfort.”  I take it further as a demand for insurgent education.  If an insurgency is a state of rebellion or act of rising in revolt against established authority, then insurgent education is an important part of an anti-colonial struggle and of pedagogies of decolonization. According to Mohawk Taiaiake Alfred, “…to be a real Indigenous intellectual, one must be a warrior of the truth.”

If the “university is contentious ground”, what are some of the roles and responsibilities of an Indigenous intellectual?  The late Standing Rock Sioux scholar Vine Deloria, Jr. challenged Indigenous educators and students to be more like “scouts” by using their powers of observation to provide useful information to their Indigenous communities in order to guide future decisions.  Others, such as Anishinaabe philosopher, Dale Turner, discuss the need for “word warriors” who must mediate and reconcile indigenous and European worldviews.

Being a warrior of the truth is not, however, about mediating between worldviews as much as challenging the dominant colonial discourse.  It is about raising awareness of Indigenous histories and place-based existences as part of a continuing struggle against shape-shifting colonial powers.  Insurgent education entails creating decolonizing and discomforting moments of Indigenous truth-telling that challenge the colonial status quo.  It does this by questioning settler occupation of Indigenous places through direct, honest, and experiential forms of engagement and demands for accountability.  Insurgent educators exemplify Indigenous forms of leadership by relating their daily struggles for Indigenous resurgence to broader audiences using innovative ways that inspire activism and reclamation of Indigenous histories and homelands.

The truth is that Indigenous peoples are land-based and water-based cultures and need new ways to educate settlers who have become much too comfortable and complacent about living on stolen Indigenous homelands.  If colonization is about disconnecting peoples from their lands and territories and depriving them of their cultural practices, then acts of decolonization – including decolonizing knowledge – are, in part, about reconnection and community resurgence.

As part of a larger decolonizing strategy, insurgent education does at least four things:

•    First, it localizes Indigenous struggles and avoids the pitfalls of what I call “Free Tibet Syndrome,” which is a settler tendency to cast their decolonizing gaze to faraway places and provide token support (e.g. tax deductible donations, affixing a bumper sticker to their car in a show of “solidarity” etc.) for distant self-determination movements rather than focus on local Indigenous struggles;

•    Second, it counters the politics of distraction by centering Indigenous peoples and their relationships to homelands in the discussion;

•    Third, it occurs both in formal and, more often, informal settings; and

•    Fourth, it compels accountability and action to counter contemporary colonialism and to make amends to Indigenous peoples.

What does insurgent education look like in practice?  One example comes from O’ahu, Hawai’i, which is visited by over 4.5 million people each year. Most of these tourists congregate at the hotels and beaches in Waikīkī, which was once known for its taro fields and natural springs. In 1998, Gaye Chan and Andrea Feeser launched a public art project that challenged tourists to recognize that they are on Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) homelands. Appealing to the consumerism of Waikīkī tourists, Chan and Feeser’s souvenirs are touted as an “authentic piece of Waikīkī’s past.” In reality they are selling small chunks of concrete wrapped in plastic accompanied by a historic timeline of colonial encroachment and destruction of Waikīkī.

Additionally, tourists are invited to take an online tour of historic Waikīkī and enter the website as either Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian), Kama’aina (Native-born) or Haole (White settler).  This anti-colonial reality tour raises awareness of contemporary Kanaka Maoli struggles as well as promotes the idea that “Another Waikīkī is possible.”  It is an effective insurgent education project for “unsettling the settler within.”

Another instructive example is the 1677 Treaty of Middle Plantation between Mattaponi, Pamunkey, and the Commonwealth of Virginia. The Pamunkey and Mattaponi have been upholding the terms of that treaty for the past 300 years. Every year they go to the Governor’s mansion and bring a tribute (usually deer or geese) right to the foot of the stairs. These Indigenous peoples are demonstrating that the terms of the treaty continue to be upheld in their homelands by their communities. Continuing these practices are   important to inspire and remind people that the agreements we make as Indigenous peoples are sacred and we uphold them. Actions like these could also spark a resurgence of treaty-making agreements between Indigenous nations to deepen alliances, protect Indigenous peoples crossing borders and regenerate old trade networks.

Insurgent education takes several forms, such as the Dakota Commemorative Marches, uses of Haudenosaunee passports and diplomacies, and the Anishinabek Nation outlawing the use of the term “aboriginal.” The thought of Indigenous peoples mobilizing to reclaim their histories and their homelands makes settlers very uncomfortable.  Yet, it is through this discomfort that meaningful cross-cultural education, awareness and action can take place. An insurgent educator calls for new solidarity movements with local Indigenous nations and finds innovative ways to assist in their resurgence efforts.

According to Shuswap leader George Manuel, “We will steer our own canoe, but we will invite others to help with the paddling.”  By helping with the paddling, insurgent education is about making one’s research priorities directly relevant and centered on the needs of local Indigenous communities.  This is a challenge to Indigenous intellectuals and others who want to act in solidarity to become ‘warriors of the truth,’ both inside and outside the classroom. When we renew our responsibilities to defending and regenerating Indigenous land-based and water-based cultural practices, we can move from insurgent to resurgent Indigenous peoples.

Jeff Corntassel is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and Acting Director of Indigenous Governance, Faculty of Human and Social Development, University of Victoria.


Equity Matters


Excellent discussion - in particular how creative we can be to bring about understanding of the Indigenous cause.

I also particularly like: "'We will steer our own canoe, but we will invite others to help with the paddling.' By helping with the paddling, insurgent education is about making one’s research priorities directly relevant and centered on the needs of local Indigenous communities."

Please read my "Ally Bill of responsibilities" found at my web site. I am tired of people thinking they are helping when they have not critically thought about what they are doing. Thus, in the process they are harmful.


This is a timely and important article, something I am thinking about. There is the need for new pedagogies of violence which disrupt complacency, both within White privilege as a whole, but also within 'ally-ship' and alliances. Too often, allies are seeking common ground and solidarity that is easy and peaceful. We need to recognize that these 'coming-togethers' are still relationships of violence. We then need to examine ways in which to make this violence productive as a decolonizing tool.

Again, thanks for the thoughts.