Chantal Gibson: Hello, my name is Chantal Gibson and I am podcasting from Simon Fraser University. I’d like to respectfully acknowledge the Musqueam, Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh,
Katzie, Kwikwetlem, Qayqayt, Kwantlen, Semiahmoo and Tsawwassen peoples on whose traditional territories our three SFU campuses reside.
John Dawson: Hello, my name is John Dawson and I work at the University of Guelph. I want to acknowledge that this space resides on the ancestral lands of the Attawandaron people, and the treaty lands and territory of the Mississaugas of the Credit. With these words I offer my respect to my Anishinnabe, Hodinöhsö:ni and my Metis neighbours.
Chantal: Joining us today is Dr. Kim TallBear from the University of Alberta. So, today we would like to respectfully acknowledge Treaty Six territory a traditional gathering place for diverse Indigenous peoples, including the Cree, Blackfoot, Metis, Nakota Sioux, Iroquois, Dene, Ojibway/Saulteaux/Anishnaabe, Inuit, and many others, whose histories, languages and cultures continue to influence their vibrant community.
Chantal: My name is Chantal Gibson. And I teach in the School of Interactive Arts and Technology at Simon Fraser University. And I was really looking forward to having this conversation with my colleague, John, who’s a fellow 3M, because we’re interested in STEM, and I’m very interested in science and technology in terms of race and representation of Blackness. I’m an African Canadian. And so that’s really where my work resides. So, I’m a poet, a writer, and an artist. And so, I have this artistic practice along with my teaching practice. That’s a little bit about me, John, go ahead.
John: I’m John Dawson. And I’m actually a protein biochemist here at the University of Guelph. And I study muscle proteins, basically the proteins in your heart that do the contracting. And so that’s the main thrust of the research that I have is around how changes in muscle proteins in our hearts lead to heart diseases. But I’m also an educator and been heavily involved in curriculum and curriculum innovation and so on. And so, I came at this conversation with Chantal around the call through Truth and Reconciliation to indigenize the curriculum and asking that question, well, how do I do that? Like, what’s this going to look like in my discipline as a biochemist? So we can’t even start to ask those questions. How if we don’t even understand the language being used the words involved so that’s where we really got excited.
Kim TallBear: Sure. So my name is Kim TallBear and I have recently been awarded a Tier One Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Peoples Technoscience and Society. I’m a professor in the Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta and we are the only faculty of Native Studies in North America. So, we’re really quite fortunate here to have so many resources in Indigenous Studies, and I’m a citizen of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, which is a Dakota nation in eastern South Dakota. I’m also descended from the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, which is where the name Tallbear comes from, most other Tallbears are in Oklahoma, and I’ve been at the University of Alberta and in Edmonton since 2015 now, so I’ve begun to get my head around politics in Canada and Indigenous politics here. And it’s been a steep learning curve, but my broader geography that I really care about is the prairies and the prairies, of course, transcend those settler-imposed borders. So, I still feel that I’m in within my sort of ancestors, historic homelands, which are quite broad, all the way from the Dakotas, Minnesota, up into Saskatchewan and the Prairies up here.
Chantal: It’s funny, listening to some of some of your talks. There’s two things that I’ve taken away, one is a real appreciation for the programme at University of Alberta, which just seems more and more special, like every time that I hear about it. And then the other is your appreciation for the prairies. You are very, very clear that you’re not like a coast person. I think I listened to something and you were like ‘California was not for me,’ like I know exactly, I’m a prairie person.
Kim: Yeah, I’ve lived and travelled in so many places. Globally, I’ve been really fortunate that I figured out in my 40s Oh, I really need to be on the prairies. I didn’t realise how formative those skies and lands were for me and how much I needed to be in that until I lived in the Pacific, the Pacific West Coast, the East Coast of the US. I lived in Southeast Asia, which I’m totally grateful for having that opportunity. And I’ve travelled quite a lot. So, I know that this is where I feel best.
Chantal: So, we want to tell you a little bit about what brought us to you. So, we’re both 3M National Teaching Fellows and this podcast is really a project, so there’s 10 of us and we are participating in what we’re calling, “shifting conversations” and from all different perspectives. But for John and myself, we were interested in one, our different positions in relation to how we come to STEM, but also this call. So, I’m at Simon Fraser University, and he’s at Guelph and so many of us right now in academia are being called to think about like, decolonizing our classrooms, right? And you know, indigenizing the university, and for myself as a writer and an artist for the past two years, I’ve been doing this lecture called, you know, “what does it mean to decolonize my mind?” and my position as a Black woman, as an artist, and how I use art, that is a very different approach to understanding, you know, decolonization in respect to indigenization. And one of the things that we thought we were really going to talk to you about STEM, and we’re going to talk to you about like genetics and because I’ve got this fascination with 23 and Me and the public narratives about belonging, in particular, for African Americans and TV shows about it. And, you know, John had his own perspectives. But as we were researching you, we really started falling into language and realising that we were not comfortable with the terms that were being used. So, what does it mean to decolonize? What does it actually mean to indigenize? And if we’re asking the academy to do this, what does this even look like? So, we really started having conversations about, I’m going to start off with the point that you had made about whose definitions count? And that was something that we thought, why don’t we talk to Dr. Tallbear about some of these terms and kind of use the term as a way of unpacking the issues underneath as a kind of an experiment. John, did you want to add to that?
John: No, I think I said it before, right? I, as a scientist, for one, and then as, as someone who’s interested in curriculum being asked now to indigenize the curriculum, there was just a lot of struggle there for me, and I’m just always asking, ‘Well, where do I start?’ And I’ve heard a lot of talks over the last year and a half or so. And I want to make sure I’m not doing something that’s disrespectful, I don’t want to do something that’s like tokenism just kind of doing it. You know, I just don’t want it to be checking the box. And I want it to be an authentic true decolonization if that’s what we’re being called to do. That’s where I started diving deeper, doing more research. And like Chantal coming to this realisation, how can I do this if I don’t even understand what these terms mean? And so that’s where why we are starting came to talk to you.
Chantal: So the big one for us that we wanted to ask you about, because there’s decolonization, indigenization, but it was reconciliation.
Chantal: Yeah. And we were interested in if you would kind of unpack that term for us, because we recognise that there are assumptions there that many of us are using, that we might not even be aware of.
Kim: Yeah, there’s a talk I give, maybe you’ve seen it, I give it in different venues. And I’m Decolonizing Science and Technology. And I dive into those definitions there. And I’m always thinking with it, because it’s the talk I get called to give the most. And unlike other talks, I’m not getting bored. Because I always have new case studies to slot into my definitions, right, because I work with so many scientists and engineers. And I was also, so I’ll give you the definitions, but I was actually also asked to perhaps give a talk at a UN meeting next month. And I’m not somebody who wants to go hang around the UN all the time. That’s just not the level that I work at, but I decided it would be really strategic to do it exactly to get across this message about decolonizing science and technology. Because as I’m teaching this Native studies course, “Indigenous Peoples and Techno Science,” which is a 100 level, but it’s totally online, fully automated, I’d say 50% of our enrollees are lifelong learners or people in extension. I’ve got professionals from agencies and Ottawa directors of research institutes, curators of museums of science and technology, those kinds of students in the class as well as traditional undergrads. And they all have the same questions that you’re posing to me, and I realised it’s so important to get the message out about what a much more robust and incisive definition of what reconciliation, decolonization and indigenisation is, because there are professionals like yourselves that are struggling with how to figure out how to do this within your institutions, and I find that very rewarding. So, one of the main resources that I draw on, I’m really lucky to have one article that draws and dives into all of this that I really appreciate. And that’s an article by my colleague in the Faculty of Native Studies, Adam Gaudry, who’s a Metis scholar, and Danielle Lorenz, who was at the time the article was published a PhD student in Education at the University of Alberta. And this was an article published in 2018 in the journal AlterNative, which is open access. So, it’s called “Indigenization as Inclusion, Reconciliation and Decolonization: Navigating the different visions for indigenizing the Canadian Academy.” Now it can also be taken up by people in the US and I think people in other countries as well. What it does is it dives into the definitions of indigenization, reconciliation, decolonization, and I am also familiar with a lot of other literature. So, this is kind of intersecting with other things that I really find helpful. And so, I know it’s a good piece, right? So, to go to reconciliation, I often start off my talks by saying, Look, here are the dictionary definitions of reconciliation, because I think most people in the Canadian public will find that they are proceeding with their idea of reconciliation, based off some dictionary definition. And it’s not sufficient, that is the restoration of friendly relations. Well, we’re not talking about relations that were ever probably friendly. And the second one is the action of making one view or belief compatible with another. That is not what Indigenous people are after. There are some deeply irreconcilable worldviews at play here. This is why the settler colonial state had to steal and disrupt everything and attempt to replace us not only replace our governance systems, and our educational systems, and our ethical and moral systems, but they are now attempting to replace us as individuals with this Indigenous identity fraud problem we have going on. All of these things are connected. So, I start out with those definitions and say, Okay, that’s not what we’re talking about when we’re talking about reconciliation. So, let’s move into some more robust definitions. And what Gaudry and Lorenz say is that what sets reconciliation apart from mere Indigenous inclusion, right, we’re not talking about EDI either, is an attempt to alter the university structure, including educating Canadian faculty, staff and students to change how they think about and act toward Indigenous people. So, reconciliation is really on non-Indigenous people. It’s about them learning and changing the way that they behave. And elsewhere, in this article, they talk about incorporating Indigenous knowledge within the academy, and this could apply to institutions across society in ways that result in transformative change. So, we’re talking about one way learning that is non-Indigenous people learning and us actually making transformative change in institutions. So that’s not just can’t we all get along, right? Well, this is kind of what’s often thought, well, why can’t we all well, maybe we can do reconciliation? Because you Indigenous people are always complaining and protesting and making blockades? Can’t we just all get along? Well, no. Until some transformative change happens.
Chantal: Kim, we actually, I just want to show you this, we did our homework, right? So, we have the article. So here was the takeaway we were talking about. So, it’s the reference to saying that Canadian institutions need to change, right? And so, for me, here’s a problem that I have with this is that I have a very large number of international students in my classroom, my faculty, I have folks from all over the world. And so when my faculty asked me to do a talk on decolonization, and I do it with an Indigenous scholar, what we recognise is, not everybody understands this moment, historically, that’s happening at their institution. Some of us find ourselves doing all of this historical explaining, just so we know why we’re here. So, I even find the call for Canadian it makes this assumption. So, this one John and I were talking about, but what about all the other people that are in our communities that are not Canadian, not raised in Canadian schools, you know, not reading our, you know, crappy English textbooks with no brown people in them. And so, I guess that was something that I wanted to ask you about, that I took away from this article. And from that talk, can you just speak to the diversity even within the Canadian institution?
Kim: Well, I think what we found in Indigenous communities is that newcomers very quickly get indoctrinated into anti-indigenous Canadian ways of seeing things. And it can be a passive anti indigeneity. But the fact that knowing about Indigenous people, knowing whose land you’re on what traditional laws govern these spaces, is just not a priority for people. Very quickly, newcomers, I mean, I’m sure there’s debate right, but many newcomers very quickly learn to talk about Canada in these really-effusive liberatory ways. You know, and many people do come to Canada from places where they are escaping, you know, dire circumstances, or they’re coming as economic migrants, right? There’s opportunity here and all and that looking at Canada as that kind of place as a place of opportunity, wherever you’re coming from that discourse pretty much automatically kind of overrides how this came to be a place of opportunity in the first place for some people, right? And that’s an ongoing dispossession of Indigenous peoples from lands and resources. And so that’s something I found even only being here seven years, it was within the first six months of being here, doing media interviews that I saw how quickly newcomers were indoctrinated into Canadian exceptionalism and Indigenous erasure. So, it may be that you are, I don’t think ultimately you’re confronting a totally different animal in terms of having to talk about these things to an incredibly diverse Canadian audience, I mean, I also noticed how diverse Canada is, even Edmonton. There’s many many more people that were not born in Canada who are Canadian citizens than I ever encountered in the United States. It’s really fascinating to me to be here for that reason, but I still think they quickly come to share that kind of outlook that we’re trying to tackle.
Chantal: Yeah, no, I just find that really helpful. Because I didn’t recognise until I was asked to do a talk about decolonization that I really had to look around the room and just think about if you’ve been raised in this country with, you know, through our educational system, there are just some ideas that you’ve embodied that you don’t even know that you have. Right. And so, I guess that that was really compelling. John, what do you think?
John: Well, there were a couple of things that came out of that, Kim, one is that I’m being reminded that this is on us. It’s on me as a white person, right? This is not me going to an Indigenous person and saying, ‘What do I do?’ It’s on me to figure this out. I can’t expect Indigenous people to solve and figure out how reconciliation for them should work for me, I need to figure this out for myself. And this is a challenge for all of us. So that’s where I have these questions. And I’m the one that has to figure it out. I can’t just say, Hey, Kim, what should we do? Give me the you know, the recipe for this, because that’s not how this works. This is sort of a heart condition, we need to do the work for ourselves.
Kim: Yeah, I mean… you know, we talk about this a lot in Indigenous Studies, and among Indigenous scholars, we still it’s true. And then we’re still also always called in to do this work. I mean, the one of the conundrums we have in the Faculty of Native Studies is we have our own research agendas, we’re going for our own grants, we’ve got our own classes, and we end up being turned into a service unit for the rest of the university, help us indigenize, help us and what are we supposed to do? We are the ones with the expertise, right? It is very hard. So, I do I totally sympathise with what you’re saying that you’ve got a bunch of people who weren’t born and raised in Canada, and they didn’t drink the ‘Canadian Kool-Aid’ in the same way, right? Or they’re just kind of coming into contact with it now. And so, you are starting at a different place. I would say a lot of Canadians who were born here, born and raised here are shockingly ignorant about Indigenous stuff. So, I don’t know how much newcomers are always at a disadvantage, in terms of their knowledge of the history, right?
Chantal: But that does really reinforce for me, again, like, the responsibility for us to make sure that we’re not re-erasing. That’s the thing that I’m concerned about, right, is we need to be teaching the history. So, people know why we have calls to action, like they didn’t come out of nowhere. And so that’s the part of the work that many of us, especially being called into kind of these like EDI and inclusion positions, right, is like what, what is the real work of understanding how we’re going to dismantle the system? Part of it is the narratives we tell, the assumptions we hold in the language, obviously, that we use.
John: Yeah, I appreciate what you said there, because I lived in Edmonton, too, and Toronto even more diverse. But this is really a discussion around identity. For some, it’s a discussion of identity for me. So you know, the names I call myself, I call myself Canadian, and my great, great, great grandfather moved to the one region in Ontario, where I grew up both sides of my family, we have been there since the 1800s. I mean, I have pretty deep roots, I’m not one of those Canadians, that moves has been moving around, it’s pretty uncommon in my family to move out of that area, because it’s totally beautiful. And it’s a beautiful place to live. So yeah, in my community, it’s pretty much everyone looks the same, talks the same, and is the same. So, this, it becomes then a question of identity. And as you say, there’s not a lot of discussion around Indigenous identities and so on in that community, we just, it’s just not talked about. And so, now being an academic and confronting these issues, for me, it is a lot about identity and like, who am I? And what about my identity? Do I have to really dig out and take a good hard look at you know, it’s the work that I have to do.
Kim: I wrote a piece with the phrase in it, and I’m going to expand on it in a new paper I’m working on, where I said I I’ve come to understand that the identity, because we’re always being thrust, this word identities always being thrust on us, and a lot of the kind of controversies we’re dealing with right now in Indigenous communities. And it occurred to me that identity is a real poor substitute for relations. And so, I think I had had a thought related to your use of identity for yourself. I think getting really invested in an identity as a Canadian or an identity as viewing Indigenous relations as identity to me is a problem. I’m really pushing back against this, against this concept right now, because I think it hinders us getting to the heart of the challenges and finding solutions. So, if we’re focused on our identity as an individual, I really ask us to think about what do I mean when I use that word? I think, like reconciliation, many of us just throw the word out, assuming that we’re all on the same page about what it means. But when I hear the word identity, and I really think about how it gets used in multiple conversations I’m involved in, it seems to me to have to do with the individual with individual genealogy, with cultural and biological properties that we see in ourselves. It has connotations of being static, who am I versus who can I become? Or who am I becoming in relation with others? And a Canadian identity was developed and is solidified and defended, in part to erase Indigenous identities because you have Canada taking over land, and renaming maps, renaming rivers, renaming places, attempting to replace governance structures, land and water names, the names of people, other nations with its own nation, and then individual identity gets deeply wrapped up in that. So, I do find it a really kind of problematic category. And I wonder if there are moments when we can back away from our concern with identity or defensive identity, and say, really, what kind of relations do I need to be in with and with whom? and to kind of detach a little bit from our investment in our identity in whatever kind of way that is, and focus more on the relation. So, while I might say I am a Dakota, what I’m most concerned with is how, who is my Dakota family? Who were my relations? What are the land and waterscapes that I come from? What are our obligations to that? How does that enrich me and the rest of the world? By engaging in good relations with those human beings in those places, if that makes sense? So, it’s kind of could be a wide-ranging conversation, but I wonder if that’s helpful?
John: We’re all over the place. Yeah, it does help me because given where I’m from, and my family have been there for a long time, I really am associating myself related to that land, and with those people. So, you know, I can understand I have a sense for what you mean, there.
Kim: Yeah, yeah. So you’re thinking about your relations with that particular place, right. And then I also think we need to think about what relations were wiped away from that place in order to make what became Ontario and Canada and all of that, right? And is there a way to figure out how to engage more deeply in better relations with people that have been dispossessed? Now, this, I think, also would bring us to decolonization. None of this is just in your mind. None of this is just about the way that we think. Transformative change is going to require return of resources. It requires redistribution of wealth, that hurts, right? And so that’s why this isn’t just about can we all get along.
John: You mentioned the word repatriation. And that came that reconciliation is actually about repatriation. And in the genetics work around DNA samples and blood and so on, but also Yeah, the land and, and the waters and so on. Yeah. So that’s that repatriation of those resources. And then you said you didn’t like using the word resources, but you used it, because that’s what people understood.
Kim: Yeah. I’ve also been dinged lately on using repatriation. I was like, oh, yeah, I guess that is masculine language didn’t even occur to me. And I’ve been asked, What do I think of that? And my response is, I don’t think I’d replace repatriate with rematriate. I think I’m comfortable with restitution. So, we’re always working on the ableism, and the sexism and the racism and the speciesism in our language, right. I mean, we all have to work on that. Yeah. Every day I catch myself. So yeah, no, I’m saying restitution. Okay.
Chantal: Yeah. You know, Kim, that was one of the things that I really took away from your talks is how often in your talk, you had a moment where you’ve uttered a word you didn’t like it, you stopped, you said it, and then you changed it. Right? There was a moment in a talk where you were talking about that you’re going to stop calling Donald Trump a child, because you realise that was just an insult to children. I remember another talk, but I think you talked about something was a head game or a head something and you went, Wait a minute, that’s kind of ableist. And then you said, I’m working on that. And so, one of the things that I am really interested in, is this idea that you are doing this work in public and allowing yourself to make mistakes, and to check them because you are aware of the language and the complications of the terms that you’re using. And I feel like so much of what maybe many academics and teachers are afraid of is just being able to do that in the front of their own classroom. I recognise that that term is not really what I wanted to say, or it’s not appropriate. And so can you talk a little bit about that, because so much of this conversation is about the inadequacy of some of the terms that we use, and we’re going to ask you a few questions about that. But also, just being able to being present and checking the language that you’re using.
Kim: I guess I’m just so interested in language and the histories of language and the way that hierarchies of life, be it race, species, sex, ability is built into our language. It’s just everywhere, it’s saturated. And because I’m a structural thinker and a social constructionist, I do largely, I really do pay attention to how structures contain us and form us. And I’m always pushing. I mean, of course, we need to take individual responsibility, especially those of us with different degrees of privilege, I have responsibility to take because of all the privilege, I have class and education and visibility, but we’re all subjected to these incredibly rigid structures. And there’s only so much you as an individual can do you do what you need to do, and you take responsibility for that. But I’m really interested in calling attention to the way that we are all moulded and shaped and hindered by these structures. And I think it’s important to call attention to that because then we keep our attention on the fact that it’s the structures we have to change and we’re so tempted in a US and Canadian society, to come back to individualism to always come back to the individual and individual responsibility and individual success and all of that. And it really distracts us from structural solutions and structural attacks on a structure that we want to change. And so, I think that’s why I do that, right, I’m calling attention to not only my own and in fact, I’m not even chiefly calling attention to my individual shortcomings. I’m calling attention to my shortcomings in the service of saying, look at this structure that’s constantly hammering me, and constantly reinforcing ways of being in the world that I don’t like. So maybe it’s demonstrating that.
Chantal: I think also, you know, those moments like you talk a lot about how English language is just so bound by binary structures. And I think that for many of us that are not really thinking about even just the imperfection of, you know, of translation, one of our conversations, and we were hoping that we could talk a little bit about it is this idea of unpacking the term spirit. We loved talking about this, like what spirit means to scientists, what spirit means to Indigenous people, what spirit means to at a religious level, at the cultural level. I’m going to quote you from one of your talks, and you said, “We’re always working in imperfect translation with these English words.” And you say what spirit means for Indigenous, scientific, religious and popular state discourses, there’s a conflict there. But I was wondering if you could talk about the use of the term spirit?
Kim: Well, I take a lot of the way that I write and speak about this. Now I’m always citing my friend and colleague, David Shorter, who teaches at UCLA, and who was a religious studies scholar and then became an anthropologist, and he’s non-Indigenous, but he works with Indigenous communities. But the reason that I take to his work where he really questions the, the object of spirituality or spirit is because it resonates so much with the stories and ways of thinking about spirits that I grew up with. So, I’m triangulating his ethnographic work with an Indigenous people on the Mexico Arizona border with my own experiences of Dakota person raised in a family that I would say was deeply spiritual. And in a tribe where we took a very syncretic approach to Christianity and traditional ceremonial life. I’m very lucky in that I grew up in a community where there was an (inaudible) embrace of Christianity. This is all relatively speaking, right? Because force missionization is the reality. But our church, we had a church that had Dakota language, we had Dakota ministers who were also Sundancers. That was my reality growing up, it wasn’t an either/or thing. And that’s not the case for many Indigenous people. And so, because I grew up in a community where people went to church, some people spoke the language where people also went to ceremonies, they were Sundancers, I was raised in a home where people saw and heard spirits, but I also was raised in a world where I was taught that we had valid material knowledge which we would then call scientific knowledge. So, I come to David Shorter’s work and cite him because I come from a world in which he’s describing a world that really resonates with the kind of world that I come from. And what he talks about is the way that spirituality, nature and sexuality as categories and objects are actually an objectification of sets of human and non-human relations. And so, I think that’s fascinating that spirit, sex and nature are similar types of categories. So, if you think about sexuality, well, it’s what’s good back to spirituality, spirituality, I mean, in my growing up is a relationship between the human beings who are praying and smudging and going to ceremony or out on the land, learning about plants and animals. It’s a conversation between them, and the plants and the animals and the elements and the spirits and ceremony. And I grew up in a world in which the spiritual was not the divorce from the material. Unlike when we speak in English, we’re talking about and in a secular culture, we’re talking about spirit versus material. Maybe religious people do this to Western religious people. There’s the spiritual and then there’s the material, and people have fights along those lines, but in the world that I come from, these things are very fluid and talked about in the same kinds of conversations. And so, I have come to see the word spirit as a very binary word, inherited from English that is not really probably very translatable into the way that we live. And so, while it is a word that we use, because most of us are speaking English, if you look at the translations of some Dakota words, they don’t get translated well, so and I’m not a speaker, I’ve only studied it and I grew up around it, but I’m not a fluent speaker. But like take the word “wakan”, which actually gets used a lot to mean sacred as I’ve listened to Dakota language experts, “wakan” actually means more like mystery. I don’t think sacred is a really good translation for something that’s a mystery. And the other thing, the world that I grew up in there’s and this applies both to science and spirit and spirituality, and this, I love this. It’s been a real gift to me to grow up with this kind of value. I was raised with a not only a tolerance for agnosticism, and not knowing but I was raised with a deep appreciation for not knowing, a deep appreciation for the understanding that we humans desire knowledge. We’re curious but we will never know everything. Nor is that our right to know everything. Some knowledges are revealed to you in time. An animal or a plant will decide to give you knowledge about itself. There’s respect there for the agency of the nonhuman, there’s an understanding that the universe is so incredibly complex materially, that we should just come to be comfortable with not knowing very much. Not that that should dampen our curiosity. But there’s a way in which I was raised with a relationship to knowledge that puts us as human beings into a web of relations instead of above certain beings and below other beings. There was never preached, nobody ever preached to me, the hierarchy of life that European science and religion has, is immoral. Rather, it was demonstrated to me that we did not have that hierarchy of life. And in that I come to appreciate why the word spirit versus science is so inadequate for describing the way that I was taught to learn and gain and appreciate knowledge.
John: Well, that’s brilliant. I think this is one of the core conflicts with this idea. So, if I’m thinking about how am I going to indigenized my curriculum, as a biochemist, somewhere along the line, there’s that feeling that we just don’t talk about spirit that either it’s a skewed or it’s denied. Spirit doesn’t exist. I mean, I’m just quantitative. There’s, I’ve studied the material, to put it in those words. And so then, for me, the question is, well, how can I indigenize a discipline that denies this, this element that’s, I think, is pretty important to Indigenous peoples? So, I need to understand what is meant by the word, spirit. And so, I thank you for what you said, because I often use words with my students, as we learn more about these things, it’s we are talking about mystery, we’re talking about wonder, you know, the more we learn about the natural world, the more the wonder is revealed, and the more curious, to use the word curious. Absolutely, those are all aligned. As humans, we’re curious about these things, then it becomes more maybe about the structures that we’re using in our studies and so on. I really was interested earlier, when we were talking about Canada, and Canadians and new Canadians, and you said, when new Canadians come, they quickly get and the word was indoctrinated into the Canadian, you know, culture and elitism, and so on. And I wonder, if you think there’s the similar kind of thing with science, when we train scientists, there’s an indoctrination there and into a structure, then that does deny some of these central processes and structures of Indigenous thinking.
Kim: Yeah, and I’ve seen that with Indigenous scientists as well. I was gonna say too I think it’s interesting that when you were thinking about indigenizing the curriculum in your field that you thought that meant you had to incorporate spirituality, in fact, and you don’t at all, you can incorporate conversations with Indigenous scientists who are coming out of Indigenous communities where they can do the work of helping you think in different ways about the material and Indigenous ways about Yeah, so I mean, I, I’m okay with secular people being committed to the secular, right? I understand the baggage of Western thinkers who are like, I don’t want any of that spiritual stuff in my class, I get your history, I understand the resistance. If that’s like a non-negotiable for you, there are other ways to indigenize that don’t require the spiritual for example. But yes, with Indigenous scientists, I’ve seen this in our summer internship for Indigenous peoples in genomics, a lot of what I’ve recognised and Indigenous science communities is that for some reason, a lot of people that go into the biological sciences are people who come from land based communities. And I think this is super interesting. So, in Native Studies, which is mostly humanities and social science stuff, I’m trying to change that. There are many more scholars and Native Studies, Indigenous scholars who come from diaspora, this is my initial, I haven’t fully investigated this, but having interviewed and been around enough Scholars, this is what I’m thinking is going on. There’s a lot of us in the social sciences and humanities who are focused on the human and the social, many of us are from diaspora or we’re not from cohesive land based Indigenous communities. Whereas most of the Indigenous biologists I know and genome scientists, they come from communities where they hunted fish, raised corn, took care of sheep, I’m like, ooh, this is interesting. I wonder if they got interested in cells and life material life because of their interaction with nonhumans all the time, and seeing inside their bodies and working with them, right? They are so steeped in many of them come from families, where their elders spoke their languages, they’re steeped in tradition, quote, unquote, and that provided a, an opening to be interested in the biological sciences. They also would have access to traditional knowledge holders and ceremonial people, and yet they come out of a PhD in genetics, and they’re using words like “objectivity” and “neutrality,” and I’m like, that does not square with everything, you just told me about why you got interested in this field. But they learn these languages and they pick them up in an order to be civilized, credible, respectable scientists, they need to use the language and they struggle to figure out how to hold what they know is one their truth about their home worldview in one hand and the truth about the scientific with the other. And that’s part of what we get out and saying, as we talk about the fact that these things are not as disparate as you think, really it is about structures of power and language that are the I think chiefly what’s different.
John: Wonderful, because you also in another talk, you mentioned the idea of whiteness. And was there an example of sort of a non-racial group of people that were white? And you said, yeah, there is when they’re called scientists. And I wondered, as you were speaking, and perhaps one of the reasons why folks get into science is, as you’ve said, before, that science and scientists are afforded a certain amount of privilege in our culture or society, they’re given a certain amount of respect. And so, becoming a scientist and adhering to those doctrines, then maybe that provides access to that privilege. And is that part of maybe why those who are non-white phenotypically, would defend quite adamantly some of these structures that science have in place?
Kim: Yeah, I mean, I haven’t interviewed Indigenous scientists around that question. But I do think that there, and I write about this in my sexuality stuff, too, I think entree to having the cultural power of science gives you cultural authority, you are somebody who can narrate what is the truth, you have the power to name, and your names are the real names, those are the names that matter. Those are the correct names to use. That’s the correct language. That’s the most intellectually robust and rational way to speak about things. I’ve also been writing on marriage and non-monogamy and similarly for people of colour, becoming monogamous, engaging in state sanctioned marriage and nuclear family. These are also marks of civilization, and Indigenous people and other people of colour have been incredibly pressured to buy into these family marriage and relationship forms in order to mark ourselves as civilised, respectable and rational. And science does a scientific subjectivity does a similar type of thing. So yeah, I guess my short answer to that question is yes, I think, and I realised this when I was at, I started realising the sciences whiteness argument, when I was at a National Institutes of Health meeting, I think back in 2010. It was a health disparities meeting, and there were 110 scientists sitting in a circle, I’d say, three quarters of whom were people of colour, both from the US and from around the world. And it was really fascinating to watch them all be indoctrinated into the same language of objectivity, neutrality, this kind of civilizational language. And I could imagine, especially a lot of the people, you know, a lot of people were coming from communities where they had been marked as uncivilized and less evolved. And this is one way to access that kind of authority and power and say, I am as good as you, I am as smart as you, I am as rational as you. People who are oppressed are always trying to prove to the oppressor that we are also fully human.
Chantal: Kim, something that I remember from one of your talks is that the term bias and how you don’t like your students to use the term bias, and that you talk about where you stand. And I think that like, for me, as a teacher, we have had so much training in this idea as being, you know, an academic is this idea of our objectivity. And really, like objectivity is also a position, right? Like, that’s a rhetorical position, you do stuff with your language to make it sound like you’re not bias, but you are, we’re ingrained, obviously, in the language of our discourses. And so sometimes I wonder, like, how do we, again, you know, as teachers and being, you know, asked to decolonize, like, how do we have like, really authentic conversations with students, undergrads and grad students about bias, one, the ideas that we come into the room with, but the ideas in the read, in our course readings, like, I’m just so interested in this idea of you saying, I don’t like students to use the term bias. It’s like, where do you stand? And it’s like, how do we unpack that? Like, I’m just I’m interested in, like, what does that look like for you as a ‘for example,’ when you’re talking to your students?
Kim: Well, I mean, again, like I want them to challenge their language in order to make their thinking more deep and complex. So I mean, I’m not going to ding them for using that word, but I want them to dig deeper. I really do want them to not just rest. That’s an easy word choice, the word by a subject, that’s really easy. I’d rather have them think more deeply about how they work to come to more robust knowledge and accountings of the world. And that’s beyond not being biased. What are the actual methods and ethics that they use to make their knowledge more robust? Let’s talk about that. And so, you could talk about what’s involved in a particular experiment and verification of knowledge. You could talk about peer review, there are many methods we can talk about that enable us to get more robust accountings of the world. I guess that’s more what I explained to them. I’m not telling you not to use the word bias in order to censor you. I’m telling you to choose a more complicated explanation, to really think a lot more deeply about what you’re doing to arrive at a more truthful accounting of the world. My PhD advisor said there is no getting at the truth there was only getting things less wrong. And I always remembered that and I’m always trying to get things less wrong, and I get less wrong by talking to more people. By gathering more data by triangulating data. I don’t ever rest in the idea that I can ever be objective or unbiased. That’s what she calls playing the god trick. I’m not God, you’re not God. You know, God is this eye that sees everything and is disembodied, not, you know, has no body has no gender has no race, and gets to see everything from nowhere, none of us get to be that I think that’s a cop out. I think objectivity is a cop out, I’d rather hear us talk in much messier ways about how am I trying to get more data? What are my promiscuous relations in the world that are enabling me to get a little bit more data and maybe get something less wrong?
Chantal: I like the idea of the messiness. Actually, like, in a lot of the talks that I have been doing across the country, one of the things that I when I’m talking about this process of what it looks like for me to be thinking about decolonizing my thinking, you know, a lot of this has to do with going back and looking, you know, looking at books that I read when I was a kid or as an undergrad, and you know, never seeing myself or my family represented in, you know, in these spaces, and then coming back now as a teacher, and an academic and, and challenging them and but creating new forms of knowledge, whether it’s through artwork, writing a poem, and the poem is the piece of scholarship, because the traditional methods of scholarship, I don’t want to subscribe to those rules. So, I think for me, and John, I’m interested in you when this as well is one of the ways I feel like I know that I think I’m doing the work is that it’s just uncomfortable. And it’s kind of messy, and I don’t have to know all the answers. And I’ve guessed for me, the thing I’ve started thinking about is that positioning myself in the room, I don’t know if that’s a good idea or not, but it’s just like, I don’t need to be the smartest person up at the front of my classroom. I think I need to be the most interested person. That’s what I want to model because my students share so much. And when I include examples, in my work from students from, you know, the cultures represented in my classroom, they kind of perk up and they get to be the experts, they get to put their hand up and say and speak to that. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that I have learned everything about the example, it’s more the example as an offering for somebody else in the classroom, a student to TA, a colleague to teach us. So, it is a kind of a messiness, because that perfect teaching isn’t happening. And on some days, it works. And sometimes it doesn’t. But I feel like it’s the optics of me not being the person at the front of the room taking up all the space. I don’t know, John, what do you, what do you think? Is it different for a scientist in the front of the lab?
John: No, it’s no, but I think like, as Kim said, right to science has a certain gravitas to it. And so there is sort of this expectation. Well, you’re the scientist, you should know the answer. You should be correct. It should be the truth. It should be the facts, right? And so, when you’re confronted in what happens in the classroom all the time somebody asks you a question, and just got to be comfortable saying, “you know what, I have no idea. That’s a really good question. And let’s discover that together.” I think, in terms of teaching, that’s a progression. I know many young professors, they spend hours trying to study up everything so that when they get into the classroom, they have all the answers. Over time you get comfortable with the idea that that’s just not possible. And it’s actually not reasonable for anybody to have all the answers let’s, let’s face it, right? But what I’m thinking about more recently is leadership, and, and how difficult how challenging it is today to be a leader because, particularly in these last couple of years with a pandemic, and there’s a lot of fear, and there’s a lot of uncertainty within that context, people have been looking to science or to leaders to have the answer and how challenging it is for leaders, when if they came out and said, you know, we don’t really know or I don’t really know, they would just get burned. So, it’s really difficult for leaders now. But I think moving forward, we’re just going to have to get over that and, and really do come together as communities and say, we don’t have the answer. Let’s work on this together.
Chantal: Kim, I just thought of something actually. So, from your perspective, these last couple of years in the world of, how are you seeing these conversations around science and misinformation? We are being called in the pandemic on the expertise of the scientists and of course, the scientist is not going to be like Chantal at the front of the room and say, “well, I’m not the specialist, but I’m the most interested,” like, nobody wants to hear that. So, I’m interested in you just really made me think about that, John, I don’t know what do you what do you think Kim?
Kim: I’ve done a couple of the COVID calls podcast where I talked about this, I’ve got a subset piece on my hypotheses about COVID politics, and I we did a video out of my Indigenous Science, Technology and Society Research Group on Indigenous peoples and COVID conversation and I have been approached by people in politics and science communication to weigh in on their idea of this infodemic. When COVID there’s been an infodemic bad. I don’t actually think the main problem is bad information. I think the main problem is the wrong structural context into which we are slotting our analyses of this. I think there’s more than there’s a lot of bad information about the science. There’s no information on colonisation and capitalism and how that is structuring everything we’re enduring with COVID. I mean, COVID is a virus, and we are organisms, and we are biologically going to have to deal with viruses invading our bodies, our beings, right? I mean, there’s interesting and scientific questions there and challenging and tragic health outcomes for that. But there’s also the fact that COVID is just slotting itself into a capitalist colonial system and exacerbating problems that we already have and it exists because of that system, in part, right, it’s doing what it’s doing because of that. And I think we really need to pay attention to that system. And again, get away from I am so tired of all of the screaming and hollering “where your effing mask,” it’s always on individuals, you know, because we’re not doing anything, what we should be doing structurally. So, we’re sitting here screaming at individuals for their lack of individual moral accountability, when our leaders are not being accountable, our systems are not being accountable. And so, I kept coming back to these kinds of structural analyses. Yes, of course, I will individually do what I need to do. I’m a person who likes to take individual responsibility, but I just don’t have the time or energy be screaming at everybody about their individual failings and how I don’t want to use an ableist word, you know, how ignorant they’re being, how irresponsible they’re being. And that’s not going to solve the problem, right? When we can’t get our nation state and our institutions to be responsible, we’re going to scream at the masses about this when our own leaders are kind of helping us build the structures that we need to deal with this effectively, on behalf of all of us. So that’s kind of my thought on that. And I’ve talked about that in the different places in which I’ve weighed in and more depth.
John: It’s interesting does that go back? Like right off the top, you said that there are some deeply irreconcilable views and one of them was a settler colonial is really focused on the individual then what do you think we maybe we should be listening to those who say we should be thinking about this more as a community, right? like, obviously? but we do as you said, we just keep going back to the individual, you need to fix what you’re doing.
Kim: Yeah. And there are there are many people out there I follow so many people on Twitter, right who study pandemics people in public health, anti-capitalist scholars, they you know, there’s plenty of people who have diagnosed I think what our problems are I learned from them, right? This isn’t my chief area of research. But we have it so deeply built into our political system, right? These short, shorter term goals that that are oriented around a political cycle, a deep, deep attachment to individual responsibility and individualism and individual freedom over the collective responsibility and collective good. These are really challenging worldview problems that we have in many countries, right?
Chantal: So, we’re going to probably be wrapping up in a little while. And I there’s just something that I wanted to ask you, kind of on the, on the way out. So, you just mentioned that you get asked to do a lot of talks, right, and you’re called on for your expertise. And I have recently have been asked to take an advisory position related to inclusion. I talked to colleagues, especially people of colour who get asked to do like EDI work and Representative work. And so, the thing is that I’m thinking about that, for many of us, the concern is, is that if you take the role, and you step into the role that had already presented an optics, that something is happening, that change is happening, but we know that the change, the bigger changes, the systemic change. It’s not what the individual advisor or the representative can do. And so, I’ve just had conversations lately, like even rethinking my own choices. It’s like, how do we know or how do you even navigate when to say yes, at this point, like, what is the place where you know that? Or I don’t know, maybe I’m asking for advice, I don’t even really know. But it’s just like, it’s the difference between we are in this moment, we’re being called to decolonize, people are being called on for their expertise. But we are still in the same system. And I’ve watched people get kind of burnt out trying to make the rounds. And it’s the very same thing that we’re in the process of hiring, you know, an Indigenous scholar, and we’re like already thinking, we’re not hiring somebody to burn them out. And we’re not going to hire Indigenous people. And if we hire two scholars, they’ll roll back colonialism, and we’re good. So, I guess that’s really what I wanted to end with is just your thoughts on this and how we do better. And also, those of us that are trying to do the work, like how do we honour the work and not become I guess, I don’t know, like tokenized in some way. But anyway, just your thoughts.
Kim: I mean I have come to some individual conclusions about where I’ve been able to answer those questions for myself. I don’t know if that would translate into advice for others as an Indigenous person from the prairies and I said this on a talk earlier this week or last week. I am no longer willing to be a token part of coming to the University of Alberta is because I don’t want to be a token. When I did my degrees at the University of Massachusetts That’s an MIT and UC Santa Cruz, I was almost the only one. When I taught at University of Texas, there were very few of us Berkeley, very few of us, I came to a place where there are 10s, you know, of Indigenous scholars at this university 1000s of students, probably hundreds of staff. I can do, my work has flourished in a place where there are many, many other Indigenous people who have my back working at all levels of administration, student services, finance, etc, in a way that I would never have flourished in a place where I was especially a very high prestige place where I was the only one, because the more you get to the Metropolitan prestigious places, Toronto, Boston, New York, San Francisco, you are more tokenized because those are the places where there is very little Indigenous presence, relative to the broader population. But on the prairies, there’s a lot of us and people see us they’re not it’s not as prestigious. These aren’t the settler metropoles. So that’s one thing I’ve done. It’s a struggle. It’s embedding myself in a structure in which I am not a token. And in fact, that is just made me it’s it’s made everything I do better, I’m better because of the people around me, the other Indigenous people around me who are working with me. The other thing is I operate out of relations of obligation. So, I no longer do everything that I’m asked to do. Of course, I couldn’t, I need five lifetimes for that. But I will do things for people in which I want to be in relation with because we might have a similar goal, we might have a similar strategic goal, they might have a political agenda that I can slot my political and intellectual agenda into. So, there’s always something I feel that I’m going to get out of it. And it’s not like pay me or recognition, it can be like minds coming together to help me think more strategically about a long-term goal that I have. And I’ve also tried to focus in on you know, I am doing the decolonizing science and technology stuff. And I’m really focusing narrowly on that talk those kinds of social media, because I feel that I’m actually make a little tiny difference in the world, by just hammering away at that. People need to be hammered over and over and over. With this, I need to keep on with this message till the day I die. Even though that’s not like the most cutting edge scholarship, and I’m not doing something different all the time. It’s a message that needs to be heard. And so, I guess I’m focusing, and I’m making good relations. And I’m going where there’s a lot of other people to do the kind of work that I want to do. But I don’t know what that means for anybody else.
John: I think that’s great, because I think on the other side of the coin, we other institutions have to stop setting up tokens.
John: Another one of our 3M cohort Ann Braithwaite from PEI, she talks about this idea of add and stir, right? That there’s an issue with EDI or Indigenous hiring Indigenous people or whatever. And they say, well, the solution is we’re going to hire more people, and we’re just going to add them to the mix and then stir it and problem solve. and I mean, it’s a step. But we still haven’t solved the core underlying structural problems and biases, well, bias, and all of those things that underneath.
Kim: And now, you’ll be thinking, is there another word I can use?
John: (laughs) I got another word. But yeah, that’s the so there’s where the real problems lie, that’s where the real work is, is that we have to really look at these structures and figure out I really like your conversations around power, that this really comes down to power. And that for me, that was a lightbulb, I like hadn’t thought of it in terms of power, that these structures are really about the power imbalances, and so on. In relationships, we have to be serious about talking about those problems, in addition to Yes, it’s okay to add people. But let’s start let’s start tackling those core problems too.
Chantal: And I think as we prepare to Say Goodbye, and thank you to you, I think you hit on something that I feel is really important to me is that is the idea that we are here now and you’re talking about I’m going to hammer and hammer and hammer and maybe this is one thing that I will do in my lifetime, right? And recognising that this is, these are problems that are not going to be solved today or next week or in two years. And so, what’s the place that you want your work to have or your teaching to have? And so, I think a lot about the projects that I choose are legacy projects that I hope will make space and open up room for others rather than students, grad students, other colleagues and stuff. So, I think that that’s a good way for us to end and we have another podcast coming up on discomfort. And I think that’s part of the topic, right, is not being able to do everything in this lifetime. But being able to kind of you know, carve a place for yourself in this conversation that you feel is meaningful. So, we would like to say thank you for saying yes to us, and for joining us and just sharing yourself and your expertise. And I will say that we are total Kim TallBear geeks now-
Chantal: Yeah, so we’ll be hitting your Twitter and social media. So, thank you so much for joining us.
Kim: Oh, thank you. I look forward to learning more about what you’re both doing too and about programme.
Andrew: Shifting Conversations was created by the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, or STLHE 2021 cohort of the 3M National Teaching Fellows, with the expert guidance of Judy Bornais and Srini Sampalli. This project was made possible by STLHE with the generous support of 3M Canada. Special thanks to the team at STLHE, Jay Adamson Natalie Smith, Tanya Botterill and Debbie Brady. Project management and technical support from Craig Fraser, social media support by Aysha Campbell and additional support from Meghan Tibbs. Original music composed by Hope Salmonson and performed by Ventus Machina. You can find more information on our website www.stlhe.ca/podcasts.