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Indigenizing the Academic

September 30, 2016

When Julie Bull first began her career as an Indigenous researcher, she felt that she was on the fringe. Bull, a member of NunatuKavut Community Council from Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador, began working in Indigenous health research during her undergrad at the University of Prince Edward Island with a handful of others, which soon blossomed into an expanding community of Indigenous researchers of all kinds.

“The change is happening slowly, but on all the different levels [of research], which makes it have more impact. Non-Indigenous people are more interested in having this conversation now,” says Bull. “When I started this work fifteen years ago, not many people cared about Indigenous issues. But now these conversations are in my daily life all the time because non-Indigenous people recognize that they need to do something different.”

However, Bull believes that more than just post-secondary Indigenous graduates and researchers are needed to indigenize academia. She says multiple ways of knowing must be recognized and celebrated before the academic and the Indigenous can be seen as equal partners.

“It’s not just about giving formal post-secondary education to Indigenous people – that’s just one small bit of the puzzle – it’s also about formally understanding and recognizing Indigenous knowledge within academia. I don’t know if I’ll see this in my lifetime but it’s something that beginning now,” she explains.

This shift in attitude and curiosity towards Indigenous cultures and knowledge is gaining speed, and Bull says it’s spreading in not just academia. She believes that a combination of social movements such as, Idle No More, increasing education levels, and historic decisions such as the United Nations Declaration of the Right of Indigenous Peoples, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, have made recent years some of the most exciting in Indigenous and non-indigenous relations.

“It’s changed more in the last five years than it has in the previous 25 years. So not only is it because more Indigenous people are entering academia and becoming researchers, but the movement is bigger than that,” says Bull with conviction. “There’s been an increase in not just Indigenous professionals within academia, but so too in every other sector of the country. People in general are more interested now – industries, governments, and other interests are partnering with Indigenous people more and more.”

Indigenous researchers have the unique perspective of being in both the academic world and the Indigenous world, something Bull believes can help create bridges between the two communities and foster a forward momentum. “As somebody who has their foot in both of those worlds,” Bull says, “it’s some how easier for me to understand and navigate what people feel on both sides of that, fill their requirements.”

One of the most striking examples of this shift towards Indigenization, Bull says, is the number of Indigenous communities that are not just engaged in research, but are actively leading it at every step of the way.

“Research in Indigenous communities for as long as we have had been recording it has been done almost exclusively by non-Indigenous people for lots of reasons that have no benefit to us,” says Bull. “We need to have a method that when researchers are working in our communities it’s not only for their benefit, but that there’s a benefit for us in our communities, whether it’s in a tangible way or not. It can’t just be outsiders telling us what we need.”

She adds that many Indigenous groups now employ their own researchers and research ethics boards. Now that Indigenous communities from coast to coast to coast are gaining the power and the resources they need to regulate the research being done by, for, and about them, Bull is pleased.

“I’m hopeful all of us who’ve been doing this kind of work in little bits around the country, and around the world, are now coming to this point where the change is happening. It’s coming from the top down and the bottom up and it all has to connect at some point,” says Bull. “Researchers are now being more open and communities now have more of the power, money and the ability to do the things that are required to make actual change happen according to their needs.”

If you are interested in learning more, you can visit Julie Bull’s workshop during the 2016 Inuit Studies Conference in St. John’s in the Arts Lecture Hall 1 at 8:30AM on Saturday, October 8th.

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