|May 7, 1999||Volume 6, Number 16|
Aboriginal education: this University's vital role
The impetus for the present surge of interest in aboriginal education came most significantly from the University's Framework for Planning (1998), through the work of the Planning Committee.
More recently, Vice-president Michael Atkinson has been soliciting campus-wide advice and there are growing indications that the University is serious.
Given the demographic trends in this province and the developing needs of the total population, half of which is predicted to be of Aboriginal ancestry by 2015, it had better be serious.
This is not to say that this institution has totally ignored indigenous interests. In 1961, the University established the Institute for Northern Studies (INS) which, while serving research interests, had a strong involvement in human programs.
Contemporaneously, the University established working relationships with the NWT government and with the federal and provincial governments in the development of the Indian and Northern Education Program.
The INS was one of the early victims of the long era of cost-saving, but Aboriginal-oriented programs have been maintained in Education, and initiated in Law, Medicine, Nursing, and Arts and Science.
The University is now positioned to provide an overall view of the Aboriginal educational situation, of potential use to both regional and national planners and it can provide direct contact education, research, and practical services.
However, these positive claims notwithstanding, it would be inappropriate to become institutionally self-congratulatory.
The fact is that the University "fits" into the patterns of relationship with Aboriginal society rather awkwardly.
In recent years, the leadership of the executive concerning indigenous learning has been encouraging. But most faculty and students have remained detached from or uninterested in indigenous affairs.
A comprehensive College-by-College program is needed to rectify this situation, and I am pleased that Dr. Atkinson plans to call forth and coordinate ways to better inform the unengaged.
When the University has reached out into aboriginal communities, its individual agents - researchers, instructors, and students - have often related well with the local people. But too many Aboriginal people coming to the University are insufficiently prepared for the impact of the institution and the city, finding both overwhelming, impersonal, and daunting.
The University community needs to be more genuinely welcoming both academically and socially. There's a need to go beyond Extension, distance education, and off-campus courses in anthropology and Native studies. The administration, faculty, and students must become involved with Aboriginal groups and be encouraged to inform and stimulate public discussion on matters affecting aboriginal peoples, who still endure much old-fashioned stereotyping, or downright racism.
The U of S is recognized as having done better than some other universities in drawing on Aboriginal systems of knowledge and in recruiting aboriginal instructors. But proportionate to our total population, our aboriginal faculty recruitment is still inadequate.
The native-oriented programs in the University tend to be truncated and mainly designed for training in the professions. Non-aboriginal students and faculty need to be informed of ways of knowing other than their own. The rich indigenous ways of knowing should be more widely realized and respected in non-aboriginal society, and most certainly in the University.
There's a need on this campus for a central place of recourse, wherein indigenous people can achieve personal reinforcement and demonstrate the values of their cultures. And more Aboriginal presence is needed on the University's representational bodies.
Vital in all of this is the opportunity for indigenous initiative, indigenous administration, and indigenous self-realization, right across the university world. Senior administrators here need daily access to formal and informal feedback and advice from indigenous and indigenous-sensitive people.
What must be overcome is the disconnected, and frequently ephemeral nature of Aboriginal education initiatives in this University.
The Office of the Vice-President (Academic) is a logical locus for coordination and leadership, but it should not be a single-handed and tokenistic approach. The vice-president should also be advised academically, for example, by an aboriginal curriculum committee, working with other academic committees on the campus.
Obviously, all this implies the vital participation of the Planning Committee. Indeed, if the foregoing portrays the vice-president (academic) as the hub of the University's academic developments, then that profoundly important committee should be seen as "the wheel." The responsibility is campus-wide.
The University also needs to reach out and come into effective contact with the Aboriginal peoples on their own ground.
The travel plans of the president and the vice-presidents should include not only metropolitan centres of academe, but should also take them for serious visits to places like LaRonge, Pelican Narrows, Inuvik, Rankin Inlet, Iqaluit, Rovaniemi, and Nuuk.
Exchange programs and scholarly partnerships with university centres in Alaska, Greenland, and Scandinavia should be fostered. But always, local personal contact with aboriginal people is needed too.
Because of its location, population, and size, Saskatoon and this University are well suited to becoming leading and exemplary foci for a comprehensive program designed to meet the needs of Aboriginal peoples across the country and in the circumpolar world.
And essential to the development of any Aboriginal programs is the full leadership of indigenous people at all stages. There is every reason why the U of S should be outstanding in this area of endeavour.
- Robert Williamson is a professor of anthropology and archaeology at the U of S.
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