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Is Law School the Right Medium for Indigenous Knowledge?

Tansi Nîtôtemtik/Negha Dagondih,


TRC Call to Action #16 states “[w]e call upon post-secondary institutions to create university and college degree and diploma programs in Aboriginal languages.”[1]


The nature of today’s post isn’t directly about the face-value interpretation of this Call to Action, but rather, it is about the emphasis on whether or not post-secondary institutions can be an appropriate place for Indigenous knowledge and culture to be shared, and if they can be properly shared through Western academic methods. Teaching in Indigenous languages is one way to do this, but in a Western-academic setting, English typically is the default of instruction, and that alone can alter the interpretation of the cultural Indigenous knowledge, and may not align with the intention of the teachings.


When we are trying to decide if post-secondary can be a place for Indigenous culture to properly be taught and learned, one of the steps worth taking is addressing how culture and knowledge from an Indigenous perspective can be taught within these academic frameworks, and that requires a look at pedagogy.


“Indigenous pedagogy (or the method and practice of teaching) incorporates Indigenous worldviews into engagement with information. As Wendy Burton and Gwen Point (Stó:lō) write in their work on Indigenous adult education, ‘the rubric of Indigenous education [is]: look, listen, and learn’ (2006, p. 37). They go on to say that education was context specific, with stories and ceremony being essential pedagogical tools (Burton & Point, 2006).”[2]


Indigenous pedagogies can be used, like oral storytelling, oral traditions, land-based teaching, and holistic frameworks to get across traditional teachings;[3] but is a place like law school the best place to do so? Ways of knowing - also called epistemologies - are connected to Indigenous knowledge methods, and grappling with Indigenous epistemologies will affect how the culture can be conveyed in such a (traditionally) firm setting like Western law school. “As Dr. Marie Battiste (Mi’kmaw) writes “Indigenous knowledges are diverse learning processes that come from living intimately with the land, working with resources surrounding that land base, and the relationships that it has fostered over time and place” (2013, p. 33).”[4]



Western-founded post-secondary institutions are designed to operate in a fashion that is not in tune with the harmony of Indigenous knowledge and cultural sharing. The following quote captures this quite well:


“Due to the rigorous enculturation process of postsecondary education systems, many academics are challenged to appreciate and value how Indigenous Peoples conceptualize, understand and know the world. Very few non-Indigenous academics understand the spirituality of our knowledge and the important links to land and sky, the four directions, and all our relations (i.e., ancestors, animals, and plants). Indigenous knowledge is interconnected and relational to time, place, season, community, person and more. So it is not surprising that Indigenous approaches to knowledge can appear to be antithetical to Western approaches to knowledge.”[5]


It is not only law schools that are faced with the challenge of bridging two epistemologies in their pedagogy. At the Nova Scotia Community College (NSCC), a Master’s student - Leah Creaser of Acadia University - helped co-create a course for biology students, scientists, and researchers to learn how to incorporate Mi’kmaw traditional knowledge into the work they do.[6] Why not do the same in law school? Starting a students’ legal education with mandatory foundational Indigenous law courses can preserve culture in an academic legal setting through integration and general preservation on paper. But we must also ask, can this integration and preservation be achieved in practice and actuality?


The ideology of Indigenous knowledge and culture as taught through law school is something that is surely in the minds of some, as evidenced by how “On March 14, federal Minister of Justice and Attorney General David Lametti spoke of the financial support being given to the Restorative Research, Innovation and Education Lab at Dalhousie University’s Schulich School of Law in Nova Scotia.”[7]


But if Indigenous culture came before Western academia, can we realistically expect culture and proper knowledge teaching and learning to really take place in settings like law schools? We must be mindful of the degree of skepticism with which the material is taught, who is teaching these courses, and whether or not there are experiential learning opportunities that offer land-based legal education. These are all relevant and valid questions because we should be doing things right.


If law school is not the place for young legal minds and law students to learn about Indigenous culture, laws, and legal principles, then how are we to institutionally see things like Call to Action #16 take place? How can we show that Indigenous law cannot be easily moulded to the Western-academic legal framework, and that there’s a wealth of opportunity in engaging with the differences in these systems?


Is law school even the right medium for Indigenous culture and knowledge?

Until next time,

Team ReconciliAction YEG


[1] Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, “Calls to Action”, (2015) at 2, online (pdf): Government of B.C. <www2.gov.bc.ca> https://www2.gov.bc.ca/assets/gov/british-columbians-our-governments/indigenous-people/aboriginal-peoples-documents/calls_to_action_english2.pdf


[2] Ashley Edwards, “Indigenous Knowledge and Pedagogy”, (Aug. 10, 2021), Simon Fraser University, online: <lib.sfu.ca> https://www.lib.sfu.ca/help/academic-integrity/indigenous-initiatives/icrc/indigenous-knowledge [https://perma.cc/6BGQ-JSEL]


[3] Ibid.


[4] Ibid.


[5] Stryker Calvez, “Indigenizing Academia”, (Accessed Mar. 16, 2022), University of Saskatchewan, online: <teaching.usask.ca> https://teaching.usask.ca/articles/indigenizing-academia.php [https://perma.cc/EY4L-ZGUN]


[6] Emma Smith, “Mi’kmaw educator helps researchers incorporate traditional knowledge in the field”, (Feb. 26, 2022), CBC News, online: <cbc.ca> https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/nova-scotia/nscc-nautical-institute-traditional-knowledge-connections-in-science-1.6362719 [https://perma.cc/P8G9-4E49]


[7] Terry Davidson, “Ottawa helping fund restorative justice project at Dalhousie University”, (Mar. 15, 2022), The Lawyer’s Daily, online: <thelawyersdaily.ca> https://www.thelawyersdaily.ca/articles/34495/ottawa-helping-fund-restorative-justice-project-at-dalhousie-university [https://perma.cc/89CX-4BK6]



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