April 29, 2011
By Colleen MacPherson
By Colleen MacPherson
The need to use precise language to define a relatively new academic discipline is the motivation behind a proposal for a department name change from Native Studies to Indigenous Studies.
“The vision of what we do needs to be broadened,” said Winona Wheeler, head of the department. “We need to accurately identify our areas of intellectual inquiry and adopting this new signature is a major part of our department’s rejuvenation process.”
Since the first program was established at Trent University in 1968, some 21 departments have been set up at universities across Canada with names that include Native Studies, Aboriginal Studies, First Nations Studies and Indigenous Studies, said Wheeler, who is leading the name change proposal through the university’s various levels of approval. The diversity of names “reflects the newness of the discipline and the eras in which these programs and departments were created,” she explained.
At the time the Trent program was named Native Studies, the terms Native Canadian, Native American, Canadian Indian and American Indian were in common use, said Wheeler. Today however, the term Native is considered “too broad and imprecise. It could refer to a plant, a rock “or a native Torontonian,” she said. The word Aboriginal is more specific but as used in Section 35(2) of the Canadian Constitution, refers only to Indian, Inuit and Métis, excluding non-status Indians and Indigenous peoples from other countries.
Wheeler said First Nations came into use when the National Indian Brotherhood changed its name to the Assembly of First Nations during the repatriation of the constitution in 1982. It was a political move, she said, designed to not only replace the derogatory term Indian but also to create a place for First Nations people alongside what was termed Canada’s Founding Nations in the repatriation process. But, she added, it is still understood to refer only to status Indians as defined by the Indian Act.
The most inclusive term, and the one proposed for the U of S department, is Indigenous. Wheeler pointed out both Trent University and the First Nations University of Canada have adopted the term to replace older, less inclusive titles, and it is the term of choice for the United Nations which views it as one of self-identification rather than definition. “Indigenous,” she added, “also reflects the growing internationalization of our academic discipline.”
Established in 1983, the Department of Native Studies at the U of S has experienced “tremendous growing pains in the past decade or so,” said Wheeler, prompting “a look back at how we got here, and now we’re looking to the future.” The development of a new mission, vision and values statement “has set the framework, set the context we needed to look at our program … and what we need to build on.” The department is currently undertaking a curriculum mapping process in advance of a full curriculum review that will reflect, she said, “the fact that our focus is local, regional, provincial, national and international.”