​​Indigenous Thoughts Network 





​Where the Rivers Meet (WTRM) Website


In fact, very little exists at Canadian universities in regards to Indigenous philosophy; a reality known and lamented by most Canadian philosophers who responded; this sensitivity is connected to the desire to diversify the discipline, to be more inclusive of non-western philosophical traditions and so forth.  “Mainstream philosophy itself in the 90s became self-aware of the violence of some of our habitual language of ‘tearing apart’ and combative argumentation, and self-consciously tried to modify these to more cooperative and constructive language.  It still allows the same level of criticism, but can make for a more inclusive framing, that helps avoid gendered stereotypes?  I personally see philosophical argument as allowing for a variety of rhetorical styles, including anecdote, story-telling (look at our sci-fi counter-examples!), witnessing, as well as more lawyer-like marshalling of arguments. (a Canadian philosopher).


Political Tension

There were a couple of examples where professors were not allowed to teach non-mainstream philosophy cause (1) the department is supposed to be mainstream, which is not an argument at all, and (2) courses dealing with indigenous content by non-indigenous professors were opposed by indigenous academics and resulted in the courses not being offered.  This is sad and unacceptable; it denies me as an aboriginal person a means to develop my own thoughts in a way that I choose, not what professors or departments would like to shape out of me!  I happen to support non-indigenous critical courses on emerging indigenous paradigms and truth claims; all claimed truths need to be studied even those that study indigenous knowledge from an external place.  Our explanation of indigenous thought needs to stand up to non-indigenous critical analysis. 

There needs to be some form of “way forward” in promoting indigenous thought that is in closer working relationships with all those professionally trained philosophers and indigenous academics who have dedicated their lives to the honorable pursuit of clarifying and understanding thought in all socio-cultural traditions. I think this means that academics and departments need to talk to each other, to create transfer course requirements on thought, to re-negotiate what can be considered valid in terms of approach and so forth.  Given that there are so few indigenous philosophers, society has two choices; (1) deny today’s generation of indigenous learners the philosophical experience or (2) find ways to twin non-native philosophers with indigenous academics to cover both the academic and experiential part of being Indigenous and indigenous thought processes – at least for the short term while indigenous philosophers are trained and ready to take their place in universities.

As a non-academic witness to this non-conversation that I feel is completely out of touch with the power of what a unified approach can accomplish.  Imagine, if mainstream and indigenous philosophers (not to mention other non-mainstream traditions that deal with thought) worked out ways of embracing and recognizing the value and distinctness of “the other” tradition(s) within a “network of philosophical traditions”[1] model, how relevant this approach to thinking about thought can be to generate new questions for science to answer, to inform negotiations between indigenous and Canadian leaders, to the honoring of the treaty and reconciliation process, to engage and empower aboriginal youth to take their place in the world by learning how to process and develop their thoughts?  What about the creative arts, the concept development process behind cultural tourism, and so forth, these are exciting roles that we need to highlight as a benefit of taking philosophy.  These applications seem to me to take philosophy out of the shadow of social science, technological, business studies and science as the real “important” disciplines needed at the post-secondary institute in Canada.

As a non-philosopher and aboriginal person, I urge both indigenous and non-indigenous academics to think beyond the silo or box the system has relegated them to, to lend my voice to those academic activists who see knowledge as a unified one, a unified one where we need to bring in global resources (non-mainstream ideas, methodologies and so forth) as equal and valid methods to contribute to a truly universal and authentic epistemology.  


Indigenous Examples in Mainstream Courses

The use of indigenous examples to compare/contrast western philosophical concepts is the most common intersection between indigenous thought and mainstream Canadian philosophy courses.  While this is good, it does not do much in the way of developing or systemizing (formalizing) indigenous thoughts at the minimum of their metaphysical, epistemological and methodological richness.  There may even be other measures of analyzing the value of indigenous thought that is not done in mainstream Canadian philosophy yet.  It is our job to invent or create these new ways of practicing and evaluating indigenous thought or indigenous philosophy in a systematic way.  Certainly, for two thought traditions to be in conversation with each other, there is a need to create an embracing spirit of diversity, understanding of existing language as well as creation of new hybrid languages that allow communication between philosophical traditions; that work needs to be undertaken first. 

Critical point: Does this approach (using indigenous examples in mainstream courses) do justice to either indigenous thought and/or mainstream philosophical course objectives?  The question of cultural context behind an aboriginal example may not correspond directly to the western principle the indigenous thought is supposed to be in conversation with.  This tension will obviously have to be studied by philosophers and see where the questions in this regard lead us.  I hope that we are not getting squares and circles mixed up in proving that a triangle exists!


Mainstream Philosophy’s Search for Academic Relevance

Next point: mainstream philosophy itself is unsure of what it is as it struggles to maintain an importance in the academy in my opinion.  That uncertainty is not a statement of irrelevance, contrary, it is a statement that goes to the heart of inquiry with no pretenses of having the “final word” on any claim to universal truth.  This is a statement that stands counter to the notion of outcomes.  Universities have become “outcome based” and this approach creates, perhaps, a long-term deception.  In terms of the nature (not the measurements or function) of a thing; if we cannot come to a global description of the nature of a thing, then can we make universal claims.  Science “claim to fame” is that it measures, tests and reproduces results, this does not make science infallible and that’s why it is always updating itself and it’s knowledge claims.  Science can only claim a limited (not universal) truth that is confined to the framework of the scientific process used.  I personally think that the recognition of limits in philosophy is healthy, it is an authentic recognition to the limits of the philosophical framework within mainstream philosophy. 

I have heard many descriptions of what philosophy is, its boundaries and its “nature”; however, the consistent and dependable conclusion is that philosophy as understood by Canadian university is a field where its practitioners lend up agreeing to disagree.  Disagreement and productive criticism is such a gift to the developed world’s old paradigms about reality; philosophic values (that come from its nature of questioning) indeed pushes human thinking forward and deeper; it is a radical (as in going to the roots) undertaking and it is good. 

The difficulty of introducing the idea of indigenous philosophy, at a time when mainstream philosophy is questioning its relevance in the academy, is the conversation about what is acceptable in terms of “rigorous” metaphysics, epistemology and methodology. 

Metaphysics is a pretty safe area because with the “all possible worlds” concept things can be “imagined” as being and certainly many things within the indigenous metaphysical world have been and continued to have the stigma of being “made up” or not real somehow because an indigenous world view differs from a sense of reality that incorporates the “triumph of reason” and the scientific revolution. 

As one professor noted; “I think the question of indigenous knowledge, as you contrast it to pragmatic issues, might best fit in my own work in the context of what is sometimes characterized as ‘ancient’ philosophy. …  ‘Ancient’ isn’t the right word here, but the idea was that schools of thought that are independent of (prior to, separate from or not shaped by) the ‘modern’ scientific tradition might be good conversationalists.  …  The notion that ‘academic’ philosophy as a critical, literary and institutionally based tradition, departing in style from traditional or ‘mythological’ ways of looking at the world, is one that has been questioned and examined by scholars of early Greek thought.  


Nature of Indigenous Philosophy?

A number of significant barriers to making more progress in conversations between mainstream and indigenous philosophy or thought were touched upon in conversation with both indigenous and non-indigenous academics, these include; a) a lack of clarity about the definition and distinctiveness of indigenous thought if it were to be considered a philosophy, b) the efforts of indigenous academic to both indigenize the classroom and map out the boundaries of an indigenous defined way of thinking about thoughts and c) the distinction between protecting traditional knowledge from appropriation and the natural process of hybrid philosophical language regarding the philosophical questions of our existence in our time and place on the earth; something that is both reflective and non-binding to thinkers in future ages if the planet survives. 


Lack of Clarity about “Indigenous Thought” and “Indigenous Philosophy”

A concern of many respondent philosophers was the nature of the definition; the difference (1) was between thought and a systemized way of “doing thought” or a proven tradition of reflection, and (2) how indigenous thought or philosophy is distinct from other philosophies.  There were points about a claimed lack of evidence that indigenous cultures are thinking anything unique that other cultures haven’t thought about. 

First, there is evidence of a tradition of reflection, children for generations listening to elders tell stories, talk about what the stories mean, generations going to sweat lodges or vision quests and being guided by medicine people and/or elders who talk about the metaphysical meaning of a certain animal guide or experiences (which provides orientation to the world, etc.) are all traditional ways of reflecting upon thought.  In contemporary times, indigenous ways of thinking have drawn closer to the more mainstream way, but the combination of traditional and contemporary systems of reflection can be well established. Secondly, the notion that a philosophical tradition must establish a uniqueness or distinctiveness from other worlds of thought itself is an assumption; why would this be a

[1] Networks interconnect different elements each of which, in becoming part of the network, influences the whole, without losing its unique and particular function.  In the case of knowledge networks, since that which is brought into networked connection are reflective individuals, any genuine network would promote learning and change in all the parties.  I suppose that if indigenous thought is to remain living it cannot simply [be] about the past and present, but will also grow and develop, in complex and critical interaction with European and North American traditions and disciplines.  Those traditions too can learn about their own partiality and blind-spots through real dialogue with indigenous thought, but also, learn something new about the world it sometimes claims to have already mastered.   Beyond mutual learning, one can see the possibility of new forms of hybrid thought develop which (perhaps) eventually grow beyond their particularist cultural origins towards a new human comprehensiveness. 


(Jeff Noonan, Interventions and Evocations, Professor of Philosophy, University of Windsor)

necessary condition of establishing the title of “philosophy” behind the name of the people we come from?  If all cultures think about the same thing, the criticism goes, how can indigenous philosophy distinguish itself? 

Mainstream philosophy distinguishes itself by claiming monopoly to things such as abstraction and atomistic thinking when there is evidence that other thought systems including indigenous knowledge were capable of and did do thinking on an inductive and atomistic level (i.e. the use of substances within a plant to heal, the positions of the stars in terms of hunting, etc). 

I do think that if mainstream philosophy’s claim to distinctiveness is valid (and it is), then the reverse process could also be valid in terms of deductive thinking.  Mainstream philosophy and western society have not applied mainstream knowledge about management of the earth in a good way; indigenous philosophy and knowledge has.  Do we not learn about the nature of the tree more fully when we combine an atomistic analysis of the tree, its functions and so forth WITH the observations of the tree over time, the tree as part of a community of tree’s and so forth?  The combination of mainstream and indigenous philosophy together contribute towards a more accurate and sustainable understanding of the nature of a tree.

Another example:  the metaphysical possibility of the animal giving itself to our human needs is a lesson that mainstream science and society is learning; its called holistic thinking and inter-connectedness.  Life is not a conveyor belt where we section off parts of our life as sacred and parts as profane.  That to me is the value of indigenous philosophy, it has found a conversational home with mainstream environmental philosophy so far, but I think there are other potential conversation such as the relationship to pre-modern philosophical systems. 

We need to think about arguments that allow us to reject the trend in mainstream philosophy to minimized indigenous thought as not being proper philosophy and as belonging to the field of literary criticism, anthropology or religion studies.


Clarity of Words

A few philosophers pointed out that if one wants to engage in conversation with another then we need to start from a common language that assumes communication.  I was asked to explain my definition and understanding of the words I used.  These words; “western philosophy” (which I changed to mainstream philosophy), “indigenous”, “indigenous knowledge”, “indigenous thought(s)’ and/or indigenous philosophy and one professor was very helpful in suggesting the term “indigenous philosophical thoughts” that do not require a tradition of reflection as practiced in mainstream philosophy. 

A phrase that I used earlier in this project (western philosophy and academia) is a word that I have retired and replaced with (mainstream philosophy and academia) for a few reasons.  First, if Indigenous knowledge in the Americas comes from the America’s and if American philosophy is western could it be argued that Native American philosophy can be thought of as western?  I don’t know, but it forced me to drill down a bit more on the concept.  Also, there is some discussion of how “western” is western philosophy when one considers the development of philosophy in Greek times (in the world as it was known then), not to mention the philosophy of thinkers from the Muslim traditions, the wisdom and philosophy of places like Iran-Iraq (Persia), Egypt and certain African countries.  Making a long explanation short, I find it less problematic to use the word “mainstream” philosophy and most of us understand that to be the philosophy being articulated in philosophy departments across Canada.

“Indigenous”, in the way I am using it, is a very North American lay person’s usage and understanding.  I understand though that while Indigenous can refer to people in relation to the land, a Chinese philosopher indicated that in China indigenous can also refer to thought being indigenous in the context of examining traditions, belief systems and other ideas of a people who have established a long relationship with a piece of land or a corner stone of a system of thought.

“Indigenous Knowledge”, means both “traditional’ and “hybrid” thought.  Traditional Indigenous knowledge refers to the usage of the word as a skill; traditional knowledge like the medicinal application of plants, animal behavior, hunting practices, navigating the ontological commitments to an indigenous metaphysic and so forth.  A great video on this knowledge is represented in the RedX Talks given by Cowboy Smithx https://vimeo.com/212166264. 

Traditional Indigenous knowledge needs to be protected from appropriation and exploitation from corporate forces such as the pharmaceutical companies.  Traditional knowledge is not limited to skills, it has metaphysics that look at the universe, understand energies and frequencies that are recently being discovered by modern science and so forth. 

Indigenous knowledge in the contemporary sense is less explored and less mystical.  Indigenous knowledge today can refer to the skills of how one - as an indigenous person – survives in the socio-cultural and political, economic environment of the 21st century global community.  There needs to be a new development of protocol of respect for all traditions of knowledge like the “Network of Philosophical Traditions” that I refer to.  

Contemporary indigenous knowledge is shared metaphysically with, yet distinct from traditional indigenous knowledge (contemporary indigenous knowledge is distinct in that it features both indigenous and non-indigenous thought, experience, time, place and remembered tradition) and requires a different approach than traditional indigenous knowledge.  These are ideas, thoughts, frameworks etc., that are navigated between competing ideas allowing for the expansion of the indigenous world view to include thoughts around the notion of individual, liberal concepts of freedom and so forth. 

Our knowledge evolves and changes with the times; knowledge is not caught in a time-space prison.  I don’t think hybrid thinking or thinking by indigenous persons around contemporary settings needs protection from “appropriation”.  The reason for this is that ideas that are co-developed with (directly or indirectly) with non-indigenous sources such as people, events, scientific and technological advances, globalization, the world economics of free trade and so forth are – at bests – perspectives we bring to the table that reflect an indigenous take.  My ideas, thinking and so forth, in this research project while influenced by indigenous world views is not a piece of traditional knowledge, it is contemporary thinking in which I am protected as anyone else is under intellectual property rights, open access and creative commons.  I could be wrong because I have not looked deeply into this aspect of contemporary and hybrid thinking as needing protection in the same manner as traditional Indigenous knowledge, but those are my simple thoughts on indigenous thought.

I do have some thoughts and questions as an indigenous thinker about the relationship of traditional knowledge (in the first sense of the meaning) and hybrid thinking.  I am wondering if I can use respectfully, the ontology of traditional knowledge as a premise or series of premises to create an argument.  I think I can, and I think we must.  However, there needs to be acknowledgement that the argument is done within an indigenous metaphysical reality that honors the rules of logic at the self-evident phase. 

“Indigenous thought(s)” was originally used by me in the way a North American lay person would understand the words; they could be thoughts within the indigenous person’s mind.  Having done some reading in the philosophy of language I know that the word “thought” can be extremely problematic, given the range of dynamics associated around the nature of thought.  So, I use the word in a very simple way, “thoughts” are those things that happen in my head (mind-brain) that explain something to me or gives me “ideas” or direction on how to resolve something.  Indigenous thought in that sense might not even exist; as when I think it is not the Indigenous community that does the thinking; I do that all by myself!  However, the influences of the indigenous community is well described in anthropology and sociology as well as other courses in humanities and social sciences and those influences, of course, affect my thinking and “thought development”.   I am curious about the field of social epistemology in this regard.  

“Indigenous Philosophical Ideas” was a term proposed to me by a philosopher; it is an idea that I think holds much promise.  Philosophy in the mind of mainstream philosophers implies the need for a systematic way or tradition of reflection.  If I use the term “indigenous philosophical ideas, the requirement of reflection is no longer needed, hence it can be a term that creates a better communicative tool in a conversation between Indigenous thinkers and professional mainstream philosophers.   However, like I said before, I think the process of storytelling, of reflecting upon stories, legends, and so forth, of oral traditions are all forms of systematic reflection.


Mainstream and Indigenous Philosophical Conversation

The relationship between a discussion of “indigenous philosophy” and mainstream philosophy was a second area where clarification needed.  What does “indigenous philosophy” look like and how it would “fit into”, “relate” or otherwise be in conversation with mainstream philosophy; how does it distinguish itself from other philosophical traditions of which I respond “no clue at all!”  I would counter, of course, that the questions should not linearly flow one way, the other question to be asked is how is mainstream philosophy then influenced and shaped by the inclusion of indigenous philosophy?

I think that it is important in a collective process not to arrive at a conclusion in a premature manner and so I am quite comfortable at saying I haven’t got a clue what the indigenous philosophy looks like nor how it would relate to mainstream philosophy.  Answering a small number of those questions will constitute my future work in philosophy.  We need more indigenous students of philosophy to start dealing with these relational questions.

However, I can share some developments in my head that have emerged since I started this project and this is a relational vision of how the two thought traditions can communicate.  When I first started thinking about this around 3 years ago, I was thinking of a “translation model” where we could translate indigenous thinking into mainstream philosophy; I soon gave up on that idea as I began to feel that it did a disservice to the unique natures of both mainstream and indigenous thought.  Then I moved towards a model of conversation between two parties; however, with the need to find a common language implied – at least in my mind – that both traditions would have to give up some aspect of themselves, their histories and knowledge contributions of what they think and expand their thinking in other areas; which is good in one way but may be damaging to the traditions of either in other ways.

The “translation model” mentioned above, makes a certain amount of sense because we then have at least two different bodies of knowledge that we can establish a base in which to encourage the development of inter-tradition talk.  In addition to the definition of terms, concepts and words (including relational and dynamic aspects of a term – which is also a function of mainstream philosophy to describe nature) we also need to figure out what the “rules of dialogue” would be, there is some talk of protocol, but I am not sure if that applies to what is being discussed here. Protocol is about how we treat each other and each other’s work (which includes mutual respect) and I think that this protocol value can be the corner stone of a set of professional indigenous and mainstream disciplinary set of rules on how we talk to each other, can we develop common, inter-traditional methods of inquiry that address the dual-cultural, multicultural realities that are factors of a study.  As you tell by this writing, the ideas and concepts are fuzzy and in development, but that is ok, that is what we can do for the next generation –start a process of describing how we can talk to each other in our generations and time, then once establishing a basis, future generations can move from there. 

My current set of thoughts are close to the idea of “ethno-metaphysics” proposed in “Indian from the Inside” (McPherson and Rabb) and  my idea of the “network of philosophical traditions” seem to make the most sense.  As mentioned earlier, a philosopher who I quote above said it in the most eloquent of words, a piece that captured what I was saying but a piece so concise and easy to understand.   “Networks interconnect different elements each of which, in becoming part of the network, influences the whole, without losing its unique and particular function.  In the case of knowledge networks, since that which is brought into networked connection are reflective individuals, any genuine network would promote learning and change in all the parties.  I suppose that if indigenous thought is to remain living it cannot simply [be] about the past and present, but will also grow and develop, in complex and critical interaction with European and North American traditions and disciplines.  Those traditions too can learn about their own partiality and blind-spots through real dialogue with indigenous thought, but also, learn something new about the world it sometimes claims to have already mastered.   Beyond mutual learning, one can see the possibility of new forms of hybrid thought develop which (perhaps) eventually grow beyond their particularist cultural origins towards a new human comprehensiveness.” (A Canadian Philosopher)


Indigenizing the Academy – Indigenizing philosophy

The process of “indigenization” is a basic call for better education models that can exist side by side with older models that can be said to be centric to western civilization and the education models and practices of mainstream philosophy departments in Canadian universities.  Indigenization is not about cut and slashing western education, it is about broadening our ways of learning, of research, of ontology, metaphysics, epistemology and methodology, so that all students walk away from the academy a bit more prepared to engage in their career choices (the motivation for post-secondary education) within a reality of indigenous re-emergence of power and say in Canada as well as engaging in a Canadian multicultural, pluralistic society.

Philosophy, through its natural attraction to inquiry, is ideally positioned to benefit greatly by indigenizing the philosophy department.  This does not mean doing away with Socrates, Aquinas, Descartes, Spinoza, Foucault, Wittgenstein nor does it mean teaching mainstream schools of thought and traditional bundles of mainstream philosophical ideas any different, that is important work that all should be required to learn.  Mainstream philosophy in its richness with regards to atomistic and scientific methodologies, is a valuable tool for anyone learning to think about thinking.

Indigenizing the philosophy department simply calls for a balanced expansion towards a more inclusive embrace of non-mainstream traditions of philosophy, in our case indigenous knowledge systems that are both traditional (pragmatic) and contemporary (hybrid thinking) as part of working with indigenous students and others to utilize what is traditional to their knowledge systems. 

I have a limited understanding of the full concept of indigenization of the academy but what I do understand seems reasonable.  Universities are colonial institutions no matter how they try to shake that reality, there is an institutional resistance to open the claimed monopoly of being the true holders of knowledge. 

Mainstream philosophy continues to make universal truth claims without a process of looking at an issue from all philosophical traditions.  What indigenization calls for is the fulfillment of education (and philosophy by implication) potential in Canada given her experience of the indigenous reality.  Indigenization calls for all students of philosophy to understand the relationship of land and language to learning; that is useful to any student regardless of what academic field they have chosen to study and work within.  The indigenization process helps non-native and native students become better equipped to live in a pluralistic society, and that remains an objective of mainstream academia.  I use pluralistic in the sense of “relating to a system of thought that recognizes more than one ultimate principle: "the society is committed to a pluralistic approach to philosophy"

Philosophy Professors Missing the Mark on Indigenization

In the email exchanges, professors had some sense of this indigenization, but I think that the understanding is somewhat “missing the mark”.  In the name of indigenization, many professors felt uncomfortable with approaching the inclusion of indigenous material or even the idea of teaching indigenous philosophy from authoritative indigenous sources, as they did not want to appropriate or to be appropriating or misrepresenting themselves as qualified to teach indigenous philosophy from both a mental and experiential manner. 

Most professors, in my indigenous mind, are capable of teaching indigenous knowledge from a mental or academic perspective.  We know that this approach still produces short-comings (i.e. trying to explain an indigenous concept from an indigenous author assumes that an English word the indigenous author uses is the same concept coming up in the mind of the non-indigenous professor and his/her formal training orientations), but given that we have a critical shortage of indigenous philosophers in Canada I come down on the side of non-native professors going ahead in teaching the course(s) with indigenous supports.  I also support the idea with the caveat that non-indigenous professors remain authentically honest about one’s limits to understand indigenous philosophy from an experiential perspective.  That honesty is consistent with the academic practice of defining one’s scope of study, one’s limitations, one’s bias and so forth; we can understand indigenous philosophy from the perspective of an intellectual exercise and objectivity of those who are not indigenous.

Teaching partnerships between non-indigenous professors and indigenous learners or students going through the philosophical process, students or community members who can comment upon philosophical concepts and theories from an indigenous experiential perspective are key to this transitional or short term proposal to teach indigenous philosophy in Canadian philosophy departments. These teaching partnerships seem, for the short term as we develop more indigenous professors in philosophy, a good way to travel in this journey.

Indigenization of philosophy brings us back to the understanding of contemporary and traditional indigenous knowledge systems.  Again, Traditional Indigenous Knowledge systems must be distinguished and separated from the indigenization of contemporary work in developing new understanding of indigenous concepts; a new understanding arising from borrowing new methods of analysis, of contextualizing the inquiry in the consideration of new phenomenon (events, globalization, the nature of sustainability of indigenous resistance and empowerment to remain oneself, pluralistic questions that will lead to new ways of thinking, a hybrid of indigenous and non-indigenous thought). 

Traditional knowledge systems and the question of contemporary relationship to those systems is an unclear area for many respondent professors.  I don’t have answers to that, but certainly the distinction between traditional and contemporary indigenous knowledge is one thing that must be honoured with respect to non-appropriation values and contemporary thought by indigenous philosophers and academics.  

The question though of how we (both native and non-native) people relate to traditional knowledge is not black and white.  Certainly, the knowledge that can be made into products (i.e. medicine recipes, hunting spots, gathering areas, trapping lines, etc.) need to be protected from appropriation and exploitation.   However, I am thinking that the metaphysics of the indigenous world can be used by non-indigenous peoples too to develop their thinking on certain issues.  Is that appropriation or is it a valid methodology to study something from a new lens?   I think the latter but don’t pretend to be sure, the question needs to be formulated and that is something that must be discussed by all.

These questions about indigenization are important as they have acted in many cases as a deterrent to engage mainstream thinking with indigenous thought.   The philosophy profession has devolved indigenous thinking to Indigenous Studies Departments, Religion or Anthropology while forfeiting philosophy’s responsibility to meet its own mandate of inquiry. 


How Indigenous Thought is Incorporated Presently

Most applications of indigenous philosophy are incorporated as examples of mainstream philosophical concepts; they fit well into the framework and purpose of a course.  The only actual program that was offered at a M.A. Level was the Master’s Program at Lakehead University.  What follows is a table that outlines the types of engagement professors are bringing into their classrooms and what universities are engaged in this.  Apologies to any professor or university that I have missed in this survey.  


(Kwantlen Polytechnic University)



Inverted logic leads to outrage that the School of Oriental and African Studies would prioritize Asian and African philosophers while acknowledging the colonial context of ‘Enlightenment’ philosophers.

"Surely the works of W.E.B. DuBois, Frantz Fanon, Aime Cesaire, Sylvia Wynter, and Rabindranath Tagore, (photographed above with physicist Albert Einstein in 1930) are as germane to a philosophical comprehension of the 'civilized' world as the treatises of Plato and Aristotle," writes Azeezah Kanji.  (COURTESY: VISVA BHARATI)  
Thu., Jan. 12, 2017

The Students’ Union at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London is being battered in the British press for its recent statement of “educational priorities,” which calls “to make sure that the majority of the philosophers on our courses are from the Global South or its diaspora (. . . ) If white philosophers are required, then to teach their work from a critical standpoint. For example, acknowledging the colonial context in which so called ‘Enlightenment’ philosophers wrote.”

It seems reasonable that an institution whose very name proclaims its focus on Asia and Africa would prioritize the thinking of philosophers from the region and its intellectual traditions — particularly because these thinkers tend to be marginalized in the curricula of other schools.

However, the histrionic newspaper headlines convey the impression that the entire foundation of human intellectual endeavour is under assault. “University students demand philosophers such as Plato and Kant are removed from syllabus because they are white,” shrilled the Telegraph. SOAS students are being derided as a bunch of “barmy” “snowflakes,” who are dumping the “founding fathers of Western philosophy, whose ideas underpin civilized society” simply because of their race.

In this inverted logic, the white male philosophers facing the possibility of being decentred are represented as the real victims of discrimination, while the non-white and non-male thinkers who have actually been systemically excluded continue to be ignored. The blizzard of “snowflake”-bashing hides the real questions we need to be asking: Why is the philosophical canon so dominated by white men in the first place? And why are their works so often read without critical analysis of the context shaping them?

Data compiled by the Open Syllabus Project, from over 1 million U.S. college syllabi, reveals the extent to which reading lists are overwhelmingly populated by men of European origin: Aristotle, Plato, John Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant, David Hume, John Locke.

None of the 50 most-commonly assigned philosophy texts is by a woman, and Confucius and Saint Augustine are the only non-white philosophers who crack the ranks. The medieval Muslim philosophers, who were the link between pre-modern Greek thought and later European thought, are completely excised.

This entrenches the derogatory fallacy that women and people of colour have generally failed to engage in cerebral exertions worthy of being called philosophy.

It perpetuates the illusion that we can understand the essential truths of our world by reading the philosophical theses of certain European men on justice and human nature and freedom; that the perspectives of those on the undersides of the patriarchal and racist systems that have made the modern world are dispensable.

But surely the works of W.E.B. DuBois, Frantz Fanon, Aime Cesaire, Sylvia Wynter, and Rabindranath Tagore (to name just a few of the many important thinkers on slavery and colonialism) are as germane to a philosophical comprehension of the “civilized” world as the treatises of Plato and Aristotle.

They are also vital for seeing the limitations of philosophers frequently represented as sources of universal wisdom. As Charles Mills, distinguished professor of philosophy at the City University of New York, points out, “most of the leading thinkers of Western modernity — Locke, Hume, Voltaire, Kant, Jefferson, Hegel, Mill, de Tocqueville, and others — had racist views about people of colour.”

Locke, for example, justified the dispossession of indigenous lands in the Americas with his conceptualization of property, and helped write the Carolina constitutions of 1669 which gave masters “absolute power” over their black slaves.

Kant is known for his cosmopolitanism, but he was also wrote things like “Humanity is at its greatest perfection in the race of the whites,” “Americans and Blacks [ ... ] serve only for slaves,” and “Judaism [is] hostile to all other people and hence treated with hostility.”

If these are the sources of the ideas that “underpin” our society, they should certainly be approached from a critical standpoint.

After all, when it comes to the intellectual contributions of women and people of colour, the idea that a thinker is limited by the specificities of time and place and identity is readily accepted. (So much so that philosophy produced by women is often deemed relevant primarily to “gender issues,” philosophy produced by Muslims is often deemed relevant only to Muslim societies, and so on.)

We should ask why application of the same principle to white male philosophers is treated as an outrage.

Azeezah Kanji is a legal analyst and writer based in Toronto. She received her Masters of Law from SOAS in 2015.Type your paragraph here.


"Assessing the Relationship of Canadian Academic Philosophy to Indigenous Thought in Canada"


The purpose of this project is to explore how mainstream philosophy and indigenous thought are or can be in conversation with each other in a university setting.  The project is not an academic exercise or research paper in the academic sense, rather it is an exploration of the thoughts of philosophers across Canada in regards to Indigenous philosophy.  The project assumes a relative absence of indigenous thought in philosophy departments and a general lack of conversation between academic philosophy and academic First Nations or Indigenous Studies in Canadian universities; the goal of this project is to try and understand the nature of this absence, not to clarify or conclude anything.

What I try to explore in this project is too broad to fit into a regular research focus.  It is a simple survey of thinking, not a statement on particularities.  I am trying to draw some basic ideas, perceptions, innovations and other factors that can contribute to the question of the relative absence of indigenous philosophy in Canadian philosophical departments.

I am an undergraduate student of aboriginal ancestry.  While I am learning philosophy, I am also evolving my questions as I move forward in the studies.  As I learn more about mainstream philosophy, I continue to mature in forming my questions, understanding my philosophical orientation and restructuring my questions.  My report consists only of “thoughts in process”, recommendations and proposals.


 The first objective of the KPU Student Led Research Project was to identify courses, programs and other academic and/or community-partner initiatives of post-secondary institutions across Canada that look at how philosophy and indigenous studies inter-relate.

Summary of Findings

A general acknowledgement by respondents that philosophy is generally limited to its development within the western world and philosophy needs to diversify as a discipline.  However, there is no clear direction as how to proceed in this acknowledgement.

Systemic and Political Barriers to “indigenous thought” courses in mainstream departments.  The need for non-indigenous critical analysis of indigenous thought, and inter-departmental communication and coordination of teaching student how to think.  Mainstream skills are needed as a core part of indigenous learning as indigenous students must find their way in a western reality. This of course, need to be balanced with a strong home based provided by indigenous studies.

Indigenous thought is incorporated into philosophy courses mainly as indigenous examples comparing/contrasting mainstream philosophical ideas or objectives of the course(s).  Since Lakehead’s graduate program, universities have not developed a graduate level philosophy programs.  Relatively few universities are creating indigenous courses in philosophy – however – this is also where the most improvement can be witnessed as more of these courses are being developed or at least cross-listed with Indigenous Studies courses.

Mainstream philosophy itself is in a bit of an identity crisis; it cannot agree on what constitutes philosophy.  Adding to the struggle of identity is the fact that mainstream philosophy is struggling to maintain a relevancy in the university.  Adding non-mainstream philosophical traditions complicate the identity crisis of the discipline.

Questions as to what the nature of indigenous philosophy would look like exist, they are related to ideas of “systematic tradition of reflection, “distinctiveness” clarity of terms, etc.  These challenges must be addressed as part of articulating an indigenous system of thought.

Indigenous-Mainstream Philosophical Conversation – for most me has moved away from ‘translational models” to a model of network.  The network model is like McPherson and Rabb’s translation of the idea of “ethno-metaphysics” (Indian from the Inside).

The strategy of community partner initiatives was not adequately explored in this survey, but the incorporation of indigenous thought is reflected in the development of institutions addressing a number of initiatives. 

Identified areas of further research emerging from this project include

  1. Researching the interests of MA and PhD candidates, their dissertations/thesis, etc. in the field –can we read by current research in the interest of students as a way of predicting the development of indigenous thought expertise in the field of philosophy?
  2. Research in the emergence of Indigenous Studies departments and how they teach the ideas of “thinking about thought”, how they relate or cross-list with philosophy and vice-versa, how philosophy departments cross list and relate to Indigenous Studies departments.
  3. Research in current thinking general to the indigenous community at large, indigenous education authorities, career counselors, etc.  Partnerships in this research should include the AFN, MNC, CAP, Inuit and Aboriginal Women’s Groups as well as other organizations who concern themselves with national issues.  The Canadian Philosophy Association seems to be the best player in this research initiative.





Note:  As of February 2017, this process still is only in the planning stage.  

Assessing the Relationship of Canadian Academic Philosophy to Indigenous Thought in Canada


  • The project recognizes the absence of indigenous thought in philosophy departments  and/or conversation between academic philosophy and academic Native Studies in Canadian universities; the goal of this project is to try and understand the nature of this absence.  It will also try to come up with simple "starting point" strategic recommendations.  To do this, I will focus on the three objectives below.


  • Identify courses, programs and other academic and/or community partner initiatives of post secondary institutions across Canada that look at how philosophy and indigenous studies inter-relate
  • Obtain information about the research Canadian philosophers and other academics are working on that is most directly connected to philosophical questions arising from within the indigenous context, by reviewing available reports of research interests and other documents.
  • Examine in a simple way the case for the claim that there are benefits to an increased presence of aboriginal philosophers and academics in philosophical research, assuming there is currently an under-representation of aboriginal thinkers in the humanities generally and philosophy in particular.  How might aboriginal students participation in the humanities compare to participation in the social sciences, law, sciences or health fields? Equally to respond to the findings with a "why" question.