Informing Novel Indigeneity: a counterproposal to Indigenous identification

Cobey Williamson
31 min readOct 13, 2021



In this article, I argue that place is fundamental to indigeneity, therefore an ancestrally aboriginal people cannot be indigenous without their land. I make this argument to support the claim that, while it might be possible for Indigenous people to obtain tribal or cultural sovereignty through nation building efforts in education, reconciliation with peoples of settler descent and communal well-being is more readily and thoroughly achieved by conceiving indigeneity as a relationship with place rather than ancestry.

How I Derive My Authority To Speak On This Topic

“be willing to see the world from another person’s perspective and be willing to show them your perspective” (Burgess, 2013)

As an anarchist striving toward the emancipation of all people from the bondage of economic and hierarchical dominion, how I come to the question of indigeneity differs from the position of most contemporary Indigenous scholars I have encountered. This perspective, while it may challenge many currently held assumptions, beliefs, and approaches, does not diminish the degree to which I value traditional knowledge systems and aboriginal wisdom. In support of this claim, I offer the following story:

In the mid-2000s, I spent a lot of time with a friend who practiced landscape photography. Returning from a trip to the Rocky Mountain Front near the southern border of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, we stopped for a drink at a tavern in my friend’s childhood hometown of Lincoln. While at this bar, I struck up a conversation with an individual who began to disparage the Blackfeet — all Native Americans really — describing them as shiftless, lazy, and generally good-for-nothing. Having a close friend from high school who, though adopted and identifying as an “apple — red on the outside, white in the middle”, is Blackfeet, I bristled at this depiction and challenged it. The Blackfeet, I claimed, only appear as such in the context of their colonization (I didn’t use this term as I was not at the time familiar with it) and the lens of American exceptionalism. They are, I said, in fact some of the hardiest and resourceful of all peoples, having evolved, both physically and culturally, to live in balance with one of the harshest places on Earth, and they would, I told him, still be surviving there long after the Western framing through which you view them had come and gone.

It should be recognized that I do not speak for the Pikuni (Blackfeet), nor anyone other than myself. Neither do I offer this analysis as a scholar or an academic, having not yet achieved that status. I am merely sharing my relative perspective, given my limited readings on the subject and years of human experience.


Perhaps now more than ever before, the world needs the wisdom of indigenous ways of knowing and being. However, a majority of aboriginal peoples, those most in possession of authoritative indigenous knowledge, are not in a position to provide this information, because they appear locked in a destructive cycle of entanglement with the Western nostrum. Until they disentangle themselves from their reliance upon Western modes and methods, they will remain impotent, to the detriment of not only themselves but all life on Earth.

Indigenous entanglement with the Western construct takes a multiplicity of forms. There is the glaring one — that it is, predominantly, what sustains them — but there is another that I will seek to highlight here, that being education. However, it is important that we accept first, as a fundamental premise, that Indigenous peoples are complicit in their entanglement with the West and thus, in the language of some Indigenous scholars, their continued colonization. While many might presume this claim to be yet another example of weaponized Western ascendancy, it is in fact offered as an illumination of Indigenous agency and an appeal for its application. The importance of this is illustrated in the following quote: “Our actions not only impact us personally, but have overall impacts at a local and global scale” (Galla et al)

Before going further, let us establish, as a starting point, the understanding that, today, the entire world lives in the same construct, typically ascribed as Western. The (his)tory of this construct has it stemming from ancient Greece and sees it disseminated around the globe through colonization, first by the Romans and then by seafaring Europeans from the western edge of the Continent. The penultimate export of this construct is hierarchy, a doctrine transmitted via its predominant technology, monotheism. Through the concept of monotheism, or a hierarchy of authority, power over nature and, importantly, other humans, is authorized. Assumption of this authority is what gave colonizers, acting on behalf of that highest authority, the one true God, license to depose and consume indigeneous cultures and replace them with the construct that now dominates, systemically, all of human activity.

Having deplatformed these competing cultures sufficiently enough to effectively discount them, the Western construct has nevertheless allowed these aboriginal ways of knowing and being to endure, in large part out of its ontological arrogance. In its position as the incumbent, the Western construct has cultivated a growing ontological apathy, and its confidence in its supremacy, owing to its complete global domination, has left the Western construct unaware of the fact that it has lost its ontological purpose, that of offering meaning. Inspired by humanity’s necessary pursuit of meaning, as well as a deep sense that the Western construct has led us astray, pockets of ancestrally aboriginal people have continued to maintain and are actively working to retrieve, salvage, and revitalize their languages and cultures.

Such an effort, while admirable, exposes a myriad of problems, particularly as the concepts of indigeneity and identity have become increasingly convoluted. As I will argue later, language and culture are specific to place and not relevant or useful without it. Indigeneity is an emergent expression, also relating to place, and is not transportable. Thus efforts at creating “spaces” to be “Indigenous” are, in the framework of my beliefs, not relevant to a correct interpretation of indigeneity and the weight that should be given to aboriginal ways of knowing and being in informing our collective future.


“Māori knowledge is old and wise and originates from the land, sea and sky” (Postlethwaite, 2016).

What I offer here is what Urrieta calls a “contested construction of indigeneity”, one that challenges the current assumption “of what it means to be Indigenous” (Urrieta, 2017). And while it is true that “questioning Indigenous authenticity is a form of symbolic violence taken up freely and without solicitation by non-(I)ndigenous people” (Urrieta, 2017), I feel it would be inaccurate to characterize my challenge as “an attempt to seize and exercise regulatory power and control over Indigenous humanity” (Urrieta). If anything, I am attempting to arrive at an authentic definition of the term indigenous, one that is as valuable to those who identify as “Indigenous” as it is to those who do not.

As Urrieta rightly points out, “identity is paramount to most Indigenous struggles” but it need not be, and should not, “in terms of rights claims and collective actions” aimed at indigenous nation-building and the recovery of tribal sovereignty, if such an end is desired. I admit to a “Western understanding of identity as a Self/Other”, however, I feel the aboriginal understanding of identity as being inherent and extensional does not sit counter to my position and, in fact, lends it credence. Although “identity” in the modern sense is assumable and I utilize the term in that sense here, true identity is an emergent expression and is thus as much a product of indigeneity as it is of genetic disposition. This is to say that any given human identity will express, at least in part, as a function of the place from which it arises, regardless of other environmental influences or personal assumptions.

As Vine Deloria Jr. states, aboriginal peoples “‘hold their lands –places –as having the highest possible meaning, and all their statements are made with this reference point in mind’ (1992, 62)” (Lewis, 2012). This knowledge is integral to developing an understanding of indigeneity, for it establishes that indigeneity is not mobile. It cannot be transferred from place to place, as it is of place. From this we can see that the title “Indigenous”, defined as having ancestral ties to an aboriginal and once indigenous culture, is not inherently indigenous, nor necessarily related to indigeneity.

The word indigenous, from the conjunction of PIE *en- “in” and *gene- “give birth, beget”, with derivatives referring to procreation and familial and tribal groups, means to be “born or originating in a particular place” ( Even if extended, as it logically can be, to include being “born in” (literal translation) a particular ancestral lineage, it still stands that no cohort can lay a singular claim to that state, to the exclusion of others. It can thus be reasonably stated that we are all “Indigenous”.

Because such an interpretation is not useful (one might just as well hunt Arctic hare in a whiteout), here I revert to the use of the Latin indigena, meaning “sprung from the land”, to provide the foundation for a constructive dialogue around indigeneity.

Having sprung from the land, a people must find a way to exist upon it. This is where our definition of indigeneity begins to diverge with that of many Indigenous scholars referenced in this paper, who tend to focus their attention on the intersection of custom and ancestry, rather than that of language, culture, and place. Existence in a particular place demands particular practice, relative to that place. It is in the alignment with those demands, and the practice of ways of knowing and being in accordance with that alignment, that one finds culture.

The term culture, commonly used to denote custom, more properly relates to the attendance of land. Dorame says, “farming is not only an activity for food production, but is moreover intertwined with our cultural activities and ceremonial life in the Pueblos” (Dorame, 2017). However, this statement inverts the relationship. Farming for food production invariably gives rise to ceremony as a means for communicating knowledge of the requisite farming practices in a place to the next generation. Such is the purpose of ceremony specifically and culture more broadly, to impart the practices necessary to survival indigenous to a place, and the reason why “(t)he cosmology of the Tewa people is based on place” (Dorame, 2017), an assertion that can be made of all indigenous people.

Such an understanding of indigeneity allows us to grasp more fully the relationship between “language, culture and our people’s place” (Kimura, 2016). For both language and culture arise from place, they are indigenous to it, and their meaning and purpose entirely coincidental to that place and, importantly, only that place. The Iinuttut iputik is not the same as the Hawaiian hoe. It cannot be, as each describes an article specific to the place in which the word arose, constructed of a certain material in a certain manner. Though they may both be considered “oars” in the English homologation, in truth they are neither interchangeable nor transferable.

I contend that it is not language and culture itself but the employment of language and culture in the place where they arose that confers indigeneity. Without their place, language and culture are both meaningless and useless, and they might as well be abandoned, save for the purpose of anthropology.


“Land and resource dispossession and a long policy environment of neglect and acculturation, have strongly contributed to high levels of indigeneous disadvantage” (de Bruin and Mataira 2003)

While some do, the majority of aboriginally descended people no longer live on their ancestral lands. Thus I propose they have been, not only colonized but, perhaps more importantly, de-landed. Regarding those who have been de-landed, my assertion is that they are no longer indigenous to their ancestral lands, no matter the customs they practice or what assumed identity now informs their ways of being and knowing. I feel I have sound intentions for doing so.

With the arrival of western Europeans, “colonizers exploited the land, claiming it as private property, disrupted traditional economic, social, and political systems, and introduced new disease, both acute and chronic” (Topkok and Green, 2016). “The people whose land was taken reacted with disbelief, sorrow, anger” (Sante, 2020), but, for reasons economic, cultural, and technologic, they were powerless to stop their colonization. That this “land might have been in their families for generations, might have been the family’s sole support, might have been the only home they’d ever known” (Sante, 2020) has never been of any consequence to either the colonist or the settler. This is as true for “small farmers and small-town business owners to the north” displaced by New York City water grabs as it is for the Mohican from whom those same lands were taken. “That these same remote and implacable beings were now proposing to drown pastures, raze villages, usurp water, and even decree how remaining land should be worked” (Sante, 2020) should not have come as either shock or surprise to upstate New Yorkers, for indifference to peoples’ relationship to land is the nature of the Western construct.

Being itself de-landed, the Western construct exists only as an abstraction. Having long since lost connection with its own aboriginal indigeneity, it has no respect, and indeed no tolerance, for indigeneity. It cannot, however, like it has so many other things, exterminate indigeneity. Neither can it invalidate the fact of being indigenous, as both exist meta to it and continuously emergent. What it can do is colonize.

As previously set forth, those First Peoples who have not been de-landed have been wholly colonized and therefore can lay no greater claim to an aboriginal indigeneity than their displaced counterparts. Because indigeneity is a function of both practice and place, those who continue to occupy their ancestral lands but rely upon the Western construct for their existence express not their aboriginal indigeneity but a novel indigeneity instead, just as do their displaced cousins living in diaspora.

Novel Indigeneity

Because aboriginal indigenous culture was swept away by the Western construct and because this construct fails to inform our ways of knowing and being in a coherent fashion, novel indigeneities are now continuously emerging. For this is the nature of indigeneity, arising from place in order to achieve balance with it. Place, the intersection of land and climate, is foundational, and the spirit of place seeks always to express itself in the flora and fauna that flourish there. In terms of human beings, because humans are adaptive and can readily move in and out of place and are not evolutionarily dependent upon one or another, this spirit is expressed as culture. Culture is the knowing and being that allows for a people to subsist in a place. To be of a place, to subsist from it and exist in balance with it, in other words to practice culture in the place of its birth, defines indigeneity.

Considering their experience as representative of that of most aboriginal people, “the effect of colonization was profound and decimated the Maori economic, political, cultural and social structures” (Taniwha, 2014). “The tino rangatiratanga (sovereignty) movement” offers a way to re-establish Maori identity but not aboriginal Maori indigeneity, as all Maori exist either in a state of colonization or have been displaced. Maori have engaged in “resistance to colonial constructs” and an “interrogation of colonial power” for nearly half a century “to ascertain what counted as knowledge, whose knowledge counted and who benefitted from that knowledge” (Taniwha, 2014). Still, I assert it is incorrect to say that this effort has led to a revival of Maori indigeneity. Instead, it has given rise to an entirely novel Aotearoan indigeneity informed by Aotearoan place, Western colonization, and Maori ancestral practices.

Heritage cultures (and here I use the term culture in the contemporary sense, describing the amalgamation of culture, language, and custom as a practice), having developed indigenously, most assuredly contain knowledge indigenous to their place of origin. Reunited with their place, they can certainly serve the purpose of culture, which is to communicate the specific ways of knowing and being that ensure the sustenance of a population in a specific place. What is much less certain is whether the continued practice or maintenance of heritage cultures, disassociated with place, is of any value whatsoever.

Any efforts that serve to promote identity in the face of novel indigeneity as it seeks to express itself can only result in deeper rifts and growing cultural confusion. In other words, they create divides. How will a novel indigenous culture arise in the Mission Valley if the members of the Confederated Tribes insist they are “separate” or “different” from or, worse still, more of that place than someone of settler heritage who was also born and raised there? As indigeneity is emergent, a coherent indigenous culture seeking to emerge cannot realize itself under such conditions. This is of immense importance going forward, as there can be no culture more indigenous than that which emerges spontaneously in response to the need to communicate the ways of being and knowing necessary to survival in a place.

How are we to resolve these seemingly antipodal objectives — the desire to maintain ancestrally independent identities and the need to allow novel indigenous culture to arise? Or should we?

In either case, if Indigenous sovereignty is instead our goal, only one course lay open to us.

Recovery of Traditional Lands

“Since the 1994 Zapatista rebellion, Indigenous communities in Mexico and its diaspora increasingly have begun to re/assert their political right to protect the boundaries of their self-determination and autonomy in relation to the Mexican nation-state” (Urrieta, 2017).

If Indigenous peoples wish to revive their indigenous culture, they must first recover their traditional lands, because culture arises from place. It does not suffice that a people maintain their ancestral culture severed from the land from which it arose; in fact they cannot. Their culture is not relevant nor sustainable without the land that formed it, as the very purpose of that culture is to inform them as to how to exist in that particular place.

In order to sustain an indigenous culture that has been maintained in diaspora, it must be reunited with the land in which it was born. This, hopefully, is the motivation behind the efforts of many First Nations to recover their ancestral lands. If the aim of such an effort is to reclaim the platform requisite to the revitalization of an aboriginal indigeneity, it is a just and worthy cause, since the only path to revitalizing an aboriginal indigeneity is through reconciliation with its place of origin.

As there likely exists an established body of work on the topic of how to achieve indigenous repatriation, of which I am largely unfamiliar, I will not attempt to address it here. I will say, however, that I do not believe repatriation offers a useful, and certainly not a realistic, path forward. This disbelief owes not to any perceived difficulty in wresting these lands from the settler colonists who now inhabit them, which I think can be accomplished easily enough, but to the extent to which both Indigenous and indigenous peoples have been colonized.


If the intent is revival of an aboriginally indigenous culture, neither reunification with their lands nor decolonization is enough; Indigenous peoples must wholly disentangle themselves from the Western construct. This means giving up all Western technologies, methods, and modalities and returning, completely, to a subsistence lifestyle reliant solely upon indigenous information.

While “the relatively low socio-economic status of indigenous people in developed countries” might be “a matter of significant concern” (de Bruin and Mataira, 2003) for Indigenous people, it clearly is not for those at the top of the power structure. Why then do Indigenous people ally themselves with this system? Is it because they have been so wholly defeated that they feel they have no other option, or because they believe they themselves can someday stand atop the hierarchical pyramid?

It is important to remember here what George Monbiot calls the “foundational lie of capitalism” (Monbiot, 2020):

The idea that everyone can justifiably aspire to private luxury. That, however poor you might be now, however excluded, however marginalized, you have a chance, under capitalism, of becoming extremely rich and owning a huge amount of natural wealth

I call attention to this because the vast majority of us, Indigenous and settler alike, readily accept the yoke of institutional and bureaucratic colonization by the Western construct in order to gain access to, if not the false promise of capitalism, at least its technological trappings. It is this self-deception, this wedding to that foundational lie, alongside the incredible measure of safety and comfort imparted by the colonial capitalist regime, that binds ancestrally aboriginal people to it, even when they have the resource landbase to eschew it and do otherwise. Thus we see that it does not serve those seeking to resurrect their ancestral aboriginal indigeneity to decolonize merely their minds within the context of their existence in the Western construct, as capitalist colonialism is fundamental to that very existence. Rather, if aboriginal indigeneity is what they truly seek, they must disentangle themselves entirely from the Western construct, as well as its attendant colonial capitalism.

While I feel this point is made, I believe it worthwhile, if only to illustrate the near futility of decolonization, to consider further the extent to which indigenous people suffer colonization. It is, in a word, pervasive. The scope of the Western construct is so great as to be nearly unfathomable, there being currently no being on Earth that has arisen from without it. Almost no human person, owning aboriginal knowledge or not, can conceive of an existence outside it. This is why anarchist theory is bereft of any tangible alternative and all other human organizational constructs defined only in terms of opposition to it. This also explains why we find the bulk of Indigenous “decolonization” and “sovereignty” initiatives merely to be efforts toward ethnocentric, nationalistic, or capitalistic ends, veiled thinly beneath a cloak of “indigeneity”.

The capacity of indigenous communities to improve their state of health and well-being will be dependent upon their abilities to foster and generate their own sources of revenue and sustainable economic wealth. (de Bruin and Mataira 2003)

This is speech of the colonist, spoken by, I presume, an Indigeneous person in the academy, offering chains in the form of an olive branch. Nevermind that these are good people with the best of intentions; that is beside the point. This is simply an example of how deeply they are colonized. They speak the words of the colonizer, imploring their fellows to indenture themselves, to yet again sell their lands and their resources to the capitalist colonizer, and for what? The opportunity to participate in the colonizer’s system? Is this the goal of indigenous sovereignty?

While “the strategic utilization of the indigenous resource base” for “the indigenous community” (de Bruin and Mataira 2003) is precisely what we are after, it is with the interjection of such phrases as “the growing of this base” and “the development of the indigenous community” that the extent to which colonization has occurred becomes apparent. In the context of the primitive communism practiced by truly indigenous peoples, the concepts of growth or development are antithetical. That “joint ventures and partnerships with other non-indigenous stakeholders can be instrumental for the convertibility of existing capital of indigenous peoples” (de Bruin and Mataira 2003) describes a fundamental premise of colonization and exemplifies its predatory nature.

The concept of ‘heritage entrepreneurship’ put forward by de Bruin and Mataira is presumably to protect the physical, intellectual, cultural property rights of indigenous peoples for their use as collateral toward entrance into the capitalist power structure. I wholeheartedly support the rights of indigenous peoples, but to consider them assets or commodities assumes that indigenous peoples are in need of something external for which to exchange. What does the external world, the world of the colonizer, have to offer sovereign indigeneity, in truth? “The process of negotiation of Maori claims to commercial fisheries” may be “an example, par excellence, of heritage entrepreneurship in action” (de Bruin and Mataira 2003), but it does nothing to advance the revitalization of aboriginal indigeneity. Aboriginal indigenous systems were rooted in subsistence practices, acting in balance with the capacities of the local environs, striving to be of them, rather than transactional. Heritage entrepreneurship offers nothing of the kind.

Although “the effective exercise of heritage entrepreneurship” may well be “vital to laying a resource foundation for entrepreneurship” (de Bruin and Mataira 2003), any such entrepreneurship can only be seen as extractive and reductive, not constructive. It is of net benefit to the colonial capitalist, not the indigenous population, as exemplified by the low socio-political-economic condition of ancestrally aboriginal peoples worldwide. That entrepreneurship is extraneous to indigenous systems is evidenced in the zero-sum state of all truly indigenous systems, since all resources necessary for continuation in an indigenous system are already present in that system.

However, if indigenous entrepreneurship means “the use of these resources to further self-determined indigenous” economies (de Bruin and Mataira 2003), meaning ones wholly sovereign yet embedded within the greater capitalist economy, then decolonization makes sense and disentanglement unnecessary. Achieving such a goal, of course, is contingent upon a “world-wide awareness of (I)ndigenous claims to land, cultural resources, and intellectual property” (de Bruin and Mataira 2003) and, more importantly, reconciliation with the same.

Education as Nation-Building

Over the course of colonization, the “intervention and interference in communities by states and institutions had immediate impacts and sometimes left a lasting legacy” on aboriginal peoples.

Sometimes even support by government came at a tradeoff. In the Aotearoa context when kura kaupapa (Māori language schools) evolved from grassroots institutions, elders and teachers had to be certified in order to teach the same material they’d been teaching all along. Colonization has interrupted these relationships and knowledge transmission in many ways, and continues to do so.” (Mercier van Berkel and Leonard)

If their hope is for the recovery of traditional lands and the full realization of decolonization and/or disentanglement, Indigenous peoples must use education as a tool for nation building toward the creation of sovereignty. In the words of Dorame, “if education is going to be looked to as a tool for strengthening tribal self-determination and tribal capacity, our tribes must seek new ways to educate Pueblo students from positions that explicitly counter the colonizing history of American Indian education in the U.S.” (Dorame, 2017).

No conversation about Indigenous education can be had without understanding, using Pueblo as a proxy for all First Nations, that “Pueblo political status and self-determination goals are then critical to any conversation on Pueblo education” (Dorame, 2017). It does not follow, however, that “cultural knowledge and the way we sustain our knowledge is foundational” if that knowledge has been severed from place. For, severed from place, culture loses first context then purpose, becoming little more than novelty and costume. Therefore, the intent of Indigenous education must be to build nations, even in diaspora, capable of reclaiming ancestral lands, the ultimate goal of which is establishing the necessary “political, legal, spiritual, educational, and economic processes by which Indigenous peoples build, create, and strengthen local capacity to address their educational, health, legal, economic, nutritional, relational, and spatial needs” (Brayboy & Sumida Huaman, 2016)

This will not be an easy task. “As history has proven, the potential to destabilize the societal structures of Maori community, resources and cultural practices will be through a colour-blind approach to education where cultural knowledge, language and practices are limited and everything is perverse from a white colour base” (Taniwha, 2014). The current positioning of “Native” and “Indigenous” as “studies” in the academic realm undermines “the abilities of Indigenous communities to support and sustain their nations, both now and in the future” (Anthony-Stevens and Mahfouz, 2020). If sovereign indigeneity is indeed the goal, it requires the “means to break down the ‘academic apartheid’ that centres and institutionalizes dominant Western knowledges to the exclusion of others” (Lewis, 2012)

As, “historically, higher education institutions have engaged in superficial relationships with Indigenous peoples that constitute “-isms” of oppression” (Galla et al), “creating Indigenous spaces that are integrated within academia” cannot “establish respectful and hospitable conditions” as Kirkness (2013) asserts. Rather it merely serves to complete the colonization that Western imperialists began, this time with the full cooperation of the colonized themselves.

Burgess, in Building the Beloved Community, relates the tale of a teacher who used scenario-based learning to instruct her students in the complicity of the people in their own colonization. Following a history lesson in which they learned of the failure of their progenitors to register to own land, these students were excoriating their ancestors, describing them as fools. Seizing this learning opportunity, the teacher wrote upon the blackboard “Register to own your chair in two weeks, or lose it,” then signed her name and drew a box around the warning.

Two weeks later, the kids walked into the room and THERE WERE NO CHAIRS! “WHAT, TEACH, LIKE WHEA DA CHAIRS?” She responded, “You read English, right? You read that sign I put up on the board? “Yeah,” they said. “So, why didn’t you do what I told you to do — register to own your chairs. I signed my name.”

Puzzled, they said, “You neva did that before and nobody evah did that before, so we just blew it off.”

“So, do you see what happened to your ancestors? In a time of great colonization and imperialism throughout the world, things were changing rapidly and without warning to the maka‘äinana (the common people). People were being asked to do something strange: register to own your land, in a language that wasn’t theirs at a time of great colonization. So they just ‘blew it off’ — just like you.” (Burgess, 2013)

Despite such great strides in the pursuit and cultivation of self-awareness, practitioners of Indigenous and aboriginal scholarship in the academy continue being complicit in their own colonization, adopting the means and adhering to the measures of the established imperial system. Such adherence cannot possibly result in an end state of decolonization, nationhood, or indigenous sovereignty. As Anthony-Stevens and Mahfouz explain, “approaching Indigenous teacher education programming as Tribal nation building entails a process counter to the dominant emphasis on input–output logic models (degree/certification), and instead a foundational commitment to understand and embrace tribal sovereignty and self-determination.”

In general, “calls for flexible and adaptive culturally responsive pedagogy” meant “to meet the needs of American Indian and Alaska Native populations who have experienced over a century of colonization, ethnocide, and linguicide perpetuated through the public schooling in the Americas” (McCarty & Lee, 2014) are not aimed at empowering the Indigenous population to seek their own self-determination as a tribal nation. Their purpose is to reconcile aboriginal populations, who maintain the capacity for sovereign indigeneity through the ancestral knowledge of their indigenous culture, to the Western construct, “healing” old wounds while completing the process of colonization by assimilation. By allowing space for the practice of ancestral customs, the Western construct offers Indigenous peoples the appearance of continued indigeneity, placating their desire for tribal sovereignty without actually supplying it.

It is in this context that a decision about the aims and goals of both Indigenous and indigenous education must be made. For an education aimed at securing tribal sovereignty for ancestrally aboriginal peoples through nation-building and the recovery of traditional lands looks vastly different than an indigenous education that incorporates aboriginal ways of knowing and being in its pursuit of a pedagogy that prepares students to survive in the place where it stands.

A glimpse of the latter can be seen in Te Whare Wananga o Awanuiarangi, an “Indigenous University”, where “Maori ideology and epistemology are practiced and viewed as normal” (Taniwha, 2014). This is a wananga, a tertiary institution accredited through the New Zealand Qualifications Authority, “characterised by teaching and research that maintains, advances and disseminates knowledge, develops intellectual independence and assist the application of knowledge about ahuatanga Maori (Maori tradition) according to tikanga Maori (Maori custom) (Taniwha, 2014). Although it exists wholly within the Western construct, Awanuiarangi provides a sense of what a truly indigenous institution of higher education might look like, as it serves “a wide range of needs and interests within our communities, with a strong focus on educational staircases” and a “model of delivery to accommodate working and distant students” and “reach a broad spectrum of Maori organisations, communities, schools and families to contribute to educational, social and economic aspirations” (Taniwha, 2014).

Similar inclinations can found in many of the the Hawaiian formulations, Ke Kula ‘o Kamakau for instance, where, “in order to ensure the care and transmission of the hawaiian mauli Hawai’i, a conscious effort is made to apply Kumu Honoa Mauli Ola in all aspects of Ke Kula ‘o Kamakau, and this is reflected in the daily activities, protocols, and pedagogy” (Silva et al, 2008). That the spectre of colonialism permeates these efforts is made apparent when one realizes that “schools are continuously challenged to conform to state and federal educational policies and mandates” (Silva et al, 2008).

As scholars Faircloth and Tippeconnic (2013) have noted, “Indigenous peoples have much to learn from each other regarding our efforts to mobilize to effectively change the educational system from one of acculturation, assimilation, isolation, and colonization to one that embraces the cultural and linguistic diversity of Indigenous students, their families, and communities” (Anthony-Stevens and Mahfouz, 2020). If properly aligned and guided, this change could assist Indigenous peoples in “accessing and developing the skills and knowledge they deem necessary for strengthening Tribal sovereignty (Brayboy et al, 2012). However, this requires “viewing Indigenous teacher education through a nation building framework” that “centers attention on the needs and impacts of holistic and shared leadership” (Anthony-Stevens et al, 2020) toward the goals of tribal sovereignty and self-determination. As Brayboy et al. (2014) write, “If nation building is, in part, seen as a way to meet the needs of tribal nations, then it must necessarily take a long-term view to consider the ways education can be engaged from both bottom-up and top-down to better serve Native students and their communities” (Anthony-Stevens and Mahfouz, 2020).

If nation-building for the purpose of reclaiming ancestral lands and securing tribal sovereignty are not the goal, then Indigenous education merely “provides a space … to be Indigenous” (Taniwha, 2014). It is crucial to the argument I make here that creating such space for the expression of Indigenous identity, while it assuredly informs emergent novel indigeneity within the context of the Western construct, is in no way equivalent to a place to be indigenous, a condition which might have greater implications for all peoples, even if it leads to a dilution of ancestral aboriginal culture.

Living Indigenous in Diaspora to Inform Emerging Novel Indigeneity through Traditional Ways of Knowing and Being

We can consciously decide to live through our own distinct language and culture in today’s time to maintain our Hawaiian identity and Hawaiian well-being.” (Kimura, 2016)

In light of Indigenous academics lauding and promoting such fundamentally colonial constructs as heritage entrepreneurship, it becomes more and more difficult to ascertain precisely what Indigenous peoples are seeking. Wealth and status within the Western construct equal to that of the colonizers? It has already been demonstrated that attainment of such wealth is incumbent upon the very practices the colonizers subjected indigenous peoples to, so that surely cannot be the aim. Evidence of what Indigenous peoples do not seek is readily available (e.g. continued white supremacy, continued subjugation, perpetuated inequality, etc). Still, it is decidedly unclear as to what end their salvage, revitalization, decolonization, and heritage entrepreneurship efforts aspire.

Certainly, nation-building, the recovery of ancestral lands, and the attainment of tribal sovereignty within the Western construct is one possible outcome. Recovery of tribal lands, disentanglement, and reversion to aboriginal indigeneity is another. Here, I offer a third option, which is to forgo the maintenance of a distinct ancestrally-derived Indigenous identity altogether in favor of applying those aboriginal ways of knowing and being in the information of novel indigeneities as they emerge from place.

First, it must be wholly recognized that the “continuance and survival of Indigenous people and communities are at the core of (the) ‘human educational system…’ consciously and deliberately designed ‘to perpetuate peoplehood’ (Brayboy et al., 2007)” (Galla et al). With this recognition, it can be understood that aboriginal ways of knowing and being are fundamental to the continuation of human life on earth. Understanding this offers us the opportunity to more fully grasp the purpose of language and culture and to craft an indigenous educational formation around it.

It is said that “Te Whare Wananga o Awanuiarangi provides a cultural norm” (Taniwha, 2014), imbuing students with the traditional ways of knowing and being indigenous to Aotearoa. In this one sees the emerging outline of the indigenous university of the future. A similar philosophy appears at Ke Kula ‘o Kamakau, where importance is given to “Ke Kumu Honoa Mauli Ola, The Foundation for Nurturing the Hawaiian Way of Life”. For “at the core of this philosophy lies the mauli Hawa’i”, the knowledge of how to exist in harmony with the environs of Hawai’i, “which if ‘left untended, like a neglected fire, it can die out’” (Silva et al, 2008).

That the culture of indigenous peoples evolves with and adapts to place can be seen in the changes exhibited by various Native American cultures as European colonists began pushing tribes westward. Even the introduction of novel technology and political economy serves to affect language and culture, as evidenced by changes in Native American modalities after contact with the horse and fur trade respectively. Largely, such novelties serve to replace indigenous culture, or the knowledge of subsisting in accordance with the land in place, a process that has come to be known as colonization. It is precisely at this intersection with imperialism and colonization that the lines between Indigenous identity and aboriginal indigeneity separate and begin to diverge.

Here also is where lies the opportunity for aboriginal knowledge systems to inform the indigenous future. Although an aboriginal, but displaced, culture may serve no function in NYC, so too is Western colonialism foreign to place, having evolved, through capitalism and globalization, to such a state of homogeneity and abstraction as to be entirely severed from indigeneity and essentially placeless. Why pursue traditional ways of knowing and being? For the very reason that they are decidedly not Western, and, although de-landed, are at their core indigenous.

Aboriginal knowledge systems contain alternative viewpoints with which to inform the future. Many traditional wisdoms share the belief of the Tawa that humanity’s highest calling is not the accumulation of wealth or subjugation of nature but “a balance among the various elements” that is “achieved by observation of the events, respect for all that exists, and by adapting in a fluid and changing world.” It is in this knowledge where one finds “the foundation for a Tewa consciousness” (Dorame, 2017).

“Aboriginal attitudes toward possessions are utilize and share, in contrast to accumulate and acquire” (de Bruin and Mataira 2003). On a finite planet with finite resources, this is precisely the attitude one would expect to prevail. The colonial mindset was an effective strategy while there were places yet to colonize; today, the entirety of the Earth has been circumscribed and conscripted by the Western construct. The modern existence we have come to cherish and uphold as nonpareil would require, as Monbiot tells us, five worlds to sustain.

Is this the time to retreat into proxies of indigeneity such as Critical Theory and Indigenous identification offer? Or is this the time for ancestrally aboriginal peoples to activate their traditional ways of knowing and being for the benefit of all?

Indigeneity is not something one can simply assume. It is an emergent expression found at the intersection of one’s ways of knowing and being with the place in which one exists. However, this is not to say that Indigenous people do not maintain closer ties with indigenous ways of knowing and being than Western colonials and imperialists; they do. The timeframes between their prior indigenous subsistence existences and their consumption by the Western construct are significantly shorter, in some cases, less than a hundred years. Therefore, in this domain they are the authority, and should be deferred to as such. For example, “the central emphasis within Pueblo culture is maintaining harmonious relationships with the entire cosmos.” Wowa tsi, a formation of Pueblo culture, “embodies the importance of maintaining a lifestyle that fosters relationships with all living things in a way that promotes harmony and well-being” (Dorame, 2017). As “people are dependent on the land for our continued survival … we are equally obligated to honor our relationship to it by being caretakers” of it .“For Tewa”, but truly for all people, “how we engage with the land and natural resources is the realization of our way of life and values in practice” (Dorame, 2017).

Here we see outlined the fundamental precepts of aboriginal epistemology that may serve the future by informing novel indigeneities as they emerge in place. These tenets offer a counter-narrative to the prevailing imperial and colonial social, political, and economic building blocks of individualism, partisanship, property, usury, rent-seeking, and profiteering which have proven destructive, and effectively, failures. Of these, the most important is relation.

Relationship, it seems, dominates original systems of knowledge, such as “Māori thinking that places value on relationships”, “a fundamental tenet for maintaining balance in life” that “involves a myriad of interconnecting elements” (Postlethwaite, 2016).

In the Maori tradition, “mauri is crucial to the well-being of relationships” because “it informs how and why activities should be undertaken and monitors how well these are progressing towards their intended goals.” The Maori concept of mauri “holds a central place in informing Mori, how and why our lives take the form they do” (Whakaatere and Pohatu).

Starting from such epistemological grounds, one can then turn and reflect on the place in which one finds oneself, to the land and climate, to begin praxis. Prior understandings of language and culture are herewith suspended, as both are expressions of place that must be allowed to emerge organically. An open forum of indigenous ways of knowing and being are empowered to inform them, as they are tested and experimented with in the context of a specific place, although deference is given to aboriginal ways of knowing and being, including language and culture, (his)torically indigenous to said place. These three legs — harmonious relationship, place, language and culture — form the stool from which novel indigeneity is reached.


Watts says that “if we begin from the premise that we are in fact made of soil, then our principles of governance are reflected in nature”. Sharon Venne (1998) writes:

Our spirituality and our responsibilities define our duties. We understand the concept of sovereignty as woven through a fabric that encompasses our spirituality and responsibility. This is a cyclical view of sovereignty, incorporating it into our traditional philosophy and view of our responsibilities. There it differs greatly from the concept of western sovereignty which is based upon absolute power. For us absolute power is in the Creator and the natural order of all living things; not only in human beings… Our sovereignty is related to our connections to the earth and is inherent.

In this we find that sovereignty is not to be lost nor gained; one needs simply turn to the land to find it. That we, as a society, are severed from land is a problem for us all, not only Indigenous peoples.

We also find that, severed from land, one cannot be indigenous. Thus we recognize that there lies a long road before us, as we must reconcile, not only those who identify as “Indigenous” but truly all peoples, with the land.

In this praxis, aboriginal ways of knowing and being are indispensable, and we, those privileged to relatively greater power, status, and wealth by the Western construct, must recognize our need to defer to them. That is not to say that we cede to Indigenous peoples our place of privilege in the hierarchy or to lift them up to our standard, but that we defer to their leadership in the praxis of their knowledge as to how to live in harmonious relation with the cosmos, particularly as it relates to the place that gave rise to that knowledge a posteriori.

Determining how we might accomplish this is the purpose of my academic inquiry. It is a substantive task, of which this paper is an already lengthy but minute piece, and one that may not be mine to undertake, so I will not attempt any such resolution here. However, I will offer a few aboriginal formulations as described by Whakaatere and Pohatu that may provide us insight as to where we might begin our work.

“Maori thought determines that we are an integral part of both the natural and spiritual worlds.”

The Maori concept of “mauri moe here indicates that change and challenges have yet to begin and be faced … Mauri moe therefore from this angle, is the stage before the beginning of the conscious pursuit of respectful relationships.”

Mauri oho is also considered a proactive state. It is the point of being awoken from a particular state.” That state is the one we find ourselves in today.

What aboriginal ways of knowing and being really offer are the “courage to move from positions of isolation, non-attendance and non-participation, to positions of participation, inclusion and involvement, are indicators of movement from inactivity, the activation of mauri oho.”

As Otto Scharmer puts it, “the bottom line is that we need new civic and new learning infrastructures that democratize the access to the core capacities of transformation literacy. This is the time to launch bold initiatives.” (Sharmer, 2020)


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This paper was originally submitted to the University of Montana Native American Studies program and first published on