Needs, Challenges and Possibilities for Early Indigenous Intellectual History

This is the title of a panel I organized with David Newhouse, for this year's CINSA (Canadian Indigenous/Native Studies Association) conference. Hosted by Trent University's Chanie Wenjack School for Indigenous Studies, on the occasion of its 50th Anniversary, the conference was also co-sponsored by the Urban Aboriginal Knowledge Network and the National Association of Friendship Centres. (Our other panelist had to pull out with little notice and two others stepped in to contribute their perspectives: Ross Hoffman and Kevin Fitzmaurice).


What follows is a general introduction to the panel as a whole and my own contribution to it. I share these as a preview of what I hope to expand into a longer article in the next few months.


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Scholarship on Indigenous cultural, social, political and religious history is voluminous, but one can find few references to Indigenous intellectual history. There are many reasons for this, and many reasons to question this. The challenge of tracing earlier intellectual history in predominantly oral cultures is one major factor, but there are others as well: the misperception – within non-Indigenous academia – of Indigenous knowledge systems as marginalized rather than simply centred elsewhere; overemphasis on external factors of cultural change in post-contact Indigenous cultures; and the challenge of decolonizing Indigenous culture without reducing post-contact Indigenous knowledge keepers to resistors, victims or survivors of the worst aspects of coercive assimilation policies and colonialism. Our panel proposes to explore why more scholarship on, and discussion of, Indigenous intellectual history is needed, what challenges confront those who undertake this task, and what methodologies and opportunities exist to address these challenges. Most importantly, we wish to emphasize that Indigenous cultures are not static bodies of knowledge but dynamic and diverse bodies of knowledge driven and guided by thinkers who engage deeply with new and old ideas based on their inherent merits rather than their origins, and who are co-creators of ideas rather than merely links in cultural traditions.


“Needs, Challenges and Possibilities for Early Indigenous Intellectual History: Wihtiko as a Window onto the Intellectual History of Cree and Algonquian Philosophical Anthropology”


This paper offers reflections based on my current book project, based on my doctoral thesis, which is an intellectual and cultural history of the James Bay Cree wihtiko concept and the broader and deeper philosophical anthropology that it reveals. I use “intellectual history” very intentionally, to emphasize that Cree culture is grounded in relationships to a human and other-than-human world, but is driven and defined – above all – by holistic Cree thought. One of my main goals is to help free Indigenous intellectual history from the legacy of colonialism and coercive assimilation that has often shaped it profoundly, at least in the recent past. Like other Indigenous peoples, many Cree seek a better understanding of the differences between their pre-contact cultures and post-contact and colonial cultures that have influenced them. Only a deeper understanding of Cree intellectual history, however, can avoid reducing early post-contact Cree knowledge-keepers to mere victims or resistors of assimilation and change. My goal is to show how we can engage Indigenous intellectual history from a perspective that envisions decolonized relationships and is sensitive to the impacts of colonization without reinforcing these same impacts. I also want to share reflections on the challenges and possibilities of a very specific Indigenous intellectual history project that I am working on currently.

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